In parashat Lech Lecha, Sarai’s servant Hagar conceives a child with Avram. Sarai, upset that Hagar no longer respects her, abuses Hagar, who flees the couple into the wilderness. Hashem’s messenger appears before Hagar, telling her to return to Sarai and suffer the abuse. If you return to him, says the messenger, Hashem will multiply your children. This is troubling: Why would Hashem tell Hagar to return? The idea that a victim of abuse should return to her abusive household runs counter to our ethical convictions. Passages like this trouble the notion of “Jewish ethics.” If the Divine’s prescriptions are far out of step with common sense, why should Torah provide a basis for ethical action or a good life?
Our first impulse might be to construct a rationalization for Hashem’s request. Most plausibly, the wilderness is dangerous for a single, pregnant woman. But Hagar must have known this: It is difficult to believe that Hagar threw caution to the wind and ran into the wilderness with no concern for the harm that might come to her. Contemporary experience tells us that even with the existence of women’s shelters, women in abusive relationships are often reticent to escape. More likely, Hagar was willing to risk her own life to escape Sarai’s abuse. Viewing Hagar as someone making a choice rather than one who is acted upon evaporates any easy rationalization. Our uncomfortable question remains: What do we make of Hashem’s message to Hagar? Why did Hashem tell her to go back?
“God works in mysterious ways.” This answer is offered to absolve Hashem of wrongdoing or to explain obscure actions by the Divine. The Christian polymath Leibniz went to far as to argue that ours is the best of all possible worlds. God, according to Leibniz, is all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-good. Thus, he argues, we can infer that this is the best possible world. If God is all-good and all-powerful, then God would have created the best possible world.1 Even God cannot create a square circle. A thing is either a circle or a square, the notion of a square circle makes no sense.2 Better worlds, for Leibniz, are like square circles.
Leibniz’s argument is notoriously unsatisfying. The notion that our world—full of suffering—is the best possible world seems facially ridiculous. This view is so unsatisfying that Dr Pangloss, Voltaire’s parody of Leibniz, is better known than Leibniz himself. More than being unsatisfying, this argument does not work for Jews. Whereas Christian doctrine holds that God is all-good, Jews have no such doctrine. Unlike Leibniz’s Christian God, Hashem is not all good: After the flood, Hashem makes a vow: Never again. Why make such a vow unless the Divine had erred? We cannot appeal to a notion of an all-knowing, all-good God acting in a way that is incomprehensible (but ultimately good) if our religion has no such doctrine.
On an even more basic level, why study Torah only to conclude we cannot understand it? That seems the religious equivalent of bashing one’s head against a wall. The very fact of the Torah’s existence invites us to study it: Why else write down the word of the Divine? Indeed, the Torah’s invitation to study has generated the richest tradition of textual interpretation in history.3 Belief that we can gain insight into the Torah lies at the heart of what it means to be Jewish. Again, we must return to the thorny question: Why does Hashem tell Hagar to return, presumably against her own judgment?
Another potential avenue of answer is to condemn Hashem as simply wrong. Just as Hashem erred in flooding the world, or in prescribing rules for keeping slaves, this was Divine error. In “Euthyphro,” Socrates argues that one of two things must be true: Either something is good (or pious)
because the gods like it, or the gods like it because it is good.4 The picture of good being determined arbitrarily by the whim of Hashem is uncomfortable, especially considering the Torah sets out rules for the keeping of slaves. Slavery, one would think, is evil independent of what Hashem decides.
The other possibility, rather than feeling unsatisfying, seems arrogant. Even if good is logically independent of Hashem, who are we to think we know better? On some issues this seems clear cut: We know slavery is evil, period. Hashem could tell Moshe whatsoever, our conviction would not waver. On issues where ethical principles mingle with practical action, the picture is considerably murkier. Laws necessarily under-determine their applications.5 The nature of laws means there are always edge cases where categories, principles, and decisions are murky. This is why the legal system has judges. In practical matters, this under-determination is the source of our doubts: Perhaps Hashem, the superior knower, has access to some insight into applications of ethics we do not; an insight which is reflected in the text either tangentially or not at all.
The careful reader recognizes this immediately as a more sophisticated restatement of “God works in mysterious ways.” Our same objection replies: Is it not the case that studying the Torah presumes we can find Hashem’s reason? This tension seems intractable: In cases where we cannot rationalize the Torah, are we doomed to claim we know better than the Eternal?
In cases where one reaches two opposing, uncomfortable conclusions, it is best to reexamine the place one started. Perhaps our objection that studying the Torah presumes the ability to understand it deserves more scrutiny.
The end goal of this objection is a science of Torah, in the same way, we have made a science of physics. The contributions of Rashi could be viewed like the contributions of Newton: Important, but ultimately something to be improved upon in pursuit of a complete theory of Torah.
Why is such a rational reconstruction of the Torah desirable? To reduce the Tanakh to just another collection of atoms, for which we will develop an exhaustive theory? We have a complete theory of quantum electrodynamics. Do we want a complete theory of the Torah? Such a thing would diminish the appeal, beauty, and mystique of the Torah. Torah is enduring precisely because it defies our ability to fully grasp it.6 Doubt is why we return again to the text. The doubt we feel when articulating an explanation for Hagar’s return is an essential component of explanation, not something to be eliminated in our pursuit of Truth. The real ethics at play here is not in condemning or praising Hashem: It is in the interpretation itself. We are taught that Judaism has three pillars: Avodah, Gemilut Chasadim, and Torah. Work, acts of loving kindness, and Torah. Two of those words are actions: One works, one is kind… One reads Torah. Perhaps Jewish ethics comes in the act of studying the Torah, rather than from the stories therein.
Student, University of Toronto