Natural Disasters: Are We To Be Blamed?
“Because of Our Sins, This Has Befallen Us?”
ויאמר אלהים לנח קץ כל בשר בא לפני כי מלאה הארץ חמס מפניהם והנני משחיתם את הארץ
“And God said to Noah, ‘The end of all flesh has come before Me, for the earth has become full of robbery because of them, and behold I am destroying them from the earth’.” Bereshit 6:13
“I believe that if a triangle could speak, it would say, in like manner, that God is eminently triangular, while a circle would say that the divine nature is eminently circular. Thus each would ascribe to God its own attributes, would assume itself to be like God and look on everything else as ill-shaped.” Baruch Spinoza (1)
Throughout all of human history, mankind has been confronted with enormous and deadly natural disasters. Each time many good souls, Jews and non-Jews, wonder what the higher meaning is behind all this. Particularly, religious people postulate that there is a divine purpose to these catastrophes, and most of them believe that it must be human moral and religious failure that caused this divine wrath to rain down on them and their fellow men.
Within religious communities, such reactions and attitudes are part of their outlook on life, and there is a strong tendency among some religious people to blame the irreligious for these disasters. Many even blame themselves for the lack of their own religiosity and religious observance.
This is especially true about religious Jews. We feel responsible for the shortcomings of mankind and so we endlessly repeat: mipnei chato’enu, because of our sins, this has befallen us. Many even believe that disasters visited upon non-Jews are of our making. While there is something very beautiful about this mindset, not letting us off the hook, even when it is not we who are affected but the gentiles, there is also something very wrong with it. Not only does it play into the hand of anti-Semites, but it is also theologically unsound.
It can hardly be denied that the Torah and Jewish tradition are replete with examples of God warning the Jewish people of grave consequences if they do not follow the Divine Will.
Maimonides’ famous statement in his Mishneh Torah (2) seems to bear this out. The great sage teaches us that after each catastrophe that has befallen the community, Jews should blow trumpets, fast, and repent. To believe that these tragedies are accidental and of no meaning is highly irresponsible, warns Maimonides. It is the epitome of callousness and denial of Divine Providence. It is close to atheism.
Still, this cannot be the whole story. Common sense and a keen understanding of Jewish religious philosophy and sources seem to tell us that there is more to this than meets the eye. In fact, the constant emphasis on the moral and religious responsibility of Jews, and mankind at large, for any disaster that befalls them may well be a serious deviation from Jewish religious teachings. While many might argue that any denial of divine retribution would constitute apikorsut (heresy), it could very well be that the opposite is heresy and even a form of idol worship.
Is the Human Being the Measure of All Things?
Do good and evil events in this world really always depend on human behavior? Was there no other reason for God to create the universe than to test human beings and reward or punish accordingly? Is man really the measure of all things? Rambam seems to doubt this in his Moreh Nevuchim (3) where he states that God made everything lema’anehu (4), which many commentators understand as referring to human beings, (i.e. for the sake of man), but Maimonides understands to mean for His (i.e. for God’s) sake rather than for the human being.
Are we compelled to believe that Stephen Hawking’s black holes and baby universes, the millions of stars and other celestial bodies, were created only to test man’s moral and religious conduct? Would it not be more logical to conclude that God’s reasons for creating the universe are much greater and more significant than the problem of human behavior? Why create planets and invisible baby universes when what is of sole importance is human behavior on one tiny globe?
When Iyov (Job) demands an explanation from God as to why he has lost all his children, belongings and wealth and is suffering such terrible pain, God’s response is not that he has in any way misbehaved. Instead, He asks Iyov: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding.” (5) God challenges Iyov’s very notion that suffering is always related to sin. Who says that My treatment of human beings is always to be judged by your criteria of righteousness? There are larger issues at work.
While Iyov’s friends argue that he must have sinned, God rejects this argument. He declares that such an attitude is a denial of His multidimensional being and His larger cosmic plan. Iyov’s suffering has nothing to do with sin. God protests this very idea and tells him it is a declaration of preposterous heresy and an expression of childishness to think that way. Even worse, it is a reflection of man’s arrogance. Is he really so important? Since when is the human being able to judge God and decide why He created the universe? Such haughtiness is nothing but an attempt by the human being to squeeze God into the parameters of what she or he believes God should be. It is based on preconceived ideas of what God is and is not. The human being constantly tries to view God through her or his own prism. But that reveals more about the human being than it does about God. Such an attempt is nothing less than idol worship. It is as if one is trying to describe a three-dimensional image by way of a flat surface.
During a two-and-a-half-year debate, Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai (6) discussed the question of whether it is better for human beings to have been created, or not. They concluded that it would have been better for human beings not to have been created, but now that they are created they should watch their deeds. This is a most remarkable observation. The truth about this bizarre debate is that it touches on one of the greatest mysteries known to mankind.
What is the purpose of the universe and of human existence? Is that something he can even know? By deciding that it would have been better for the human being not to have been created, Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai made a powerful point. There is no way to know the ultimate purpose of human existence. We have no idea why God wanted humankind, or for that matter a universe, to exist. Perhaps to reward the human beings for their good deeds? Maybe so that they may enjoy life and merit to observe the mitzvoth?
But these answers only raise more questions. Why does the human being need to be created so as to be rewarded, or to enjoy life and perform the mitzvot? Would it not have been better if humankind not to have been created? First, human beings would have been unaware of what they were missing. Second, they would not have had to encounter the many and frequent severe trials accompanied by unbearable pain. Are the joys of life and reward really enough reason to warrant creation when it goes hand in hand with genocide, natural calamities, disease and death? From the point of view of righteousness there is nothing to support creation. It is unjust and indefensible. Yet, God has decided it must be. The reason, then, must be much greater than the human being can ever fathom.
Ultimately, God alone is responsible, not only for natural catastrophes but also for man’s evil deeds. After all, He created mankind and gave it the capability to do evil. The most Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai could conclude was: now that human beings are here, they had better watch their deeds.
At the beginning of this chapter, I suggested that from an authentic Jewish point of view, it is a mistake to hold humankind or the Jewish people responsible for natural disasters – such as earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes or fires – due to religious or moral failures. Though some disasters may indeed be due to human failure, it is in fact irresponsible and dangerous to make human beings responsible for every disaster, since it reflects the same mistake the friends of the biblical Iyov (Job) made when they assumed that he must have sinned. For them it was obvious that he was at fault; otherwise, why would so many terrible afflictions have befallen him? Iyov, however, insisted that he had not sinned and challenged God as to why he had been made to endure such terrible miseries, since he was innocent! God responded that He knew this to be true but confronted Iyov with a question that speaks to the core of the matter: Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? (7) In other words: Since when is the human being really the measure of all things? The universe, with its black holes, baby universes and millions of stars clearly indicates that God's reason for creating the universe surpasses by far the argument that all this was just created for the sake of humanity. That people suffer and natural disasters take place may have to do with matters that go to the very foundation of all existence and have nothing to do with peoples' religious or moral failures.
Do terrible tragedies that afflict the innocent raise the question of whether it is more honest to deny God's existence? Does all the pain in this world not make a strong case for such a proposition? Is the constant attempt to justify God's existence, by way of apologetics, not a farce, and futile?
An attitude such as this, however, is guilty of erroneous reasoning. It assumes, as do the "pro-God" apologists, that God needs to fit the picture we have of Him, or would like to have of Him: a good God. However, by making God good by our standards, we are essentially making God into an idol, one Who fulfills our needs. That is surely not the Jewish God. While He shares with us certain qualities, He is far more than that. He does not belong to any category with which we can identify.
It seems that God is not the type of "good God" we always speak about and want to believe in. His goodness may apply only to the fact that He is good in and of Himself. He possesses goodness, but it is a truth known only to Him and has no bearing on human beings.
The Atheist's Solution
This argument is not apologetic but an admission of our limited understanding. Atheism is no solution. It is an escape, which ultimately only increases the problem. To argue that all of existence is accidental requires more belief than believing that there is a Creator, and a purpose to all existence. The believer is a greater skeptic than the atheist. The difference is that believers admit their limitations while atheists do not. "The writers against religion, whilst they oppose every system, are wisely careful never to set up any of their own", said Edmund Burke. (8)
This idea is supported by a well-known passage in the Talmud (9) discussing the case of shiluach haken – the obligation to send away a mother bird before taking her young. (10) In an unusually harsh statement, the Sages forbid one to say that compassion is the reason for this law, and they declare that such a person "is to be silenced." It is not mercy behind this law, says the Talmud, but the unknowable Divine Will. Ultimately, we do not know why things are the way they are. God cannot be scrutinized.
The problem of creating God in our image is not a new one. Moshe asks God to reveal His name to him before he conveys the message to the Jews that He will redeem them from Egyptian bondage. God refuses to do so, and His answer is astonishing: "I will be Whoever I will be." I am not a "what", or a "when." I am not even a "who." There is no term you can use to describe Me. Any attempt to give Me an image is a serious violation of My very being. Any conclusive explanation of My deeds is idol worship. I permit you to describe Me in human terms only as long as you know that any such description will ultimately break down. No word can ever contain Me.
When disasters befall humankind, they may very well have no correlation with people's behavior. They may simply be part of God's cosmic plan, perhaps alluding to other divine aspects that are totally beyond us and known only to God. As long as we do not know why God created the universe, including so many other worlds, we cannot say for sure whether every calamity is a result of our shortcomings. Some may be, and some may not be. We should never deny the ever-present possibility that various divine factors are at work.
The Joy of Life
The joy of life, which is so much a part of Jewish tradition, focuses on the fact that from a divine perspective, things could actually be much worse. Despite God's impenetrable nature and thoughts, He shared some of His "good" qualities with humanity, informing us that our existence has great meaning, though we will never know what that consists of. It is this aspect that is celebrated by Jewish tradition and beckons us to understand that despite all the pain, it is for the most part possible to enjoy life, to attain simchat Chayim!
The claim that people are responsible for every disaster is a burden we may not be able to bear. It is an attitude of hopelessness that may lead us to give up and see God only as a vengeful God with Whom we cannot have a relationship. It would be better to reason, as does Søren Kierkegaard, that God sometimes applies His "teleological suspension of the ethical" (11) so as to achieve His goals within the universe – not only because we have a philosophical need to see God in terms of His total Otherness, but because it may be closer to the truth. Theodicy as a means of claiming that God can be justified in human terms is a form of idol worship.
Over the years, Jewish worship has adopted an attitude of mipnei chato'enu galinu me'artzenu (because of our sins we have been exiled from our land), which has developed into a form of pessimism that is not loyal to the teachings of our Jewish tradition. It pretends that humans are superhuman; it is dangerous and religiously unhealthy.
This approach has infiltrated and dominates too many of our daily prayers, which should be replaced with prayers about God whose exalted greatness is inscrutable but worthy of our worship.
Whether or not a devastating fire, or any other natural disaster, is an expression of divine displeasure we do not know. Nor will it ever be known, until we will again be blessed with prophets.
What it should evoke in us is a feeling of deep humility. It should serve as a wake-up call, that all our boasting, our arrogance, our claiming that we know it all and that one day all of nature will be under our control is one of the most pathetic dreams we have ever entertained. One storm, such as those that in recent history hit the United States and other countries, can bring all of the world's population to its knees.
No doubt we should treat each disaster as if it was a warning, a call for repentance, for humility, and even more a call to help wherever we can. The dangerous apathy of many of us in the wake of such terrible tragedy is perhaps the most devastating expression of human failure.
We must be fully aware that calamities are perhaps part of God's cosmic plan far beyond human behavior. And we are not to be blamed. This is an important message to send to our young people, lest they despair under the yoke of religious pessimism. Better a God Who is incomprehensible than a God Who unremittingly causes us to feel that all catastrophes are our fault. Believing the latter is un-Jewish.
(1) Benedict de Spinoza, Letter 60 (56) “Between Spinoza and Hugo Boxel on Ghosts”, in Improvement of the Understanding, Ethics and Correspondence, trans. R.H.M. Elwes (New York: Cosimo, 2006), 392.
(2) Hilchot Ta’anit 1:1-4.
(3) Moreh Nevuchim, part 3, chap. 13.
(4) Mishle 16:4.
(5) Iyov 38:4.
(6) Eruvin 13b.
(7) Iyov 38:4
(8) Edmund Burke, The Works of Edmund Burke: With a Memoir, Volume 1 (NY: Harper & Brothers, 1860), xii.
(9) Berachot 33b.
(10) Devarim 22:6-7.
(11) Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, eds. C. Stephen Evans and Sylvia Walsh, trans. by Sylvia Walsh (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 46-58.