By Israel Drazin
The following is a brief version of an excerpt from “Beyond the Bible Text” by Rabbi Dr. Stanley Wagner and me that will be published in September 2013. We usually put three articles for each biblical portion, generally discussing thought-provoking subjects that people will not find elsewhere.
This week Jews read two Torah portions in synagogues. This essay is from Vayeilekh.
Can God “Hide His Face”?
In Deuteronomy 31:16–18, God informs Moses that the time will come when the Israelites will abandon God, abrogate the covenant they made with Him, and engage in idolatrous practices in Canaan. As a consequence, God will exile them from the land and as it says: “I will hide My face from them, and they will be devoured, and many evils and troubles shall come upon them” (31: 17).
This concept of “hide My face” is difficult to understand, and raises the question of why bad things happen to people. The nineteenth century Rabbi S. R. Hirsch suggests that it implies a withdrawal of God’s “special care” that he generally gives Jews, but this does not appear to be very helpful. Is he saying that generally God helps people, but sometimes when people are doing wrong God ceases helping them? But people, or at least some of them, always are doing some things that are improper. So when does God cease helping people and why does God do it? Isn’t God thought to be compassionate?
Some Holocaust theologians have applied this concept of hester panim, “the hiding of (God’s) face,” to explain this horrible tragedy in the history of the Jewish people. It is not that God was actively involved in that great tragedy, they claim, but He was, in a sense, “in hiding,” unavailable and uninvolved, removed and unresponsive, and that left the Jewish people defenseless, with no one to come to their aid. This seems to be Rabbi Hirsch’s view.
Some have taken a more extreme view by saying that God is not only absent, but “God is dead.” That is, they say, that after the Holocaust it is no longer possible to believe that there is a God. In essence, God never existed.
Others maintain that God is always intimately involved in the fate of people, and hester panim refers only to the fact that God is hiding the perception of His involvement. The people may cry out, “God is not in our midst” (Deuteronomy 31:17), but hester panim does not mean that God has abandoned Israel, just that the people no longer feel God’s presence.
Different people have different solutions to the problem of why bad things happen to good people. Some find it difficult to accept the idea that God can be involved in the world and was involved in the past, but not now, and that the notion of hester panim is a satisfactory way of explaining why there is evil in the world. Is it possible to accept the idea that the statement of God hiding the divine face is just a poetic way of saying: you will suffer because you did not act properly? In other words, it is as if God is hiding.
Is it also possible to accept Maimonides view, as some people understand him, that God created a very good world that is good for all people generally, although some people will be hurt? He states that people suffer because of one of three things: they harm themselves, such as overeating; others harm them, such as the ruler of one nation deciding to annex another nation’s land, starts a war and kills many people; or natural events, such as hurricanes that clean the air, result in people being killed.