God and the Fires
“Because of Our Sins, This Has Befallen Us?”
God is not a “What,” nor a “When”, and not even a “Who.”
In my last essay I suggested that from an authentic Jewish point of view, it is a mistake to hold mankind or the Jewish people responsible for natural disasters such as earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes or fires due to religious or moral failures. Though some disasters may indeed be due to man’s failure, it is in fact irresponsible and dangerous to make human beings responsible for every disaster, since it reflects the same mistake the friends of the biblical Iyov (Job) made when they assumed that he must have sinned. For them it was obvious that he was at fault, otherwise why would so many terrible afflictions have befallen him? Iyov, however, insisted that he has not sinned, and challenged God as to why he had been made to endure such terrible miseries, since he was innocent! God responded that He knew this to be true but confronted Iyov with a question which speaks to the core of the matter: Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? (38:4) In other words: Since when is the human being really the measure of all things? The universe with its black holes, baby universes and millions of stars clearly indicates that God’s reason to create the universe surpasses by far the argument that all this was just created for the sake of man. That man suffers and natural disasters take place may have to do with matters which go to the very foundation of all existence and have nothing to do with man’s religious or moral failures.
Do terrible tragedies which afflict the innocent beg the question of whether it is 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?
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 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 give up and to see 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” (1) so as to achieve His goals within the universe not just because we have a philosophical 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 dominated 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 a devastating fire, even if it was started by human beings, is an expression of divine displeasure we do not know. Nor will it ever be known, until 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 each disaster as if it was 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.
We must be fully aware that the fires, just like other calamities, were 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 catastrophes are his fault. Believing the latter is un-Jewish.
(1) Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006) pp. 46-58.
Questions to Ponder from the David Cardozo Think Tank.
(We suggest printing out and discussing at your Shabbat table, if you like)
1) If attempting to understand why bad things happen to good people through a theological lens is, in fact, idolatry, is there any lens through which tragedy can be examined? And if so, what might that lens be? Alternatively, would you be willing to embrace the notion that tragedy might have no meaning at all (or at least not in any terms we can understand)?
2) “Theodicy as a means of claiming that God can be justified in human terms is a form of idol worship.” Yet if God’s terms are in the realm of the unknowable, then how else are we to engage with the Divine, if not in human terms?
3) When God tells Abraham at the end of Genesis Chapter 18 that Sodom will be destroyed, Abraham famously argues, holding God to account. If God cannot be scrutinized, what are we to learn from this story? Are we not to follow in Abraham’s footsteps and to likewise hold God to account, even today?
4) The suggestion is made here that God might not only not be good by human standards, but even have ”reasons beyond righteousness”. What are your thoughts on this? Does it bring up any visceral feelings?
5) The following is a poem by Think Tank member Dina Pinner, who wrote the above Questions to Ponder.
In Gods image I am cast
In rage, jealousy, violence, destruction
Plagued, thirsty, deserted
And it is good
What creative piece might you put together in response to Rabbi Cardozo’s words about God and tragedy?