To these perennial questions, I offer some answers — not to close a conversation, but to broaden one. I do not claim to know anything you don’t know, but if I can help you remember what you already know, I am blessed.—Rabbi Rami Shapiro
I asked my pastor where God was in this summer’s killings in Aurora, Colorado, and he said the Book of Job teaches that when bad things happen to “good” people it is God telling us that they really weren’t good people after all. Do you agree?
No, I don’t! This is a hurtful and ignorant idea, and one that God actually rebukes in the Book of Job. The reason bad things happen to good people is the same reason that good things happen to good people: things just happen. When we try to make sense out of the senseless we too often take refuge in nonsense. There is no explanation for tragedies like Aurora; there is only a humbling of the self and an opening of the heart: something your pastor seems to have missed entirely.
I heard in Bible study that God is an artist and the universe is his canvas. I like the metaphor, but why would God paint such a chaotic world?
Tohu va vohu ― wild and chaotic ― is how the Hebrew Bible describes the world in the first moments of creation (Genesis 1:2). Unlike other creation myths where chaos dies and order triumphs, Genesis leaves chaos intact. This is the source of both suffering and creativity. A completely ordered world would be like a paint-by-number landscape: everything is scripted and nothing new can happen. Actual creation is like a Jackson Pollock painting where chance and chaos are part of the creative process. Only in a world of tohu va vohu is there the possibility for new life, great art, innovative science, and ever-expanding wisdom. If God is an artist, God is closer to Jackson Pollock than paint-by–number.
Every Thanksgiving my family gathers to share our gratitude lists. It’s a predictable litany of all things shallow and trite. How can I shake it up?
Rather than “shake it up,” take it deeper. Share your hurts, disappointments, sufferings, and fears ― and how you have come to be grateful for them. Share what they taught you about yourself, your life, and how best to live it. Share the shadow as well as the light, and the importance of both. Not only might this deepen your family’s ritual, it might deepen your appreciation of Thanksgiving as well.
I love Christ, but I hate Christmas. My parents and siblings don’t need any more gold, frankincense and myrrh, but I have to give them something. And don’t tell me to make something ― any gift I make looks like a potholder I made in summer camp.
Your family might not need anything, but other families do. Rather than give a gift to your family, why not give one on their behalf? Work with organizations like Heifer International and help lift a family out of poverty with a donation of livestock. Then go the extra mile and email those who are obligated to gift you with a potholder or bit of myrrh, and ask them to donate to a charity instead. Don’t give up the giving; just downplay the getting.
My girls (ages 4 and 7) lack for nothing. I’m trying to get them off the Christmas toy train, but they are so excited about all the things they see on TV. What can I do to free them from the Christmas hype?
Don’t shun the hype; embrace it! Starting with the first Christmas toy commercial ask your daughters to create a catalog of everything they want for Christmas. Ask them to tell you why this stuff is cool, and then help them understand that if they who have much are so excited by these things, someone who has little might be even more excited. Tell them that they can pick out one gift each for themselves and two to give to kids in need. Don’t deprive your daughters of the fun of getting; just help them cultivate the joy of giving as well.
I’m Jewish and ambivalent about Christmas. My kids want a tree and presents. Should I give in and celebrate it?
Jews have good reason to be ambivalent about Jesus, but not about Christmas. Jesus was Jewish, a rabbi, and a martyr for justice, yet Jews have been persecuted in his name for millennia; the Good News for many was often bad news for us ― hence our ambivalence. Christmas, however, celebrates the birth of Christ, God incarnate, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). There is no room for an incarnate and triune God in Judaism, so there should be no ambivalence regarding Christmas. We insult Christianity by reducing Christmas to a secular celebration of endless consumption. If you want to honor the birth of Jesus, study him in the context of his people and his time. If you want to celebrate the birth of Christ, become a Christian. If you want to go shopping, wait until after Christmas when the sales start.
When should I tell my kids that Santa Claus isn’t real?
The best time to tell your kids that Santa isn’t real is the moment after they come and tell you that Santa isn’t real. In a country where millions don’t believe in evolution, global warming, and the birth certificate of our president, why make Santa Claus your cause célèbre? When your kids stop believing in Santa, work hard not to let their faith in the power of giving die along with it. When Santa dies, we all become Santa.
My boyfriend says without God everything is permitted. Is that true?
History suggests the exact opposite: as long as people follow a God or ideology that excuses evil and values obedience and faith over critical thinking and questioning, everything is permitted. Only when we are free to think for ourselves can we begin to face evil and prohibit it. But even then: beware of rationalization.
One for the Road
Here is a question asked of me that I am asking of you. Leave your answer in the comments below:
I don’t believe in climate change and rising sea levels because God promised not to flood the world again after Noah. Why can’t we trust God to be true to his word and live as we choose?