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.
Rabbi Michael Panitz
13 Adar II, 5771
March 17, 2011