When hearing particularly tragic news, the Mishah teaches, one is the recite the blessing “Blessed…is the true judge” (Talmud Berachot 54a). In the traditional practice used today, the full prayer “Praised are you, Lord our God, the true judge” is recited by those immediately impacted by a tragedy, such as family members mourning one of their own. Others, hearing of the death, might say “Praised be the true judge – Baruch Dayan Ha’Emet“, also acknowledging God’s judgment as manifested in the death, but not mentioning God’s name specifically.
Last year, three innocent Israeli teens were murdered when they were picked up while hitchhiking. The immediate response on the part of committed Jews included the words “Baruch Dayan Ha’Emet“. Then Boko Harum took to terrorizing and murdering people. And again, we were to praise “the true judge”. And ISIS started to behead people and we again acknowledged God’s judgment. Finally, more recently, terrorists killed people in a series of attacks in France and, once again, we committed Jews were expected to utter the praise of the true Judge.
The bible tells the story of Job. Job loses all that is dear to him and questions God and His decrees. The punchline of the book is, to put it in simple terms: I’m God. I created this world. I know how it works. You’re a human. You don’t know and never will.
As far as I can tell, Job takes the lesson to heart, and everybody lives happily ever after. And from that point on, those who follow biblically-based religion accept God and God’s judgments. And they praise God for the judgments.
Except that I’ve had enough of that.
I can accept that a person dies and that his/her death somehow fits into some divine plan that I, like Job, do not understand. But the idea that every victim of a vicious death at the hands of an evil perpertrator is somehow part of a divine plan and of divine justice does not work for me. I have stood in the remains of concentration camps. I have looked at photos and videos of those killed in genocidal campaigns around the world. And not once when so doing, have the words “Praised are You…the true judge” left my lips. On those occasions, I am more likely to appeal not to the God who is the “true judge” or to Job’s God who knows what is best for the world. At those times, I am more likely to reach out to the God of Psalm 79 who “will avenge the spilled blood of His servants.” Both views of God are biblical. Both are legitimate expressions of Jewish (and possibly other) faith. Why would I, when mourning deaths of innocent men, women and children at the hands of evil, justify murderers by suggesting that they were carrying out the judgment of the “true judge”.
Not only do I personally not wish to justify the actions of murderers by reacting to crimes against humanity by praising the “true judge” as I hear of violent deaths. I want to make sure that, as a rabbi and a Jewish educator, I am not inadvertently conveying the idea of belief in a God who has partnered with evil people to execute divine justice.
There is only one way around this challenge: to alter the practice (or the halacha, if you will).
My proposal: Keep the blessing “Praised be the true judge – Baruch Dayan Ha’Emet” for deaths of people by natural causes that occur at a wonderfully advanced age. Maybe (just maybe) even for untimely deaths at too early an age.
But for those who have died at the hands of vicious criminals, let’s forgo the praise of the “true Judge” in favor of responding to those deaths with the expression “May his/her memory be a blessing – Y’hi zichrono / zichronah baruch“. While doing so, we might even want to echo the psalmist’s desire that God avenge the deaths of the innocent. And this should all be accompanied by the unequivocal affirmation that no ancient Pharoah, nor Hitler, nor ASIS, nor Boko Harum, is in any way expressing God’s will by serving as executor for the “true judge”.
Finally, for those of us in the rabbinate and in Jewish education, let’s make it abundantly clear to congregants and students that we are making this change in a very deliberate way. And that the change empowers and obligates them to always oppose evil actively. And to never justify evil on the basis of God’s silence, let alone as being the result of God’s judgment.