Shalom Aleichem: The Everyday God
What is God?
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Jewish popular literature was almost non-existent until the middle of the 19th century. The genre began with books written in Yiddish that were meant for the entertainment of the average Jew. They were written in the vernacular because this was the language that Jews used to speak to each other, the language that they thought in. The stories from this era were usually simple, with peddlers and horses and complaining wives. They delved into problems Jews had with each other, problems they had with the goyim, and problems they had with God.
These Jewish stories positively overflow with Judaism, but it is a Judaism that was not necessarily very rabbinic. For the first time in Jewish history, the voice of the common Jew was heard, and they had a lot to say. Among the authors was a former Hasid named Solomon Rabinovich, but nobody knows him by that name. His name is Sholem Aleichem, meaning ‘Peace be upon you’ – the classic greeting of one Jew to another. He wrote his stories during the decades surrounding the turn of the 20th century. He wrote simple stories about peddlers and tailors and shady businessmen. The most popular stories concern a struggling man named Tevye who manages to get himself into the dairy business. Hence, his eternal name is Tevye the Milkman. Tevye mentions God in every other sentence. He quotes Scripture with abandon, usually getting the words more or less correct but almost always spicing it up with his own wild interpretations.
Tevye has an on/off relationship with God. It probably wasn’t all that different from the way many Jews felt about God at this time of uncertainty and change. Jews were under constant stress to pull together a living. There was the ever-present threat of a pogrom hovering over their heads. Immigration to anywhere else, including Palestine and America, was always lurking in the background. The vicissitudes of life played cruel games with these Jews. No matter where they turned they could never be sure if where they were going would be better or worse than from where they came. The one certainty they had was their faith, and by the turn of the 20th century that faith was on the rocks.
Tevye debates with God on a daily basis. When things were going good God is there to thank. When things go wrong God is to blame. Questioning God’s wisdom in running the world is a constant theme in Tevye’s life. In the first story of the book, Tevye, while riding through the forest, stops to daven. As he stands there trying to pray, his horse decides to run off. He dashes after his horse while screaming out the blessings. His horse stops in front of two stranded women who manage to beg a ride back to their town, a district for the wealthy. When there, he drops the women off and lingers while their family celebrates their return. He sees the food spread out for a banquet he breaks out in his Jewish version of a Shakespeare soliloquy:
‘You can imagine what went through my mind. The crumbs that fell from that table alone would have been enough to feed my children for a week, with enough left over for the Sabbath. Oh my dear Lord, I thought, they say you’re a long-suffering God, a good God, a great God; perhaps you can explain to me then, why some folk have everything and others have nothing twice over. Why is it that one Jew gets to eat butter rolls while another gets to eat dirt? A moment, though, later I said to myself, ach, what a fool you are Tevye. Do you really think He needs your advice on how to run the world? If this is how things are it’s how they were meant to be; the proof of that is that if they were meant to be different, they would be. It may seem to you that they ought to have been meant to be different…but it’s just for that you’re a Jew in the world. A Jew must have confidence and faith. He must believe first, that there is a God, and second, that if there is and it’s all the same to Him, and it isn’t putting Him in too much trouble, He can make things a little better for the likes of you…’
Tevye is a tragic/comic figure. His life is filled with one borderline disaster after another, interspersed with moments of genuine blessing. For instance, when the book opens he is a struggling laborer who can barely make ends meet, ‘Not counting suppers, my wife and kids went hungry three times a day’. His life was no more tragic than the lives of millions of Jews from this time and place, but he takes it all with a sense of bittersweet humor. Through it all, the only constant is God. But God, as that paragraph quoted above indicates, is not all that reliable. What was God to a man like Tevye? God was ‘a long-suffering God, a good God, a great God’ – of this there was no question. But this same good and long-suffering God has no explanation is to why some people have everything and others have nothing.
This was the real battle of the believing Jew – to accept that God ran the world in a good and just manner despite all the evidence to the contrary. By the late 19th century, the rabbinic monopoly on the Jewish written word was over. People like Sholem Aleichem were able to voice their complaints and to express the inner feelings of millions of others before them and who lived alongside them. God was no longer able to slip through the intellectual cracks and come out unscathed. God was subject to the scrutiny of the non-rabbinic mind that had little patience for inconsistencies.
But many of these same Jews carried with them, along with their problems, a strong and almost indestructible sense of Jewish tradition. Quoting the Bible and rabbinic proverbs while walking with God through all the ups and downs of life, was no different than walking with their horse. God was good; but God was not all good. The problems could no longer be glossed over with a sweep of the rabbinic or mystical brush. Why did God have to leave things in such a mess? Why couldn’t things be better, or at least equally bad for all?
Tevye was not ready to go the route that many of his co-religionists had already traveled – to abandon God altogether. That was too much of a break with his past. Even when his daughters, one after the other, contest his right as a father to determine their futures; even after one leaves him forever, another leaves her faith forever, and a third kills herself, he is not prepared to take that leap into the unknown. He knows that as unjust a job as God may be doing, he could not do it any better. ‘A moment, though, later I said to myself, ach, what a fool you are Tevye. Do you really think He needs your advice on how to run the world? If this is how things are it’s how they were meant to be; the proof of that is that if they were meant to be different, they would be. I may seem to you that they ought to have been meant to be different…but it’s just for that you’re a Jew in the world.’
This last thought – but it’s just for that you’re a Jew in the world – is Tevye’s whole philosophy of life. That’s what Jews did - they kept on believing even when there was no longer anything solid to believe in. As long as one didn’t ask for too much, believing in God is still better than not believing in God. What is the proof that God is running the world and not doing such a bad job of it? The proof is that if things were meant to be different they would be. That may not be the most intellectually compelling of arguments, but it hit home with the average Jew a lot better than the complexities of the Sefirot or apologetic profundities of Ramchal.
This was really all there was for the average Jew who wanted to hold on to belief and not throw his lot in with the communists or the scientists or the hedonists. Is this really all that foolish of a belief? Is it better to not believe at all? What exactly does that accomplish other than justifying the senselessness of life with the conviction that it needn’t make any sense because there is no God? It is still just as unjust. Do we think we could do a better job than God? By the turn of the 19th century Jews had already seen their share of man-made substitutes for God. In the 20th century they would see more. While they made improvements, they made no major inroads towards answering the big questions.
Tevye is all of us who cannot extricate themselves from a belief that there must be something, some ultimate meaning, but who cannot fully reconcile that belief with what they experience in life. His may not be the most perfect image of God, but it probably is the most common. It is God with all the warts. It is a God who listens when He wants to and doesn’t listen when He cannot be bothered. Is this image really an image of God or is it an image of human desperation and frustration? Who can live with such a God? Who can live without it?
Perceiving the Image
When Tevye consoles his weeping daughter after agreeing to not force her to marry a man she has no desire for he inadvertently disturbs her with his complaints. He tells her that his complaints are not directed to her but to God:
‘I was talking to God, not to you. I was feeling so low I have to have it out with someone, and considering all He’s done for me it might as well be Him. He’s supposed to be our merciful Father; well He’s had so much mercy on me that I hope I’ve seen the last of it – and He better not charge me extra for saying that. A lot of good though, it does to complain to God about God! I suppose, though, that’s how it was meant to be. He’s up in His heaven, and I’m down below with one foot already in the grave – which still leaves me with the other to stand on while I tell the world about His justice…’
There may not be all that much divine justice in the world, but what good does it do to complain? God is just God and nothing more. God may not measure up to the perfect image that we created, but He’s still up there in heaven while we are down here on earth. That is how it was meant to be. We won’t be able to figure it out precisely because God is in heaven and we’re not. We live our lives with one foot in the grave but we go on hoping that things will somehow work out. What gives us that hope? Why do we keep on believing in something that has proven unreliable so many times? The answer, perhaps, is that we just need someone to talk to, someone to have faith in. Is there really anything more to ask for?
As Jews headed into the 20th century they must have had the same questions as Tevye. Were there any answers? Was there a future image for God that could survive the onslaught of the modern world? What really is God?
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