Benjamin Porat

Where was God on October 7? A different perspective

There is a path out of hopelessness and it does not go through notions of divine punishment, divine plan or divine mystery 
Menorah found in a home on Kibbutz Nir Oz that was destroyed in the Hamas attack on October 7, 2023. (Screenshot from Times of Israel video, 'All that is left')
Menorah found in a home on Kibbutz Nir Oz that was destroyed in the Hamas attack on October 7, 2023. (Screenshot from Times of Israel video, 'All that is left')

The horrific October 7 massacre surpassed the savagery of any wave of terrorism Israel has seen. For a number of days, we experienced what European Jews felt in the ghettos at the hands of murderous Nazis. As then, a heart-wrenching question haunts many of us: Where was God? Why did He stand silent and complicit at Be’eri and Re’im?” Can we genuinely continue to declare in our daily prayers that “[You are] Goodness, for your mercy has no limit. You are Mercy, for your open-kindness has no end” when the southern villages of Israel were devoid of mercy and compassion? I wish to lay out a few possible faith-centered rationales and offer a perspective that diverges from these explanations.

The first approach is one in which every phrase starts with the same word, “because.” Those subscribing to this thesis typically search for a sin to justify a calamity. Some claim, even today, to have deciphered God’s true intentions and identified the sins that brought about the great tragedies of the Jewish people in modern times, for example, that the Holocaust was a punishment for Zionism or even anti-Zionism. Some insist that the terrible attack that we suffered just months ago is the inevitable outcome of desecrating Shabbat and indulging in sexual promiscuity. In one media report, an interviewee went as far as arguing that “On Simchat Torah, God was not present wherever He wasn’t welcome.” In other words, this individual is convinced that the secular residents of the kibbutzim brought their suffering on themselves. 

The obvious flaw in this approach is not just that it can easily be refuted by factual observations, for example, what about the religious residents of Sderot or Ofakim who were killed? Or what about the Meron crowd crush? But a deeper problem is that it constitutes no less than a moral travesty. The unfathomable scope and violence of the October 7th massacre is such that no transgression could account for such a heinous punishment. Whoever claims there is sin that can justify the vicious murder of women, infants, and the elderly in the Gaza Envelope stands accused of worshiping a God of malice. Such a position would be tantamount to the worst imaginable chilul hashem (desecration of God’s name). 

This implication, however, is not even the worst aspect of the above contention. Self-righteous individuals looking for sins to decry seldom point a damning finger at themselves. Instead, they excel at underscoring how other groups – to which they themselves never belong – have gone astray and hardly ever carry out any form of soul-searching. This is a damnable attempt to exploit a horrific tragedy in order to besmirch the victims.

For what’s sake?

The second approach is one where the word “sake” plays a central role. Followers of this school of thought are not searching for a sin to explain punishment, but for a purpose that the tragedy is meant to fill. Inspired by ancient texts asserting that everything happens for a reason, these individuals attempt to address modern catastrophes in a similar vein, suggesting, for instance, a direct link between the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel – a divine plan to facilitate the creation of the Jewish national home out of the ashes of concentration camps. Likewise, while some argue that the objective of the Simchat Torah massacre was to usher the Jewish people into a new era of spiritual renaissance – as well as reveal inner depths of our identity – others believe God wanted to restore national cohesiveness following the contentious judicial reforms that tore our society over the last year. The aim here is not to degrade others, but to find comfort in our overall positive, albeit slow, progression toward ultimate salvation. 

Despite the robust theological foundations underpinning this view in regard to certain episodes of Jewish history, it becomes dangerous when we apply it to unspeakable atrocities. There is no greater purpose, however important it may seem, that can justify the horrors experienced by the residents of the western Negev. Here too, whoever claims that God sanctioned this magnitude of suffering and death in the pursuit of a noble purpose, is essentially ascribing immorality to Him. What’s more, proponents of this view, much like their “sin-finder” counterparts, try to identify purposes that will confirm the validity of their lifestyle and negate that of their ideological rivals. In short, it’s only another way to exploit a tragic event. 

At any rate, both Jewish sources and modern texts provide a third answer, one in which the dominant word is “silence.” In this case, the main argument is that we cannot explain or understand everything, and man must humbly accept his inability to grasp the full extent of reality’s mysteries and resort to stillness. It is precisely this inability to make sense of our chaotic existence – so rife with monstrosities and devastation – that can ultimately assuage our religious consciences. It allows us to acknowledge that we neither can understand, nor should we. 

This approach seeks to free us from the need to search for answers, from trying to give religious legitimacy to our inability to rationalize everything. It enables us to concede and “leave those questions be.” Nonetheless, as people of faith, this line of thought does not ultimately satisfy our quest for meaning. It is only effective insofar as it somewhat alleviates our sense of impotence. It can only mollify the souls of those willing to accept what cannot be understood, but those who thirst for answers will never find comfort in accepting a world of endless question marks. 

Where was Man?

Therefore, I’d like to propose a fourth type of answer – one that stands in stark contrast to the previous three. In the face of barbarity, we are called to challenge prevailing conventions, to abandon simplistic arguments, and to move toward more complex ideas that may light the path for some of us.

Our initial question was, where was God on October 7? However, a more poignant question would be: Where was Man? The ability to believe in humanity’s good nature – in its rationality and moral judgment – collapsed in the face of demons who invaded from Gaza. How can we still uphold our view of humans as higher beings when fellow members of our species indulge in a depravity that eclipses that of nature’s most ferocious predators? How can we cling to this belief after they indiscriminately raped, murdered, beheaded, burned, and abducted women and babies? Not only our political and military conceptions fell apart – humanism itself was shaken to its core. 

Following the ethical crisis of October 7th, we might endorse one of two equally bleak attitudes. We can choose to sink into a sense of utter despair and abandon all faith in humanity, caving into the notion that modernity and progress achieve nothing but the amplification of the forces of destruction that lie deep within the human race. Those who tread in this direction might soon follow in the footsteps of Stefan Zweig, who, after witnessing the brutality into which his “spiritual homeland of Europe” had descended, chose to end his life. 

The alternative, in this conception of humanity, is to accept, as an inescapable reality, that human beings are monstrous and exonerate ourselves from any ethical boundaries. Those who embrace such a view might find themselves gradually and imperceptibly adopting the standards set by the terrorist organizations themselves. 

We are currently in the midst of an eminently just war that aims to destroy Hamas, both politically and physically. Nevertheless, as we focus on eradicating the evil state that they established in Gaza, we must likewise make sure that we don’t fashion ourselves in their likeness. We must constantly keep in mind the Tolkienian warning against wearing the One Ring of Sauron for too long, lest we pervert our own souls. 

At this critical juncture, it is imperative to reaffirm our faith in the God who was – and still is – present at Be’eri, Kfar Azza, Re’im, Sderot, and Ofakim. Our plea is not only to be saved from external threats but also to prevent the erosion of our own humanity. This God is not a distant observer; rather, He resides within our hearts, shielding us from internal malevolence. In the face of tragedy, God remains our steadfast companion, both now and in the future. Despite the darkness and brutality witnessed on that fateful day, He serves as our anchor, ensuring that we persist in upholding ethical values, optimism, and justice. 

In times of despair, religious faith serves a profound purpose – to rescue us from hopelessness regarding humanity and the state of morality. This conviction is ultimately what instills in us a feeling of certainty in our lofty ideals, which are currently under such an egregious attack. 

However virtuous our fierce campaign against Hamas may be, it is paramount that we continue to pursue it with moral integrity. This entails recognizing the inherent value of every human being, created in the image of God, and thereby committing ourselves to championing justice and dignity. That is the true meaning of our daily prayers – we thank the Almighty for filling our hearts with compassion and assert the conviction that, indeed, “His mercy has no limit….His open-kindness has no end.”

About the Author
Prof. Benjamin Porat is an Associate Professor at the Hebrew University Faculty of Law and a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute