Songs of Praise – A War Diary
עַד־אָ֣נָה How long, Hashem? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I take counsel with my soul
and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
How long will my enemy triumph over me?
Look on me and answer, Hashem my God.
Give light to my eyes, lest I sleep [the sleep of] death,
and my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,”
and my foes will rejoice when I falter. But I trust in your loving kindness
my heart rejoices in your salvation.
I will sing to Hashem, for he has dealt kindly with me.
You had me at “How long”? Isn’t that the main religious question, not just of this war, but of all suffering, always? עַד־אָ֣נָה – How long? Although, to be honest, there is another question lurking at the back/front of my brain, constantly vying for my attention like a child who will not be overlooked. Not “how long”, but אתה פה?” – are You here?” At all?
David, when I was 22/23 years old, I started observing Shabbat and keeping kosher and learning Torah daily, what in some circles is called becoming a baal teshuva. I never liked the term, because I did not feel I was repenting, just changing course. I did not feel guilty or sinful over my previous life, and indeed much of what I was—what I thought and what I loved– before I started observing Shabbat, is with me still. But I quickly realized that not everyone thought like me. To put it mildly.
One example should suffice to illustrate. In 1983, I went to Jerusalem for a year and began attending classes, part-time, at a yeshiva called Aish Hatorah which–oddly when I consider it now–I knew almost nothing about when I went there. I was seated one day in the packed Beth Midrash. An illustrious, world-renowned rabbi had come to address the question of how God could have allowed the Holocaust to happen. Sometime into his lecture, the rabbi pointed out that all that God does is for the good, and that therefore the Holocaust must have been a form of punishment for the sins of the Jewish people.
That is to say, after 6 million were gassed and burnt and shot and bayoneted and starved and, at the height of cruelty, asked to choose which of their children would live or die, it turns out that it was our fault. This idea, as I would later go on to study/obsess over in depth, is known as “retribution theory” or punishment for sin. It has quite a number of possible Jewish source texts. But in modernity, even traditional Jews do not really dare to articulate this argument very often.
As if to signal the intolerableness of this view, an elderly gentleman attending this talk, whom it turned out was a Holocaust survivor, interjected and protested loudly, red faced and screaming, with an anger propelled by feelings of betrayal, that it was a moral obscenity to suggest that the deaths of six million were somehow justifiable and in fact caused by their alleged sins. It was, needless to say, a very tense scene. But my point lies elsewhere, David.
A few days later, in conversation with someone whom we shall call Chaim, I asked what he thought of what had occurred at the lecture. He paused and said: “well of course it was very unfortunate what happened. But the Rabbi is right. This is what the Torah teaches us. It’s just that he didn’t know that there was a survivor in the room; otherwise, he probably wouldn’t have said it at that time.” Chaim was a baal teshuvah and had been learning about Judaism for less than a year at that point, but he seemed very certain of his ground. The dilemma as he saw it, was not in the explanation for the Holocaust, which Chaim saw as correct, but just the unforeseeably bad timing of its presentation.
I was very troubled by the lecture and the subsequent exchange. Like Chaim, I was new to Orthodoxy. I had studied philosophy in university and was quite conversant with philosophical discussions about evil (not so helpful it turns out). But was this, in Chaim’s words, what “the Torah teaches”? I knew intuitively what I thought of this supposed wisdom, but I felt frustrated at my inability to pose an argument in “Torah terms”. At the time, I just did not have a knowledge base Jewishly to confront what I was hearing. I was also struck by how many of the other students at the yeshiva were enthralled with the very same rhetoric that left me so ambivalent, and I understood: here was a community with whom I could not share my thoughts. All I had was an inchoate feeling that something simply did not add up. For the leading lights of the yeshiva, our secular pasts were at best tolerated and at worst patronized or maligned, but they were never to be trusted. Secular people were simply those who were misguided and had not yet been led to the light of truth.
In his book, Despair and Deliverance, Professor Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi, has observed, perhaps a bit hyperbolically, that the tale that is offered up follows a similar mythic pattern: “the returnee used to be secular/anti-religious/Marxist/criminal/suicidal, and now, following the Return, is devout/ happy/ productive. Portrayals of born again Jews…follow the formula of search and salvation: a former life filled characterized by restlessness, confusion and failure and a new life filled with joy and peace.”
But, David, I was not lost, at least not in that sense; nor did I ever become “found” afterwards.
And in the aftermath of that moment, I began to think, not about why do bad things happen to good people, for about this I had thought a good deal and, frankly, to little avail. Rather what I began to consider was why bad explanations happen to good people; whether by definition any good explanations are possible in this domain of life; and about the drive we have as Jews and as human beings to try and understand or contain the jagged presence of human pain and suffering on a constant basis.
And now, every day, we see the faces of dead soldiers, smiling photos that convey joy in the moment and belief in the future, as well as crushed and annihilated Gazan buildings, with faceless dead under the rubble. How long, David? Is that we mean by spiritual patience, of which I ran out some time ago? Is it our lot to do public relations for the inscrutable God? Has not all of this suffering happened during His watch?
So I ask you, is God a proposition, a premise to be defended? A real Being to be assessed and judged? A fantasy to be endlessly invented and imagined, a dream that exists on another plane? Why won’t You show Yourself? Are You incapable of being accountable? Afraid of what we might say? Or have You been driven into hiding by the grotesque distortion of Your experiment called creation? And when you peer at Your children—Hitler; Stalin; Pol Pot; Sinwar–what do You see, O Lord? What do You feel? How long?