Thursday, December 02, 2010

On Bikinis and Earthquakes

What should our reaction be to an Imam who blames the Haitian Earthquake on women dressing immodestly?

By nature, I am a skeptic. I tend to doubt the supernatural. Of course God Himself is a Supernatural Being. I believe in God. How I reconcile my skepticism with this belief is a topic I’ve discussed before and will not go into detail here. Except to say that there is ample evidence which – when combined with rational thought - leads me to conclude the existence of God.

One reason I remain so skeptical may in fact be the result of my secular education. The more we learn about how the universe works the better we understand natural phenomena and the less likely we are to resort to supernatural explanations. Taking this kind of thinking to its logical conclusion may end up making an Apikores out of some. The more one can explain the universe by natural means the less one needs God to be involved in it. It takes quite a bit of Emunah to overcome this kind of religiously reductionist thinking.

(As an aside this may be the biggest problem facing Modern Orthodoxy. Those who go OTD from this segment may in some cases be a function of their encounter with higher education. But as important as this issue is, it is beyond the scope of this post. I mention it in passing because it is in fact so important and something for all of us to think about.)

My belief in God remains unfettered. That’s because of the reasons I mentioned above and because of a strong grounding in Torah learned both formally and informally throughout my life. Nonetheless I remain skeptical about supernatural explanations of natural phenomena. I tend to look for natural explanations and can usually find them pretty quickly.

Because of my penchant for rational explanations I get really upset when a religious figure looks at a natural disaster and starts looking for supernatural reasons and causes. It isn’t only Imams. Or Christian religious figures. It is Jewish religious figures too. They then advise us to do some personal introspection and improve our religious behavior in ways they see us lacking.

This has happened numerous times in recent history. The most troubling of these for me are the various explanations about why the Holocaust happened. It really tests my faith when I hear that so many innocent Jews were tortured, slaughtered - or both - for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with their individual personal behavior. I can’t even begin to imagine the pain of hearing statements like this by survivors who suffered at the hands of the Nazis and saw their parents, siblings, wives, children, aunts, uncles, and cousins die at their hands!

Am I right about to be upset? Is it appropriate to be so skeptical about looking ‘’upward’ and inward’ in the face of natural disasters? After all people much greater than I have done exactly that.

The Chofetz Chaim famously did so in a story mentioned by Rabbi Avi Shafran in Cross-Currents earlier this year. When informed of a devastating earthquake in Japan in 1923... the 85-year-old rabbinic leader was visibly shaken, immediately undertook to fast and insisted that the news should spur all Jews to repentance.

It wasn’t only the Chofetz Chaim. The tradition to look upward and inward dates back the Mishnaic times having consequences for us to this day and beyond. The Gemarah (Yevamos 62b) tells us that the Tanna, Rebbi Akiva, had 24,000 students... all of whom died one year between Pesach and Shevuos. The Gemarah tells us they died because they did not treat one another with respect. That is why we observe a period of mourning at that time of year.

In the face of all this historical looking upward and inward, how can anyone be as skeptical as I am? Is it sacrilege?

This issue was beautifully tackled by Reuven Rand in an article in one of Yeshiva University’s student publications - Kol HaMevaser.

There was a Shabbaton in Teaneck New Jersey that featured one of YUs Roshei Yeshiva, Rabbi Jeremy Wieder. He fielded prepared questions submitted to him. One of the questions was the opening line of this post. This article should be read in its entirety by Jews of all stripes. Here are some excerpts:

So why have we moved so far from the formulations of our forebears, to the extent that divine intervention is viewed by many as an impossibility? Much of this divergence can be explained by the decline of the “God of the Gaps” theology. Early religious people saw God’s hand in bolts of lightning and other mysterious phenomena.

As a modern society that has recognized that lightning, like other “supernatural” events, is merely a natural process, we are understandably wary of repeating the mistakes of disproved fundamentalists. Moreover, modern science leaves very little room for outside influence, so how can we attribute natural misfortunes to God?

…When R. Ovadia Yosef famously proclaimed that the six million victims of the Holocaust were gilgulim, or reincarnations, of earlier sinners, many Jews were justifiably outraged. Though he was talking about the beloved parents and siblings of Jews still living that had died gruesome deaths, he somehow found it within him to label them the reincarnated thugs, murderers and rapists of previous generations.

But for all of R. Yosef’s insensitivity, we cannot ignore the Holocaust from a theological perspective. For generations, we attributed the tragedies that befell us to our sins and our Exile to God’s retribution; shall we now treat the Holocaust as simply a chance of fate? Dr. Haym Soloveitchik claimed that, after the Holocaust, “it [is] 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.” If Orthodoxy takes this even further, and rejects the notion of a personal God in doctrine as well as experience, this, too, would be a tragedy.

… When the floodwaters surged through Pakistan to leave the land desolate, perhaps our first duty was to contact our aid agencies and see how we could help those who were spared. But our second duty, as religious people, must be to consider why God brings such calamities upon mankind and attempt to learn from them. I imagine Rabbi Wieder would prefer that we learn our lessons from calamities brought about by factionalism and strife rather than tight clothing, and I would agree with him.

But if we add our voices to the jeers that greeted the poor Iranian prayer leader that dared claim that God may punish immodesty, I fear it will come back to haunt us. For the next time a rabbi tries to attribute an event like the stock market crash of 2008, not to a lack of Congressional oversight… but to the greed and avarice that characterized men like Bernard L. Madoff, he, too, may be jeered. But the greatest blow will not be to the preacher, but to a newly godless religion.