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Whose God is it Anyway? Eitan Cooper on Parashat Shemot

Eitan Cooper
| 03/01/2021
Shavua Tov @ Schechter

God of Abraham or God of Moses?  Eitan Cooper, Executive Vice President of The Schechter Institutes, examines two contrasting portrayals of God in the first two books of the Torah.  Genesis offers a portrayal of God in nature while Exodus depicts God within a historical narrative.  How might we see these representations of God in modern times?

Watch the video and read the accompanying article:

God of Abraham or God of Moses?  Eitan Cooper, Executive Vice President of The Schechter Institutes, examines two contrasting portrayals of God in the first two books of the Torah.  Genesis offers a portrayal of God in nature while Exodus depicts God within a historical narrative.  How might we see these representations of God in modern times?

Whose God is it anyway, Avraham’s or Moshe’s? Breishit (the Book of Genesis) opens with the narrative of creation, which is the context for Avraham’s encounter with God, with its clear, universal message: “through you all the families of the Earth will be blessed”. How do we know this God? According to Maimonides, we can best know God the creator by studying God’s creations. Science provides for humanity a universally accessible path to understanding the God of Avraham, but the path is limited to those who are scientifically and philosophically oriented.

This week we begin reading the second book of Torah – Shemot (the Book of Exodus), which opens by describing the demographic explosion of Jacob’s family in Egypt, leading to Pharaoh’s declaring that the Children of Israel are a distinct, foreign nation that poses a threat to other Egyptians. Pharaoh divides, then enslaves. Shemot unfolds as a particular political and historical narrative, yet it too resonates universally. Why?

Following Moshe’s flight from Egypt into the desert, the same God envisioned by Avraham appears to Moshe in the Burning Bush, and sends him on a mission to deliver his people. When Moshe asks how he should respond when asked by the Children of Israel for the name of the God in whose name he has come, God instructs him to say: “I will be as I will be. Tell them ‘I will be sent me’”. A Midrash in Shemot Rabbah interprets “I will be” as meaning “you will know me only by my actions”. God will be revealed through Moshe’s mission. The odd Hebrew word “sneh” – it only occurs in the context of the burning bush, and Mt. Sinai, which is called Sinai only in the context of Israel receiving the law, are the same word. The little bush and the great mountain mark the beginning and climax of the same mission. Therefore, as opposed to God known through nature in Breishit, in Shemot God is evident in a historical narrative, which includes the constant violation of laws of nature through miracles. But this is a contradiction: If we discover God by studying the laws of nature, how can we come to know God through the violation of the same laws?

Just over a century ago, Einstein posited unifying truths about the universe, melding time and space, energy with matter. Shortly afterward, a modern Pharaoh rose up, achieving awesome power through division, by positing a world order that is “us” against “them”. The Nazi’s not only hated Einstein as a Jew, they also preached against his theory of relativity. In 1922, a Nobel-prize winning physicist who later turned Nazi labeled relativity “a threat to the German worldview” (see Ball in Scientific American 2015), as if the math were different for Jews and Germans!

By offering two, seemingly contradictory manifestations of God, the Bible provides a path for understanding how the unifying truths of an Einstein or an Avraham can prevail over the divisive, brutal power of a Hitler or a Pharaoh. God sends a Moshe to deliver the Children of Israel from that power, and then to reintroduce them to God through laws that create a more inclusive and just political order. This is the Biblical motif for human progress! In the 21st century, the universal blessings of Avraham, on their own, remain elusive. To progress towards the day when we will all enjoy them requires the exercise of political power. The Torah, through its dueling versions of God, continues to inspire both lovers of truth and political leaders, while serving warning to the divisive populists and would-be autocrats who rarely heed it, of their inevitable defeat.

Eitan Cooper is the Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of The Schechter Institutes. Since coming to Schechter in 2000, he has served in various capacities, including TALI Outreach Coordinator and Vice President for Development. Mr. Cooper holds a BA from the University of Chicago and an MA from the Hebrew University. He is a graduate of the Mandel School for Educational Leadership and a licensed Israeli tour guide.

Eitan and Anita Cooper made Aliya from the United States in 1983, and are proud parents and grandparents to their growing Israeli family.

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