Neusner lists points lacking emphasis in the rabbinic “Fathers According to Rabbi Nathan ” (fifth-sixth centuries). One of them is “an assertion that one should study the Torah and other things will take care of themselves[.]” I’ve encountered such an idea in rabbinic literature, though I’m a little hazy right now as to where. In this view, the study of the Torah can protect a person from evil, and observance of it can help bring about the Messiah.
I’ve seen a similar attitude in Alcoholics Anonymous. In meetings and the Big Book, recovering alcoholics narrate that, as they went to more meetings and did the Twelve Steps, their higher power started doing things for them that they couldn’t do for themselves. He provided them with a job despite their criminal record, or he gave them confidence, growth in character, or a loving family. As far as they’re concerned, God has blessed them for doing the right thing.
Is this always true? Many Jews died in the Holocaust, including those who were devout students of the Torah. Why didn’t their Torah study protect them?
I’d like to believe that there is protection and blessing in studying the Bible and cultivating a relationship with God. I need something to hold on to for assurance. As a person once told me, “If you don’t trust a higher power who will take care of you, you’re screwed!” In a sense, he’s right, since life is so fickle, and bad or hard things happen. I need to trust that things occur for a reason and that God is taking care of me.
But what about the people God doesn’t appear to take care of: the starving, the diseased, the dying? That’s why I believe in an afterlife. And, while conservative Christianity teaches that only those who believe in Jesus will enter the good afterlife, I try to take God’s warnings seriously, while also being open to the possibility that God’s mercy may extend even to non-Christians, after a period of purgation, or teaching, or God simply choosing to show mercy.
At the same time, I’m against being so heavenly minded that I do no earthly good, since part of God’s judgment of me in the afterlife will concern how I treated the poor, the sick, and the needy (Matthew 25; James 2). God has a plan, part of which involves his temporary toleration of evil. But that doesn’t mean that he likes evil. He hates it, and he wants to work with us to do something about it. Maybe that has to do with his desire for our character development, or for everyone to enjoy some quality of life.
Overall, I look for inner peace and security in God and his word. Hopefully, however, the word also stimulates me to have a vision that helps others besides myself.
2. Alan F. Segal, Two Powers in Heaven: Early Rabbinic Reports About Christianity and Gnosticism (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1977) 8-9.
Sifre Deuteronomy dates to the late third century C.E. Segal states the following:
Sifre Dt. 329…mentions those who believe in “no power in heaven,” followed by those who believe in “two powers in heaven,” and finally, those who believe that God has “neither the power to kill nor to preserve.”
If I’m correct in my interpretation of this passage, then atheists existed in antiquity, notwithstanding the attempts of some to portray atheism as something that emerged during the Enlightenment.
As far as the “two powers in heaven” go, that’s the topic of Segal’s book. My impression at this point is that he thinks the term could apply to Christians and the Gnostics. He may even think they overlapped. I’ll have to see! There is somewhat of a difference in how they conceived of the two powers: the Christians believed the Logos who became Jesus Christ cooperated with God the Father in the act of creation, whereas the Gnostics thought that the top God and the creator Demiurge were at odds with one another. In Tosefta Sanhedrin 8:7, which dates to the third century C.E., we encounter an emphatic denial that God had a partner in the work of creation.
The view that God hasn’t the power to kill or preserve may be Epicureanism, which held that the gods were unconcerned about human beings.
I can understand why the rabbis were concerned about many of these views: atheism negates God, Gnosticism says the God of the Hebrew Bible is evil, and Epicureanism denies divine providence, the very basis for reward and punishment in this world. But why would the Logos cooperating with the Father be a threat, especially when both of them are on the same page? Does a belief in Jesus detract from the glory that God alone should receive? Many Jews would answer “yes,” since it makes a limited man God. Both Jews and Muslims ask if Christians believe God had to have his diapers changed! But what about Jesus in his pre-existent state? Did his cooperation with God in creation detract from God’s glory?
Those who view Jesus as God would say “no.” When Isaiah 44:24 says that the LORD alone created all things, or when Second Isaiah in general affirms that the LORD is the only God and that there is no other (Isaiah 45-46), they deny that these passages preclude the existence of a a second member of the Godhead who helped God in creation. Rather, these passages were fighting a polytheism that asserted multiple deities who were in opposition to each other and had unrighteous characteristics, not two righteous members of the Godhead cooperating with one another.
Yet, many Jews might say that the Jesus of Christianity is unlike the God they know, in that the Christian Jesus was a human with limitations, abrogated God’s eternal Torah, and ditched God’s covenant people Israel in favor of the church, the persecutor of the Jews. So some Jews may contend that the God of the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Jesus are opposed to each other, meaning Christians are promoting the worship of someone other than the one true God. But there are Christians who would come back and say that the Torah was a preparation for a more mature stage of God’s plan.
Then, there could be another issue in the rabbis’ opposition to God having a partner. If God needed help in creating the universe, what’s that say about God? Couldn’t he do it by himself? Wasn’t he powerful enough? Christians can perhaps respond that God may like working with others, since he’s a being of love and cooperation.