Volume 52 Number 48
                    Produced: Tue Jul 11  6:03:07 EDT 2006

Subjects Discussed In This Issue: 

Natural Disasters and Rabbinic expalnations
         [Chana Luntz]


From: Chana Luntz <chana@...>
Date: Mon, 10 Jul 2006 16:55:08 +0100
Subject: RE: Natural Disasters and Rabbinic expalnations

Anonymous writes:

> The problem of theodicy is one that I have spent time 
> contemplating; I am certainly familiar with chazal's teaching 
> that one must face personal tragedy with introspection and 
> that if, having examined one's deeds and found oneself 
> flawless, one should interpret the sufferings as "yissurin 
> shel ahava."  Moreover, there is clearly a communal element 
> of this as well; I believe that, for instance, the communal 
> taanit in response to a drought can be interpreted as a form 
> of teshuva for both individuals and for the entire tzibbur.
> However, I have always interpreted this approach as Chazal 
> suggesting that we ought to use any opportunity to improve 
> ourselves and to do teshuva, and in particular when we are 
> suffering and calling out to God, this is an especially good 
> moment to search our souls for ways of improving ourselves.  

Obviously this is a very complex area, and many people will identify
with the position you have articulated.  Underlying this position, it
would seem, is an understanding that the tragedy (whether personal,
communal or global) is either capricious or alternatively an unfeeling
consequence of the laws of nature and that all we are doing (or being
expected to do) is to take the opportunity to use such event to further
our development - to create meaning where in fact none really exists.
Note however that as a consequence, we would appear not to be discussing
a partnership.  Some random (or naturalistic) event happens, and we are
expected to use such an event to reach out to G-d.  But there is no
counterbalancing concept that in any way G-d is reaching out to us.  Nor
does it seem clear that any such reaching out will necessarily generate
a meaningful response from G-d, because we have just made it clear that
events themselves are either random or naturalistic.  It may make us
better people, but there is no dialogue.  

> Note, this is very different from saying "I have cancer 
> because I didn't cover my hair when I got married" or 
> something similar.

Other people, however, do appear to see dialogue and divine interaction
as an intrinsic part of this process, under which the tragedy has some
divinely given (not just humanly created) meaning.  I too tend to recoil
from what seems the baldness of this kind of statement.  Pehaps though,
to take this particular case, it might help if it was rephrased
slightly, and in a more sensitive way.  Take the woman who says
something like: - "one of my weaknesses has to do with my physical
attractiveness, particularly in relation to my hair and my need to be
seen as physically attractive by the world, and this had a lot to do
with why I felt unable when I got married to cover my hair.  However the
process of getting cancer and in particular the physical attractiveness
sacrifices that needed to be made in the chemotherapy process (including
full hair loss) have done much to directly tackle this particular
weakness and I believe that what might seem to be a particular
targetting of what I know to be my particular weakness was not
accidental, but an intimate interaction with the divine".  And yet is
that not pretty close to "I have cancer because I did not cover my hair
when I got married", just phrased more articulately? 

And are you prepared to say to such a person - well it is good that you
are working on your personal weaknesses through this medium, as
recommended by chazal, but you should really know that there is no link
between to two, and you are making it all up?  And even if you do not
say this (because clearly this particular understanding is providing the
woman in question with comfort and the courage to face the chemotherapy)
is it right for you to be thinking it behind your hand?  Is it
necessarily right to be judging both G-d and this woman in the way you

> So here is my problem with the interpretation of disaster.  
> It was illustrated in some of these postings with regard to 
> the Holocaust and Zionism.  So the Satmar viewed the 
> Holocaust as a punishment for Zionism.  The Zionists view the 
> establishment of the state of Israel as a kind of tikkun for 
> the Holocaust.  Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik sees the 
> establishment of the medina as God knocking on the door and 
> he wonders, "will we answer?" - will we see this as a Divine 
> act?  You could not have views more divergent.  Some would 
> say, "eilu v'eilu" but THAT cannot be true, in my view - 
> sometimes both views cannot be true because they are mutually 
> exclusive. 

I am not sure you are right.  I think in most cases, if you go a little
deeper, you can end up with formulations that mean both views can be

Let's take this one.  And let's - just to make the exercise more
difficult (or more fair) in fact leave G-d out of it, and go for purely
naturalistic explanations.  I think we can still see how all of these
can be true.

The tikkun for the Holocaust is clearly the easiest. The establishment
of the State of Israel, in its current form, occurred by means of and as
a consequences of a United Nations vote.  It seems pretty clear that the
existence of the majority who voted in favour had to do with the
countries of the world being guilted into it, on the basis of the
Holocaust.  The nations of the world pretty clearly, at that time, voted
for the State of Israel as a tikkun for their guilt over the Holocaust.
I don't think that takes any great leap of faith.

Now let us take the lead up to the Holocaust.  There are clearly many
contributing factors as viewed on a purely naturalistic level as to why
the Holocaust happened and scholars continue to grabble with these.  And
there is also the view that antisemitism is so completely irrational
that there is no point even analysing the matter (but if you go that
route, you virtually end up in theological territory in any event).  But
assuming you do not go that far, one of the key questions is why did the
Nazi philosophy find the Jews so threatening.  And there is certainly a
logic to the idea that the development of a modernist nationalistic
Jewish philosophy (Zionism) was something that a modernist
ultranationalistic philosophy (such as Nazism) would find relatively
easy to identify and understand (and hence was fundamentally threatening
- in a way that more "primitive" religious philosophies might not have
been).  The fact that such a philosophy may or may not have been
espoused by many of the people seen as infiltrating or potentially
infiltrating the purity of the German nation is likely an irrelevancy,
its existence and very modernity drove home the point that this was a
vital and dynamic people that needed to be exterminated root and branch
to enable the German nation to flourish.  This is of course not quite
where Satmar is coming from.  And yet the three oaths, which are the
basis of the Satmar rejection of Zionism, is about the Jewish people
agreeing not to pursue nationalistic aims as a people independent from
the nations of the world, and National Socialism, as espoused by the
Nazis, is quintescentially an espousal of the pure nationalistic aims of
the German people predicated on exterminating those in their midst, such
as Jews and Gypsies, who appear to have the potential to formulate
independent nationalistic goals.  And if one is prepared to see some
sort of causal link between the nationalism of Zionism, then a lot will
depend on whether you regard Zionism as a good or bad thing.  If it is a
bad thing (in violation of the oaths), then the Holocaust by definition
functions as the most straightforward form of punishment (ie, actions
have consequences).  If you see it as a good thing, then it is something
that needed to be done, even though it ran the risk of stirring up such
a link (such consequences had to be risked), as matters could not be
left as they were.

And Rav Soleveitchik's formulation is one for the future, how do we
relate to the State of Israel once its existence has been established.

 Some might say "you are part of the Mizrachi/MO 
> community so who cares what the Satmar rebbe said" or vice 
> versa, which I find seriously unsatisfying.  How is the 
> committed Jew supposed to pick the right "gadol" to listen to 
> with regard to such pronouncements? 

Well on one level, aseh l'cha rav [make for yourself a rav] would seem
to apply in the same way as it does to other halachic and hashkafic
matters.  Leaving aside the question of the Holocaust - would you listen
to the Satmar Rebbe if he told you it was assur to engage with the
government of the State of Israel so as eg to facilitate your aliyah (as
opposed to your rabbaim who might tell you it was a positive mitzvah)?
How do you respond on pronouncements by such gadolim regarding accessing
secular literature or thought?  We all select rabbaim and derachim that
are consistent with our world view, and this would seem to be no

Wider than that, presumably it would depend on whether in fact you can
derive from such pronouncements meaning such as to enhance your avodas
Hashem. If you cannot, then it seems pretty clear that such
pronouncements are not (and not meant) for you.  The real question thus
seems to be about others, and whether others should be judged negatively
for this.

 These issues always seem 
> crystal clear from one perspective, but quite muddy from 
> another.  Katrina was a punishment for the US stand on the 
> Gaza withdrawal?  OK, then again, maybe it was a punishment 
> for the US being too SOFT on Israel and not demanding it 
> immediately withdraw from the West Bank too.  Maybe it was a 
> punishment for the US for supporting Israel altogether!  That 
> notion seems absurd to probably most readers on this list, 

And indeed this was a viewpoint that religious Muslim authorities have

> but what evidence can ANYONE bring to the table that supports 
> one interpretation of Katrina over another?? 

Which is precisely why some, who might buy in to the idea that one can
and ought to look to natural disasters for meaning, might reject all of
these as correct (and say, instead, focus on debauchery as more likely -
ie known internal problem giving rise to internal punishment).  As I
indicated, there are two questions.  The first is ought we to look for
meaning in such events.  Your answer is no, so this kind of dialogue is
not one that has any meaning for you.  But if you hold that one should
look for meaning, the second question is, what meaning?  Somebody could
hold passionately that the search for meaning is imperative, and yet
that others have got it wrong (and don't know how the system works).
The Gaza withdrawal link to Katrina is exceedingly difficult, because it
would seem to be punishing the supporters (the US) while letting the
perpetrators (the Israeli government) go scot free (whichever way you
want to hold it).  

> So basically any disaster or tragedy can be interpreted in 
> any way to support any position.  It depends not on logic, 
> not on sources, not on learning, not on the right pasuk, not 
> on the right midrash, but ONLY upon what explanations are 
> possible given one's pre-existing world view and hashkafa.  

I am not saying you have to buy this, but it is not necessarily fair to
say that there are no rules just because some people might seem, in some
cases, not to be making very powerful cases for the linkage they have
identified or wish to identify.  The more powerful intepretations would
seem clearly to be those where on some level the punishment fits the
crime, where there seems to be a mida kneged mida,(even if that level is
mythic).  And the more powerfully that linkage can be made, the deeper
the meaning would seem to be (so, for example, the more evidence one
could bring that New Orleans had a mythic place within the US
consciousness as a centre of debauchery, the more powerful a linkage to
debauchery would be.  The more it could be shown that New Orleans had a
mythic place in the US consciousness as the home of motherhood and apple
pie, the more difficult such a linkage would be).

> I believe that an honest soul-searching and cheshbon hanefesh 
> in response to crisis, disaster and tragedy is precisely what 
> Chazal demand of us.  Not some superficial lip-service that 
> provides an opportunity to reformulate or cling more doggedly 
> to our pre-existing views. 

I think that that can be agreed upon even by those who would, unlike
yourself, be prepared to answer my question a) in the affirmative. Ie
they indeed believe that we ought to be trying to find meaning in such
events, and that such events can and should, if honestly approached,
yield such meaning, and yet that people can be so blinded by their
pre-existing views that they cannot in fact see clearly, and hence their
pronouncements are just plain wrong.  The same can also be said about
piskei halacha.  There is always the risk that people are so blinded by
their views that they distort the halachic process (remember a member of
the Sanhedrin was capable of finding 50 ways of declaring a sheretz
tahor).  And it is not as though we have not seen cases in recent times
in which people have purported to use halachic justifications for
actions that most of us regard as an anathema. 

And yet, it is also important to bear in mind that that sometimes the
criticism is of precisely the opposite.  That people do not appear to be
willing to look to or acknowledge basic underlying concepts of morality
and human decency for which one would expect them to have a gut feel
(arguing solely from what appears to be a closed halachic system).   And
yet are not those concepts of basic decency and morality ones based on
one's pre-existing world view and hashkafa?  So the answers that get you
to one place in one set of circumstances may in fact contradict the
answers that get you somewhere else in another set of circumstances
-which is part of what makes these issues not at all straightforward.




End of Volume 52 Issue 48