Columns General story Jeffrey Salkin: Martini Judaism Opinion

Lay off my God already!

Thomas Nast’s famous drawing, “Merry Old Santa Claus,” from the January 1, 1881 edition of Harper’s Weekly is largely considered the basis for the modern image of Santa Claus. Image courtesy of Creative Commons

That’s it. I am calling the ADL.

Was it an anti-semitic incident? A swastika on a synagogue? A physical attack on Jews?

No. Not this time.

This time, it is an attack on Judaism itself.

This time, it comes in the pages of one of this country’s most sophisticated magazines — The New Yorker.

In the December 24 & 31, 2019 issue, on page 28, we see a cartoon. In the cartoon, Santa Claus has come down the chimney. He is wielding a whip. The waiting children say: “Oh, crap — it’s Old Testament Santa.”

Now, I thoroughly get it.

After all, compare the religious heroes of the season.

On the one hand, you have jolly St. Nick, whose only purpose in life is to deliver presents to greedy kids all over the world. Pure love and niceness. (You would have hoped that the major religious hero for Christians at this season would have been the Baby Jesus, but that theological train left long ago).

On the other hand, Judah Maccabee, the hero of Hanukkah. A brilliant military hero. A man who fought for Judaism. A man who wasn’t afraid to kill Syrians and treacherous Jews alike.

OK — not a nice guy. But, a necessary guy.

Santa Claus, nice. Judah Maccabee, not so nice.

Back to the “Old Testament Santa” cartoon — ignoring, for the moment, that Santa Claus appears in neither testaments.

The idea of an “Old Testament Santa” is anti-Judaism 101.

First of all, the very term “Old Testament.”

“Old Testament” is an unconscious piece of anti-Judaism. “Testament” means “covenant.”

To say that the Jewish Bible, or the TANAKH, is the old testament implies that the covenant that God made with Israel is old — as in, outmoded, out of step, out of style. To put it in computer terms, the old covenant needs an upgrade — to a new covenant, a new testament — through Jesus.

For that reason, many sensitive Christians no longer refer to our Bible as the Old Testament. Some refer to it as the “first testament.” Some even respectfully call it what we call it — the TANAKH.

Second, Santa wielding a whip. Here we have the following implication — that the God of the so-called Old Testament is a cruel, vengeful God — and that the God of the Christian New Testament is a loving God. God of justice vs. god of love.

The idea is very powerful, and very old.

It dates back to the first century Christian theologian, Marcion.

In the early years of Christianity, there was an ongoing debate: how “Jewish” should Christianity be? How much should it acknowledge Judaism as its parent religion?

Marcion would have none of it. He taught the following idea: the Jewish God — the God of the Old Testament — was evil, and that the Christian God — the God of the New Testament — was good. Marcion believed that Christianity must utterly sever itself from its Jewish roots.

From there, it was an easy move to Jews/bad, Christians/good.

You all know where that brought us.

What is my response to the God of love/God of justice thing?

First, for all of the love that the New Testament contains, you will forgive me if I remind you: for the better part of two thousand years, until sixty years ago, we Jews did not feel the love that emanates from Christianity. Rather than Santa brandishing a whip in a cartoon, it was the agents of the Church that brandished whips — and far worse — not in a cartoon in the New Yorker, but in real life.

But second, let me introduce you to my God.

The God I worship is many things.

But, at this moment, let me tell you about my God of love.

God is like the ideal parent. Yes, back in the Bible that Divine Parent had some bad days. Occasionally the anger got a little out of control. But when God got angry, let’s at least realize that the source of that divine anger was human action — human cruelty, rapaciousness, and idolatry.

God’s parenting skills are pretty human. If you want to try to understand God’s inner life, think about parenting. You watch your infant roll over for the first time. You coax her to do it, cheering her on, wondering if you should help or not, wondering if she will get it on her own.

That’s the way it is with God and humanity as well. God creates the world, but then we have to start working independently.

Your child grows up. She gets her drivers’ license. You are terrified that she may have an accident. You would like to keep her locked up in the house with the car keys in the safe.

But, you can’t. You must step back and let your child drive and pray for the best.

That’s the way it is with God and humanity as well. Some of us may want a perfectly ordered world in which people cannot hurt or do evil. But such a world, though idyllic, robs humanity of its freedom. It is too big a price for us – and even God – to pay.

The so-called God of the Old Testament is involved in active nurturing parental behavior. In Moses’ farewell poem in Deuteronomy, God “adopts” the Jewish people in the wilderness, “nurses” them, and watches over them like a mother eagle. There is even a legend that teaches that God ran a day care center in Egypt for lost Israelite children!

The so-called God of the Old Testament is not only a pretty good parent, but that God has taught me how to be a better son.

There were times when my father and I were angry with each other — complete with painful stretches of anger that seemed endless because the animosity was filled with silence.

When my father and I have fought and made up, I have understood the true meaning of repentance. That’s the way it is with God and humanity as well. God doesn’t seem to talk anymore.

Is God disgruntled? Or have we not taken the time to hear what God might be saying to us?

The ancient sages of the Jews imagined a God Who can change and grow, like a maturing artist.

The ancient sages of the Jews imagined a God Who was responsive to human dialogue (Abraham and Moses were pretty good in this department).

They imagined a God who can be wrong.

There is a famous passage in the Talmud in which sages argue with God over a matter of some arcane law, and the sages are proven right. God loves it. “My children have defeated Me!”

It is like the parent who loves when his or her child is victorious in chess or in football – or who loves it when the child comes back with a witty retort. In Jewish legend, God even has frustrations and weeps. God sees human suffering and goes to a special chamber in heaven and bawls.

There is far more in the mainstream religious imagination than we know. We simply have not used it. When we do so, we become better, richer, deeper people.

Henry Slonimsky, an underrated Jewish thinker, once wrote: “God is primarily and pre‑eminently a great heart, caring most for what seems to be important and sacred to us, namely, our loves and aspirations and sufferings.”

Like I said: lay off my God already.

Because whether you know it or not, whether you like it or not, in some form or another, that might be your God, too.

 

About the author

Jeffrey Salkin

Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Solel in Hollywood, Fla., and the author of numerous books on Jewish spirituality and ethics, published by Jewish Lights Publishing and Jewish Publication Society.