Not G-d's scorekeeper
by Jonathan Rosenblum
June 15, 2001
Few statements outrage the Israeli public as much as those made from time to time by religious figures attempting to give a precise explanation of a particular tragedy. That outrage is not confined to the non-observant population. Religious Jews too are deeply pained by what they view as a distortion of Judaism's basic teachings. The almost instinctive revulsion that we feel upon hearing such statements derives from their vulgarity: They reduce G-d to our level by suggesting that we have instant access to the Divine mind. Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau had precisely that vulgarity in mind when he said in the wake of the Versailles wedding hall disaster: "We are not G-d's scorekeepers."
Simplistic, uni-causal explanations of tragedy - e.g., the floor caved in because of mixed dancing - cannot withstand even the most minimal scrutiny. On the one hand, what about the thousands of other weddings where there was mixed dancing and nothing happened? One the other hand, what about all those who went into the inferno with Shema Yisrael on their lips?
Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, one of the greatest modern Jewish thinkers, writes in Daas Tevunos that we can only know the general rules by which G-d governs the world. But we can never know which rule is operative in a particular case.
The entire Book of Job stands as a warning against facile attempts to adduce another's status in G-d's eyes by what happens to him. The friends of Job were quick to assure him that his apparent righteousness was a fa?ade and that his suffering must be a consequence of his sins.
The greatest Torah sages of the previous generation always stressed that our judgmental impulse should be confined primarily to ourselves. The Talmud states that Messiah will only come when the generation is fully guilty or fully innocent. One might think, said Rabbi Aharon Kotler, that our present generation has almost reached the state of fully guilty, with only a few religious Jews remaining in the opposite category. Exactly the opposite is true, however, according to Rabbi Kotler.
In our generation, most Jews have been raised far removed from Torah, and cannot be held responsible for their violations of Torah. They are therefore innocent. If the Messiah still tarries, then, it is because of the sins of those who are committed to Torah. They are the guilty ones.
In a similar vein, the Brisker Rav used to point out that when the ship carrying the prophet Yonah was engulfed by huge waves, Yona admitted immediately that he was the cause. Though he was on a ship filled with idol worshippers, and it would have been easy to point the finger at them, Yona knew that G-d directs His messages primarily to those who acknowledge Him.
While the impulse to offer neat and tidy explanations of the Divine calculus, particularly as it applies to others, must be resisted, so must the opposite impulse - concluding that everything that takes place is without rhyme or reason. Events may be inscrutable without being random.
While locating the precise cause of every event is beyond us, those possessed of the deepest Torah knowledge are often able to discern the general direction of history. One reads today Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman's Ikvesa D'Mashicha, written in the '30s, with astonishment at his prescience about current events. And in a famous passage written decades before the Holocaust, Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk warned, "If the Jews of Berlin continue to mistake Berlin for Jerusalem, a destructive storm will go forth from there. . ."
In the aftermath of the Versailles collapse, we rushed to identify the culprits. Once the engineers, hall owners, and building inspectors were safely rounded up, we could breath a sigh of relief and assure ourselves that we are in no way implicated in the disaster. Worshipping our freedom, we resist the idea that our actions have consequences and that there is a moral calculus operative in the world.
But when we dismiss tragedies as something random, or satisfy ourselves as soon as the most obvious cause is located, we lose the incentive afforded us by such tragedies to reexamine our actions and ask how we have caused the conduits of G-d's blessing to the world to become blocked
Maimonides writes that those who dismiss cataclysmic events as something accidental, without any connection to Divine Providence, pursue the "path of cruelty." By finding excuses not to examine and improve our actions, we doom ourselves to the repetition of similar tragedies.
We cannot afford, in the present situation, the luxury of so easily absolving ourselves of all blame.
ONE final aspect of the response to the Versaille disaster deserves mention: the obsessive media coverage of the remarks of an obscure rabbi with no public position. The same day that the unfortunate rabbis's "explanation" and the outraged responses dominated news broadcasts, Eric Yoffie, leader of the American Reform movement, became the first American Jewish leader to publicly criticize Israel since the outbreak of Palestinian violence in October.
While admitting that the Reform movement had completely failed to understand Palestinian intentions over the past decade, Yoffie went on to label the settlement policy followed by every Israeli government since 1976 as "fanatical", accuse Israel of "demonizing her enemies" - did he mean calling Arafat a "liar and murderer"? - and maintaining a cruel and degrading occupation.
Yoffie's remarks were a dramatic break with the uniform support for Israel by mainstream American Jewish organizations since Rosh Hashanah, and perhaps presaged his announcement a week later of the cancellation of all Reform youth trips this summer. Yet after a brief mention on Israeli radio, Yoffie's remarks dropped off the radar screen.
A silly statement by an unknown rabbi was played over and over while remarks by a prominent American Jewish leader that would damage Israel's image internationally were virtually ignored by Israeli media.
Was this one more example of the Israeli media's efforts to promote contempt for Torah and its adherents?
Related Topics: Chareidim and Their Critics, Israeli Society
receive the latest by email: subscribe to the free jewish media resources mailing list