Our Quarterback, Our King – Two Problems with Liberal Theology

The Quarterback

Deuteronomy 8:11-18: Do not forget YHWH your God, . . . .lest when you have eaten and are full, and have built goodly houses, . . . . You may say in your heart, “My power and the might of my hand has gotten me this wealth.” And you shall remember YHWH your God; for he is who gives you power to get wealth…

In the Bible and traditional Jewish liturgy, YHWH, the God of the Hebrews who evolved into the one God of Biblical monotheism, runs the show like a quarterback who calls his own plays. While some fans of the Indianapolis Colts might have said that Peyton Manning was like God, in traditional Judaism, God is like Peyton Manning.

Even though promoted to God of the entire universe, YHWH clearly takes sides and has a “chosen team.”

  • He calls all of the plays, and like a quarterback he makes them happen himself “with a mighty hand, and with an outstretched arm.” Deuteronomy 26:8 – “And YHWH brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand, and with an outstretched arm, and with great awesomeness, and with signs, and with wonders.”
  • If you do what he tells you and you perform well, he will help the “chosen team” win again and againLeviticus 26:3-12 – “If you walk in my statutes, and keep my commandments, and do them;…. I will give peace in the land, and you shall lie down, and none shall make you afraid; and I will remove evil beasts from the land, nor shall the sword go through your land. And you shall chase your enemies, and they shall fall before you by the sword…. For I will turn myself to you, and make you fruitful, and multiply you, and establish my covenant with you…. And I will walk among you, and will be your God, and you shall be my people.”
  • If you fall short of his ideals, or worse yet disobey his instructions, he will punish you by sending you to the bench and withdrawing his protection – Leviticus 26: 15-17 – “And if you shall despise my statutes, . . .so that you will not do all my commandments, but that you break my covenant; I also will do this to you; I will appoint over you terror, consumption, and fever, that shall consume the eyes, and cause sorrow of heart; and you shall sow your seed in vain, for your enemies shall eat it. And I will set my face against you, and you shall be slain before your enemies; they who hate you shall reign over you; and you shall flee when none pursues you.” – 
  • Or even by kicking you off of his teamThe punishment of being “cut off” [karet] from the people of Israel for breaking specific ritual commandments appears at least 13 times in the book of Leviticus alone.
  • And if the entire team fails to listen to him, he may even throw the ball to the other team and help them win just to punish you. Judges 10:6-7: “And the people of Israel did evil again in the sight of YHWH, . . . and forsook YHWH, and did not serve him. And the anger of YHWH was kindled against Israel, and he sold them into the hands of the Philistines, and into the hands of the sons of Ammon.”

We even know from which side he throws: “Your right hand, YHWH, is glorious in power; your right hand, YHWH, has dashed the enemy in pieces. And in the greatness of your excellence you have overthrown those that rose up against.” [Exodus 15:6-7]

One problem with modern liberal theology is that their God works more like a coach or a cheerleader – he may have planned how things should run, but he has no direct impact on how they turn out. The “God” imagined behind “intelligent design” works at most on the molecular level, hardly parting the Red Sea or writing a Torah. More important, such a god cannot impact what actually happens on the field. Once the actual game (i.e. real life) starts, he can encourage you along by cheering you up and by being with you, and that’s about it. No miracles, no mighty hand and outstretched arm, no direct intervention that could be proven or disproven. This may work to make a plausible modern theology, but not if you keep talking to the cheerleader like they are the quarterback.

Here is one summary of some theological options within Reform Judaism:

Some may be fortified by accepting all things as God’s will, fulfilling a purpose that may take time to fathom, if we can ever fathom it. . . . Some may be fortified by a belief that God is limited in power, so that illness and death and loss do not come from God nor can God prevent them. Some may be fortified by a faith that God cares about them and suffers with them even when God, like a parent, cannot always make things better.

And here is a selection from a Reform Birkat ha-Mazon {grace after meal}; I made my own translation of the Hebrew since that site’s English softens the meaning:

Blessed are you Adonai our God, king of the universe, who sustains the entire world with goodness, kindness and mercy. He gives bread/food to all creatures, for his mercy is forever. With abundant goodness we have never lacked, and may we never lack sustenance forever. In God’s great name, God sustains all, does good to all, and provides food for all the creatures he created. Blessed is Adonai, who provides food for all.

Is this the same God? In prose he is a limited God, a coach at the most and a cheerleader at the least. But in liturgy he is the quarterback, doing everything and lacking nothing, never failing. Will people believe the prose, or will they believe what they’re told at summer camp to say after every meal? For those who believe in the importance of clear thinking, the risk is too great to leave the liturgy alone.

The King

Sometimes theology echoes politics – just as we create our gods in our image, we imagine a god’s authority as we see power exercised among us.

At one time, it made sense to imagine a god as a King – after all, every land could see were had a king. On the rare occasion that queens ruled independently, their authority was no less absolute. The exception might have been Athenian democracy, which had a city council made up of rich elites, but recall that that system paralleled the Greek Pantheon. In Babylonia, Egypt, and Israel, kings ruled directly and completely. And just as an emperor, or ruler of many lands, could be described as a ‘king of many kings,’ God was easily understandable as “king of kings, and lord of lords” (see Handel’s “Messiah,” from Revelation 19:16).

This imagery is basic to traditional Jewish liturgy – from Avinu Malkeinu {Our Father, Our King} to the basic blessing phrase melekh ha-olam {king of the universe}. And it is totally foreign to the Jewish experience today, whether in Western Europe, Israel or the Americas. Why does the Reform Birkat Hamazon linked to above choose to translate “king” as “sovereign?” It avoids both gender identification and political alienation.

Consider one way of looking at the world from the Jewish Renewal movement: “Reality is merged; all is one. This is the world of essence, where we recognize ourselves as being a spark of God’s fire. It is not we who pray; rather, God prays in us. With God’s own eye we see ourselves.” Now hear it put into political terms – we are one nation, e pluribus unum [from many, one]. We are citizens, each an essential element of political authority. The authority does not rule us; rather, it rules through us. It is a government of the people, by the people. By saying each person is a piece of God, God is now compatible with a democracy where each person has a vote and a voice – no one ever voted for or had a real say with God the King.

Of course, just like the quarterback, king imagery is rarely removed from the liturgy, and thus it creeps back into theology. If there is one lesson that Humanistic Judaism can learn from these examples, it is this: words have meaning, and if you don’t say what you believe and believe what you say, the lack of integrity between the two creates problems and conflicts. If your highest ideals are neither a supernatural quarterback nor a cosmic king, but rather human effort and human achievement, then it is both right and wise to say so.

This item is reprinted (with some editing) from the Society for Humanistic Judaism journal Humanistic Judaism (Summer/Autumn 2007) with permission.

About Rabbi Adam Chalom

Adam Chalom is the Rabbi of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in north suburban Chicago. He is also the Dean for North America of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism.
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6 Responses to Our Quarterback, Our King – Two Problems with Liberal Theology

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