“Father-like He tends and spares us;
well our feeble frame He knows;
in His hands He gently bears us
rescues us from all our foes. . . “
(The Reverend Henry Francis Lyte, 1793-1847: ‘Praise My Soul the King of Heaven’).
“The belief that God’s guiding hand is manifest in all things is ultimately a human response to the universe. It is not, as Jews have believed through the centuries, certain knowledge”.
(Professor Dan Cohn-Sherbok, Reform Rabbi and theologian, 1945 -)
The words of Henry Francis Lyte’s wonderful hymn, which we sang yesterday at the memorial service in Newcastle for a much-loved former newspaper colleague, stand in stark contrast to those of a recent lecture in Ripon Cathedral (in the same series as the Richard Harries one – see previous post).
God as loving, caring, Father who shields and protects us all our lives is, says Reform Rabbi and leading theologian, Professor Dan Cohn-Sherbok, an entirely human construct that, if it wasn’t earlier, is certainly an unsustainable one post-Holocaust.
“Judaism affirms that God chose the Jewish people, watches over them, and guides them to their ultimate destiny. Where was God when six million died? Where was he when Jewish men, women and children travelled in crowded trains to their deaths? . . . Where was he when babies were torn away from their mothers’ breasts and machinegunned in the woods? Where was he in the darkness of the gas chambers?” are Cohn-Sherbok’s (to my mind, though not to everyone’s) entirely reasonable questions.
The loving Father figure of Christian, no less than Jewish, theology, as so clearly enunciated in the hymn is, by Cohn-Serbok’s assessment (though his reference was entirely to Jewish theology, it must equally apply to Christians) an illusion: and it isn’t only Jewish theologians who have had to rethink it in the face of hard questions posed by the wilful destruction of six million Jews.
Cohn-Sherbok is by no means the first theologian, Jewish or otherwise, to pose these hard questions – he cites many others in his lecture – but he is, as far as I know, the first to come up with such radical answers, viz: the Jews as God’s chosen people; their belief in a personal Messiah; in an afterlife; in God as almighty and omnipotent; even in God as ultimate goodness and perfection, must all – without exception – “be regarded as human images constructed from within particular social and cultural contexts.” The theology of centuries, he says, must be re-thought.
“The tragedy of the Holocaust,”says Cohn-Sherbok, “is an overwhelming religious perplexity because Jews perceive God as omnipotent and benevolent, a loving Father of all. However, if God lies beyond human comprehension, then the puzzle of God’s providence during the Holocaust ceases to be an insoluble problem. Instead, it is an unfathomable mystery.”
It’s a neat argument – except that, personally, I can’t see the difference between an insoluble problem and an unfathomable mystery. Is there one? I’m not convinced.
The full text of Professor Cohn-Sherbok’s lecture is here cohn-sherbok lecture.