It has become common practice in the Jewish orthodox religious community to trace any national or personal disaster back to human moral or religious failure. It is divine wrath that befalls us. Any tragedy is seen as an expression of God’s anger with the behavior of mankind, especially of Jews.
As Israel was once more confronted with a devastating fire only two weeks ago – this time of much larger and more disastrous proportions than ever before – we hear many voices, as expected, asserting that once again the divine voice is warning us of even greater disasters unless we repent. This is even more understandable given that the fire claimed 41 lives and destroyed many houses and possessions. Within certain communities these reactions and attitudes are part of the religious outlook on life. It can hardly be denied that the Torah and Jewish tradition are replete with examples of God warning the Jewish people about grave consequences if they do not follow the Divine Will.
Maimonides’ famous statement in his Mishne Torah, (Hilchoth Ta’anith 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, as well as a keen understanding of Jewish religious philosophy and sources, seems to tell us that there is more at stake. In fact the constant emphasis that Jews, or mankind at large, are always morally and religiously responsible for any disaster that befalls them may well be a serious deviation from Jewish religious teachings. While many may argue that any denial of divine retribution would constitute apikorsuth (heresy), it may quite well be that this itself is heresy and even a form of idol-worship.
Do all good or evil occurrences in this world really always depend on human behavior? Was there no other reason for God to create the universe than to test human behavior and reward or punish accordingly? Is man really the measure of all things? Are we compelled to believe that Stephen Hawking’s black holes and baby universes, the millions of stars and other celestial bodies were only created to test man’s moral and religious conduct? Does this make any sense? 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. He asks him: Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the world? Declare if thou hast understanding! 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 the criteria of righteousness? What makes you believe that I am all-loving? There are larger matters at work.* Do you really believe that I created the universe only to challenge man, to reward or punish him?
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 notion 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? Is all of creation only for the sake of man? 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 bring God down to 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 about God. Such an attempt is nothing less than idol worship. It is similar to trying to describe a three dimensional image by way of a flat surface. Altogether ludicrous.
During a two-and-a-half-year debate, Beth Hillel and Beth Shamai (Eruvin 13b) discussed the question whether it is better for man to have been created, or not. They concluded 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 the greatest mysteries man encounters. What is the purpose of the universe and of man’s existence? Can he know? By deciding that it would have been better for man not to have been created, Beth Hillel and Beth Shamai made a powerful point. There is no way to know what the ultimate purpose of man’s existence is. We have no idea why God was in need of a universe and man. Perhaps so that man will be rewarded for his good deeds? So he may enjoy life and merit to observe the mitzvoth? But such claims only beg more questions. Why does man need to be created so as to be rewarded, or to enjoy life and perform the mitzvoth? Would it not have been better if man had not been created? First, he would not have been aware that he was missing anything. Second, he would not have 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 holocausts, diseases and natural calamities? From the point of view of righteousness there is nothing to support creation. It is unjust and indefensible. Why must man go through this trial? He does not need it. Yet God has decided it must be. Ultimately only God is responsible, not merely for natural catastrophes but also for man’s evil deeds. After all, He created him. Beth Hillel and Beth Shamai could only conclude that 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? Such an attitude, however, is itself guilty of erroneous reasoning. It assumes, as do all 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. But as long as we have no information concerning the reasons why God created anything we have no way of knowing whether pain and natural disasters are part of His purpose. God may very well not be the good God we always speak about. His goodness may apply only to the fact that he is good within Himself for having created the universe.
This is supported by a well-known passage in the Talmud (Berachoth 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, it forbids one to declare that mercy is the reason for this law. He needs to be silenced. It is not mercy, says the Talmud, but the unknowable Divine Will behind this law. 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 Who. I am not even a When. 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 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 only known 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. We should never deny the ever-present possibility that various divine factors may be 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 have been much worse. Despite the impenetrable nature and thoughts of God, He shared some of His good qualities with man, informing him that his existence has great meaning though he will never know what it consists of. It is this aspect that is celebrated by Jewish tradition and beckons man to understand that despite all the pain it is possible to enjoy life. Simchat hayim.
The constant claim that man is responsible for every disaster is a burden he may not be able to carry. It is a hopeless undertaking 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 Soren Kierkergaard, that God sometimes applies His “teleological suspension of the ethical” so as to achieve His goals within the universe; 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 about Him. 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 is superhuman and religiously unhealthy. It dominates too many of our daily prayers and should be replaced with prayers about God Whose exalted greatness is ineffable but worthy of our worship.
Whether or not the terrible fire in the Carmel was an expression of divine displeasure we do not know. Nor will it ever be known unless we will again be blessed with prophets. No doubt we should treat it as if it was a warning and call for repentance, but we must be fully aware that it was perhaps part of God’s cosmic plan far beyond human behavior. And that 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 is unremittingly causing man to believe that all calamities are the result of his faults.
(*) In his philosophical work Guide to the Perplexed, Maimonides himself seems to believe that there are reasons why God created the world that have little to do with the creation of man. (III: 13, 14. See his interesting interpretation of the verse in Mishle 16:4: “The Lord has made everything lema’anehu.” His translation of this word is: for the sake of Himself, rather than for his [man’s] sake.)