01/22/2010 - Responding to Haiti: The Challenge of Theodicy



January 22, 2010
Occasionally, the weekly Torah reading connects directly to contemporary life. Last week, on Martin Luther King weekend, we read about the Exodus of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. The resonance was palpable. This week we read about the last of the ten plagues. We read of the darkness and destruction that permeated ancient Egypt. We read of the tremendous loss of life. The Torah tells us that these plagues were God's means of punishing Egypt for the enslavement of the Israelites. In other words, the divine destruction had a human cause. Now a very simplistic reading--such as one despicably proposed by Reverend Pat Robertson--could interpret the events in Haiti in a similar manner. Such destruction was a form of divine vengeance. Robertson argues that the earthquake was God's punishment for the practice of voodoo and a 19th century agreement with the devil.
Now while we would rightfully condemn Robertson's remarks, we can also see the way that they can be justified by the Torah. The Torah does clearly see events in the natural world as means of divine reward and punishment. If the crops grow, God has blessed us because we acted righteously. If famine strikes us, God is punishing us for wrongdoing. This view of reward and punishment characterizes most of the Bible, and continues to prevail in fundamentalist communities today.
Part of the beauty of Judaism, however, is that even 2000 years ago, our sages rejected this simplistic point of view. Chastened, perhaps, by their experience of persecution, they articulated a variety of approaches that help us understand natural disaster and the role of God. Two thousand years before Harold Kushner, they addressed the question of why bad things happen to good people. They, of course, did not give us an answer. But they helped us see why it's not really the right question. Rather than ask why, the right question to ask is "What now can we do?"
Allow me to explain the rabbinic response to divine reward and punishment through the views of two leading rabbis of the first century. They are Akiva and Ishmael. Abraham Joshua Heschel said that we could comprehend the entire rabbinic worldview by studying these two rabbis. He wrote a book about called Torah Min Hashamayim. It's an easy read--only about 1000 pages.
Akiva was a mystic. He believed that the world operated by forces we cannot understand. He is famous for saying that every single marking of the Torah--from the tips of the tiny crowns on the parchment--has extraordinary meaning. We mere humans cannot fathom the way God works in the universe. Asking why something occurs is a meaningless question for Akiva. Rather, we embrace the world with piety. We seek to feel the pain and suffering of another, and experience the great joy of another. In facing tragedy, Akiva would say that we are to see, we are to feel and we are to act. A contemporary Orthodox rabbi, Tzvi Hersh Weinraub, illustrated this message well when he wrote about Haiti, "We cannot allow ourselves to in any way explain the suffering away with sick, silly, smug but sadly comforting statements such as, ‘They must have deserved it.’ We must see the victims as humans no different from ourselves, innocent and blameless, who are in a condition of desperation and dire need.” Our response to suffering is empathy and action. We are not living in the time of ancient Egypt. Those are mythical stories from which we derive our values. They are not prescriptions for the way we understand God's involvement in the universe today.
Now this is not the only rabbinic response. There is that of Ishmael. In contrast to Akiva, Ishmael was a rationalist. He believed the universe operated by logical principles. Ishmael is the prose to Akiva's poetry. Ishmael observes the world and makes logical conclusions from it. From Ishmael's point of view, the earthquake--and other natural disasters--can be seen as emerging from the natural world in which we live. The universe operates by rational principles, and fault lines and quakes are part of them. Such disasters are not moral judgments. They are events to which we respond. Just as we treat sickness with medicine, so we respond to natural disasters with the resources we have at hand.
Maimonides described this approach well. Maimonides argued that the world operated by definitive laws of nature. If it did not--if we believed that everything happened for a justifiable reason--then, he points out, we should not ever respond to suffering. In other words, if we walk through an infant ICU, if we believe everything is the will of God, then we would feel no empathy or no need to respond. We are supposed to feel, and we are supposed to respond. That is where we find God.
It is at such times that we recognize our common humanity. We know we can't solve the problem of Haiti. Like New Orleans, it will be a tremendously different place. But we can work hard to help those in need, and we can share their pain and comfort them in it. I came across a beautiful story recently. It was evidently a favorite of a 19th century itinerant preacher. He told the story of a girl who was sent out on an errand by her mother. The girl was gone longer than her mother thought proper. When she finally returned, the mother asked for an explanation. “Oh,” she replied. “I met Ruthine on the way and her doll was broken, so I stopped to help her.” “You mean you helped her fix the doll?”  “No, Mother, I don't know how to fix dolls. I stopped to help her cry.”
In this time of suffering, we share and feel the pain of those who have lost their homes and their loved. We help them cry, and we help them rebuild. In our tears and in our hands are where we find God.