God Squad Rabbi Marc Gellman

Rabbi Marc Gellman writes about religion for Newsday.

There have been lots of very kind notes from many dear readers who appreciated my words to T a couple of weeks ago. T is dying from ALS and is very angry with God. What struck me deeply is how many of you were willing to write to T or call T or to offer prayers and comfort in any way that might help him bear his burden. I always knew I had the most loyal readers, but now I know that I also have the most compassionate readers.

However . . . mixed in with the kind words was this from J, who apparently did not have the pleasure of understanding me:

Q: Wow, another cop-out answer, which you give every time someone asks a question similar to this. Obey those Commandments all right, but don’t necessarily expect help from Mr. God when you need it. Change your own life so you can be a “bit less needful”? It’s not that easy. If God created us, it’s his job to give us a good life — I don’t want to hear about that free will nonsense — the choices that count are made for us (looks, intelligence, etc.)

— J, via email

A: Before you can understand God or the mystery of suffering or hope or free will, you need to understand Superman.

I loved Superman comics as a kid, mainly because I really wanted to fly. As I grew older, and as my old comics disappeared in one of my mom’s periodic purges of my stuff, I came to realize the immense theological problem caused by Superman. You see, if there really was a Superman whose powers were nearly unlimited and whose job was to keep the world neatly tucked in behind “Truth, Justice and (although this last one was dropped in the Superman movies) The American Way” — if there really was a Superman, then why would any of us need to do anything to keep the world safe? We would just sit around on our collective butts waiting for “Supe” to handle it. You are worshipping a Superman God, and neither Superman nor that kind of God are good for us — or real. Because of God we are not in the world alone, but because of free will we must find our way in the world alone. God made the world as a canvas for our free moral choices.

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So you see, it is not God’s job to “give us a good life.” It is God’s job to show us how to make moral choices that will produce a good life for us by our own will and courage and hope and love. That is God’s real job description, and whoever told you otherwise ought to be fired.

Anticipating this answer, you growl, “I don’t want to hear about that free will nonsense — the choices that count are made for us (looks, intelligence, etc.)” So in your world only the smart and beautiful people win? What world is that? Beethoven was deaf and the ranks of billionaires and Nobel laureates are filled with people who flunked out of one thing or another. Many were not given conventional gifts, but they used what they were given to make a success out of their lives. Woody Allen said, “80 percent of success in life is just showing up.” Yes, we are given different blessings, but our destiny is not given to us, it is earned by us. Our destiny is chosen, not bestowed at birth. Whoever taught you about why people succeed also ought to be fired!

In sum, as the great philosopher Leibniz taught, this is the best of all possible worlds because this world includes human free will, and free will is the single trait that makes us human — and it is God’s greatest gift to us. This world may look rotten to you, but that rot is from the stink of our freedom being wasted on spiritually corrosive choices.

So let us begin with Lesson One. Let us read the word of God to the people of Earth who wrongly await Superman but need to await God:

“See, I have set before thee this day life and good, and death and evil; In that I command thee this day to love the LORD thy God, to walk in his ways, and to keep his commandments and his statutes and his judgments, that thou mayest live and multiply: and the LORD thy God shall bless thee in the land whither thou goest to possess it . . . I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live.” (Deuteronomy 30:15, 19)

Saying those words is God’s job.

Learning those words is our job.