Confronting The Absence of G-d
Filling the Gap Called Life
I was born with some weird, unknown muscular dystrophy (yeah, Jerry’s Kids Telethon *gag*) believed to be related to the metabolic cycle. On September, Friday the 13th, 1991, at age 9, I had back surgery to put rods in and supposedly straighten my spine (unnecessarily, really). I developed a horrible, raging pseudomonas infection. Prior to this, I was able to go to school by myself, feed myself, and use a manual wheelchair. Sometimes I could even stand up on my own. I was very independent and would drive around the house on a self-propelled three-wheeled motorcycle. Some people didn’t realize that I had any sort of disability. The post-op infection I got (and the surgeon wouldn’t treat) knocked me off the metabolic balance beam. All the abilities I had before I soon lost. I got down to 35 pounds. My muscles wasted away; my digestive, cardiac and pulmonary systems shut down as doctors continued to make one horrible mistake after another. I wasn’t expected to live, but after many terrible episodes, hospitalizations and near death experiences, I was infection-free by 1993. The infection made the metal rods not fuse, and for years they were unstable, moving and grinding metal against bone; the pain was unbearable, and to this day I have to take painkillers at least every four hours.
But anyhow, since getting a trach and ventilator in ’94 to breathe, my stamina’s improved and I have been relatively stable. Though my lack of muscle means I can barely move at all, can’t turn myself at night or eat without help, and need the machine for each breath, I get along fine with the proper help.
I can’t use a keyboard, lift my hands at all. I type with my thumb on a trackball mouse and click out text by hitting letters on onscreen keyboard software. Sometimes it takes me hours to type out something (nearing 4 hours on this one), but this also gives me time to consider my words and extract the best possible writing from myself. I was admitted to Spring Hill College at age 16, and from age 19-22 did the whole national campaign thing, speaking all over the country. Now I’m in the “WTF am I gonna do now?” phase.
I recount this difficult history not to self-flagellate, not to impress you, but to properly frame my spiritual struggle. To show you my path so far so you understand where I’m coming from.
I persevered and survived when several doctors said I couldn’t.
My faith didn’t survive.
Losing all physical ability in mere months crushed my belief in G-d. During my time of greatest anguish, with me a 10 year old child in ICU near-death with no father, the only religion I was exposed to was local Christians saying “it’s G-d’s will, ” or “everything happens for a reason.” I thought that G-d would never hurt me or use incompetent doctors as agents of His judgement, as that went against everything I had ever felt about G-d (e.g. that He is all good and all loving). Therefore, I concluded that G-d either does not exist, or He doesn’t control human actions. I rejected all religion for the next 10 years. I couldn’t even conceive of an Omnipotent Being under those terms, since it posited a divine torturer, so I recoiled in deep existential horror at any talk of G-d. The idea of a personal G-d was loathsome to me. I thought religion (at the very least) was passively assenting to a barbaric theology of a mass-murdering, evil, torturing Deity, and should (at best) be avoided, and (at worst) possibly denounced or ridiculed, because any Being responsible for the unendurable suffering I’ve seen is inherently illegitimate, and logically must be a lie, and all lies must be exposed for what they are. I was pretty sure a personal G-d could not exist, and I settled into a kind of content agnosticism for the intervening decade (“if G-d wants to exist, that’s His department! I’m not involved.”).
But my path in life cannot help but routinely scrape up against the limits of human rationality. And when the material world fails utterly, it is natural to seek answers from the spiritual. There is no real rational explanation for why the Jewish people (a distinct ethnic group that has no existence separate from its religion, Judaism) have survived against all odds. There is no good rational explanation for why I lived when I should have died, and still endure. There is no rational explanation for why I get awards and national media coverage, then am stuck in my room for three years. There is no good rational explanation for why I know deep down with such abiding passion that all disabled and elderly citizens MUST be secure if we are to have any semblance of a good society, it is just a deep spiritual truth I know. Because if there is only cold logic, the United States could achieve immense additional wealth (and the happiness freedom from taxation brings) if we euthanized every single disabled and elderly person. If there is no moral law, no soul connecting us, and I am just an inferior material product, why should I not be killed? There has to be something greater than ourselves, and whenever I advocate, I feel that pull toward this idea. Activism is most often pursued by those who don’t count on an all-controlling Being for salvation and think it is up to US to change the world, so the role of “do-gooder” has been increasingly filled by atheists and agnostics like I was, but activism for the downtrodden and oppressed is an innately, intensely spiritual act, even if I didn’t always know it acutely.
My work getting the law changed to save lots of disabled people from losing their care, in a sense, reconnected me to G-d. In recent years, I’ve embraced my mom’s Judaism and now am learning a lot, believing more and looking for answers. In 2006, I absorbed a massive amount of Jewish knowledge.
But the question of G-d’s role in every human action deeply troubled me, and often still does. If G-d is running the world, He’s not doing such a good job is He? It is this gripe, this apparent absence of G-d allowing unspeakable injustices and horrors to unfold, that for years animated my agnosticism and today spurs the skewering of religion from sites like WhyDoesG-dHateAmputees.com and books like Richard Dawkins’ The G-d Delusion and Sam Harris’ The End of Faith.
Does G-d hate me? Why doesn’t G-d grow limbs back for amputees? I rejected G-d most of my whole life because I thought a G-d that would allow me to suffer so much couldn’t possibly exist. I was right, such a G-d does not exist. I, and those like Sam Harris, fundamentally misunderstand the nature of The Matrix we find ourselves in when we pursue that flawed line of inquiry.
The only way the world exists and the only way G-d exists is if G-d contracts Himself and is absent and allowing free will to shape (and f**k up) the world. This absence of G-d is implicit every day we experience and every page of scripture we read. Genesis has barely begun when Cain whacks Abel. In chapter 34, Dinah is raped. In chapter 38, Yehuda (Judah, the father of our nation) pays for the services of a Canaanite temple prostitute (his daughter-in-law Tamar) in exchange for one goat, his staff and ring, and he impregnates her with the son that becomes the Davidic (Messianic) line, then tries to have her executed. She evades being killed only by showing she still has his signet ring.
In this painting by Horace Vernet, Yeduha gives his ‘ho some bling.
And this is all in the first book! This book is not about perfect morality and serendipity; far from it!
I was recently asked, “if G-d exists, why doesn’t He shield us and provide for us like He did for the Jews in Exodus?” I said “Shielded? O Rly? Famine, disease and war were way MORE common in Moshe’s era than today! FAR from cuddled heavenly utopia, tragedy happened in spades to those led out of Egypt: plagues, wars, the earth eating people, angels of death smiting people; the first generations ALL DIED before entering Israel, including Moshe and Aaron…. The Five Books of Moses show us how important our mitzvos are, how even one good act can change the world and avert disaster, and one bad act can precipitate one. Some may see horrible hopelessness in the text. Judaism sees hope for meeting the challenge. The challenge of life is precisely how to navigate this certain gap, this absence of G-d portrayed in everyday life and the text of the Torah, the gap we must fill, that we must take responsibility for protecting our gifts, we must perfect the world, and Judaism provides the guidebook for doing just that with our Torah.
So the good folks over at WhyDoesG-dHateAmputees.com are missing the whole concept of what G-d is all about. What is the point of the mitzvos (commandments) “do not blaspheme, do not kill, do not steal, do not amputate each other, etc.” if HE will intervene and fix it all for us? If He would always intervene, why have a covenant subcontracting out the work to mankind? The concept of commandments, by definition, mean that WE are responsible for this life; HE is not about smiting people, re-growing lost limbs, stopping wars, Holocausts, and so on. That is our task, our joy, and our tragedy.
As Rabbi Eliezer Berkovitz famously said, “G-d is mighty for He shackles His ominpotence and becomes powerless so that history may be possible.”
WHY Bad Things Happen to Good People Audio Series by Rabbi Benjamin Blech was a crucial resource for me to flesh this out. It does an amazing job giving the Jewish sages’ answers to these questions, explaining G-d and free will. I didn’t purchase any tapes, but they let you listen to half the lectures in the series free.
The jist is this: Hashem is all good and all powerful, but to preserve human freedom, without which we can have no real choice, and no relationship with Him, G-d limits His own intervention in our reality.
G-d performs many miracles, most of them we don’t even recognize, but most miracles WE have to do. He gave us the Torah and “thou shalt not murder” so that WE would stop the killing, so WE would stop Hitler, so WE would do righteousness. He didn’t give us the Torah so HE could do those mitzvos, He gave it to US to do them. So the Holocaust, and all suffering and death are the failures of humanity, not failures of G-d! If a perfect, omniscient G-d can exist, He is necessarily all loving, and incapable of failure.
WE are commanded the mitzvos, not G-d!
It is WE who have to make it right. Not G-d!
As Shakespeare wrote, “The fault, dear Brutus, lie not in our stars, but in ourselves…”
Life is the process of confronting this gap, this absence of G-d, and how we fill it.
May we do it well, and without arrogance.
I am still full of plenty of doubts, though the questions of where time began points me to theism, and the huge role of religion in providing organization to groups of unruly humans (and a Jewish identity that can never exist totally independent of Judaism) points me to theism, I still have questions.
Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, recoiling at the horrors humanity has wrought, have answers as certain as a fundamentalist, not just questions, and this lack of questioning, when conducted by anyone, can only stunt the search for truth.
Keep searching, and keep fighting to fill the gap called life G-d has left us; everything depends on it.