What is the Jewish response - besides of course helping those in need - to environmental tragedy, like the earthquake and tsunami in Japan? For starters - How do we understand a God who wreaks this kind of havoc on His creations?
This question focuses on the theological issues, and that will be the focus of my answer. But before turning away the practical dimension, let me express agreement with the questioner: it is of course a Jewish response to help those in need, the injured, the homeless, the impoverished, and the bereaved. Moreover, as Jews, we are bidden to help such people, whether they are Jewish or not. All of this is consistent with our mandate to “seek peace and pursue it” (Psalm 34: 15) We may have a higher level of obligation to assist the needy among our own people, because ultimately, there are only a few of us who will prioritize their needs, but we are never excused from responding to the pressing needs of more extended branches of the human family. This, too, is a Jewish value, given classical expression in the core text of Rabbinic Judaism:
Therefore was humanity created from a single ancestor, to teach you that…
whoever saves a single human life is reckoned by Scripture as having saved an
entire world; and [for the purpose of] peace among God’s creatures, that no one
will say to his fellow-man, ‘my father was greater than your father’.
(Mishnah Sanhedrin 4: 5)
Nonetheless, the practical dimension of our response—helping those in need—is not to be totally separated from the theological dimension. Indeed, in my understand of God—my theology, one of the several found within the framework of Masorti/ Conservative Judaism-- the mandate to help each other is strengthened by the understanding that God has created a world in which humans are not only mortal, but so very fragile, and that the forces of nature can so capriciously overwhelm us. The same God who has made us so vulnerable to the vast power of nature, has given us testimonies, teaching us to be holy; and the holiest deed is to help each other.
As expressed by the Psalmist:
The floods rise up, O LORD,
The floods raise up their roaring,
The floods will surge, will rage;
But above the voice of the mighty waters
Awesome is the LORD on high.
Your testimonies are very sure,
Holiness becomes Your house,
O LORD, for ever (Psalm 93:4-5)
Since people are by nature incomparably weaker than the forces of nature, we need to be especially mindful of the danger to which we expose ourselves by our own arrogance. After enduring many earthquakes, Japan has instituted a commendably strict building code, and in fact, despite the severity of the earthquake, there were relatively few losses to buildings collapsing from the earthquake itself. Other parts of the world have yet to internalize that lesson. After experiencing tsunamis, why do we rebuild in danger zones, rather than recognizing the likelihood of a repeat of those disasters? Why did Americans, knowing that hurricanes are inevitable, pursue land development policies that drained the wetlands protecting New Orleans from hurricane devastation? Some of the suffering that arises from natural forces is in fact attributable to human greed, short-sightedness and hubris. Again: the nuclear engineers who built the Japanese power plants assumed that their walls would sufficiently contain any conceivable tsunami, and consequently, they positioned the motors powering their water circulating pumps in a basement of their facility. Had they only doubted that their walls could never be breached, they could have easily placed those motors on higher ground, and the current nightmare of core meltdown and the disastrous release of radioactivity could have been avoided, despite the earthquake and the tsunami.
But even after we have correctly criticized humans for their own mistakes, and for their mistaken belief in the sufficiency of their technological achievements, the fundamental issue of theodicy—of God’s justice—remains troubling.
The problem that this question highlights is known, in philosophical discourse, as “the problem of natural evil”. There have been not only books, but entire libraries, composed to respond to this, and still the problem endures; so it is not to be expected that my reflection will resolve the question to everyone’s satisfaction. But, since “truth is the seal of the Holy One”, I offer my sincere meditation on this subject:
The problem of natural evil places us on the horns of a dilemma. If God is all good, then would God want to create a world filled with pain and suffering? And if God is all-powerful, then would God not prevent such a world from arising? So does not the existence of pain and suffering argue against the existence of God, thus conceived?
Many traditional answers attempt to blunt the first horn of the dilemma. Upon seeing a man die a senseless death, while obeying the biblical commandment to spare the mother bird, in the act of collecting her eggs for food—a commandment concerning which Torah promises long life—Rabbi Elisha lost his faith, but Rabbi Akiva, who believed that “everything God does, is for good (Talmud Bavli, Berakhot 60b) argued that God would indeed grant long life to that boy “in the world to come”. (Talmud Bavli, Hagigah 15b). A main current of Jewish tradition (and an even more prominent part of Christian tradition) has amplified the doctrine of a “world to come”, where the injustices of this world will be set right. Thus, what seems like needless pain and suffering in this world is only a partial picture.
That answer can neither be verified nor falsified, because of the limits of our earthly knowledge. But it is worth stating that the Hebrew Bible, while filled with the faithful appreciation for God’s power, does not commit itself to Rabbi Akiva’s world-view. Rather, the Bible speaks of God as renewing the earth with new generations (Psalm 104:29-30), and remains largely silent on the question of the individual’s afterlife. We may therefore recognize that Jewish tradition is not monolithic; it contains different perspectives on this point.
Personally, while filled respect for Rabbi Akiva’s achievement, I am not uplifted by that particular answer, and so I have looked further. Other currents of Jewish thought offer alternatives:
Following the lead of the modern theologian, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, Rabbi Harold Kushner has argued that God creates a world where pain and suffering are simply part of the natural condition; it is fruitless to expend our strength in pondering “why”? Rabbi Kushner tacitly retreats from the proposition that God is all-powerful, while reasserting God’s goodness. God grieves with us when we suffer, and God motivates us to help each other. Rabbi Kushner has often made the point that the book he has written, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People”, is not entitled “Why Bad Things Happen…” because he claims no special knowledge of that. I would add, amen: neither do I.
Note that in Rabbi Kushner’s formulation, the theological awareness of God’s non-omnipotence is closely connected to the “practical” impulse to help each other in response to suffering. That is how we serve as God’s partners for good in this world.
Permit me a more personal expression, still in response to the question: The problem of natural evil is one that I have grappled with, existentially, while parenting a developmentally disabled child. Many well-meaning people have offered me Rabbi-Akiva-type answers: her disability makes her sensitive; her disability brings out the good in others; her disability brings out the good in me, and so on; but none of those answers assuage the core of pain, nor refute the point of the theological question, which I share with the questioner.
My scientific studies have dovetailed with my religious meditations to shape my own ultimate response, which follows the pathways of Rabbis Kaplan and Kushner. Unlike the determinism of early modern science, scientists today emphasize the role of indeterminacy in the world. At the quantum level, the most fundamental level of physical reality, only probabilities, not certainties, characterize existence. And even at the macroscopic levels, chaos is an essential feature of physical systems.
I accept that this chaos is a real part of the world that God has created, just as I accept that gravity and electromagnetism describe so much of the behavior of real objects. This chaos is ultimately the cause of the mitochondrial DNA mutation that resulted in my daughter’s disability. I do not see it as any part of God’s specific providence, but rather, as a feature of the world, that I have no choice but to accept.
Or perhaps I do—we do—have a choice? We could choose not to believe in God, because the world contains the kind of pain that a good, omnipotent, God would not have brought into being. But, to paraphrase Rabbi Milton Steinberg, another student of Rabbi Kaplan’s, such a world-view would explain away the problem of natural evil, but would leave us incapable to explaining the good and the altruistic that also exist in the world.
Ultimately, when we choose our beliefs, we choose them because they help us to organize our world, and we accept that each system of beliefs has some strong points and other weak points. The weak points of atheism are such that I do not find it an acceptable organizing principle for life as I know it. Conversely, the weak points of a fundamentalist system, one that fails to acknowledge the reality of the pain and suffering that exist in this world, are such that I need to look further. The idea that we can not ultimately understand why God has created such a world, but we can know that God is NOT punishing us for sins when we fall prey to the harshness and indifference of nature, remains for me the best theological alternative, even if it leaves much that one would want to know.
One last point: Judaism has famously—if only partially accurately—been described as “a religion of deed, not of creed.” There are, indeed, points of belief that characterize most streams of Judaism, but the consequences of dissenting from those points are different in Judaism than they are in a faith-based religious system. Let us allow ourselves the freedom to disagree on speculative conclusions of theology, when such disagreement is necessary, and nonetheless, to conduct our lives in the light of the humane and ennobling values taught by our religion.
I think it important to re-echo your assumption, in the question, that we should help those in need in these situations, aside from any religious responses or ideas we have about the tragedy. At the same time, I also think we should not let dramatic suffering elbow out other suffering--often, by making superhuman efforts, we can do something for people in Haiti, or Japan, or New Orleans, but if we put those same superhuman efforts into more local hardships, could have at least as great an impact. The money and time we spend far away can, often, be as well or better spent close to home; perhaps that is why our Sages understood the Torah to be telling us that the poor of our own cities have a greater right to our charity than those from far away. (With the notable exception of Israel, but that's a different discussion).
It is interesting to me that your question about environmental tragedy starts with wondering about a God who wreaks this kind of havoc. I come at it from the other side, that if this tragedy came from God, what would be the message behind it? To get there, let me note that that whole issue, how much of natural events God directly controls, is not at all clear in Jewish thought; there are maximalist perspectives (it is God's direct and miraculous influence that makes the sun rise each morning) and minimalist ones (Rambam, for example, seems to suggest that God set up a working Nature and, by and large, leaves it to work-- there's more to it than that, too, but that, again, is a larger conversation).
So one unclear issue is whether and when environmental events come from God, and the answer need not be all or nothing. In a series of posts on the Exodus story at blog.webyeshiva.org, I have been noting Ramban's view, at least about the plagues of hail and locusts, that they may have been the kind of hail and locusts that other parts of the world had seen before, just not Egypt. That would mean, for Ramban, that some environmental events are "natural," and others are direct intervention by God. In the land of Israel, by the way, we are supposed to assume that natural events come from God, because the Torah tells us that Land has "more" of God's attention than others; that is why a drought in Israel makes fasting incumbent on the Jewish community there. So that's one hard question to consider.
Assuming we come to see this tragedy as being from God, we have to grapple with why. Your question assumes there could be hardly any reason, but I wonder about that. Some thirty-five hundred years ago-- give or take-- God gave a Torah in which He (pardon the pronoun) called for absolute avoidance of certain actions (for Jews and non-Jews, incidentally-- the Talmud is clear that the Torah expects a certain code of conduct from non-Jews as well), and declares those actions deserving of death. I understand that to mean that our Creator, the One who gave us life and the whole world, has set conditions on our right to partake of that world. All over the world-- not just the places where those environmental tragedies have occurred-- people completely ignore those standards, even people who view themselves as religious, even people who view themselves as adhering to a Judeo-Christian-Islamic version of religion.
To give examples would be to open myself up to the charge that I think I know how to judge others, that I think myself better than them, so I won't. All I will say is, if we look, even a little, at what God told us we couldn't do, under pain of death, I think we can understand better a God who wreaks this kind of havoc. If we ignore God and what God tells us is necessary for life, who are we to then point a finger when our actions come home to roost? It is, to me, much like a cigarette smoker blaming God when emphysema or lung cancer comes.
Which does not make it any less important for us to try to help these people, ease their sufferings and, if possible, put them on a better life path. It just means it makes little sense, to me, to blame God. It would make more sense to hear God calling us, trying to help us avoid an even worse outcome in the future, one that might, God forbid, hit much closer to home.
The tragedy now facing Japan is of a scope that we rarely see. The natural disasters were bad enough but the impending nuclear meltdown exacerbates the problem exponentially. People can clean up after a flood, a tsunami, even an earthquake. It is a lot harder to clean up from nuclear contamination. What is our Jewish response to such a tragedy?
Of course we offer our support – moral and financial – where we can. As Jews we encourage our national leaders not to stand idle while our neighbor bleeds. And, of course, we engage ourselves in the debate about nuclear power – a debate which has subsided in recent years because it was not seen as a major problem.
But the theological question you ask is one that needs to be asked and answered forthrightly and clearly.
God had nothing to do with the tsunami. God had nothing to do with the earthquake. God had nothing to do with the nuclear meltdown. God has nothing to do with the weather, plate tectonics or the laws of physics. The simple truth is that whatever has happened in the world over the past 4 billion years will continue for the next 4 billion years. The difference is that there are now people in the way and, as people, we wonder why God would do such a thing to His creatures.
That way of looking at the world is one of self-importance. It is, in effect, saying, “How dare God do such a thing?!” We feel cheated and undeserving of such terrible things.
Of course, our Sages and biblical authors – quite often but not always - saw weather and natural disasters, war and disease and any misfortune as sent by God as punishments, inducements, to repent, or warnings. It is natural to think that and I doubt there is one culture that doesn’t think that way. But that does not mean it is accurate or fair.
In fact, it is unfair, especially to God. Why should God get blamed for everything that happens? Why do we depend on the laws of nature and the laws of physics for everything but are upset at God when we are caught in the middle of a natural event? Do we teach our children to blame God for gravity, a natural phenomenon, when they fall off their bikes? And yet, we blame God and wonder why He punishes us when those self-same laws of gravity drop a building crane on a busy metropolitan street.
Elie Weisel was right when he said that the most pathetic figure in the bible is God. He is always disappointed at people and everyone is always blaming Him for what happened!
It is time to stop blaming God.
It is time to recognize that what we do has consequences in God’s world. When we build nuclear power plants on seismic faults we are asking for trouble. Maybe not in the next ten years but certainly within the next hundred. And the truth is, no matter how well prepared we are for natural disasters, the awesome might of nature is something we have barely any control over.
Our response to the disasters befalling Japan should be God’s response. There is no blame for what happens in nature but there is a humane and sensitive response to those who are suffering. The reality is that God is not going to ‘lift up the fallen’ – it is we who are doing God’s work will be the ones lifting up the fallen. And it is also we who will have to look at our decisions about what we build and where be build and understand that the consequences of our actions can be dire.
When the midrash teaches us that God said to Noah after the Flood, “Take care of this earth because after you there is no one to fix it and sustain it,’ the rabbis were telling us two things: first, that the earth is ours to care for and what we do today affects generations to come. Second, and I think more importantly, don’t expect God to perform miracles every time we think we deserve them.
We all want God present in times of trouble. Many Psalms are written to reflect that in the most beautiful Hebrew poetry. And God is present, but only if we act as we would want anyone to act towards us in our suffering: with compassion, kindness, sensitivity and love. That is the place to find God in disasters such as these.
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