How can we theologically understand weather disasters - from earthquakes, to deadly blizzards, to drought?
By Rabbi Rebecca W. Sirbu, Director, Rabbis Without Borders,
CLAL – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership
Natural disasters can cause enormous human suffering as we have seen over the past several years from the Tsunami in Thailand, Hurricane Katrina in the Gulf States, and the earthquakes in Haiti and Japan. There is no easy way to explain the cause of these disasters. It is human nature to ask why they happened, what could have caused them, and what role God could have played in these disasters. If God is all good, all powerful, and all knowing, how could such disasters occur?
So is God all good, all powerful, and all knowing? As children, we are often taught that God is all of these things, yet as we grow in to adults we realize that they cannot all hold. If God is all of these things then it would follow that natural disasters, and human suffering could not occur. A “Good God” would not willfully inflict suffering on humans. An “All knowing God” would know if something bad were about to happen, and would prevent it. And an “All Powerful God” would have the power over nature and would be able to control it.
Jewish theologians have grappled with this issue of the nature of God and why bad things happen for centuries. The Book of Job details how Job is hit by one tragedy after another. Yet, Job still holds fast to his faith in God. The message of the book is that we can never know God’s true nature, and we have to trust that God has reasons for why bad things happen. Some people find this theology reassuring. They accept that we can’t understand everything that happens in this world, and can live with that. They turn to God for support during difficult times, and their faith in God does not waver.
Modern theologians Rabbi Mordechi Kaplan and Harold Kushner hold on to the belief that God is good, but not all powerful. During the time of creation, some chaos was left in the world. It is this chaos that causes natural disasters and illness. God does not have the power to control this chaos. They too counsel that we can turn to God for support during difficult times, and do not blame God for the chaos which causes the suffering.
Another modern theologian, David Blumenthal, asserts that God is all knowing and all powerful, but not all good. He believes that both good and bad have their origin in God. This being the case, we have every right to confront God, and empower ourselves by expressing our anger at God. He asserts that expressing our anger is a way to be in relationship with God. And being in the relationship is important for our healing.
Take a moment to think about each of these viewpoints. Which of these theological views resonates with you? One of the beautiful facts about Judaism is that we are not told what exactly we must believe about God. It is up to us to struggle with our own beliefs. There are no easy answers, and there are no right answers. There is only the answer that makes sense to you, and brings you some measure of comfort when tragedy hits. So, what do you believe?
From a theological perspective, no human being can know the precise reasons that weather disasters occur. Unless one would be gifted with insight through prophecy -- a gift no longer present in this generation -- it would be the height of arrogance and insensitivity to say that one knows why an earthquake, tsunami or other weather disaster happened. This lesson is taught in the book of Job, when G-d rebukes Job's friends who suggest reasons for his torment with the words, "Where were you when I laid the foundations of the world?"
Furthermore, while we believe in an infinite, all-knowing, loving G-d, at times G-d's face, as it were, can be hidden from us. The Bible, following a list of curses and punishments that will befall the Jews if they do not obey the Torah, states, “…and I will hide my face from you on that day.” (Deuteronomy. 31:18) We recently celebrated the holiday of Purim, when a courageous queen named Esther saved the Jewish people from genocide 2500 years ago. Esther’s name, the Talmud tells us, is hinted at in the Hebrew bible in the words “vaani hister astir panai bayom hahoo ”, “And I will hide my face from you on that day.” The name 'Esther' is related to the word 'hister', meaning, “to hide.” In the entire book of Esther, G-d's name isn't mentioned once. This also alludes to G-d's hiddenness.
Yet simultaneously, we believe that all G-d does is for the good, despite our inability to understand His ways.
The Talmud relates that when Rabbi Akiva was once traveling, he reached a town looking for an inn to lodge in, but found none. He declared: 'Everything G-d does is for the good." He went to sleep in the open, accompanied by a cock, a donkey and a lantern. The wind blew and extinguished the lantern, a cat came and ate the cock, and a lion came and ate the donkey. Yet he declared once again: "Everything G-d does is for the good." On that night a group of bandits raided the town and took the inhabitants captive. Rabbi Akiva later said to his students, "did I not tell you that everything that G-d does is for the good?" If the candle had been burning or the cock and donkey had been alive, Rabbi Akiva would have been discovered and taken captive.
The word 'coincidence' is not in the working vocabulary of a believing Jew. G-d guides the entire world, and knows everything that happens to all of creation every moment of time -- every leaf that falls from a tree, and every drop of rain that falls. Our inability to grasp the 'why' of weather disasters speaks to the limitation of human understanding, not to any injustice or deficiency that might exist in G-d. This idea is concisely expressed in the Bible: "The Rock, His works are perfect, all of His ways are just. A G-d of trustworthiness without iniquity, righteous and fair is He." (Deut. 32:4).
A final word: While the ways of G-d are often hidden in this world, an empathetic and compassionate response to the pain of others is obligatory. As the prophet (Micha 6:8) says, " ...what is it that G-d seeks of you, but to act with justice and loving-kindness, and walk with modesty before your Lord?" Who is righteous and who is wicked is for G-d to decide. Our task in the face of human suffering is to lovingly respond with all help possible.
The term “act of God” is used in a legal context for “an event which is caused by the effect of nature or natural causes and without any interference by humans whatsoever.” But when religious people use the term, it seems to mean that God somehow intended or caused the natural disaster to happen. Are natural disasters acts of God in the second sense of the term?
Of course it depends on what kind of God you believe in. If you believe in the literal truth of the Bible, that God really can split the sea or that God is responsible for a flood that wipes out the whole earth, then you might believe that God is responsible for the earthquake. But that is not the God I believe it. I don’t think it is the God of Jewish tradition either.
Jews don’t read the Bible literally. We read it through the lens of generations of interpretations, and acknowledge the evolution of human understanding of God. The Talmudic image of God is vastly different from the image of God presented in the Bible. The God described in Talmud is not responsible for what we call “acts of God.”
Two classic Talmudic texts make this point very clearly: “Suppose a person stole a measure of wheat and went and sowed it in the ground; it is right that it should not grow, yet the world pursues its natural course, and as for those who transgress, they will have to render an account. Another illustration: Suppose a man had intercourse with his neighbor's wife; it is right that she should not conceive, yet the world pursues its natural course.”
The tradition is claiming that God doesn’t interfere with the natural course of the world. Earthquakes happen. Things that don’t seem fair from the perspective of morality happen because of laws of nature. People suffer as a result, but not because God has willed this specific tragedy to occur.
A second text is even more powerful: It plays off the two Biblical commands which come along with the reward of living a long life: honoring your parents and shooing away a mother bird before you take her eggs, presumably so you don’t hurt her feelings.
“The boy’s father said to him: ‘Ascend to the loft and bring me the eggs in the nest...’ If the boy ascends, dismisses the mother bird and takes the young, and on his return falls and is killed, how can it be explained?” (After all, the boy was fulfilling the two commandments that come with a reward—he was honoring his father and he was shooing away the mother bird.) After offering possible explanations for why this bad thing might have happened, Rabbi Eleazar says: “It was a rickety ladder, so injury was likely. Where injury is likely one cannot rely on a miracle.”
Earthquakes happen. We can’t depend on miracles. But we are responsible for the rickety ladders in our lives. The earthquake, the tsunami—that is the world pursuing its natural course. But building a nuclear plant so close to a fault line? Than is the rickety ladder. We are responsible for that.
Bad things will happen. People will get sick and die. Hurricanes will devastate a city. Tornados, earthquakes, drought…this is the world pursuing its natural course. But we are responsible for the rickety ladders, the extent to which global warming is created by human beings, the dangers posed by depending on energy sources that are dangerous, and the connection between our consumption and the planet’s inability to sustain all of us. We can’t depend on miracles, only on our resolve to take responsibility for what we can change to make the world safer.
(A longer version of this article appeared in the Huffington Post section. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rabbi-laura-geller/acts-of-god-a-jewish-pers_b_842215.html )
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