It’s not God’s fault

If you have not yet donated to the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey’s Hurricane Harvey relief fund, please do so.

If you are able to give blood, please do so, as well. The need is monumental and so is the mitzvah. That being said —

It was inevitable. Almost immediately after Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas, there came the voices from the Christian religious right blaming the storm on gay rights, abortion rights, and even transgender bathroom privileges.

The latter is how conservative pastor Kevin Swanson interpreted Harvey to his radio listeners. “Just last week,” he said, “the State of Texas failed to pass a … bathroom bill that would have prevented cross-dressing men from using women’s restrooms in the State of Texas.”

While “we’re not saying that God sent the hurricane just because of this,” he said, God’s message nevertheless was clear, and “the entire State of Texas and the entire United States of America needs to take note of this.” There “is a God in heaven, He brings His judgments, and He calls nations to repentance, as He is doing right now,” Swanson said.

He also noted that Houston only recently had “a very, very, very aggressively pro-homosexual mayor,” Annise Parker, which was another possible cause for Harvey. Said Swanson, “unless Americans repent, unless Houston repents, they will all likewise perish.” That is the message God “is sending home right now to America. Is America listening?”

One-time controversial high school football coach Dave Daubenmire, a far-right favorite ever since the ACLU tackled him in court in the late 1990s, told his webcast followers that Houston was “one of the darkest cities” in America.

“Houston,” he mused, “we got a problem here. Could some of the problems be the result of the judgment of God coming your way because of the slaughter of unborn children?”

The question was rhetorical because, after all, he said, Houston was under water, and water, as everyone knows, “is a sign of judgment and cleansing.”

Daubenmire ended with a plea: “Let’s stop killing the babies!’”

Ann Coulter, a darling of the far right, chimed in as well — not endorsing such comments directly, but also not willing to dismiss them entirely. After reading an article that suggested a more scientific explanation for Harvey, and having nothing better to do at 11:34 p.m. on the night of August 28, she tweeted that God punishing Texas “is more credible than ‘climate change.’”

Jewish figures on the far right are no less prone to bringing the wrath of God into natural disasters (although not so far in the case of Harvey).

During Katrina in 2005, for example, a number of rabbis suggested that God was punishing the United States for forcing Israel to evacuate Gaza. There even was a timeline created to “prove” the claim. Israel, the timeline went, completed its evacuations on August 23. The very next day, the tropical depression that would become Katrina showed up on weather radar screens for the first time.

When “we see something so enormous as Katrina,” said Joseph Garlitzky, a Chabad rabbi in Tel Aviv, on the Shabbat after Katrina struck, it clearly must mean “something was done wrong by America in a big way.” He then noted that “there are many obvious connections between the storm and the Gaza evacuation, which came right on top of each other.”

“No one,” he warned, “has permission to take away one inch of the land of Israel from the Jewish people.”

The left is not immune from such absurdities either. In an effort to mock the far-right claims of heavenly responsibility, the satirical Paris magazine Charlie Hebdo only managed to disgust nearly everyone who saw its post-Harvey issue. The cover showed hands of drowning victims reaching above water in salutes to Nazi flags that also were disappearing beneath the flood. The headline read: “God exists. He drowned all the neo-Nazis of Texas,” a reference to the recent events of Charlottesville, W. Va., and their aftermath.

Let us be clear about this. While questions of why God did such a thing are inevitable, answers that give credence to the questions are blasphemous. They malign God. Worse, they let us off a hook God Himself put us on.

God did not send Hurricane Harvey, just as He did not send Katrina, or Sandy, or the rains that flooded Mumbai last week. We did.

Fourteen years after Katrina, we still refuse to accept what we saw then, and what we learned. Worse, the devastation caused by Katrina never had to happen. Scientists had been predicting it for many years. A vivid description of the storm and its devastating effect were published in National Geographic 10 months before Katrina hit in 2005. That’s before Katrina, not after. The article also said the storm likely would be “the worst natural disaster in the history of the United States” until that point. Katrina lived up to its predictions.

One reason National Geographic gave for why the hurricane was inevitable was because the area’s “natural defenses are quietly melting away. From the Mississippi border to the Texas state line, Louisiana is losing its protective fringe of marshes and barrier islands faster than any place in the U.S…. [The] state continues to lose about 25 square miles of land each year, roughly one acre every 33 minutes.”

Years before Katrina, an unlikely coalition of scientists, business leaders, and environmentalists joined with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in proposing a $14 billion plan to stave off a Katrina-like disaster in New Orleans, but it found no support in Washington. Only after the warnings proved true did Washington act — albeit too late to save the 1,600 lives that were lost in Louisiana, or to prevent the billions of dollars in property damage the storm caused.

There will always be people who ask “why did God let a hurricane happen,” or an earthquake, or a tsunami, or some other natural disaster, but we need to understand that God has a question for us:

“Why blame Me? I created Nature, but you messed with it, even though I put you on earth to protect it. You put the hole in the ozone layer, not Me. You’re responsible for global warming, not Me. More powerful storms are your doing, not Mine. I created natural protective barriers in Louisiana, and water-absorbing land tracts in Texas. You messed with those, too. I created Nature, but I also created science. You show even less concern for science than you do for Nature. Yet you blame Me for what you have done.”

Katrina was a wake-up call, but we hit the snooze button. Superstorm Sandy in 2012 was another wake-up call, yet again we hit snooze. Harvey is warning number 3. The only question is whether we heed it, or whether we hit the snooze button a third time, and pull the covers back over our heads.

Only this time, we need to consider this relevant adage: “Three strikes and you’re out.”

About the Author
Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel of the Palisades. He hosts adult Jewish education classes twice each week on Zoom, and his weekly “Keep the Faith” podcast may be heard on Apple Podcasts, iHeart Radio, and Stitcher, among other sites. Information on his classes and podcast is available at
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