True Love is the Love of Truth: The Book of Job

The Book of Job is a long and difficult story, which is often read as an affirmation of faith in the face of suffering which we do not understand. What follows is a new reading informed by the literary approach to Bible as well as some of the foundational principles of psychoanalysis. We start by looking at the Bible as literature, and ask a simple question - what happens to us when we read a book?

When we pick up a book, we see it as a “story at arm's length” which allows us to identify deeply in a way which is safe but educational. When we relate to the main character of a story we can safely say ‘their story is my story.’ Perhaps this is why Job is presented as an ‘everyman.’ All we are told is his name and where he lived. We do not know if he is an Israelite or not, or how he came to be in this story. There is even an opinion among our Sages that he never actually existed.

משה כתב ספרו ופרשת בלעם ואיוב מסייעא ליה לר' לוי בר לחמא דא"ר לוי בר לחמא איוב בימי משה היה כתיב הכא (איוב יט, כג) מי יתן אפוא ויכתבון מלי וכתיב התם (שמות לג, טז) ובמה יודע אפוא...יתיב ההוא מרבנן קמיה דר' שמואל בר נחמני ויתיב וקאמר איוב לא היה ולא נברא אלא משל היה

The baraita further states that Moses wrote his own book, i.e., the Torah, the portion of Balaam, and the book of Job. This supports Rabbi Levi bar Laḥma, as Rabbi Levi bar Laḥma says: Job lived in the time of Moses. It is written here with regard to Job: “Oh, that my words were written now [eifo]” (Job 19:23), and it is written there in Moses’ words to God: “For in what shall it be known here [eifo]” (Exodus 33:16)...one of the Sages sat before Rabbi Shmuel bar Naḥmani and he sat and said: Job never existed and was never created; there was never such a person as Job. Rather, his story was a parable.

This allows us to say “Job's story is our story,” which in turn allows us to gain insight into ourselves through a psychoanalytic approach to the book.

A founding concept within psychoanalysis is the covenant with the mother, an all-embracing, loving existence of togetherness. Birth is the beginning of a catastrophic break in the covenant which finds its literary parallel in the Bible in the expulsion from Eden and the struggle to rebuild a life of Divine intimacy. Life is filled with longing for the idealized enveloping embrace of the mythic mother, just as the Bible is filled with the longing for Eden.

The story of Job is a story of a man who achieves mythic covenant with God, who is able to have real faith, true love for God, despite the suffering which appears to stand in his way. This is a story which teaches us that true love can only flow from love of the truth, that if we refuse to see existential truth, our love for other will always fail.

The book opens with a description of Job's greatness and moves quickly to a literary frame which describes a gathering of the Divine court, among whom appears the Adversary, HaSatan. When God calls attention to Iyov (Job), praising his righteousness, the Adversary replies by saying "Of course Job is God fearing - You have done everything for him. Take it all away, and he will curse you."

(ו) וַיְהִ֣י הַיּ֔וֹם וַיָּבֹ֙אוּ֙ בְּנֵ֣י הָאֱלֹהִ֔ים לְהִתְיַצֵּ֖ב עַל־יְהוָ֑ה וַיָּב֥וֹא גַֽם־הַשָּׂטָ֖ן בְּתוֹכָֽם׃ (ז) וַיֹּ֧אמֶר יְהוָ֛ה אֶל־הַשָּׂטָ֖ן מֵאַ֣יִן תָּבֹ֑א וַיַּ֨עַן הַשָּׂטָ֤ן אֶת־יְהוָה֙ וַיֹּאמַ֔ר מִשּׁ֣וּט בָּאָ֔רֶץ וּמֵֽהִתְהַלֵּ֖ךְ בָּֽהּ׃ (ח) וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהוָה֙ אֶל־הַשָּׂטָ֔ן הֲשַׂ֥מְתָּ לִבְּךָ֖ עַל־עַבְדִּ֣י אִיּ֑וֹב כִּ֣י אֵ֤ין כָּמֹ֙הוּ֙ בָּאָ֔רֶץ אִ֣ישׁ תָּ֧ם וְיָשָׁ֛ר יְרֵ֥א אֱלֹהִ֖ים וְסָ֥ר מֵרָֽע׃ (ט) וַיַּ֧עַן הַשָּׂטָ֛ן אֶת־יְהוָ֖ה וַיֹּאמַ֑ר הַֽחִנָּ֔ם יָרֵ֥א אִיּ֖וֹב אֱלֹהִֽים׃ (י) הֲלֹֽא־את [אַ֠תָּה] שַׂ֣כְתָּ בַעֲד֧וֹ וּבְעַד־בֵּית֛וֹ וּבְעַ֥ד כָּל־אֲשֶׁר־ל֖וֹ מִסָּבִ֑יב מַעֲשֵׂ֤ה יָדָיו֙ בֵּרַ֔כְתָּ וּמִקְנֵ֖הוּ פָּרַ֥ץ בָּאָֽרֶץ׃ (יא) וְאוּלָם֙ שְֽׁלַֽח־נָ֣א יָֽדְךָ֔ וְגַ֖ע בְּכָל־אֲשֶׁר־ל֑וֹ אִם־לֹ֥א עַל־פָּנֶ֖יךָ יְבָרֲכֶֽךָּ׃ (יב) וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יְהוָ֜ה אֶל־הַשָּׂטָ֗ן הִנֵּ֤ה כָל־אֲשֶׁר־לוֹ֙ בְּיָדֶ֔ךָ רַ֣ק אֵלָ֔יו אַל־תִּשְׁלַ֖ח יָדֶ֑ךָ וַיֵּצֵא֙ הַשָּׂטָ֔ן מֵעִ֖ם פְּנֵ֥י יְהוָֽה׃

(6) One day the divine beings presented themselves before the LORD, and the Adversary came along with them. (7) The LORD said to the Adversary, “Where have you been?” The Adversary answered the LORD, “I have been roaming all over the earth.” (8) The LORD said to the Adversary, “Have you noticed My servant Job? There is no one like him on earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and shuns evil!” (9) The Adversary answered the LORD, “Does Job not have good reason to fear God? (10) Why, it is You who have fenced him round, him and his household and all that he has. You have blessed his efforts so that his possessions spread out in the land. (11) But lay Your hand upon all that he has and he will surely blaspheme You to Your face.” (12) The LORD replied to the Adversary, “See, all that he has is in your power; only do not lay a hand on him.” The Adversary departed from the presence of the LORD.

From the literary and psychoanalytic standpoint, we can also look at God as the protagonist of this story. In this exchange, the Adversary has just touched the most vulnerable of spots - how can God know that Job really loves him for himself, and not for what God gives him? Which is, of course, one of the most painful questions of the human existence.

We can look at God and the Satan in this exchange as representative of two parts of our inner life. God is the side which seeks love and believes in its reality. The Satan is the shadow which emerges from the dependency on the other which is bound up with relationships of love – the doubt, anxiety and fear which so often cause their rupture. This is the paradox of dependence which underlies love - our love makes us dependent to some degree on other, but they will always remain to some degree other than us.

One can hide from this reality through various psychological devices, refusing to accept the truth of our conditionality, or one can accept the partiality and dependent nature of our existence. It is this acceptance of existential truth, which is itself a love of true reality, that allows for true love.

When the Adversary says to God: You see this other whom You love? He doesn’t love YOU, he loves what you give him," he is thrusting the paradox of dependence straight in God’s face. This in turn is what arouses God’s desire to take everything from Job – to see if his love is real.

In response to this inner dilemma, God sets out to prove the truth of Job's love by taking away everything external which be the source of his love. Read Job 1:12-2:8 to familiarize yourself with the text. Job is stripped first of his children and external possessions, and then of his health. The situation is so bad that his wife calls on him to give up:

(ט) וַתֹּ֤אמֶר לוֹ֙ אִשְׁתּ֔וֹ עֹדְךָ֖ מַחֲזִ֣יק בְּתֻמָּתֶ֑ךָ בָּרֵ֥ךְ אֱלֹהִ֖ים וָמֻֽת׃ (י) וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֵלֶ֗יהָ כְּדַבֵּ֞ר אַחַ֤ת הַנְּבָלוֹת֙ תְּדַבֵּ֔רִי גַּ֣ם אֶת־הַטּ֗וֹב נְקַבֵּל֙ מֵאֵ֣ת הָאֱלֹהִ֔ים וְאֶת־הָרָ֖ע לֹ֣א נְקַבֵּ֑ל בְּכָל־זֹ֛את לֹא־חָטָ֥א אִיּ֖וֹב בִּשְׂפָתָֽיו׃ (פ)
(9) His wife said to him, “You still keep your integrity! Blaspheme God and die!” (10) But he said to her, “You talk as any shameless woman might talk! Should we accept only good from God and not accept evil?” For all that, Job said nothing sinful.

In a loving relationships the other whom we love offers a mirror image of ourselves. This image can become a threat because it shows us the things about ourselves which we do not want to see. Think of being threatened, and even angered, by seeing wrinkles on the face of your spouse because you are afraid aging. Of course, humanity was created in the image of God. From this perspective, God sees the fragility and dependence in Job mirroring God's own need for love, and attacks it.

Another challenge of love is our ability to accept the other as they actually are. This is an acceptance that we will never really know them, and that they will remain to some degree a mystery. You can read Chapter 38 to see God's insistence that the Divine lies beyond human knowledge. This itself is somehow a response to the Adversary saying to God: You don’t really know Job.

A last challenge is the ethical issue of desire. We desire the other for ourselves, but ethical behavior requires that our desire consider the needs and fragility of other. There is no true love without considering the independent existence of the other, and so God strips Job down to his essence, taking anything which might give him love in order to test if he truly loves God. Sadly, the very act of testing is a “fall for God.” If we say that we trust another person, that we believe in their love, the minute that we test this love we lose the hope of really believing in it - we are avoiding the existential truth that we can never really know what lies in the heart of another.

As the story progresses, three friends gather around Job, attempting to help him find meaning in his suffering through well-worn phrases, "Think now, what innocent man ever perished? Where have the upright been destroyed?" (Job 4:4) Job will not be comforted by simplistic theology. He only asked that God see him, that God recognize that his suffering is undeserved - that it is a Divine fall driven by the need for certainty in love.

(א) נָֽקְטָ֥ה נַפְשִׁ֗י בְּחַ֫יָּ֥י אֶֽעֶזְבָ֣ה עָלַ֣י שִׂיחִ֑י אֲ֝דַבְּרָה֗ בְּמַ֣ר נַפְשִֽׁי׃ (ב) אֹמַ֣ר אֶל־אֱ֭לוֹהַּ אַל־תַּרְשִׁיעֵ֑נִי הֽ֝וֹדִיעֵ֗נִי עַ֣ל מַה־תְּרִיבֵֽנִי׃ (ג) הֲט֤וֹב לְךָ֨ ׀ כִּֽי־תַעֲשֹׁ֗ק כִּֽי־תִ֭מְאַס יְגִ֣יעַ כַּפֶּ֑יךָ וְעַל־עֲצַ֖ת רְשָׁעִ֣ים הוֹפָֽעְתָּ׃ (ד) הַעֵינֵ֣י בָשָׂ֣ר לָ֑ךְ אִם־כִּרְא֖וֹת אֱנ֣וֹשׁ תִּרְאֶֽה׃ (ה) הֲכִימֵ֣י אֱנ֣וֹשׁ יָמֶ֑יךָ אִם־שְׁ֝נוֹתֶ֗יךָ כִּ֣ימֵי גָֽבֶר׃ (ו) כִּֽי־תְבַקֵּ֥שׁ לַעֲוֺנִ֑י וּ֭לְחַטָּאתִ֥י תִדְרֽוֹשׁ׃ (ז) עַֽל־דַּ֭עְתְּךָ כִּי־לֹ֣א אֶרְשָׁ֑ע וְאֵ֖ין מִיָּדְךָ֣ מַצִּֽיל׃
(1) I am disgusted with life; I will give rein to my complaint, Speak in the bitterness of my soul. (2) I say to God, “Do not condemn me; Let me know what You charge me with. (3) Does it benefit You to defraud, To despise the toil of Your hands, While smiling on the counsel of the wicked? (4) Do You have the eyes of flesh? Is Your vision that of mere men? (5) Are Your days the days of a mortal, Are Your years the years of a man, (6) That You seek my iniquity And search out my sin? (7) You know that I am not guilty, And that there is none to deliver from Your hand.

In the end, Job's great desire is to see God and he is answered in Chapters 28-41, but this revelation out of the storm wind is itself a second fall for God. Rather than addressing Job's need to be seen, God declares the Divine nature as unknowable. The book ends with Job's acceptance of his inability to know God, and in this he sees to switch places with God, succeeding to find love when God fails. Job's recognition of the existential truth leads him to true love.

The crux of Job's response to the revelation is found at the beginning of Chapter 42:

(א) וַיַּ֖עַן אִיּ֥וֹב אֶת־יְהוָ֗ה וַיֹּאמַֽר׃ (ב) ידעת [יָ֭דַעְתִּי] כִּי־כֹ֣ל תּוּכָ֑ל וְלֹא־יִבָּצֵ֖ר מִמְּךָ֣ מְזִמָּֽה׃ (ג) מִ֤י זֶ֨ה ׀ מַעְלִ֥ים עֵצָ֗ה בְּֽלִ֫י דָ֥עַת לָכֵ֣ן הִ֭גַּדְתִּי וְלֹ֣א אָבִ֑ין נִפְלָא֥וֹת מִ֝מֶּ֗נִּי וְלֹ֣א אֵדָֽע׃ (ד) שְֽׁמַֽע־נָ֭א וְאָנֹכִ֣י אֲדַבֵּ֑ר אֶ֝שְׁאָלְךָ֗ וְהוֹדִיעֵֽנִי׃ (ה) לְשֵֽׁמַע־אֹ֥זֶן שְׁמַעְתִּ֑יךָ וְ֝עַתָּ֗ה עֵינִ֥י רָאָֽתְךָ׃ (ו) עַל־כֵּ֭ן אֶמְאַ֣ס וְנִחַ֑מְתִּי עַל־עָפָ֥ר וָאֵֽפֶר׃ (פ)

(1) Job said in reply to the LORD: (2) I know that You can do everything, That nothing you propose is impossible for You. (3) Who is this who obscures counsel without knowledge? Indeed, I spoke without understanding Of things beyond me, which I did not know. (4) Hear now, and I will speak; I will ask, and You will inform me. (5) I had heard You with my ears, But now I see You with my eyes; (6) Therefore, I recant and relent, Being but dust and ashes.

One can read the last line here as:

עַל־כֵּ֭ן אֶמְאַ֣ס (Therefore I recant) - I don’t want to be in a place of anger and complaint any longer.

וְנִחַ֑מְתִּי (and relent) - Therefore, I accept you God as you are, I chose to love you unconditionally.

Through this acceptance of what is, Job is returning to that primordial state of oneness, saying that we are one, just like the child and mother before birth.

This type of love which flows from an unconditional acceptance of what is, of the truth of existence, finds a parallel expression in the way that the Talmud describes the death of the great Sage, Rabbi Akiva. Like Job, Rabbi Akiva suffered terribly - though his story ends in death rather than revelation. At least at first glance:

בשעה שהוציאו את רבי עקיבא להריגה זמן קריאת שמע היה והיו סורקים את בשרו במסרקות של ברזל והיה מקבל עליו עול מלכות שמים אמרו לו תלמידיו רבינו עד כאן אמר להם כל ימי הייתי מצטער על פסוק זה בכל נפשך אפילו נוטל את נשמתך אמרתי מתי יבא לידי ואקיימנו ועכשיו שבא לידי לא אקיימנו היה מאריך באחד עד שיצתה נשמתו באחד יצתה בת קול ואמרה אשריך רבי עקיבא שיצאה נשמתך באחד אמרו מלאכי השרת לפני הקדוש ברוך הוא זו תורה וזו שכרה ממתים ידך ה׳ ממתים וגו׳ אמר להם חלקם בחיים יצתה בת קול ואמרה אשריך רבי עקיבא שאתה מזומן לחיי העולם הבא:

The Gemara relates: When they took Rabbi Akiva out to be executed, it was time for the recitation of Shema. And they were raking his flesh with iron combs, and he was reciting Shema, thereby accepting upon himself the yoke of Heaven. His students said to him: Our teacher, even now, as you suffer, you recite Shema? He said to them: All my days I have been troubled by the verse: With all your soul, meaning: Even if God takes your soul. I said to myself: When will the opportunity be afforded me to fulfill this verse? Now that it has been afforded me, shall I not fulfill it? He prolonged his uttering of the word: One, until his soul left his body as he uttered his final word: One. A voice descended from heaven and said: Happy are you, Rabbi Akiva, that your soul left your body as you uttered: One. The ministering angels said before the Holy One, Blessed be He: This is Torah and this its reward? As it is stated: “From death, by Your hand, O Lord, from death of the world” (Psalms 17:14); Your hand, God, kills and does not save. God said the end of the verse to the ministering angels: “Whose portion is in this life.” And then a Divine Voice emerged and said: Happy are you, Rabbi Akiva, as you are destined for life in the World-to-Come, as your portion is already in eternal life.

As Rabbi Akiva approaches his moment of truth, he is focused on saying the Shema, on accepting upon himself the yoke of heaven. The fact that his students are bearing witness to his suffering is critical, because when they ask him: "Even now?! Can you really still cleave to God after all you have endured?!" his answer illuminates the meaning of the story. In essence, Rabbi Akiva tells them: You think that the Romans have won, that their torture of me is an expression of their power. In reality, my whole life I have loved God with all my heart and all my possessions, but I could not love God with all my life. The Romans, indeed all of history, are nothing more than the stage, the setting for me to actually able to love God with all my life. This is not a punishment or a victory over me, but rather a unique spiritual opportunity.

Rabbi Akiva dies with the word "One" on his lips, declaring the unity of God, the union between humans and God, and expressing the fundamental psychological desire to return to source. Both the story of Job and that of Rabbi Akiva teach us the existential freedom which we have as we face every reality, so long as we connect to it from within as an undeniable reality, and in their stories, as an expression of God. The power of these stories flows from the wonder which we experience when we read about these mighty heroes who, in the face of the boundaries of human experience, still find inner connection, and still find faith. This doesn’t save them from suffering; rather, it lifts them above the physical, beyond the immediate circumstance into the transcendental.

The traditional reading of Job is that in the end he accepted God’s judgement, an act which is expressive of the greatness of his faith.

I want to read the story with a different ending, one in which Job refuses to accept God’s acts but chooses to love Gd nonetheless. This is a far greater act of faith. It is an acceptance of the existential truth of one's life, which allows one to love God, the source of that existence, without conditions. Job teaches us that this may be the only way to love God - not because of what we receive, but as an act unto itself.