“Perhaps someday someone will explain how, on the level of man, Auschwitz was possible; but on the level of God, it will forever remain the most disturbing of mysteries.”
Elie Wiesel: Legends of our Time
During the past three weeks I have received numerous responses to my Letter of Protest to God. In Awe and Humility (TTP 270 – See www.cardozoschool.org/), many of which included important observations and questions. Some were highly supportive of my ideas, informing me that I had expressed many of the questions that people are troubled by, while others were slightly antagonistic and asked how I dared to challenge God. The answer I suggested seems to have helped even those. On the whole, this has been most refreshing since it shows that people, whether they agree or disagree with my approach, are deeply affected by the issues I have raised.
One of Israel’s most prestigious newspapers, Makor Rishon, ran the full letter in last Friday’s Hebrew edition.
I regret that due to the outpouring of reactions time does not allow me to answer each question or observation personally. For this, I offer my sincere apologies.
However, since many of the inquiries and comments overlapped, I will try to deal with them in this essay, while I hope in the near future to cover other points that were raised.
First, however, I feel I must make the following comments.
1. The letter was written out of a strong awareness that many sincere and thinking people were again overwhelmed and deeply troubled by the religious implications of what happened in Itamar and Japan. As a teacher in Israel, I felt it my duty to respond and share my ideas as a religious thinker. The letter is meant to deepen our belief in God while fostering intellectual honesty and not falling victim to apologetics, an approach that does much harm – not only because it does not satisfy the many young, bright searching people but also because it sends a message that Judaism is incapable of and does not dare to deal with these matters head on. Above all, the impression is made that Judaism is not honest enough to admit that there are serious questions that cannot be avoided. This will only cause more people to turn their backs on the Jewish Tradition. Facts on the ground prove how true this is. Running away from these questions has, by now, become a well-established norm in religious circles. This must be stopped.
2. Several readers did not realize that the nature of the letter is rhetoric. Rhetoric writing is the art of asking questions not for the sake of just asking but in order to shape a more effective and far reaching answer. It enables the answer to surpass itself and carry a much deeper meaning than if it were written as a statement. Nothing is more irrelevant that an answer to a question that nobody asks. The purpose of my questions was to show that while they are emotionally sound and need to be asked, the answers must come from other carefully thought-out considerations. Some questions are too narrow and can only be answered by laying out much broader canvases that, by far, surpass the questions. It is this that I have tried to do.
3. A few people asked why I could not be more subtle in the way I posed the questions. Would it not have been wiser to put the questions in the mouths of my students, instead of asking them myself? “My students asked me …” I deliberately did not want to take that road since I strongly feel that it is dishonest. It would give the impression that I wish to distance myself from these questions, as if I know better and have no such queries. Even more important, the readers should know that a teacher in Israel asks the very same questions they ask. As such, my answers would be rooted in authenticity and therefore more carefully considered. Many responses I received bear this out.
4. It seems that several readers got carried away with the first part of the letter which, because of the candor of the questions, caught them off guard. As a result, they were unable to enter the state of mind needed to carefully read the second part in which I tried to explain why it is impossible to receive answers to these questions: because such questions need to remain unanswered. These readers were overtaken by their emotions, which blurred their ability to read my observations without bias, thereby denying the “answers” any chance of success. The answers were emotionally killed before they could intellectually respond. Clearly, some readers had convinced themselves that those answers were wrong long before they had actually read them. It is like the person who never reads a book before reviewing it since he claims he is afraid it will prejudice him.
5. Others saw the questions as heresy. How does one dare to ask God those questions? This, however, is a serious misreading of the entire Jewish Tradition. In fact, I believe that those who think in this way have incorporated foreign (Christian?) beliefs into their Judaism though completely unaware of it. This, I believe, has become a serious problem within some religious circles. While other religious traditions may believe that questions such as these are unacceptable, Judaism encourages them and Tanach is replete with them. We encounter these biting questions when Abraham dares to ask God how He can destroy Sedom and Amorah. And we hear them from the mouth of many a prophet such as Yirmiyahu, Chabakuk, Iyov, and even in the Psalms of King David. Just consider Yirmiyahu’s outburst to God:
You will win, O Lord, if I make claim against You. Yet I shall present charges against You. Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why are the workers of treachery at ease? You have planted them, and they have taken root. They spread, they even bear fruit. You are present in their mouths! (12:1-2) (1)
This is honesty to the bone and as Jewish as can be.
There are no heretical questions; there are only blasphemous answers. In fact, the whole notion of not being permitted to ask such questions is the result of misunderstanding who God actually is. Complaints of heresy are often rooted in the fact that we believe that God owes us a human answer and if He does not provide it, He fails as a God.
Since authentic Judaism believes that God is beyond anything that we can call human, any honest question about His conduct can be asked since it is rooted in human innocence and helplessness. To actually offend God one must first be on His level and that of course is impossible. Wer einen lobt stellt sich ihm gleich. (Whoever praises another places himself on the other’s level.) said Goethe. Since we have nothing in common with His being, all our questions concerning Him are appropriate because they touch neither on His very essence nor, therefore, on His honor. Not daring to ask these questions is the result of having turned God into an idol since we implicitly admit that we have reduced God to human proportions.
6. To be angry with God is deeply Jewish. It shows our humanity in relationship to His greatness. We feel comfortable enough with God to object. Like a child who expresses his deepest frustrations with the way his parents treat him, while he stands in awe of their love. Really, one can be angry only with those one loves. Even more important is never to forget that our aggravation with God is the greatest affirmation of His existence. The prophets allowed themselves to be angry about His conduct because their belief in Him was unconditional.
One is reminded of Yossel Rakover’s last testament written amidst the flames of the Warsaw ghetto:
I believe in Israel’s God even if He has done everything to stop me from believing in Him. I believe in His laws even if I cannot justify His actions…I bow my head before His greatness but will not kiss the rod with which He strikes me. (2)
Such rebellion and objection are not blasphemous. They are deeply authentic. They rise out of an authentic religious perspective. They are not theological debates, but internal conflicts. Out of personal anguish, the victim defies but does not deny.
7. Refraining from asking questions about God’s actions is also the result of an immature fear. It reflects the questioner’s belief that if these questions cannot be answered it is a sign of defeat. The truth, however, is the opposite. It is a victory. An answer is always a form of death. The beauty of life is to keep asking, since it shows that there are levels of significance the highest of which is the discovery that we do not know God and are unable to comprehend His ways. This is the greatest discovery man can make. It enables him to live in constant amazement, which is the very essence of what keeps him spiritually alive. The greatest knowledge is found in being silenced by a question. It is an eye-opener. Halachic living is a profound way to deal with the experience of radical amazement. Nothing is more devastating than finding God ordinary and fully understood. It is against this attitude that Halacha protests. The greatest challenge to halachic man today is that Halacha itself has become monotonous and therefore self-defeating. As long as this matter is not properly addressed, Halacha will become more and more irrelevant for many young people.
Let me now respond to some of the specific questions.
1. Why are you now asking the question of God’s failure to respond to atrocities such as those in Itamar and Japan, when one could ask this question at any time in Jewish history and even at all times?
While this is no doubt true, the point is that emotional questions are only genuinely asked in a moment of despair. They are not academic. When man is in existential pain, a question that has been there all the time gets activated and becomes real in ways that an intellectual question can never be. We may be pained by a question, but it becomes insufferable once the agony hits us in the face. We are blessed with the ability to forget the emotional impact of insufferable pain, until it once more raises its head. It is part of human nature to fully and emotionally react to suffering only when it is in the here and now. Then is the pain more acute, though it is always to be found. At such a time, the question becomes intense.
2. If you could not pray that Sunday morning after the terrorist attack at Itamar, or the tsunami in Japan, why are you able to pray on any other day? How can you ever praise God when you know that there are constant atrocities and disasters which you believe are the responsibility of God?
It is most important to understand that belief in God does not mean that we trust Him to do what we want Him to do. Or that He is actually good according to what we understand the definition of that word to be. What we believe is that the word “good” in relation to God means that God does not act arbitrarily but rather fulfills a goal which only God knows. This may have nothing to do with man, nor with his conduct. Man is not the measure of all things. The very fact that God created millions of stars, baby universes and black holes shows that there is a purpose to this universe that is totally unrelated to man.
We have no way of knowing why God needed to create this universe, nor do we know what its real purpose is, or which criteria He used. All we know is that He “decided” to do so, and to our utter surprise and devastation it is often far from good in our eyes. Again, to question why God needs this is to transform Him into an idol that must perform according to our human criteria.
When I pray, I express my astonishment that anything exists besides utter nothingness. True, it may have been better if nothing were to exist, but that only increases my amazement that something does exist. Moreover, I am utterly surprised that the world is as good as it is, since it could have been worse. God, who is not bound by any considerations other than His own, could have had different goals that would have required much harsher conditions than those under which we live. I continue to be awed by a blue sky, the seashore, a colorful flower, and the existence of love, despite all the evil. My praise of God is an expression of recognition that despite His many “failures” He exists, He often does good and He even creates miracles. This is not an overall hechsher (stamp of approval) for His actions. My praise of Him does not mean that I agree with everything He does. Rather, it is an expression of astonishment at His doings. My faith is not born out of any intellectual inference but out of the very awareness that, to paraphrase William Blake, even a grain of sand holds His eternity. (3)
I am even amazed by the fact that God has the power to create a devastating earthquake. My praise consists of a wow! That He is able to cause a natural disaster, with which I disagree but which I realize is a reflection of an ultimate divine goal that my mind cannot grasp.
Prayer is therefore an expression of my humility, of my awareness that as a human being I can’t objectively question God, since He functions from the perspective of eternity in which I have no part. Through prayer we see the world in a different setting. We shift the focal point of living from a narrow, self-centered view to one of surrender to the One Who is beyond comprehension.
Our minds have ceased to be sensitive to the wonder. Prayer rescues us from insensitivity. “Prayer may not save us,” said Heschel, “but prayer may make us worthy of being saved.” (4)
Still, in moments of great despair, man as an emotional being finds it difficult to praise God. He cannot always be the philosopher; sometimes he is just a human being.
(1) The New JPS Translation, 1985.
(2) Zvi Kolitz, Yossel Rakover Speaks to God: Holocaust Challenges to Religious Faith,
KTAV Publishing House, Hoboken, NJ, 1995, p. 22
(3) See Professor Yehuda Gellman’s essay: “Can Faith Persist in the Presence of Evil?
To My Cousin Binyamin”, Tradition 27:3, Spring 1993
(4) Abraham Joshua Heschel, Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity:
Essays, Farrar, Straus and Girous, 1997, p. 397.