God and Natural Disasters, Part Two
ויאמר אלהים לנח קץ כל בשר בא לפני כי מלאה הארץ חמס מפניהם והנני משחיתם את הארץ
“And God said to Noah: The end of all flesh has come before Me, for the earth has become full of robbery because of them, and behold I am destroying them from the earth.” [Bereshit 6:13]
In the last chapter, I suggested that from an authentic Jewish point of view, it is a mistake to hold humankind 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 human 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 had 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 that speaks to the core of the matter: Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? 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 for creating the universe surpasses by far the argument that all this was just created for the sake of humanity. That people suffer and natural disasters take place may have to do with matters that go to the very foundation of all existence and have nothing to do with peoples’ religious or moral failures.
Do terrible tragedies that afflict the innocent raise 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?
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. However, by making God good by our standards, we are essentially making God into an idol, one Who fulfills our needs. That is surely not the Jewish God. While He shares with us certain qualities, He is far more than that. He does not belong to any category with which we can identify.
It seems that God is not the type of “good God” we always speak about and want to believe in. His goodness may apply only to the fact that He is good in and of Himself. He possesses goodness, but it is a truth known only to Him and has no bearing on human beings.
The Atheist’s Solution
This argument is not apologetic but an admission of our limited understanding. Atheism is no solution. It is an escape, which ultimately only increases the problem. To argue that all of existence is accidental requires more belief than believing that there is a Creator, and a purpose to all existence. The believer is a greater skeptic than the atheist. The difference is that believers admit their limitations while atheists do not. “The writers against religion, whilst they oppose every system, are wisely careful never to set up any of their own,” said Edmund Burke.
This idea is supported by a well-known passage in the Talmud discussing the case of shiluach haken — the obligation to send away a mother bird before taking her young. 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 humankind, they may very well have no correlation with people’s behavior. They may simply be part of God’s cosmic plan, perhaps alluding to other divine aspects that are totally beyond us 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 our 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
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 humanity, informing us that our existence has great meaning, though we will never know what that consists of. It is this aspect that is celebrated by Jewish tradition and beckons us to understand that despite all the pain, it is for the most part possible to enjoy life, to attain simchat chayim!
The claim that people are responsible for every disaster is a burden we may not be able to bear. It is an attitude of hopelessness that may lead us to give up and see God only as a vengeful God with Whom we cannot have a relationship. It would be better to reason, as does Søren Kierkegaard, that God sometimes applies His “teleological suspension of the ethical” so as to achieve His goals within the universe—not only 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 humans are 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 a devastating fire, or any other natural disaster, 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 we have ever entertained. One storm, such as those that in recent history hit the United States and other countries, 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 calamities are 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 us to feel that all catastrophes are our fault. Believing the latter is un-Jewish.
Every week I receive hundreds of emails, as well as a host of important observations on my essays, via our website, Facebook, newspaper blogs, and other media outlets. It is therefore completely impossible for me to respond – for which I apologize – but please be assured that I read every comment, which I deeply appreciate and from which I learn so much. Only in exceptional cases will I respond in a subsequent essay. My office staff will try to be more prompt in posting these remarks on our website.
Thank you very much for taking the time to share your comments with me, as well as with your fellow readers. I hope you will continue to do so.
Nathan Lopes Cardozo