God is not in the earthquake, but in the still silent voice
Rabbi Yitz (Irving) Greenberg, the renowned Holocaust theologian and Jewish thinker, suggested that, in light of the unprecedented evil perpetrated in the Holocaust, we would do well to abide by the following formula when thinking or theologizing about the Holocaust:
No statement, theological or otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of burning children.
I would suggest that in light of current events, we could easily reformulate it to read:
No statement theological or otherwise should be made that would not be credible in the presence of suffocating children stuck under concrete rubble.
In the days that followed the devastating earthquake in Turkey and Syria, we were once again witness to influential and authoritative rabbinic personalities espousing a vicious and dangerous theodicy that claimed the earthquake was a punishment for “the antisemites,” and as Jews, like our ancestors, we should sing a song of praise to God for saving us from their hands (there has since been a clarifying of the original statement that falls terribly short of any kind of retraction). While these rabbinic personalities may be learned in Torah, their lack of any cognitive, religious, or theological humility means the Torah they espouse cannot be the Torah of chesed (kindness) that I identify with. Rather than fostering tolerance and compassion, this type of theology nurtures shame, blame, and an abrogation of moral responsibility towards the other.
And what’s more, when two sweet innocent boys randomly standing at a bus stop get rammed by a bloodthirsty terrorist, or two young adults who get shot while driving innocently on the road, and a third on his way to a childhood friend’s wedding — can we also fold that into our neat little cognitive box? Are they too being punished for some arbitrary sin? Does the reasoning work in some instances and not in others? Whose to say when death, suffering, and tragedy are a punishment or an expression of God’s will and love?
The responses from within the Modern Orthodox world to Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu’s article have ranged from moral outrage without any specific grounded defense, to a systematic defense of the classic Maimonidean naturalist approach to evil, to questioning the legitimacy of “knowing” God’s ways in a post-revelatory world.
But none of them truly addresses the issue at hand. Why, as a theist — a believer in a God who is all powerful, all good and all-knowing, am I so shocked by the response of Rabbi Eliyahu that God is punishing these antisemites? That the earthquake is God’s way of showing us, the Jews, that He is on our side? Why, if I believe in and obey my theist God, is it so hard for me accept the classic reward and punishment model that has served us so neatly for centuries?
A Paradigm Shift
The answer is, I believe, that in a post-Holocaust, postmodern, post-1948 State of Israel world, classic reward and punishment is a theological model that no longer speaks to our modern consciousness, as independent autonomous beings created in the image of God.
Judaism is made up of many divergent ideas, principles and purposes. Throughout our history, there have been times when certain principles took primary import and others remained in the periphery — ideas about revelation, supremacy of the Jewish people, human initiative in the halakhic system, and many others. In today’s world, we must not allow ourselves to remain married to a theological position that can in anyway justify moral impotence and ethical apathy. We cannot permit ourselves to embrace a paradigm of evil that simply and neatly folds the dissonance of the world as it is and the world as we want it be into a nice little pile to be set aside safely in a cognitive box of good and evil.
As human beings, we crave order, regulation, and certainty. It is hard for us to live with chaos and even harder for us to navigate uncertainty. From time immemorial, we have searched for answers to questions unknown. We have explored and laid claim to unknown territory both geographically and cognitively; humankind is a species whose uniqueness rests in its curiosity and quest for knowledge. By knowing, we achieve order. Through order, we achieve certainty, and through certainty, we achieve peace of mind.
The problem of evil has thus acted as the perennial irritant of the human mind and human life — the quintessential disturber of the peace. Throughout the centuries, there have been innumerable attempts to solve the dilemma, but, in all truth, not one has provided adequately the peace of mind it hoped to achieve.
In a world in which we are no longer satisfied either religiously, existentially, psychologically, or ethically, with the staid and outdated paradigm of a punishing God as a response to this deep human dilemma, it is time we listen carefully again to our tradition — searching out voices within it that refuse easy platitudes and are attuned to the cries of children from the rubble.
The Book of Job
While many think that the classic Jewish response to the issue lies in the paradigm of divine retribution (reward and punishment), I want to suggest that, in light of the non-palatable corollaries of this model today, we need to adopt a new paradigm. My suggestion is that we turn to a biblical model that for many centuries remained in the periphery — the Book of Job.
At the start of the book, we read about a wager between Satan and God involving an innocent victim — Job (a generic ahistorical character). The message seems clear: evil, suffering, and tragedy are, from a metaphysical perspective, absolutely arbitrary. No, God is not meting out deserved justice; instead, He appears to be playing school yard games with one of His creatures. The author and reader are not fools. Of course, the story is a parable. In Buber’s words (about midrash), it need not be taken literally, but it must be taken seriously.
The message of the story is as shocking as the story is itself: if we are looking for answers to the problem of evil from the perspective of heaven, we will be met with a parody. In other words, the answer lies not in heaven, but down here on earth. The only non-enigmatic part of the book is God’s explicit critique of Job’s friends’ metaphysical reckonings. As the book progresses through three rounds of dialogue, Job’s “comforters” become increasingly desperate to pin Job’s troubles on some in-descript sin, so as to defend their theological assumptions about divine justice. The stronger their arguments, the more desperate Job’s pleas to dispel their outdated conception of God become. Their deep human need to contain the cognitive dissonance they meet in the face of Job becomes so aggressive, dispelling any intimation of human compassion, empathy, or care they may have harbored at the start. The tighter they hold on to their metaphysical explanations and speak on behalf of a theist God, the more their words cut deep into the already bleeding heart, soul, and body of their friend.
In our search for order, we create more pain; in the need for certainty we produce greater suffering; and through our goal of justifying the actions of a theist God in a chaotic universe, we create a greater chasm between the victim and the accuser. If we need to justify our theological certainties by blaming the victim, we have not only abandoned the very premise on which religion is built, but we have wiped away the very essence of our own humanity.
So, what can we do? What does the Book of Job teach us about the problem of evil? Why should we release it from its peripheral religious status and establish it as a paradigm for our time?
Due to its enigmatic nature and language, the book has been at the heart of a myriad of interpretations over the centuries. I want to suggest three main messages that emerge even from a cursory reading of the book.
Down here on earth, not up there in heaven
The first, as I’ve already mentioned, is that the answer to the problem of evil and the suffering of the innocent must be addressed through the perspective of the face of the sufferer, rather than the face of God. I return to Rabbi Greenberg’s formula — unless we look directly at the burning children, unless we are staring at the face of the cancer patient, or the dead child in the rubble, or the starving widow, or the abused child, how dare we offer any apologetic on the part of God that would diminish our own humanity and even more so, that of the victim?!
In the words of Emmanuel Levinas “For an ethical sensibility…..the justification of a neighbor’s pain is certainly the source of all immorality.” God states explicitly that the desperate attempts of Job’s friends to pin a robust explanation to his suffering was wrong, and we the readers understand that it greatly increases Job’s suffering.
The end of the book has perplexed commentators throughout the centuries. Why does God come to Job at the end? What does His revelation achieve? In what way does He “answer” Job’s questions and queries. Some of the most beautiful ideas I have read focus less on the “answer” God comes to give Job and more on the very act of “encounter” between Job and his Creator.
When someone is drowning in a figurative ocean of pain and suffering, he doesn’t need someone to pull him out. Instead, he needs someone to swim to the bottom, as it were, and sit there with him, holding his hand. Once he knows he is heard, then the two can swim to the top together. The content of God’s address to Job is less relevant than the fact that He addresses him — showing that dialogue between heaven and earth is still possible, and that he, Job, is not alone in his suffering. Maybe that was all Job really needed. Maybe that allowed him rebuild a shattered life after tragedy.
The Curiosity of Knowing: Puzzles and Mysteries
The second major theme that runs through the book is the idea of “knowledge.” the motif of knowing and not knowing litters the book and on numerous occasions (too many to list here) its acts as the central axiom through which the protagonists express their opinions. Job expresses a deep and painful lament against the friends who do not “know” his suffering, the knowledge Job expresses is empirical and sensory and subjective. In contrast the friends at times express a type of metaphysical epistemology (that ultimate and absolute knowledge rests with God) to which humans have limited access. Knowledge is what makes us who we are, what gives our species its unique and particular identity and yet the conditions of our humanity – our mortality, our cognitive limitations, must force us to recognize the narrow space between knowing and not-knowing – hubris and humility. Part of pursuing the “right” path to knowledge is to know how to ask the “right” questions.
As Elie Wiesel incisively says “Questions open us, while answers close us. There is quest in question.” An answer as an explanation may serve our need for control, certainty and harmony – like a puzzle it answers a specific question. But the real questions of human existence are not puzzles but mysteries. A mystery is murkier, the answer more ambiguous requiring us to constantly return to the question. The beauty of a question unanswered is that it leaves us with continued curiosity to search, grow and learn.
The Book of Job, presents the problem of evil as a mystery to be grappled with eternally rather than a puzzle to be solved. Rather than providing a peaceful theological resolution that leaves us satisfied and self-assured it is enigmatic, perplexing, chaotic and ambiguous. Its literary genre points to its theological content. There is theology that is closed, that provides answers, that seeks harmony and resolution – as Marx terms it “an opiate of the masses”. And then there is a religious consciousness that acknowledges and even encourages nuance, complexity, dichotomies and ultimately living with uncertainty. The Book of Job offers us a paradigm of the latter rather than former.
Chaos and Order
The third theme I see played out in the book, that connects intimately with the previous two is the interspace between chaos and order. The mythical image of the Leviathan (that is the archetype of chaos in ancient mythology) and the vivid descriptions of chaos (death, dust, mortality, forgetfulness, evil) as echoed in Job’s monologue contrasted to the images of order (the tent, Divine knowledge, Divine justice, stronghold of the righteous) as expressed in the friends monologues hint to the unfolding of a subversive narrative in the book. The problem of evil sits at the nexus point between chaos and order. It challenges our assumption of the order of the world and invites chaos into our existence. The Book of Job resists a binary solution to the dilemma. It invites us to consider whether we can create meaning, nurture genuine relation and flourish creatively without having to kill chaos through imposed and enforced theological/humanly imposed order.
The Still Silent Voice
I want to end with an illuminating narrative from the Book of Kings, one of the last open revelations in the books of Prophets between man and God in the Bible (withstanding the dialogue between Job and God that comes at the end of Ketuvim/Writings ). Here Elijah, the legendary prophet, is desperately trying to arouse loyalty and allegiance from an incalcitrant people through miraculous Divine spectacles. After the fire and lightening show, God leads Elijah to the peak of the mountain (reminiscent us of the magical mystery tour God gives to Job at the end of the book where he moves round the universe viewing it from above). God brings a great and mighty wind and tenaciously proclaims to his loyal servant that “I am not in the wind.” Then He brings a ravaging and shattering earthquake and proclaims: “I am not in the earthquake.” Then He brings a fire and proclaims, “I am not in the fire.” No God is not in any of these things. So where is He? “I am in the kol demama daka” — the still silent voice. Sometimes we think that as defenders of religion, or God, we need to shout the loudest, show Him to be the most powerful, prove that only He is charge of the world. We feel that if we use loudspeakers to justify His actions, defend His position, incarcerate those we perceive to be the sinners, we will manage to make order of a chaotic universe. We will fold our scattered and unruly experience of life into neat tidy boxes. All dissonance will dissipate, all order will be restored, and all the non-believers will be convinced that the uncertainty they face is a figment of their imagination – including the inordinate suffering.
But NO says God – I am not in the wind, the earthquake, or the fire. Actually, says God I am in that still silent voice. I am in the voice of the orphan and widow and foreign worker, I am in the voice of the abused child, the victim of governmental injustice, the prostitute forced to sell her body. I am in the voice of those that cannot cry out, that cannot use the megaphones of privilege or power to shout the message of their God loudest.
Religion is not an opiate for the masses. Religion, when authentically practiced forces us to feel the dissonance between the order of a Divinely created universe and the disorder and chaos of our lived human experience in that universe. It invites us to protest against it and finally to act through the gift of a covenantal relationship to remedy it. Religion beckons us to hear the voice of others, even those different to us. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in his book The Great Partnership writes about the failure of philosophy to “solve” the dilemma of the problem of evil:
There is a difference between a contradiction and a cry. You can solve a contradiction by sitting quietly in a room, thinking, using conceptual ingenuity, reframing. Philosophy, said Wittgenstein, leaves the world unchanged. But faith does not leave the world unchanged. You cannot solve a cry by thinking….Theodicy, the attempt to vindicate God’s justice in a world of evil, is compelling evidence that in the translation of Abrahamic spirituality into the language of Plato and Aristotle, something is lost. What is lost is the cry.
When the rescue workers at the scene of the recent earthquakes were desperately searching for signs of life under the rubble, they would stop every 30 minutes and force everyone to be silent in order to hear where the cries were coming from. They needed to hear the inaudible voice and could only do so if they were silent. Theological justifications won’t do anything to aid the still silent cries of those buried alive. Only the true act of quietly listening to other – to their pain, to their sorrow, to their disappointment, to their cries can ease the suffering. Maybe this revelation to Elijah and the implicit messages from the Book of Job are ones we need to pay heed to in our times. The Divine solution to the problem of evil doesn’t begin with statements or theological reasoning. It begins with the human act of listening to the other and an attempt to heal their pain – not make it worse.