Friday, August 26, 2011

Re'eh: Dangerous Hurricane Theology

As Hurricane Irene inexorably makes her way up the East Coast, it seems nearly impossible for theological questions not to simmer behind the more pressing needs of storm preparation.

It is very tempting, in the face of natural disasters, for some spiritual leaders to reflexively invoke Biblical themes of reward and punishment. So goes the traditional trope, repeated unflinchingly throughout the Torah: if you follow the mitzvot / commandments, you will be rewarded; if you don't, then God will cause you great suffering. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina and the earthquake in Haiti, both Jewish and non-Jewish preachers put forward the theory of Divine collective punishment, effectively blaming the victim.

And they stand on good, solid textual bases. Two and a half weeks after Tish'ah Be'av, the day on which we commemorate the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem not once, but twice, we read tomorrow the third of seven haftarot of consolation. Ancient rabbis saw our loss of the Temple as being the result of our transgressions, just like the Torah tells us that droughts or floods are our own fault.

But that is not where I stand, and I would venture a guess that most if not all progressive rabbis agree with me. And the ancient rabbis of the Talmud were not of one mind on this either; they knew that the particularly troubling problem of theodicy, answering the question of why there is suffering in the world, is insoluble when we accept as a postulate that God is all good and all powerful. The Talmud puts this question in the mouth of Moses: "Master of the universe, why is it that some righteous men prosper while others suffer adversity, some wicked men prosper while others suffer adversity?" (Berakhot 7a)

We read in Parashat Re'eh tomorrow the strong imperative to avoid avodah zarah, the pagan worship of idols practiced by the Canaanites (Deuteronomy 12:3):

וְנִתַּצְתֶּם אֶת-מִזְבְּחֹתָם, וְשִׁבַּרְתֶּם אֶת-מַצֵּבֹתָם, וַאֲשֵׁרֵיהֶם תִּשְׂרְפוּן בָּאֵשׁ, וּפְסִילֵי אֱלֹהֵיהֶם תְּגַדֵּעוּן; וְאִבַּדְתֶּם אֶת-שְׁמָם, מִן-הַמָּקוֹם הַהוּא.
Tear down their altars, smash their pillars, put their sacred posts to the fire, and cut down the images of their gods, obliterating their name from that site.

I would argue that one idol that we should smash is the ancient notion that God visits punishment on us. While God makes possible the physical forces around us that make the patterns of weather possible, God does not micro-manage, sending destructive storms here and sunny, mild weather there. The weather, and the destruction that it may wreak, is not dependent on God's mood, or indeed our behavior.

God is the source of good, and the inspiration for our own work in repairing a broken world; we are partners with God in this task. Shabbat Shalom!


  1. Excellent. Only a primitive like Falwell or the Orthodox would even dream up this kind of idiocy.

  2. Perhaps, but I do think that it's human nature to seek an explanation, a why, to have a larger purpose behind larger suffering. It's often easier to accept catastrophe that way. Mind you, I don't think or believe that we will always have the explanations we seek, and I firmly believe that often the ones we get are not the ones we want.


  3. The explanation for suffering need not include God. I can't accept that God is responsible for the earthquake in Haiti or Katrina, or for that matter the Holocaust or the my parents' cancers. Likewise, I can't blame the victims either, as some do. Either there is another source for horrible things beyond God's control, or there is a certain randomness in the way that suffering is ladled out to humanity. Regardless, we will never know for sure, and the eternal problem of theodicy will continue to pester us, as it has since at least the time of authorship of the book of Job.