God and man: Partners?


Does God need us?  Does God need you?  Does God need me?

At first glance, these questions seem absurd … if not blasphemous.  If God is God – that is to say, if God is omnipotent, if God is all powerful – then God does not need anybody or anything; God is self-sufficient.

The first sentence of our TANAKH, our Hebrew Bible, proclaims God’s infinite creative power: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” Our TANAKH, a library composed during the course of almost 1,000 years, in large part sings the praises of the all-powerful God.

To this very day, our siddurim, our Jewish prayer books, shaped by our ancient, medieval and contemporary rabbis, continue to affirm God’s omnipotence. The central prayer of our weekday, Shabbat and Holy Day worship – often called the Amidah (said standing) or simply Ha-Tefilah (The prayer) – describes God as “the great, mighty, awesome, most exalted God.”

It would seem, then, that it makes no sense at all to say that God could need either you or me in any way, shape or form.

But like just about everything else Jewish, this issue is more complicated than it seems at first. Even a superficial look at biblical, rabbinical and liturgical texts suggests that God can’t do everything; in particular, God cannot be counted on to reward the righteous and punish the wicked.

Despite the insistence of the author of Deuteronomy that God always rewards goodness and punishes evil, the book of Job accuses God of punishing Job unjustly – this is the very same Job who is described as “blameless and upright,” a direct and flagrant contradiction to the rewards and  punishments meted out in the book of Deuteronomy.  And the book of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) is essentially a world-weary lament on the unfairness of life.

The rabbis of old may have wished that the author of Deuteronomy was correct in his pious conviction that God always rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked; nevertheless, experience taught our rabbinical forbears Rasha v’tov lo, Tsadik v’rah lo (It goes well for the wicked and poorly for the righteous.)

After Auschwitz, religious individuals of all faiths have been forced to question the notion that God is omnipotent, that God can do everything.  How could an all-powerful God remain silent and do nothing as the Nazis and their accomplices murdered 6 million Jewish men, women and children?

While traditional Jewish texts largely affirm God’s omnipotence, other such texts endorse a widely held idea that contradicts, even undermines, the notion that God can do everything. Consider the idea of brit, which is commonly translated as “covenant,” the idea that ever since God’s call to Abraham (Genesis 12.1-3), God and the Jewish people have been engaged in a special relationship, a covenant, closely linked to the challenging and, yes, problematic notion that we Jews are a chosen people, chosen by God.

The V’shamru, the text of Exodus 31.16-17, serves as a prayer within the context of the Shabbat evening worship service and is an explicit expression of the brit, the covenant between God and the Jewish people: “The people of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, to maintain it as an everlasting covenant (brit olam) through all generations.  It is a sign between Me and the people Israel for all time ….”

Brit, covenant.  Herein lies a central paradox of Jewish consciousness: we worship a God who is all-powerful, omnipotent; at the same time, we worship a God who craves a relationship with you and with me, with the Jewish people, and – by extension – with every man, woman and child on earth. Within the structure of the covenantal relationship, we all need God and God needs all of us; we serve as partners in the ongoing process of creation.

To echo the title of Abraham Joshua Heschel’s 1955 exploration of modern Jewish religious thought, “God in Search of Man,” perhaps God is in search of you and me. After all, the search that metaphorically began in the Garden of Eden – with God calling out to Adam, “Ayecha? Where are you?” (Genesis 3, 9) – continues with the divine covenantal call to Abraham, “Lech lecha! Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you,” a search for divine-human involvement reaching to this very day.

Perhaps, in our desperate attempt to make sense of our world, which seems to be coming apart, we are twisting biblical, rabbinical and liturgical texts to accommodate our hopes and dreams for a better future. Or perhaps it is these sacred texts that are twisting us into a yet-to-be covenantal reality, a brave new world in which God needs us as much as we need God.

JAMES B. ROSENBERG is a rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim, in Barrington. Contact him at rabbiemeritus@templehabonim.org.