Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Natural Disasters and Rabbinic Explanations


In wake of the recent tragedy in the Far East, whose deadly repercussions are still being felt, some rabbis have tried to find reasons for the "natural" disaster. One sin in particular that I have seen attributed as the cause is inappropriate talking in the synagogue. I am sure there are other sins that have also been blamed. After all, a disaster of biblical proportions must have a biblical cause. This, inevitably, leads to protests by others of the insensitivity and arrogance of these rabbis.

While not necessarily agreeing with the rabbis, I see no reason to protest their words and am actually offended by those who object because it is not these rabbis in particular with whom they are disagreeing but with millennia of Jewish tradition.

R. Yoel Teitelbaum, in the introduction to his scholarly anti-Zionistic tract Va-Yo'el Moshe, notes that rabbis have traditionally responded to great disasters by searching for spiritual causes. R. Yosef ("The Hassid") Ya'avetz wrote a book titled Or Ha-Hayim to discuss the sins that led to the expulsion from Spain. R. Ya'akov of Lissa used this motif as the central theme to his commentary to Lamentations. While one may certainly dispute R. Teitelbaum's suggestion for the sin that led to the Holocaust (Zionism), one cannot refute his claim that it is entirely within rabbinic tradition to search for sins that caused Divine retribution.

Do we not find in the Talmud many statements that attribute specific disasters to specific sins? For example, Bava Metzi'a 85a-b:

"Who is wise enough to understand all this? Who has been instructed by the Lord and can explain it to others? Why has the land been ruined so completely that no one even dares to travel through it?" (Jeremiah 9:11)... Rav Yehudah said in the name of Rav: Because they did not recite the blessing before learning Torah.
That is one of the reasons given by the sages of the Talmud for the destruction and devastation that ended the Second Commonwealth, and it seems, to the modern eye, as trivial as the explanation given for today's tragedy.

The Ramban in his treatise on theodicy, Sha'ar Ha-Gemul (Kisvei Ha-Ramban, vol. 2 p. 281), after proposing many detailed theories about how and why rewards and punishments are Divinely dispensed, raises the question why one should even delve into these matters since it is almost impossible to fully comprehend all of the issues. Why not just rely on faith that God is just and forget about the unfathomable details? He states that such is the question of those who despise wisdom. By studying such matters we learn more about God's ways. Rather, it is everyone's obligation to delve into such matters and to become satisfied in the justice of God's ways. Tziduk ha-din is obligatory.


With such a vast historical tradition, why are people so offended by these types of statements? I think the answer is two-fold. First, we live in a world in which the majority are non-believers. Of course people who do not consider violations of the Torah to be punishable sins would object to the idea that anything, big or small, is a Divine punishment.

Second, we have become acculturated to the modern, secular world. People simply do not believe that violating commandments are sins that will be punished, even many who mouth belief but do not feel it. We trivialize the commandments so that violating them does not seem like something that should merit major punishments. OK, maybe a slap on the wrist or a temporary dip in one's stock portfolio. That is not the faith of our ancestors.

Dr. Haym Soloveitchik addresses this in his article Rupture and Reconstruction:
And while there are always those whose spirituality is one apart from that of their time, nevertheless I think it safe to say that the perception of God as a daily, natural force is no longer present to a significant degree in any sector of modern Jewry, even the most religious. Indeed, I would go so far as to suggest that individual Divine Providence, though passionately believed as a theological principle--and I do not for a moment question the depth of that conviction--is no longer experienced as a simple reality.[103] With the shrinkage of God's palpable hand in human affairs has come a marked loss of His immediate presence, with its primal fear and nurturing comfort. With this distancing, the religious world has been irrevocably separated from the spirituality of its fathers, indeed, from the religious mood of intimate anthropomorphism that had cut across all the religious divides of the Old World.

[Excerpt from note 103] Rabbi Peretz's remarks simply expressed the classic religious explanation of linking misfortune with guilt (pishpush be ma'asim), which would have been uttered by an preacher of the past millennium... As noted above (nn. 34, 19), the Sefaredic world has encountered modernity only recently, and in many ways, as in the palpable sense of the rewards and terrors of the afterlife and of God's immediate involvement in human affairs, remains far closer to the religious sensibilities of their fathers than does the more unconsciously acculturated members of the Ashkenazic community. This distance is true even of one of the least acculturated elements of the Ashkenazic haredi world, Hasidic women...

On the other hand, when we attribute a disaster that happens to others on our sins, are we not being arrogant? First of all, we must keep in mind that the Torah calls us God's firstborn son. This is an obligation and a responsibility. Regardless, though, what is the other option? Would it be better to blame the tragedy on the sins of those who died? Would this somehow appease the conscientious objectors? I doubt it.

The reactions in the Orthodox world are (surprisingly) ones of universal concern and brotherhood. It is being declared that we have an innate connection to gentiles on the other side of the planet. This, I believe, is a very interesting and positive development.

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