If there weren’t any consequences for being bad, why would any of us be good? It’s a question that I always ask my students. As Jews, we tend to be kept in line by our appreciation of our texts, traditions, and, dare I say, commandments. Most of us comfortably work within that framework. God said X, we do X, not necessarily because we believe in God, but because it’s what we’re supposed to do. Ron Wolfson, author of God’s To-Do List, wastes no time before laying out his perspective: He’s not really into mitzvot or the holiness code. Instead, he tells us to “follow the acts of God…Be like God… Behave like God…Do God’s To-Do List.” Immediately removing the idea of following God’s actual instructions and teachings was the first sign that something wasn’t quite right with this book, but I was willing to put that aside and go along for the ride.
I didn’t last long. For starters, the writing really isn’t that great. Take this sequence that opens a chapter and keep in mind that each sentence has its own line:
“God likes to call human beings.
Not phone calls. God calls.
God is calling all the time.
People call God all the time, too.
These calls are called prayer.”
After his pedantic introductions of key concepts, Wolfson becomes the intermediary who is going to explain to me how to be an angel and do God’s work by performing the acts on His to-do list. Ah yes, the to-do list. The more he talked about checking items off of it, the more I kept thinking of sticker charts, lollipops, and other incentives offered in schools to convince kids to buy into the system. A few of Wolfson’s to-dos include blessing your country, putting a welcome sign on the entrance to your house, listening for God’s call, sending an e-card, and adopting a dog. Which brings me to my first “ah-ha” moment: this book is not God’s to-do list, it is Wolfson’s.
Wolfson describes the nice things you can do for others as being God-like behaviors. Some of the ideas are good. I can see how calling your parents once a week or making it a point to visit the sick can open up the doors to new opportunities and behaviors. But the check-offs for “fighting for the underdog” and “forgiving your politicians for their mistakes”? Wolfson can’t be serious; those are naïve to the point of being irresponsible and dangerous. Does God, or Wolfson, want me to root for Hamas or forgive Diane Wilkerson? He certainly didn’t intend for me to go there, but that’s where I went with it. And to include the cutesy suggestion to “smile” as the 103rd and final to-do was perhaps the final nail in the coffin.
As I looked back over the to-dos, I realized they were so universalistic and world-loving that it was impossible to discern from them that this was a Jewish book. I’m not a hater of the integration of Jewish values with those of the world’s other religions and cultures. To be able to take our principles of tikun olam and use them to do good as we view the world through our Jewish lens is fabulous. Wolfson begins with that premise as he outlines the Jewish texts and ideas that underlie many of his ideas, but his treatment of Jewish values is so skin-deep that it’s eminently forgettable. Some repetition of terms like bikur cholim (visiting the sick), gemilut chasadim (acts of lovingkindness), and tikun olam (repairing the world) would have been completely appropriate in this book, yet they are barely mentioned, if at all, and then swiftly left on the side of the road as Wolfson launches into a personal narrative about people doing the right thing. For every big concept (some examples include “Bless,” “Comfort,” and “Repair”) Wolfson has a personal anecdote ready to roll and is eager to describe the God-like behaviors that are involved in his tale. Everything fits together so perfectly that I feel like I’m watching the Hallmark Channel.
Wolfson has clearly been on a wonderful journey and reached a happy and holy place that he wants to share with us. But he’s also firmly convinced that he’s right, which at times comes across smugly, as seen in his anecdote about absolutely knowing that his daughter’s ex-fiancé wasn’t going to be a good husband because he hadn’t asked Wolfson for his blessing in advance. The real problem here, though, is that God’s To-Do List isn’t any better than other inspirational books that want us to be good friends and neighbors to everyone. Not that that’s necessarily a problem — he could probably make a good buck by making a set of inspirational CDs and selling them to people like Scarlett Johannson’s character in Lost in Translation. In truth, there’s just enough tradition, Rabbinics, and Tanakh in here to establish the connection between the to-do list and Judaism, so if you want to feel good about doing nice things, and get Jewish credit for it, this book will help you. If you want to figure out how to live Jewishly and embrace our texts and traditions, though, don’t be fooled by this to-do list; you might want to start with one that has 613 items and work from there.
God’s To-Do List: 103 Ways to be an Angel and Do God’s Work on Earth
Jewish Lights Publishing
Click here to read a preview of the book from the publisher’s website.