Recently, while driving my daughter to school, I saw a bumper sticker which read God > 1 and spent several minutes trying to figure out what it meant. Was the driver a pagan and this was a polemic against monotheism? Were they a mystic who understands God as somehow infused into every aspect of creation and therefore irreducible to a single entity? Maybe it was a snarky retort to Christians who identify water (H2O) with Jesus, an image based in the Gospel of John, but also an acronym: “Humble 2 One.” Nonplussed, I asked my daughter what the bumper sticker meant. Ellie quickly replied: “God is greater than I.” I not 1! I wish I could say it was the first time my 14-year-old made her Abba look like a dope.
What’s the purpose of faith for Jews committed to justice work? We often speak about Biblical sensitivity to the “orphan, widow and stranger,” the laws from Deuteronomy about how to construct a just society, or Talmudic Sages’ advocacy on behalf of the poor. But it’s pretty rare to gather for an action, congressional testimony or protest and hear words or see messages expressing faith. God may be on the minds of some in the crowd, but Jews simply aren’t including our deity on bumper stickers or protest signs. For example, a quick survey of T’ruah: the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights available signage on their website includes “My father was a Syrian Refugee,” “Resisting tyrants since Pharaoh” and “Don’t stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.” T’ruah is known for its clever signage, so I’m not critiquing the anachronistic translations of Torah verses. But in the Bible, “Don’t stand idly by the blood of your neighbor” (cited chapter and verse on the placard) concludes with two Hebrew words: “Ani Hashem, I am the Lord.” These words don’t make the sign.
There are a few reasons for this. Many modern Jews are discomfited by the God of Torah and liturgy who often appears masculine and with qualities (judgement or anger) that may make us uncomfortable. I take issue with these characterizations of God, but this perception is very real. Also, unlike Christianity, we’re not a proselytizing religion. Much of the God language we see on highway billboards, bumper stickers or pop-up ads is about trying to convince onlookers of certain theological truths. Jews don’t feel the need to convince others of our beliefs, and we don’t need others to believe what we believe in order to be saved or counted among the righteous. Finally, behavior more than faith has always been the measure of a worthy Jewish life. A famous passage from Avot D’Rabbi Natan (31) says, “If you have a sapling in your hand and people tell you the Messiah has come, plant the tree and then go and greet him.”
The danger here is we can confuse the preeminence of action over faith as an indication that action is important and faith is not. Our equation becomes God < Everything Else. But to claim this, we’d need to simply ignore the many times our tradition’s call to justice is accompanied by a reminder of God’s presence. Why include God in the commandment to act in the face of violence? The commentator Rashi says “I AM THE LORD — Who is faithful in paying reward to those who obey My commandments and Who is certain to punish those who transgress them. In other words, God is included because God cares enough to be included.
Today’s post-modern society (and current political moment) is one, too frequently, of moral relativism at best, nihilism at worst. Many seem to the feel that what is right is what feels right or what I can get away with. Torah says no, there is right and there is wrong. This doesn’t mean it’s always easy to know the difference. This also doesn’t mean the world is black and white; it’s plenty grey. But there is power (and efficacy) in saying don’t stand idly by… because I am God. Or (two verses later) love your neighbor as yourself… because I am God.
It means there’s something greater than political expediency or personal satisfaction; it means you do the right thing because it’s right, because right matters on a cosmic level, because justice pleases the divine. It means there is something greater than you or me alone, that humanity’s worth stretches beyond what we can see. That greatness has a name which we Jews call God. We say, Shema Yisrael: that God = 1. And also, that God > I.
A version of this post appears in the February 2020 issue of Jmore