“Because of Our Sins, This Has Befallen Us?”
I believe that if a triangle could speak, it would say, in like manner, that God is eminently triangular, while a circle would say that the divine nature is eminently circular. Thus each would ascribe to God its own attributes, would assume itself to be like God and look on everything else as ill-shaped. [Baruch Spinoza] (1)
As the Philippine typhoon left 10.000 people dead, thousands missing, whole cities destroyed, and millions of people without food and proper shelter, many good souls wonder what the higher meaning is behind all this. Particularly, religious people postulate that there is a divine purpose to all of this, and most of them believe that it must be human, moral and religious failure that caused this divine wrath to rain down on them and their fellow men.
Within religious communities, such reactions and attitudes are part of the outlook on life, and there is a strong tendency among religious people to blame themselves for such disasters. This is especially true about us Jews. We feel responsible for the shortcomings of mankind and so we endlessly repeat: mipnei chato’enu, because of our sins, this has befallen us. Many of us even believe that disasters visited upon the gentiles are of our making. While there is something very beautiful about this mindset, not letting us off the hook even when it is not we who are affected but the gentiles, there is also something very wrong with it. Not only does it play into the hand of anti-Semites, but it is also theologically unsound.
It can hardly be denied that the Torah and Jewish tradition are replete with examples of God warning the Jewish people of grave consequences if they do not follow the Divine Will.
Maimonides’ famous statement in his Mishne Torah (Hilchot Ta’anit 1:1-4) seems to bear this out. This great sage teaches us that after each catastrophe that has befallen the community, Jews should blow trumpets, fast, and repent. To believe that these tragedies are accidental and of no meaning is highly irresponsible, warns Maimonides. It is the epitome of callousness and denial of Divine Providence. It is close to atheism.
Still, this cannot be the whole story. Common sense and a keen understanding of Jewish religious philosophy and sources seem to tell us that there is more to this than meets the eye. In fact, the constant emphasis on the moral and religious responsibility of Jews, and mankind at large, for any disaster that befalls them may well be a serious deviation from Jewish religious teachings. While many might argue that any denial of divine retribution would constitute apikorsut (heresy), it could very well be that the opposite is heresy and even a form of idol worship.
Do good and evil events in this world really always depend on human behavior? Was there no other reason for God to create the universe than to test human beings and reward or punish accordingly? Is man really the measure of all things? Maimonides seems to doubt this in his Guide for the Perplexed (111:13-14) where he states that God made everything lema’anehu (Mishle 16:14), for His sake rather than for man’s sake. Are we compelled to believe that Stephen Hawking’s black holes and baby universes, the millions of stars and other celestial bodies were created only to test man’s moral and religious conduct? Would it not be more logical to conclude that God’s reasons for creating the universe are much greater and more significant than the problem of human behavior? Why create planets and invisible baby universes when what is of sole importance is human behavior on one tiny globe?
When Iyov (Job) demands an explanation from God as to why he has lost all his children, belongings and wealth and is suffering such terrible pain, God’s response is not that he has in any way misbehaved. Instead, He asks Iyov: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding” (38:4). God challenges Iyov’s very notion that suffering is always related to sin. Who says that My treatment of man is always to be judged by your criteria of righteousness? There are larger issues at work.
While Iyov’s friends argue that he must have sinned, God rejects this argument. He declares that such an attitude is a denial of His multidimensional being and His larger cosmic plan. Iyov’s suffering has nothing to do with sin. God protests this very idea and tells him it is a declaration of preposterous heresy and an expression of childishness to think that way. Even worse, it is a reflection of man’s arrogance. Is he really so important? Since when is man able to judge God and decide why He created the universe? Such haughtiness is nothing but an attempt by man to squeeze God into the parameters of what man believes God should be. It is based on preconceived ideas of what God is and is not. Man constantly tries to view God through his own prism. But that reveals more about man than it does about God. Such an attempt is nothing less than idol worship. It is as if one is trying to describe a three-dimensional image by way of a flat surface.
During a two-and-a-half-year debate, Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai (Eruvin 13b) discussed the question whether it is better for man to have been created, or not. They concluded that it would have been better for man not to have been created. This is a most remarkable observation. The truth about this bizarre debate is that it touches on one of the greatest mysteries known to man: What is the purpose of the universe and of man’s existence? Is that something he can even know? By deciding that it would have been better for man not to have been created, Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai made a powerful point. There is no way to know the ultimate purpose of man’s existence. We have no idea why God wanted man, or for that matter a universe. Perhaps to reward man for his good deeds. Maybe so that he may enjoy life and merit to observe the mitzvot. But these answers only beg more questions. Why does man need to be created so as to be rewarded, or to enjoy life and perform the mitzvot? Would it not have been better if man had not been created? First, he would have been unaware of what he was missing. Second, he would not have had to encounter the many and frequent severe trials accompanied by unbearable pain. Are the joys of life and reward really enough reason to warrant creation when it goes hand in hand with genocide, natural calamities, disease and death? From the point of view of righteousness there is nothing to support creation. It is unjust and indefensible. Yet, God has decided it must be. The reason, then, must be much greater than man can ever fathom.
Ultimately, God alone is responsible, not only for natural catastrophes but also for man’s evil deeds. After all, He created him and gave him the capability to do evil. The most Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai could conclude was: now that man is here, he had better watch his deeds. A rather dismal view.
Or, would it have been more honest to deny God’s existence? Does all the pain in this world not make a strong case for such a proposition? Is the constant attempt to justify God’s existence, by way of apologetics, not a farce, and futile? An attitude such as this, however, is guilty of erroneous reasoning. It assumes, as do the “pro-God” apologists, that God needs to fit the picture we have of Him, or would like to have of Him: a good God. That is, good by our standards. God may very well not be the type of “good God” we always speak about. His goodness may apply only to the fact that He is good in and of Himself. He possesses a goodness, a truth known only to Him and which has no bearing on man.
This idea is supported by a well-known passage in the Talmud (Brachot 33b) discussing the case of shiluach haken—the obligation to send away a mother bird before taking her young (Devarim 22:6-7). In an unusually harsh statement, the Sages forbid one to say that compassion is the reason for this law, and they declare that such a person “is to be silenced.” It is not mercy behind this law, says the Talmud, but the unknowable Divine Will. Ultimately, we do not know why things are the way they are. God cannot be scrutinized.
The problem of creating God in our image is not a new one. Moshe asks God to reveal His name to him before he conveys the message to the Jews that He will redeem them from Egyptian bondage. God refuses to do so, and His answer is astonishing: “I will be Whoever I will be.” I am not a “what,” or a “when.” I am not even a “who.” There is no term you can use to describe Me. Any attempt to give Me an image is a serious violation of My very being. Any conclusive explanation of My deeds is idol worship. I permit you to describe Me in human terms only as long as you know that any such description will ultimately break down. No word can ever contain Me.
When disasters befall mankind, they may very well have no correlation with man’s behavior. They may simply be part of God’s cosmic plan, perhaps alluding to other divine aspects that are totally beyond man and known only to God. As long as we do not know why God created the universe, including so many other worlds, we cannot say for sure whether every calamity is a result of man’s shortcomings. Some may be, and some may not be. We should never deny the ever-present possibility that various divine factors are at work. The joy of life, which is so much a part of Jewish tradition, focuses on the fact that from a divine perspective, things could actually be much worse. Despite God’s impenetrable nature and thoughts, He shared some of His good qualities with man, informing him that his existence has great meaning, though he will never know what that consists of. It is this aspect that is celebrated by Jewish tradition and beckons man to understand that despite all the pain, it is for the most part possible to enjoy life, to attain simchat chayim!
The constant claim that man is responsible for every disaster is a burden he may not be able to bear. It is an attitude of hopelessness that may lead him to giving up and seeing God only as a vengeful God with Whom he cannot have a relationship. It would be better to reason, as does Søren Kierkegaard, that God sometimes applies His “teleological suspension of the ethical” (2) so as to achieve His goals within the universe and that God has His reasons beyond righteousness. It is not just because we have a psychological need to see God in terms of his total Otherness, but because it may be closer to the truth. Theodicy as a means of claiming that God can be justified in human terms is a form of idol worship.
Over the years, Jewish worship has adopted an attitude of mipnei chato’enu galinu me’artzenu (because of our sins we have been exiled from our land), which has developed into a form of pessimism that is not loyal to the teachings of our Jewish tradition. It pretends that man is superhuman; it is dangerous and religiously unhealthy. This approach has infiltrated and dominates too many of our daily prayers, which should be replaced with prayers about God Whose exalted greatness is inscrutable but worthy of our worship.
Whether or not Philippine typhoon is an expression of divine displeasure we do not know. Nor will it ever be known, unless we will again be blessed with prophets. What it should evoke in us is a feeling of deep humility. It should serve as a wake-up call, that all our boasting, our arrogance, our claiming that we know it all and that one day all of nature will be under our control is one of the most pathetic dreams man has ever entertained. One storm can bring all of the world’s population to its knees.
No doubt we should treat it as if it were a warning, a call for repentance, for humility, and even more a call to help wherever we can. The dangerous apathy of many of us in the wake of such terrible tragedy is perhaps the most devastating expression of human failure.
But we must be fully aware that it was perhaps part of God’s cosmic plan far beyond human behavior. And we are not to be blamed. This is an important message to send to our young people, lest they despair under the yoke of religious pessimism. Better a God Who is incomprehensible than a God Who unremittingly causes man to feel that all calamities are his fault. Believing the latter is un-Jewish.