Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Making God a Part of the Stimulus Package

Guest post by R. Gidon Rothstein, PhD

Americans pride themselves on their religiosity, with surveys trumpeting the percentages who believe in God. At the same time, the public discussion of issues facing this country—for now, that means the recession/depression and the stimulus—leave God out as a factor in how we shape our actions. I would have thought, a priori, that belief implies a continuing attempt to both understand and follow God’s Will, but that is not so in this or any other Western country.

This is particularly distressing when it comes to Orthodox Jews, since this is so ingrained in our tradition of how to react to times of trouble. For one quick example, Rambam opens Hilchot Taaniyot by asserting a Torah commandment to respond to communal troubles by calling out to Hashem (and blowing the hatzotzrot). Even more to the point is Halacha Gimmel:
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רמב"ם הלכות תעניות פרק א הלכה ג
אבל אם לא יזעקו ולא יריעו אלא יאמרו דבר זה ממנהג העולם אירע לנו וצרה זו נקרה נקרית, הרי זו דרך אכזריות וגורמת להם להדבק במעשיהם הרעים, ותוסיף הצרה צרות אחרות, הוא שכתוב בתורה +ויקרא כ"ו+ והלכתם עמי בקרי והלכתי עמכם בחמת קרי, כלומר כשאביא עליכם צרה כדי שתשובו אם תאמרו שהוא קרי אוסיף לכם חמת אותו קרי.
But if they do not cry out and blow, but rather say: “the way the world works has happened to us, and this time of trouble just happened,” this is insensitivity, and causes them to cling to their evil ways, and to add other troubles, which is what the Torah says (Vayikra 26) “and you shall go with me be-keri, I will go with you in a fury of keri” that is to say, when I bring you a time of trouble so that you should repent, if you say it is coincidental, I will add a fury of that “coincidence.”
To me, that should have clinched it, but I have mentioned this idea, that we should respond to modern troubles by considering what actions of ours have contributed to them, in many contexts and have met, almost uniformly, with rejection by Orthodox Jews. Why should this be, and how might we change it?

Two recent articles open a window on the why, and suggest to me ways we might change our thinking and find our way back to a fuller engagement with Hashem, as individuals, communities, and maybe one day as Klal Yisrael.

The first, an Op-Ed in a recent Sunday New York Times, was written by two economists, Marcelle Chauvet and Kevin A. Hassett. They noted that history indicates an eight percent chance of leaving a recession each month we are in it. In their words, “It is as if God rolls two dice each month, and the recession ends when he [sic] rolls a 10.” They end with, “But the dice will be thrown each month, and we could get lucky and be out earlier—or unlucky and be stuck in the doldrums.”

The reference to dice-rolling recalls Einstein’s famous “God does not play dice with the universe,” his reason for rejecting quantum physics. Since that physics has been proven right repeatedly—and fruitfully, making our lives easier, more productive, and healthier—Einstein’s quote is usually cited as an example of even great men sometimes being unable to accept new truths.

At the same time, the randomness of the universe, only giving way to regularity in the bigger picture, leads many to assume there is no role for a God, that Nature has it all covered with its laws. I stress that even Orthodox Jews—of the more rationalist variety, of course; more kabbalistically minded Jews will say everything comes from Hashem, a la Ramban, but will not translate that into seeing the need for change in times such as ours—adopt this attitude, that the world operates according to Nature. If so, there is little need to consider God’s Will, since Hashem does not do anything so direct as bring about an epidemic or a natural disaster or a financial collapse.

It is precisely in the aggregate nature of statistics, though, that we find room to understand how Hashem can and does influence events. Individual occurrences resist probabilities, can act “on their own,” as it were; when grouped together, though, they often show aspects of regularity. It is this reason, for example, that the risk-management people failed so miserably in the runup to the current crisis—they could predict safe courses of action for ninety-nine percent of eventualities, but not for all eventualities.

That each event has a rhyme of its own allows a religious person to realize that among the factors hidden from human understanding may be a Divine one. As Rabbi Mayer E. Twersky, Rosh Yeshiva at YU, once said, “Statistics is how God hides Providence.” Providence, in this version, is God operating within probability, in ways that will not skew statistics so obviously as to make His Hand clear.

Why hide? Perhaps to leave faith and free will as just that—free choices we make, in the absence of ironclad proof, on the basis of traditions of revelation and open miracles that were supposed to clinch the point for all of human history. It is for this reason, according to Ramban at least, that we mention both yetziat mitzrayim and maaseh bereshit, the Exodus and Creation, in Kiddush on Shabbat—one to note God’s having created the world miraculously, the other to note Hashem’s continuing involvement in the world and continuing ability to break into Nature and produce results Hashem wants.

A recent column by David Plotz suggests to me a reason so many of us squirm at this idea, and either reject or resist it. Plotz blogged for Slate about his reading Tanach cover to cover, and has now turned those blogs into a book. He comes away positive about the experience, arguing that more of us should read large chunks of the Bible, but closes by sharing his own discomfort with the God portrayed there. In his experience, the God of the Old Testament—and this has been said by others— brings so much human suffering, so many epidemics and plagues, that it would almost be better not to believe in God at all.

Plotz’ comments are noteworthy because they are representative, unfortunately, of many religious people. They may stay within the fold of the community in which they were raised, whether Modern, Centrist, or “right-wing,” may even practice their communal rituals or customs, but, deep down, are uncomfortable with the possibility that world events, so obviously imperfect, can be traced back to God. In Jewish circles, the common way to note this is to say, simply, how could God affect world events and have allowed the Holocaust?

I don’t intend to answer that question, since it would assume that I, or any human, can fully understand Hashem. Mori ve-rabi R. Lichtenstein is fond of quoting the Gemara in Berachot 7a’s mockery of Bilam for characterizing himself as יודע דעת עליון, familiar with the mind of God, when he did not even know his own donkey’s thoughts.

I will surely not be so foolish as to make Bilam’s error; I will only note that the opposite position makes it impossible for Hashem to communicate with us other than in an era of nevuah. And, truth is, even then. Plotz, for example, ignores the underlying condition of Tanach, prophets being repeatedly sent to a people who stubbornly cling to activities that not only contravene God’s Will but do so in deep and fundamental ways.

How should God react to such human actions? Positive reinforcement is certainly preferable, for Hashem as well (as Tanach also notes repeatedly), but it only works when people strive to do what God wants, and have some correct understanding of what that is. In times when people willfully or mistakenly violate the Divine Will, and prophecy is not available, denying Providence means there is no way for God to communicate with us.

If this were all a lead-in to decrying our evils, based on my own list, it would be better left unsaid. But the comforting part of recognizing that times of troubles may contain a message from God is that it opens another avenue to digging our way out. In addition to our attempts to rectify the financial system, recognizing the possibility that God is calling out to us suggests that if we make that question a vital part of our conversation around this and future similar events, we can hope to return more quickly to times of bounty, that 10 will come up on God’s dice all that much faster.

Even more usefully, we have classical sources that offer avenues to how to think through the issue, since of course that would be the next question—how are we supposed to know what Hashem is trying to tell us? A first simple text consists of the eighth and ninth mishnayot in the fifth chapter of Avot, where the Mishnah explicitly connects certain punishments to certain crimes. Interestingly, the first one discussed is a רעב של בצורת, a famine in which some are hungry and some are not.

More broadly, Jewish tradition generally—in Kallah Rabbati, in Sanhedrin 90a, and elsewhere, including dozens of times in Rashi—adopted the view that Hashem operates in this world מדה כנגד מדה, that Hashem’s responses to us, positive and reproachful, are directly related to the issue at hand. We need not, in other words, flail around for ideas as to what’s causing a time of trouble; if we examine the trouble itself carefully, understand it fully, we should come to realize how it responds to our inappropriate actions.

One prominent barrier to thinking in this way, so common and natural to the Gemara and to Rashi, is the prevalence of bad ideas, usually offered first and loudest. Too often, the first writers to speak of God’s role in some time of trouble offer an explanation so narrow or so tied into their own pre-existing agenda that they cannot be taken seriously, killing the underlying assumption as well.

We cannot allow that to discourage us into abandoning what Hazal have told us is the way to react to our times. It may take time and sober consideration; we may not be able to speak to each other right away, we may need to start as individuals or small communities, and then broaden out, tapping the wisdom of diverse communities to weed out bad ideas from good, hoping God will help us understand where we are and what we can do to improve ourselves, our communities, and our nation in ways that will bring us closer to God.

The Voice of God is always heard, if only we listen hard enough. Sometimes we enjoy what it has to say, but sometimes it challenges us to change, grow, and adapt in ways we would not have expected. Rahm Emanuel has been widely quoted as seeing crises as moments of opportunity; this is equally true for turning our country’s poll-ready religiosity into an actual relationship with God. We can hear the Voice, heed the Voice, change the world, and, we can hope, bring our current suffering to a close that much sooner.

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