Tsunamis, Jeff Jacoby, Anger, and the Ramchal

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Is it OK to be angry with G-d for allowing great disasters?

It is much better than the alternative, argues Jeff Jacoby. A poll on Beliefnet shows that, of five descriptions of G-d’s possible role in the recent tsunami, 51% of respondants favored the option that He had nothing to do with it. Rightfully so, Jacoby finds this kind of thinking theologically untenable, part of a trend made fashionable by the quintessentially un-Jewish thinking of Harold Kushner in Why Bad Things Happen to Good People. It is better, argues Jacoby, to be angry with G-d for the suffering we witness than to assume that while guiding the course of humanity, He sometimes falls asleep at the wheel. Anger is certainly better than Kushner’s blasphemous suggestion that G-d gets credit for trying, but there are some things even a G-d can’t do.

Jacoby is certainly correct that a G-d Who is outside any event at all – even the ones we call evil – has no room in Jewish thought. Well before Kushner, people wrestled with the problem of the existence of evil. One facile solution was to posit, like the Manicheans, the existence of two gods, one good and the other evil. The good god never had to absorb the moral blame for tragedy; that was all wrought by the other fellow. Monotheists, at least those outside of traditional Judaism, seem blissfully ignorant of their perpetuation of primitive dualism when they carve up the pie of life into events they like – which they attribute to G-d – and those they don’t – which they attribute to Chance, or Nature, or whatever. Whatever, is long as it is not G-d.

Authentic Judaism would rather live with questions about G-d’s inscrutable decisions than to tamper with bedrock assumptions about His power and His goodness.

Jacoby is correct that railing against G-d is better than denying His existence or His nature. This was remarkably illustrated by Rav Avigdor Miller, zt”l, who told of a poor, old woman on New York’s Lower East Side who tried to eke out a subsistence living by peddling apples in a pushcart. Some neighborhood toughs, one day, had some fun at her expense by upending her cart and spilling its precious cargo through the street. Sitting on the curb pondering what had occurred, she turned Heavenward. “So that’s the way You treat me? You’ll see! This Shabbos I am not going to light candles!”

Rav Miller explained that her response was not perfect. But look at her emunah, her belief. She was absolutely certain that nothing occurred to her that was not dictated by G-d. She had a bit of a disagreement with Him about Her treatment, but her knowledge of His Providence was unshakeable.

Anger, indeed, may be a better response than that of Rodger Kamenetz (of The Jew in the Lotus) who said, “There is no God in this disaster. It is not for the good, it is not for the bad. It just is.” This is not, however, the optimum Jewish response. When events occur that do not go to our liking, we say “gam zu letovah” – this is also for the good! Some good will certainly come out of it. When looking in the face of overwhelming loss, we don’t fool ourselves into thinking that we have the clarity of Nachum, for whom that phrase was a constant companion. Instead, we substitute Dayan ha-emes – the true Judge. We are stunned, we are saddened. But we are not angered. We can be justifiably angered by injustice. Justice, on the other hand, can be inscrutable, but it does not provoke anger.

Kamenetz’s reaction is not only wrong, it is the polar opposite of what Jewish life is all about, according to someone that spirituality-friendly Kamenetz should appreciate. The great R’ Moshe Chaim Luzzatto argues in several of his works that the Jewish mission can be summed up parsimoniously in very few words. We are here to be me’ached Hashem – to make G-d One. By His nature, of course, He is One. His Oneness, however, is more easily asserted by us human beings than properly understood. In the course of history, we would take all the apparent diversity and difference in the world, and show how all of it flowed from the same common Place – from G-d Himself. (We do this in sundry ways. Relating halachically to all parts of our inner experience and outer world is one way. By insisting on a halachic approach to everything, we assert that all things come from a single Master. We bring consciousness of G-d to all corners of life. We do this even when these different arenas of life seem to us to be incompatible with each other, further emphasizing that within Hashem, all differences are resolved.) The more things seem to be separate and distinct, the greater the value in showing how at their source, they all come from Hashem. The greatest challenge to the existence of G-d is the existence of evil. When we demonstrate – by our continued faith and confidence in Him and His goodness – that evil cannot banish G-d, that our belief and confidence in Him can coexist with examples of evil, we extend the Oneness of G-d to its most remote reach. (See Daas Tevunos, par. 166)

Like most people, I claim no insight into “why.” I am shocked, and I grieve. Like most thinking Jews, I believe that our first response must be to provide help to the survivors, like the monumental sanctification of G-d’s Name by Zaka. I also believe that tragedies do not occur when the Shechinah, the Divine Presence, is closer to us. According to Ramchal’s take, great tragedies provide great opportunities to further along the process of making G-d One. Our reaction in their aftermath can thus bring Him closer. This happens, however, by finding His presence in the tsunami, not His absence.

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5 Responses

  1. Rodger Kamenetz says:

    Rabbi Adlerstein,
    I don’t know if you read my original piece, or simply Jacoby’s summary. Perhaps if you read it you might view it in a different context, perhaps not.
    http://www.beliefnet.com/story/158/story_15866_1.html
    My overall point was that if we are looking for G!d in the disaster, the easiest place to look immediately is in the hearts of those responding with such generosity to it. In terms of theodicy, I cited the Talmudic aggadah in Menachot 29b. I interpret that story to mean that ultimately certain kinds of suffering are inscrutable, or that, as the Rambam suggests, there is nothing positive we can assert about G!d, the via negativa. It may well be that there are those at a high enough rung to say “this too is for the good” or to say as the Baal Shem Tov did, if it’s good enough for G!d , who am I to judge? But I am not there.

  2. Vanity says:

    I’m just curious how it logically follows from saying that “G-d is not involved in Y” that “G-d is not ominpotent.”

    I agree that Kushner’s philosophy is not particularly Jewish nor particularly interesting (even as a system of thought), but I do not see how you can logically reduce “G-d was not involved in this” to Kushner’s position. In fact, I’m certain that, logically, you can’t.

  3. Michoel says:

    Rabbi Adlerstein,
    You said that very well. You very gently mention that you “also believe that tragedies do not occur when the Shechinah is closer to us”. Rabbi Miller, whom you quote, was very big in the “it happened because … ” department. I think if such tragedies don’t inspire us to t’shuvah, than we are being a bit cruel because we’re allowing Hashem’s message to go ignored. And the only way to have these events inspire t’shuvah is to say clearly that they are the result of aveiros. If Hashem saw fit to take 150,000 precious lives, than the message he wants to send must be very important to him. None of this in any way addresses the issue of which aveiros, why now, why here, tzadik v’ ra lo, and other questions. I am concerned that what Harold Kushner and others have succeeded in doing is to make those who ascribe Divine motivations to things, be viewed as arrogant dimwits in the eyes of the masses. It similar to suggesting publicly that you think the Theory of Evolution is a bunch of nonsense. Even those with no background in the subject look at you as a fool. . I agree with you substantially but just want that things should be said as they are. Ain adam nokef … I woman that my wife and I had a hand in being m’karev (she is a deeply spiritual and honest person) went from seeing the Holocaust as major kashe on Torah belief to seeing it as a great affirmation of Torah belief, after she read one of Rabbi Miller’s books.

  1. January 7, 2005

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