As is usual with events of the magnitude of tsunamis, earthquakes, and hurricanes, at some point theologians, essayists, and pundits of various sorts will attempt to make some sense out of the catastrophe. One question which arises (usually sometime after the question arises as to who will pay for the damages) is the old theological question, “where was God when all this happened?” or, “how could a God let this happen”?

Usually, what appears prior to any deep sophisticated thought about God and nature, comes the obligatory placing of blame. Since it is always easier to blame one’s political enemies than challenge one’s faith, after catastrophic events invariably “sins” are identified meant to justify the carnage. Remembering that these sins are meant to justify the deaths of over a hundred thousand innocent people in the case of the tsunami, a large number of whom were children, one would require a pretty good whopping sin to justify this kind of mass death. The obvious “explanations”, that the people there are heathens, aren’t worth repeating, but some novel ones have been proffered after the tsunami in Thailand, for example, the area is a popular destination for young Israeli travelers and they shouldn’t leave Israel, or, from Hamodia, that the grievous sin of Jews using the internet has led to God’s wrath extending even among the gentiles. That one at least does not blame the local victims, in that it doesn’t fault the local populace, as did a Moroccan Islamic newspaper editorial, (which provoked riots in support of the paper), which blamed the tsunami on the South Asian sex trade.

It is interesting that in general the “explanations” tend to be very Eurocentric; one notable explanation blamed the Bush administration, even querying whether from God’s perspective wouldn’t it have been more appropriate had the tsunami struck the US, interestingly, there was very little of this sort of speculation when hurricane Sandy hit NYC. I didn’t come across many Western essays suggesting that God had attempted to bring about an end to either the Sri Lankan civil war or the troubles in Aceh; apparently God doesn’t trouble himself to bring about natural disasters to resolve Eastern conflicts that don’t involve the West. At any rate, clearly, there are very few “explanations” that don’t seem ridiculous given the terrible human suffering elicited as a result, much as the various Jewish attempts blaming other Jews (secularists, Zionists, etc) for the Shoah come across as very petty and hollow (The detailed tit-for-tat Holocaust explanation attributed to Avigdor Miller is a manifestation of a form of self-loathing not very different from that of Otto Weininger).

So, is there a way to maintain a theological position in the face of major natural catastrophes without either blaming the victims or invoking some sort of flawed theodicy? This essay will attempt to review the evolution of Jewish thought regarding nature, science, and catastrophe, which differ greatly from other major religious systems in this matter, perhaps to the point that it may be unique and defining of Jewish history and culture, and may in some ways explain the long historical connection between Jews, science, and medicine.

An initial tendency is to invoke the book of Job as a paradigmatic Jewish response, a position often taken by Orthodox Rabbis and by William Safire after the tsunami. This model states that we need to take a position of resignation; what does man know, who are we to even ask, as God proclaims to Job out of the whirlwind. I would argue that invoking the book of Job is not appropriate as a response to natural catastrophe of the tsunami kind, since the book clearly states that all the suffering inflicted upon poor Job is part of a test of Job’s subservience.

I will argue that a more nuanced response is possible and is derived from a verse in this week’s Torah reading Perashat Mishpatim, a text dealing for the most part with torts and damages. A single Talmudic teaching on one verse in this week’s portion has prevented conflict between Torah and science over many centuries.

The text on which this teaching is based is not in any way related to theology, theodicy, metaphysical or moral issues, rather, it deals with how much payment is due one who gets hurt in a fistfight. The last two word of the verse state: V’rapoh yirapeh- “and the injured party shall be healed”. From the duplication of the root rapeh, to heal, is derived the following teaching (BT Bava Kama 85.):

So taught the school of R. Yishmael: V’rapoh Yirapeh-this teaches us that a doctor (rophe) is given permission to cure (lirapot).

With this one teaching, the denial of science seen in other religious traditions was removed from normative Judaism, the temptation to deny science that stems from linking human suffering through disease to punishment (most commonly associated currently with the Christian Science movement, where all disease is a result of sin and should be addressed by prayer, not medicine).

This talmudic teaching effects a disconnect between disease and divine plan, placing illness in the category of challenges for humanity, much like housing, hunger, and poverty should be seen as defects in the world that need to be overcome, not as signs of divine wrath to be left for God to deal with

This dissociation between natural disasters and theodicy was strengthened by Maimonides (or “Doctor Maimonides”, as R. Yeruchem Gorelik used to joke), whose position on this subject remains central to the Jewish approach. Maimonides’ discussion arises within the context of divine foreknowledge. How directly does God interfere with this-wordly matters? The problem of divine providence goes all the way back to Plato and Aristotle, but was a central and much debated issue in medieval Islamic philosophy since it touches upon any understanding we might have of God and of the human-divine relationship. Is there free will? Does God know what we do before we do it? If not, does that imply that there are there things that people know (such as what we are going to do) that God doesn’t? In that case, is God responsible for, or even aware, of everything that happens to each individual person at all times?

There were two major schools of thought in the great Islamic philosophical schools dealing with this question, that of the Mu’tazila, and that of the Ashari’ya, the latter becoming more or less the official position of Islam. The Mu’tazila were eager to absolve God of wrongdoing, and thus felt that room was given to mankind to choose and act, although ultimately God’s knowledge encompasses all our actions. This is in accordance with the Aristotelian position, whereby God set the eternal pre-existing spheres in motion but is removed from direct intentional action in the sublunar world.

The Ashari’ya refuse to allow this disconnect between God’s knowledge and his action. There in naught in the universe but God’s will. If the ground is wet after a rainstorm, it is not because of nature and physics but because God willed it so at that moment; it could just as well be dry, if that is God’s will at that moment. No person is ill or dies without that being the will of God. What we perceive of as the act of picking up a pencil, according to the Ashari’ites, is actually a succession of divine creations, first the will in the person, then the movement of the arms, etc.

While Maimonides is generally more sympathetic to the Ashariya, in this case, he takes a middle position. He disqualifies the Mu’tazila approach to knowledge by arguing that God’s knowledge is not our knowledge, so we can’t really understand what God knows or doesn’t know. Furthermore, God’s knowledge is in itself free and not necessarily causative. On the other hand, Maimonides, following the Aristotelian position, declares that God created Nature, and allows Nature to function in our sublunar world by its own laws without moment to moment intervention.

Thus, just as the natural aging and corruption of the human body over the years is not ameliorated by being more saintly, for even the righteous grow old and die, so too death in natural catastrophes such as floods or earthquakes is not a sign that those who died were in some way guilty. These things happen because they are necessary for the continued existence of the material world, and neither the righteous nor the sinner can escape from the natural order.

The Talmudic and Maimonidean approach to the natural order achievesa clean separation of the sciences from religious interference. It is well known that at one point the sciences were most developed in Islamic culture, and then fairly rapidly, science disappears from the culture. What happened to dry up scientific inquiry in Islamic lands in the medieval period? According to many scholars, with the widespread adoption of Ashari’ite dogma, which argues for divine intervention in every moment of existence, attempts to look for rules and predictability in nature were seen to be somewhat heretical, for why attempt to study nature when God can change nature at any moment? If there are no rules to nature, only God, then studying science is at best a waste of time:

…It would be wrong to imagine that, in the history of Islam certain believers had never harboured a negative attitude towards science. This is a fact that at certain periods, the obligation to educate oneself and others was rather neglected. It is equally true that in the Muslim world an attempt was sometimes made to stop scientific development. Justice Amir Ali observes that Abu al Abbas Ashari and Ghazali denunciated science and philosophy by their exhortation that besides law and theology no other knowledge was worth acquiring. This did more to stop the progress of the Muslim world than most other Muslim scholastics… (Ziauddin Ahmad, Influence of Islam on Western Civilization, Karachi, 1978, p.187 as cited by Ghulam Mustafa in Islam and Science, an Historical Perspective)

In short, with the adoption of a particular religious and philosophical dogma, in which there are no natural rules, only a divine activity which becomes primary to a rule-based nature, scientific progress withers up and dies. It is probably superfluous to point out that this process is happening once again in the US, and once faith becomes ontologically prior to science and nature, progress will likely proceed elsewhere.

At any rate, Maimonides was not an Enlightenment figure, he was a profoundly religious man, and despite freeing Nature from the moment to moment creation of Ashariya thought, he did have an important religious for nature and science- a cognitive one. Nature and physics serve as pedagogical tools towards imparting to the mind essential lessons for understanding God. In the second chapter of his halachic classic, he states the idea in terms of religious language, but in the Guide for the Perplexed, his philosophic summa, nature is the key to his proofs of God. Maimonides attempts to prove God through various arguments such as the prime mover, the mover of the spheres, and so on. What is noteworthy is that all the proofs are material, based on contemporary conceptions of nature and physics. Through a clear understanding of the principles underlying nature, one can learn the existence of God. One can say that nature as nature is a primary textbook, which when learned, readies the mind for a true and unmediated knowledge of God.

These Maimonidean proofs of God reigned over world culture for several centuries, entering Catholic dogma through Thomas Aquinas, who cites them in the name of ‘Rabbi Moses’, that is, Maimonides. In Europe, the proofs were undone by Kant in the 1770′s. who argued that the underlying links between the physical phenomena at the heart of the proofs were not based on some kind of existent causality, but only appear that way due to the way our brains are wired, we see these links as being true because that is how our minds are wired, we see causality because that’s the way thinking is rigged, the laws we read into nature more reflect the way human thought processes external information. These proofs do not reflect reality, which is in its ‘true reality’ unknowable to us, since we can’t know of the universe in any way outside of our senses and neurons.

In Jewish thought, however, a variant of the Kantian argument was made by R. Moshe Hayim Luzzatto (better known as RaMHaL) in the 1720′s. The Ramhal, in his work Da’at Tevunot argues that the idea Maimonides has of proving God through the study of Nature, is incorrect. It is not that study of nature produces an “aha!” moment in which God is suddenly derived and proved like some kind of butterfly pinned to a board, rather the reverse. God created our minds in accordance with a universe our minds can understand, so that through seeing the world around us, we can understand our role in the universe. There is a parallel between soul and universe, as well as with the revealed aspect of God. God could have easily created a universe devoid of reason, God is not subject to our reason, but rather God chose to situate humanity in a world of rational mathematical laws, which are purposeful and sensible, so that we can understand and act upon them. God reveals himself through the universe and through the mind, in essence, any act of cognition is one thus given to the human mind by God, by knowing science or knowing anything true, one also knows the revealed aspect of God.

This is a complete reversal of the medieval argument, rather than proving God by finding God through nature, understanding of science is built into human understanding (as in Kant)- but with the implication that anything one can know is knowable because it was given to us to know, and that that knowledge is itself, when properly understood and experienced, also an insight into the Divine.

Ramhal states in several places that Hateva, the Hebrew word for Nature, is numerically equivalent to the name Elokim, a biblical name of God.

So what then of Providence? To the Ramhal, knowledge alone is only the beginning, because the relationships between soul:nature:divine are not static. Not only is this approach not opposed to science, but it argues that a deeper human understanding and proper use of science leads to an ontological change in the universe. The deeper we understand ourselves and our relationship to the divine, the more rarified and “sacred” our own physical and natural being becomes. His metaphor is that of Adam before the fall, and after. It is a commonplace of religious discourse that there is a lofty spiritual soul inhabiting acoarse material body. However, Ramhal states that what we now call the soul was equivalent to pre-sin Adam’s material body, and the Adamic pre-sin soul was something even higher than what we think of as the soul, a form of being we cannot contemplate in our limited state. The Ramhal is very insistent that the relationship between mind and body is not a dichotomous one as in Scholasticism, rather they exist along a continuum, which shifts in relationship to human self-improvement (this is actually the frequently misunderstood point of his popular and misunderstood Mesilat Yesharim). Rather than a conquering and suppression of the body and world, true spiritual praxis would lead to a transformation and sublation, a ‘raising up’ of all existence.

The Ramhal, in Kinat Hashem Tzevaot and his Klach Pitchey Hokhma (especially chapter 13), borrowing from Lurianic Kabbala, he describes divine action in the world as a feedback loop; the universe functions in a circular or spiral fashion, interacting via an ongoing personal relationship between God and the human spirit, with different spiritual aspects dominating depending on the needs of the world, and the corresponding actions of humanity to those needs.

There are a lot of appealing aspects to Ramhal’s theology, which he presents in multiple texts in an interesting liberal perspective, in that demands on the individual are not absolute (here Leibovitch misread Ramhal) but rather what is expected from the individual depends upon where the person “is” existentially, with the Ramhal stating expressly that God judges with a cognizance to the situation of each person (God cannot demand from the unlearned what can be demanded from the Rabbis, for example) relativistically rather than absolutely.

In this approach, science is no longer viewed as a religious challenge to God’s knowledge and power, but is rather a divine gift of understanding for the human mission to understand and improve the world (this is what the phrase Tikkun Olam, “to improve the world” signifies in the mystical literature). The individual acting rightly can be said to physically transform the fabric of the universe, in a positive manner. Thus, using Ramhal’s example, making a blessing on an apple before eating it, is not merely the fulfillment of some external obligation on the part of the individual, but rather acts to inject spiritual quanta into the material universe, transforming it for the good. Thus the role of the human is not to “dominate” the earth in an exploitative manner, but rather to make it better in every way.

This approach became foundational in Hassidic thought. For example, it is stated in several places in Hassidic thought, as well as in the neo-Hassidic thought of Rav Kook, that the reason God created the human requirement for food was to force us to become one with the natural world, to incorporate it into our being (literally in the case of food, to make the whole world part of our body), and as such, to be responsible and accountable to it.

A lovely teaching in this vein is found in the Tiferet Shelomo on Shemot 10:26. Moses demands of Pharoah not only to free the slaves, but also to provide more animals, as potential sacrifices for Israelite worship, “because we must take from them to worship God, and we don’t know how we will worship God until we get there”. There are a lot of oddities in this verse, but to name two, would God have required of the newly freed slaves such an extravagant amount of animal sacrifice that they needed extras from their slave masters? Furthermore, did Moses really not know that God had an entirely different plan for the people, the giving of the Torah at Sinai, rather than a massive cultic animal sacrifice?

The Tiferet Shelomo reads Moses as saying that we must take our relationship with the material world (the animals mentioned in the verse) and elevate it (symbolized by his use of the term Olot, which when used as a noun means “a burnt offering” and when used a verb, means “to uplift”). It is our positive transformation of the world around us that is will take us to a higher plane that we cannot yet imagine, as the verse says, “until we get there”. We can’t imagine how different our world will be when take responsibility for it in a spiritually and scientifically positive manner, until we get “there”, until our consciousness reaches that level, much as people living in a wood burning culture, with its environmental destruction, would not even be able to envision a world in which clean energy was created in a manner not destructive to the ecosystem.

The transformation of nature through beneficial, nondestructive science, brings about novel capacities for spiritual growth not imaginable to earlier societies, just as the spiritual possibilities of the current information technology are only beginning to be apprehensible (Essays like this one on the weekly Torah reading are only possible as a result of the technological advances of the internet).

What, then, does all this require of us in terms of response to natural catastrophes such as the tsunami? Our review of Jewish thought from antiquity to Hassidic thought shows an early rejection of the Job paradigm of passive resignation in the face of natural cataclysm. The Talmudic dictum mandating medical care prevented a direct mandatory linkage between sin and disease. Disease cannot simply be based on sin. It is our responsibility to attempt to heal illness and eliminate the suffering caused by disease or injury. This responsibility to heal, and not rely upon divine interventions, was made canonic regarding by Maimonides. The mystics took this a step farther, recognizing a deep interrelationship between humanity and the universe, and saw it reflected even in ritual practice.

Jewish mystical thought, if it were to find some issue of blame related to the tsunami or hurricane Sandy, might blame us for not having done enough scientifically to prevent natural processes from claiming so many lives. Our spiritual and religious obligation would be not to fix blame, not to absolve God of responsibility, but rather to fix the infrastructure, to create ways to help the survivors and prevent natural phenomena from wreaking so much human havoc in the future.

 


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