Grace (in an e-mail to Tziporah and Yasmina):
Christians can sometimes get very angry with one another when they express their opposing social and political viewpoints as "God's will." Yasmina, I know the phrase "God willing" is powerfully important in Islam, an ever present reminder of submission. I’m wondering if each of you would be interested in talking about how you and your faith tradition approach the question of "God's will," or is that even a concept that you deal with in those terms?
The idea that God is the Ruler of the Universe and controls our fate is a centerpiece of Judaism. Philosophers throughout the ages have addressed the tension between human beings’ free will—our ability to make choices and the consequences of our actions—and God’s ultimate control of each person’s destiny. Jewish grandmothers, meanwhile, have instructed entire generations of Jews to ward off the evil eye and recognize God’s protection of our good fortune. Yiddish, Hebrew and English all include idioms that express this central idea. My Ashkenazi (Eastern European) forbears would always say “God willing” when speaking of an event that would take place in the future, and in their Polish accents it would sound like “Got vill ink.” Many Jews include the acronym for the Hebrew phrase “b’ezrat ha-shem” (with God’s help) on wedding invitations, indicating that we do not take for granted that our plans will come to fruition without divine intervention. Finally, the Hebrew phrase “im yirtzeh ha-shem” (if God wills it) is recited by religious Jews whenever they speak of their hopes, goals or plans. This is both an expression of faith in God’s providence and of humble acceptance of God’s judgment.
I love how your take on this subject is both humorous and serious, Tziporah! And I believe that the habitual use of the phrase “God willing” makes a powerful theological statement. Where the catch comes for me is having clarity on what God’s will is. Did not the Crusades, the Holocaust, slavery, and the 9/11 attack all come about because of individuals' claims to be following God’s will? I suspect that if we were to examine ourselves carefully, we would find that we are far more bent on justifying our own beliefs with the stamp of “God’s will” or approval than we are willing to engage in a deep and painful search that will probably lead to our own reshaping. I suspect that seeking, not just claiming, God’s will is likely to disturb and unsettle us rather than allow us to rest comfortably in the beliefs we already hold.
In light of this week’s murder of Sikh priests in their Temple, I’d like to add a serious response to your question about discerning “God’s will.” In Jewish tradition, only the Prophets are privy to God’s will and the period of prophecy was determined to be finished with the canonization of the Hebrew bible. Nevertheless, people claiming to know God’s will—false prophets—seem to arise in every generation. My favorite definition of false prophets is “those who twist God's word to fit their own fancies…who aim at nothing but their hearers' applause.”(Micah 3:5-7) In my humble opinion, those who believe in God the Creator who is eternally righteous and loves all creatures cannot simultaneously believe that God’s will is for them to destroy God’s creation or murder God’s creatures. When we pray for God’s protection and benevolence, we use the phrase “May it be God’s will,” because we know that we cannot really change God’s will to suit our own desires. We also pray for the righteous to flourish and the wicked to perish by God’s will and not (God forbid!) by our words or deeds.
Yasmina is on vacation this week.