If people ask me how I define myself, I say I’m Jewish. Orthodox Jewish. This means observing the holidays, the Sabbath, the dietary laws and rules far too numerous to mention here. People also assume that it means blind acceptance of what I’ve learned and that I adhere to the strict interpretation of the Torah. After all, that’s what “orthodox” means.
But this isn’t true, at least not in my case. It wasn’t—and still isn’t—the idea of evolution, or the age of the universe that gave me pause. A constant phrase we hear from Jewish commentators is that the Torah isn’t a history book. It’s more of a doctrine, which is the meaning of “Torah.” For me, it means that and more. It describes how we see God, and how we relate to Him.
It also describes how He sees us and relates to us. This became central to my own journey, a trek of the soul that has been dark and solitary, yet enlightening and life-giving as well.
I once blurted out to a dear friend of mine, someone far more learned than me, that I wanted to understand my religion on my terms. A touch arrogant, but that described what I set out to do. I would look through the classic commentaries and see which ones appealed to and spoke to me, and possibly build on them.
Many people would just shed the whole religious mantle, like an outgrown skin, but I wouldn’t. For one thing, I lived, and still live, a religious life (mostly). Besides that, it would be intellectually lazy. Delving into the text and finding support for another viewpoint would be far more adventurous and fulfilling.
A few questions I had to ask
A few things bothered me. What does He expect from us, when we so often anger, frustrate and generally disappoint Him?
Why did He create us?
And most importantly, what is free will, and how free is it? How was it created, and does God know what it implied when He created it?
What was the point of it all?
Let’s start with free will.
A central belief—in fact, central debate—of Judaism is free will. If God can see and know everything, then how can our will be free? And if He doesn’t know our choices, then how can He be All-Knowing?
I found a possible answer to this question while doing some research on Gershonides, known in Hebrew as Levi ben Gershon and the RalBag (Rav Levi Ben Gershon) in acronym. He presented a radical view saying that God could and did limit His own ability to foresee and control human acts. So I had support.
But why were we created? What purpose did we serve, if God could control everything about us, except our own will?
The answer to this question came in two parts, one in the position of Gershonides, that He limits His own control over us for some reason. But what is that reason?
For that question, I found a fascinating answer from a very unlikely source. That was a certain Jack Miles, a Jesuit priest, whose 1995 book, God: A Biography, won the Pulitzer prize for just that. Biography. He posits that the entire Torah can be seen as a description of God`s own experience as He discovers what He has created and how He and the human race will relate to each other. And how He discovers Himself.
Not willing to let things be, I looked again to Genesis, and came up with a theory. That theory proposed that the incident of Eve, with the snake and the apple (by the way, Jewish tradition holds that it wasn’t an apple, but more likely a date, or some fruit native to the area) occurred to give humankind a choice and thereby create the germ of free will. The rebellion was encouraged—and desired, in a certain way—so we would become independent beings, always struggling, sometimes advancing and sometimes falling back. I still had to figure out why.
I put this collection of ideas into a story, a background to the creation of humanity and what preceded the words, “Let Us make man, in Our image, in Our Likeness.”
The following is an excerpt from First of the Fallen, the third book in my Dark Muse series. It stamps this book, and the series, as an undefinable mix of ideas: some pertaining to the Divine, some very human.