“And Jacob uttered a vow saying, “If God will be with me, and will guard me on this way upon which I am going, and will give me bread to eat and a garment to wear; and if I return in peace to the house of my father, and Adonai will be my God; then this stone, which I have placed as a monument, shall be a house of God, and everything that You give me I will surely tithe to You.” (Gen. 28:20-22)
Jacob is a canny chap. He is currently fleeing for his life from the wrath of his brother Esau, having tricked their father into giving him the birthright anticipated by the elder twin. He has just had a dream in which God speaks to him and promises protection for the present and great rewards in the future. To be addressed directly by the deity is a great honour. Nevertheless, Jacob will not make any commitment until he sees some tangible proof that Adonai is not all mouth and no trousers. He cannot afford any more mishaps if he is to survive.
As Liberal Jews, we are not so very different from our ancestor Jacob. We remember the eighteenth-century heroes of the Enlightenment telling us that Reason will guide our current paths and lead us to a bright future. We wait for Science to prove a theory before we might believe it. Our chequered past leaves us reluctant to trust in anything or any one. If God cannot protect us, what is the point?
On the other hand, why does a post-Enlightenment perspective have to deny the possibility of God actively working in our world? I recall meeting with a Bar Mitzvah student who took great pride in telling the rabbi that he did not believe in God. “Ok,” I said, “I cannot argue with you. I’m not even sure that I could disagree with you. Here’s a thought, though, that I would like you to consider. When you wake up in the morning, are you glad that the air is still there?” He looked confused. “Well, you’d be dead without it, wouldn’t you? Your body would not survive. Yet how often do we appreciate the fact that the air is there? And do we ever question its existence? We don’t see it, smell it (on a good day), or touch it but we know it is all around us. ” He nodded. “This is my idea,” I continued. “we know our bodies need food – what about our souls? Might there be something out there that we cannot see, or smell, or touch; yet we know it exists because our souls are alive?”
My student questioned the very existence of God. I asked him to consider whether or not there are forces in our world that might work with us in a positive way. Jacob does not question the existence of God but rather wishes to know what powers God has before he will publicly affirm his belief. And for those of us interested in theodicy, perhaps Jacob shows us a place to start – what do we see today in the world around us that might demonstrate the positive influence of a power beyond our comprehension?