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    The limited God – Balak

    Balak says to Bilam, “What have you done to me? I appointed you to curse my enemies and look, you have blessed them!” (Num. 23:11).

    Borrowing the terms “curse” and “bless”, let’s delve into the age-old question of how to speak to God: should we bless Him or criticise Him?

    Man has agonised over this issue from time immemorial.

    What sort of God is He? Is He a good God, in which case how can there be such evil in the world? Is He a powerful God, in which case how can He not intervene and stop the evil? Or is it that evil does not really exist, so no-one can blame God for it or expect Him to step in and exercise control?

    There are two ways of looking at the question – the way of the speculative philosophers, who try to analyse the nature of God and produce a theoretical explanation, and the way of the realists, who say, “Thank you, Mr Philosopher, but what we are dealing with are not academic issues but real people who are suffering real pain!”

    To this approach, which we find in the writings of Rav Soloveitchik, let’s add the words of Irving Greenberg, who says, “No statement theological or otherwise should be made that would not be credible in the presence of burning children”.

    There is real pain in the world. One cannot pretend otherwise. Where, if not from the Holocaust, do we find the reality of burning children? Can one speak of the Holocaust and deny the fact of the pain?

    Eliezer Berkovits is adamant: if you try to pretend that evil can be talked away, it is nothing short of obscene.

    The thinkers have been busy for decades arguing for or against the proposition that the Holocaust was unique. Maybe the most accurate comment we can offer is that the questions are neither new nor unique but the scope of the Holocaust gave the old questions new, special urgency.

    Jewish thinking has been shaken and shattered by the problem of evil from the beginning of history. Rabbi Yannai says in Pir’kei Avot 4:5, “We do not have power to understand either the suffering of the righteous or the prosperity of the wicked”.

    Anything we say is only going to be tentative and partial and maybe we would be better off to follow those who say we cannot find explanations but can only arrive at responses.

    Some thinkers play with the idea that God is not necessarily entirely good, but from a practical point of view this is a nonsense proposition that removes any point and purpose from prayer or the striving for redemption.

    Others speak of God as good but in some way limited. He had to withdraw into Himself to make room for the world. He had to withdraw into Himself to allow man free will.

    As Irving Greenberg is daring enough to suggest, not only man but God has changed. He has had to accept limitations on His covenant with man, since man could never have envisaged that the covenant would be tested with such extreme tragedy. God has had to allow man’s free will to grow in order to rededicate himself to morality and messianism.

    The price God has had to pay has been, as it were, to feel for Israel and agree to renegotiate the covenant.

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