How To Read The Book of Job
Job: Am I Allowed To Be Angry At God?
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
The following podcast is an introduction to the Book of Job. In the first podcast Rabbi Fohrman first discusses how to approach the book of Job before getting into the particulars of the story.
Rabbi Fohrman: Let me just begin with a bit of introduction. One of my favorite little nonfiction How To books is a book I hardly recommend called How to Read a Book. It's a book written by Mortimer Adler. He was a philosopher who died over the last decade or so. In this book, he essentially says that there are not many books in the world that are worth reading. But there are a few. He counts the Bible among the few. He says there are about 100 or so. He has a list at the back of the book of the books that he considers worth reading in the world.
He says that books that are worth reading are those books that challenge you. He defines them as books that are not the kind of thing that you can get on the first read around. Maybe you can't even get it on the second read around. A book that is by definition above you, that you have to strain yourself to grapple with. Essentially, he devotes his book, How to Read a Book, as a manual of how to attack that kind of book.
A number of things that he says are very useful, and very useful in attacking the Book of Job. I'll mention a couple of them briefly, and we'll use some of those tools today. One of the things that he'll do, he says that it's very important when you get to a chapter which is very difficult to understand, to try to -- he says first, before you argue with anything the author has to say, make sure you understand what the author has to say. In order to understand what the author has to say, if you don't understand it immediately, one of the helpful things to do is to try and outline it, to try to see the components of his or her argument and how those components hold together, which is something useful to do in the Book of Job.
Job is a very obscure book. Much of it is poetry. It's difficult to understand, but if you use that -- if you get to a very difficult chapter and you're challenged by it, and you take the time to try to outline it, you can really begin to get a handle of what's going on.
Another tool that he uses which he suggests, which I think is very important to apply to the Book of Job, is basically he says that before you begin to read a book, you have to have an understanding of what kind of book it is. If you don't understand the genre of the book that you're reading, you're going to be in trouble. You're going to misinterpret it very quickly.
So for example, if you're reading a chemistry book and you think you're reading a poetry book, you're going to misunderstand things very quickly. If you're reading a poetry book and you think you're reading a chemistry book, it's not going to go well. You're going to ask the wrong questions about the book.
So for example, if you're reading Carl Sandburg's poem, "The fog comes / on little cat feet," someone at the back of the room raises their hand and says, Rabbi, I don't understand. Fog is not a cat, it doesn't creep, this whole poem doesn't make any sense. They haven't understood the genre that they're reading. They're reading a poem, they're not reading a description of cats in a taxonomy book or something.
So it's very important to understand what kind of book you're reading. This, in general, is important when you read the Torah as a whole, and it's certainly important when you read the Book of Job. It's important for the Torah as a whole because first of all, it's a challenging question to answer, what kind of book is the Torah? What if you had to answer that question? What genre of book is the Torah? What kind of book is it? I mean, it is a book. What kind of book is the Torah?
It's not an easy question to answer. Is it a law book? Well, you know, there are certainly a lot of laws in the book, but there's too much philosophy in the book for it to be a law book. Is it a philosophy book? There's some philosophy in there, but there's too many laws for it to be a philosophy book. Is it a history book? There is a lot of history in there, but there sure is a lot of philosophy and law, too much philosophy and law to be a history book. So what kind of book is it? It's poetry? What kind of book is it?
It's important for all sorts of questions. For example, I will confess to you why Torah and science issues do not bother me very much. Here's my personal confession as to why I'm not terribly bothered by Torah and science issues, issues like, can we believe in a world that is older than 5,000 years, if you take the Bible seriously? Or how come the Bible doesn't talk about dinosaurs? These kinds of issues. The Earth revolving around the sun, and all of the scientific stuff.
Basically, I think to me the answer -- maybe I'm missing something, but to me the answer boils down to Mortimer Adler's question, which is what kind of book is the Torah? Is it a science book? Is it a history book? It doesn't really seem to be a science book. It does mention some science. In other words, it treads on some ground that science treads upon, notably an account of Creation, but that does not make it a science book necessarily.
If you had to ask what kind of book the Torah is, I think probably for my money the answer I would give you is, it's a book that was given to a certain people, and by extension the world, but really to a certain people, to try to help them manage their relationship with God. To try and help them, as a guidebook, in developing a relationship with God both at the personal level, for individuals within that nation, and on the national level, for that nation as a whole to develop a relationship with God.
What does it take for a nation or for an individual to manage a relationship with God in this world? There are certain things you've got to know. You have to know a little bit of philosophy. You have to know a little bit of history, of the shared history of how this people came to be and some stuff about Creation and things like that. You have to know some philosophy. There are certain laws you need to know that you need to keep. If you package it all together, this is how you develop a relationship with God over time, by following these dictates, by putting it all together.
As such, that overarching imperative for the book will determine the perspective, the glasses through which that book views all of its subjects. The law is going to be skewed towards developing a relationship with God. The history is going to be skewed towards developing a relationship with God, which explains -- did you ever wonder, you learned in school ein mukdam u'me'uchar baTorah, right? There's no chronological order in the Torah. The Torah can bounce around, put things that came first last, and put things that came last first.
Now, how do you understand that? You mean there's no chronological order in the Torah? It starts with Genesis. It starts at the beginning, it ends at the end. No chronological order in the Torah? It doesn't mean there's no chronological order in the Torah, it just means that you can't count on it, that any given thing is written in chronological order, even though generally speaking it more or less follows chronological order.
So why can't you count on it? The answer is because if I'm writing a history book and the only thing I'm trying to give you is barebones facts, then obviously I have to go in chronological order, otherwise I'm not doing my job and giving you the facts. But if I'm not writing a history book, if I'm telling you what you need to know in order to maintain a relationship with God, and that's the perspective I'm relating history to you, then sometimes the stories I tell you, I can justify switching around stories in their chronology to be able to teach you things.
If I can put two stories together and make a statement by doing that, sometimes that statement has an overarching imperative which is more important than chronology. So the perspective of what the book is there for, will influence how you understand the book. It influences science and Torah issues, too. Maybe there wasn't anything about the dinosaurs which affected how it was that I'm going to relate to God that the Torah needed to talk about it.
It doesn't mean that you're contradicting a view of science, it simply means you're telling a story from a different perspective. Imagine you came home one day and somebody had robbed your house. You came in and you saw the glass was shattered all over the place. You walked in and there was a robbery. Imagine you're talking in excited tones, or your wife is talking in excited tones to her friends on the cell phone and talking about how scared she was, and she caught a glimpse of this guy, of the assailant. Then the police come, police interviewer and she gives an account of the assailant for the police. Then they find the guy and they put him on trial.
Now, imagine that the fellow has a lawyer, the defendant has a lawyer. The defendant's lawyer calls your wife to the witness stand and says, we have contradictory testimony because on the one hand, your wife said -- we have a transcript of her phone call to her friend that night. In that transcript she described the assailant as big and imposing and scary, and yet when she described him to the police, she described him as a person of average height, of 5'9", average build. Obviously, she's contradicting herself.
What's the answer? If you were a lawyer representing you or representing her, what would the lawyer's response be? How would he respond to this? Is it a contradiction? No. It's two different stories told for two different reasons, told for two different audiences, for two different purposes. From the emotional perspective, you're overwhelmed. The guy seems overwhelming. (Inaudible 00:09:33) perspective of the fact he was 5'10" and of medium build. But both of them are true.
So let's talk about this with the Book of Job. So what kind of book is Job? If you want to study Job -- all I can really do is give you a taste of this and encourage you to go home and work on it, spend some Shabbat afternoons working on this. If you're going to spend some Shabbat afternoons working on the Book of Job, how would you do it?
So let's talk about this. What kind of book is Job? So I want to suggest something radical. Maybe it's not so radical. It seems a little radical. Here's the deal. Why is Job such a tantalizing book? Why does everyone want to learn Job at some point? Why is that so? It's because Job deals with a great question that occupies the mind of most people at certain points in their lives. At certain points of our lives we have various questions that occupy our minds, but once you get enough life experience, once you become an adult, once you've seen enough things happen in life, at a certain point you're bothered by the question that seems to occupy pride of place in the Book of Job, which is the bad things and good people question.
How do we understand why is it, in the words of Rabbi Kushner, why is it that bad things happen to good people? Tzaddik v'ra lo, rasha v'tov lo. You're always bothered by this. This seems to be the number one question. At a certain point in life, this is sort of the number one question that preoccupies us. As tragedy strikes us, those we know, God forbid, as we see tragedy in places like Haiti, we see tragedy on the personal level with children that are stricken in our own lives. At a certain point, this really becomes the overriding question.
When you go back to Gemara or you go back to the Torah or you go back to anything. You don't really see a lot of the text really dealing with this. But then, all of a sudden, you come to the Book of Job. You read the beginning of the book and it's like, wow. Here's a book and it's just devoted to this question of tzaddik v'ra lo. This is it. Here's this guy, his name is Job, and he's blameless, "Ish tam v'yashar yarei Elokim v'sar mei'ra." The Book of Job tells you from the get-go, he's a good guy. He's tam, he's wholesome. Yashar, he's straightforward. Yarei Elokim, he fears God. Sar mei'ra, he keeps away from doing bad things. He's a good guy, and all of a sudden these really bad things happen to him.
Then you get a peek into what's happening upstairs with God and the angels. There's all this argument in the book about, how do we come to grips with it? At the end of the book, finally God appears to Job and reveals Himself. So it's very exciting, because here you're finally going to get -- if you're a religious person and you believe in the divinity of the Bible, and you believe that this is ru'ach hakodesh and you believe this is the real deal, so you're going to finally get an authoritative answer, an authoritative religious answer to this question.
The reason why Job is such a frustrating book, or seems to be such a frustrating book, is because once you finally go through its 38 chapters or so and you get to the end and you read through God's speech, you say like, one second. Where was it? Did I miss the answer? What happened? You reread it and you go through it again. It's like, but where was the answer? It's like, you're waiting for Job who was like, you know, he was a strong guy, he was very boisterous. He wouldn't take no for an answer, and he doesn't seem to protest at the end. He seems to be okay with the answer that God gave him. You're trying to figure out, like, but what was the answer? It was very frustrating.
So what kind of book is the Book of Job? What I'd like to argue to you, essentially, is that the Book of Job is not the kind of book it appears to be. When we instinctively approach this book, we approach it as a philosophical book because the question of tzaddik v'ra lo is a philosophical question. It's the great question. It's the question, what do they call it in philosophy? It's the question of theodicy. It's the great theodicy question, it even has a fancy Latin name. There are lots of books that are devoted to this, and it has occupied the great minds of intellectuals throughout history. We define this question as a philosophical question.
But I'd like to argue to you that although the Book of Job has a lot of philosophy in it, it's not a philosophical book. Were it a philosophical book, I think it would fail because at the end, it doesn't give the answer. If you're a philosophy book and you don't give the answer, you fail. But maybe the Book of Job is a different kind of book.
What I'd like to argue is that it's a spiritual book, it's not a philosophical book. At some level, the question of theodicy is not really just a philosophical question, it's also a spiritual question. What do I mean when I say it's a spiritual question? How does that change the complexion of the question of theodicy? It changes the complexion this way. You see, because even think about it. Imagine that Job would get an answer to why he was suffering. What good would that do you? I mean, let's say you're suffering. God doesn't come out of a whirlwind to talk to you. So what are you going to get from God coming out of a whirlwind explaining to Job why he happened to suffer?
It wouldn't work. But maybe there's another point. Maybe the point of the book is that you don't necessarily get an answer in this world as to why it is that you're suffering from God. Maybe what Job is, is a travelogue. It's this question. If the Torah as a whole is about what does it mean to develop a relationship with God, what the Book of Job as part of the Torah is about, perhaps, is what does it mean to try to maintain a relationship with God when you're struggling with the question of why these terrible things are happening to good people, some of whom you know, some of whom may even be you, and you don't have an answer to that.
Is it possible to maintain a relationship with God? What does it look like to have a relationship with God under those circumstances? What does it look like to have a relationship with God under circumstances in which you are suffering and you have no answer? Is a relationship possible on those terms? Or is a relationship impossible?
This book is a spiritual book. It's a spiritual travelogue. It is the journey of one man, through the stages of what does it mean for a human being to try to maintain themselves in a relationship with God? What does that look like? How do you do that? What does it look like to deal with your friends when you're in that kind of situation? What are the pitfalls that await you? What are the triumphs that are possible? How do you do that? What does it look like? Are you alone in this journey? What does the journey look like? Because it's a very scary journey, and no matter how many people around you are suffering at some level, you feel alone because you don't have access to their inner worlds. All you see is the two cars in the driveway and whatever's going on. Very few people let you in to that inner world that you yourself are struggling with.
Here is a book that lays open that inner world and says, this is what it looks like. It allows us to chart ourselves and to try to model ourselves into thinking, what could our relationship with God look like in these kind of circumstances?