Haiti, then Chile, one earthquake after another has brought death, suffering, dislocation, and torment. And as ever, everyone seems to be asking, “Did God do this? And why?” All the usual holy rollers of all religions trundle out the old tired theories about what we did wrong to deserve this.
Indeed, often there may well be a good reason why the tragedy was so much worse than it needed to be. We humans made mistakes, such as not building adequate defenses, or putting up cheap vulnerable buildings. Sometimes governments are too corrupt or ineffectual to protect beforehand or deal with the crisis afterwards. If humans choose to build and live on the San Andreas fault, is God to blame when the earth shifts? If skiers get in the way of an avalanche, is it not human error that is to blame? And what is now a cliché, the question is not where God was in Auschwitz, but where was humanity.
The Lisbon earthquake of 1755, followed by fire and tidal waves, was a cataclysmic series of disasters that had a profound impact on European thought and politics. All the major thinkers of the time grappled with its theological implications, then as now. Traditional political systems began to crumble in the face of their impotence. The Catholic Church suddenly became much stricter and more authoritarian, because it thought that religious backsliding was to blame and God was sending a message when the cathedral collapsed.
On the other hand, Voltaire argued that this proved that there was no God to get involved and gave this example in “Candide”. It was up to humans to do the best they could. And Kant, while not rejecting God, argued that physical phenomena functioned according to verifiable scientific rules, while God (if you believed in Him) simply allowed nature to do what nature needed to do. Two hundred fifty years on, nothing much has changed.
The Talmud says that if bad things happen, you should examine your ways. But this is another way of saying that any catastrophe or accident is an opportunity for reflection, self-analysis, and hopefully self-betterment. It also wonders whether God could possibly act in an unfair manner, just as Abraham wondered about the destruction of Sodom. It recognizes that God functions on a different level than humans, and therefore we have no way of fathoming the “Mind of God”. Such thoughts about Divine justice can only be rhetorical, not logical. Can you imagine logically what arrogance it must take for any human to say with certainty, “I know that this is why God acted this way?”
But of course, they do. Anything that strikes down your enemy is the Hand of God, and every competing ideology looks for signs that it alone is right. Did you see during the Winter Games how almost every competitor’s mother was busy praying to her God? And did you hear of any losing finalist abandoning his religion as a result?
Dealing with tragedy is a question of self-reassurance, of trying to cope, ourselves. Facts or scientific explanations don’t help remove pain. If we believe nothing happens on earth without God’s approval, we can make no logical sense out of most of what happens on earth, whether it comes from Nature or Mankind. We do not know why God allowed Auschwitz to happen. Though do know that humans committed unspeakable crimes. Our beliefs either matters of faith or wishful thinking. They may reinforce our sense of our position in the universe, but they can hardly be objective or scientific. If we believe, as the Talmud also says, that the world functions according to its own rules regardless, then we accept our limitations and try to deal with life and God in the best way we can. I don’t consider this passivity or defeatism, just realism.
The Talmud asks, “Why do bad people prosper and good people suffer?” The beauty of the Talmud and of Jewish theology, as opposed to those who purvey black-and-white certainties, is that it offers various and different ways of understanding the world, our position in it, and what happens after death. We can buy the answers or not! We can choose which of its approaches best satisfies our minds and our souls. This is why religious thinkers have always ranged from strict rationalists to weird mystics.
A blessing is an expression of human desire (just as a curse is no more than an expression of hatred), a way of giving people support and strength. It can be very comforting, but it is never a guarantee that anyone is listening, or that He or She will decide to act on your behalf or on someone else’s. Still it helps one to feel that one is proactive rather than passive. The Torah is a book of life, one which helps us to live in the here and now.
Life is a constant struggle. We are all subjected to pressures and tensions at certain moments in our lives, no matter how holy we are. There are no answers. Certainty is an illusion. There are only ways of dealing with the crises, setbacks, and disasters as they arise, and of trying to become better human beings as well.