“Because of our sins, this has befallen us?”

*In honor of the all those who lost their homes and possessions in the raging fires in Israel and in great respect for all those fire brigades in Israel and from other countries  who came to our rescue in our time of need.

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)

Only two weeks ago nearly all of the land of Israel was surrounded by huge fires which destroyed thousands of homes and possessions. Luckily and because of the great and heroic effort of so many fire brigades from Israel and other countries this time nobody lost her or his life unlike in the 2010 Mt. Carmel forest fire, when over 44 people lost their lives.

Throughout all of human history, mankind has been confronted with enormous and deadly natural disasters.  Each time many good souls, Jews and non-Jews, wonder what the higher meaning is behind all this. Particularly, religious people postulate that there is a divine purpose to these catastrophes, 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 their outlook on life, and there is a strong tendency among some religious people to blame the irreligious for these disasters. Many even blame themselves for the lack of their own religiosity and religious observance.

This is especially true about religious Jews. We feel responsible for the shortcomings of mankind and so we endlessly repeat: mipnei chateinu, because of our sins, this has befallen us. Many even believe that disasters visited upon non-Jews 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 Mishneh Torah (Hilchot Ta’anit 1:1-4) seems to bear this out. The 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), which many commentators understand as referring to human beings,  (i.e., for the sake of man), but Maimonides understands to mean for His (i.e. for God’s) sake rather than for man’s.

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 human beings 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 the human being able to judge God and decide why He created the universe? Such haughtiness is nothing but an attempt by the human being to squeeze God into the parameters of what she or he believes God should be. It is based on preconceived ideas of what God is and is not. The human being constantly tries to view God through her or 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 of whether it is better for human beings 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 mankind:

What is the purpose of the universe and of human 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 to exist. Perhaps to reward the human 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 the human being can ever fathom.

Ultimately, God alone is responsible, not only for natural catastrophes but also for man’s evil deeds. After all, He created mankind and gave it 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.

(To be continued)

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(1) Benedict de Spinoza, Letter 60 (56) “Between Spinoza and Hugo Boxel on Ghosts,”  Improvement of the Understanding, Ethics and Correspondence, tr. by R.H.M. Elwes (New York: Cosimo, Inc., 2006) p. 392.