Reply to Professor Kamenetz
Dear Prof. Kamenetz,
Thank you for your thoughtful comments.
Indeed, I had read only Jeff Jacoby’s briefer citation of your remarks, not the fuller version. Having now read it, I am not sure that I would say anything different.
There is much that you say that I fully agree with. At other points, I am not so sure.
I can tolerate models in which a world is created in such a way that natural disasters are part of the esssential design. (You can see the Maharal’s explanation of one such model in my book on his Be’er Hagolah.) When these disasters erupt, they may or may not be intended as “punishment,” “warning” or anything else I can think of. One thing is certain, though. If they are part of the world, it is a world that He designed, and in His Omniscience fully understood the consequences of His actions, down to the last casualty. I believe as you do that the most important reaction is to help heal the suffering. I have no way of knowing whether you share my belief that if enough people had, at some point in time before the tsunami, done enough to elevate the world, the tsunami would not have occurred. I also do not know whether you share my belief that in the midst of the seemingly blind and uncaring unfolding of the catastrophic, there was room for the Providential intervention of G-d to spare some people, for reasons I am not privy to.
The most important point of difference between us, however, remains whether we would take G-d out of the equation in response to a direct question permitting only yes or no responses: Was G-d involved with the tsunami? Your article seemed to indicate that your response would be “No, He wasn’t.” (Please forgive me if I am misreading your words.) That, I believe, would be a terribly wrong response.
Judaism had the courage not to dilute, simplify, or compromise its pure monotheism. G-d is the Great Oneness, encompassing everything. He cannot step away from His universe. I do not claim to have any idea as to how He crosses the line between the infinite and the finite (although, truth be told, the kabbalistic s offered more to me than my own limited visitations to Buddhist thought). The end of that journey, however, is that He suffuses everything, without exception. (Remember the beginning of the great kabbalistic mussar work, Tomer Devorah, where the author impresses us with G-d’s loving patience, as we contemplate how He sustains the evildoer at the very moment that he rebels against Him?) Les asar panui minei – there is no place devoid of Him. We cannot see His ohr, the light of His presence in all places equally (especially in the face of evil), but that is because of our limitations, not any deficiency in Him.
Franz Rosenzweig, towards the beginning of his odyssey back Judaism, was once asked if he was donning tefillin every day. He replied with a smile, “Not yet.” A Reform leader once said that the real problem with Reform is that “not yet” easily morphed into “never.” There are two ways to cite stories of the Baal Shem Tov, and his full confidence in Hashem’s justice. You can say, as you do, that you are not there yet, and leave it at that. “Not yet” then often becomes “never.” To get to the higher rung, we have to want to get there. We have to understand that it is the place we should be climbing towards. Replacing the rung with a banana peel will not get us anywhere – other than slipping off the ladder into a theological morass not of Jewish making.
Again, I would rather affirm the presence of G-d in everything, leaving tsunamis as yet another imponderable in the arena of theodicy, than to distort the very image of G-d our ancestors bequeathed to us.
I have no way of knowing whether you share my belief that if enough people had, at some point in time before the tsunami, done enough to elevate the world, the tsunami would not have occurred.
Do you mean the tsunami, or the subsequent deaths? I can certainly believe the latter,i.e. that in a better world G-d might influenced humanity to prepare better against such catastrophes. But the former implies a major miracle, on an order far greater than kri’at yam suf. For G-d to prevent the tsunami he would have to change the very surface of the earth (i.e. the tectonic plates). On what basis can you say that such miracles will occur for humanity at-large? Granted verse in Isaiah such as “solu solu panu derech … ” (I can’t remember exactly where it is), imply that G-d might affect nature itself to bring Israel home, but even there, Isaiah is describing Y’mot Hamashiach. Did you mean elevate the world to the point of redemption? If so, are you talking about Am Yisroel doing so, or all of humanity?
I certainly mean the former, and I don’t believe that this involves a major miracle, at least not according to one definition. Building roughly on the foundation of Ramban at the end of Bo (the purpose of miracles is to demonstrate that everything is miraculous; the ordinary and commonplace occur only because of G-d’s Will, which is also what creates the unusual events we call “miraculous”), I would argue that a miracle isn’t “major” unless it is perceived as clear Divine intervention, reversing the expected rules of “natural” law. In other words, when Divine intervention is off people’s radar, it isn’t a “major” miracle at all. (See the Shalah HaKadosh, explaining Kesuvos 119 that one who lives outside of Israel is as if he did not have a G-d. Shalah explains that the kind of Divine Providence sent to individuals in Israel simply can’t take place outside the Land, where too many people would notice the different treatment of His people, which would then constitute miraculous intervention.)
Maharal’s point, it seems to me, is that Hashem created the earth (or plate tectonics) in such a way that seismic activity would have a tendency to occur from time to unspecified time, but that our mitzvos could in fact delay the next cataclysmic episode. I do not mean to restrict this to a messianic age at all. It is a simple fact of the higher nature of things, that “natural” law itself marches lock-step with human conduct. When we become a bit more perfect, the laws of nature seem to do the same.
Do non-Jews have a role in this? Theoretically, there is no reason to assume that they don’t. Netziv, however, opines that the rejection of the Noachide laws by so many non-Jews shifted the primary responsibility for the spiritual upkeep of the world to the Jews. The force of the Noachide laws remains as instrument of societal cohesion and perhaps individual spiritual progress. The elevation of the universe, at least for the moment, belongs to those who assumed the burden of Torah and mitzvos.