Friday, January 15, 2010

"Where was God" conundrum

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Making sense of Haiti


It's not all that often that the front pages of Israel's newspapers and the lead stories on the nightly news programs all devote themselves to a catastrophic event on the other side of the world. Sixty years-plus of conflict have narrowed the range of news ordinary Israelis tend to be drawn to.

When we do focus on troubles abroad, we invariably look for a parochial angle, in this case the fate of a number of missing Israelis in earthquake-devastated Haiti. That's human nature; every country is obsessing about the safety of its nationals caught up in the catastrophe.

Israel is rushing a field hospital, doctors and medical equipment to the stricken island and a team of experts to assess how else we can effectively help. American Jewry has sprung into action through the Jewish Federations of North America partnering with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee; the American Jewish World Service is also mobilizing.

Like many spiritual leaders, Rabbi Barry Cohen of Temple B'nai Israel in Oklahoma City is telling his congregants to give charity: "God instructed us not to stand by idly while our neighbor bleeds."

AS THE initial shock wears off and aid begins to arrive, people are reflecting more generally on the apparent randomness of the misfortune and asking why bad things happen to good people. In the instance of Haiti, the issue really becomes why bad things happen to those already mired in misery. In a country where half the population is illiterate and where per capita income is $3.60 a day.

"Every time Haiti takes one half-step forward, something like this happens. It's so unfair. Why does this happen to Haiti over and over again?" asked The Rev. Lauren Stanley, an Episcopal missionary.

One prominent fundamentalist pastor - even as he raised funds for disaster relief - had a ready answer for Stanley: The people of Haiti turned away from God and made a pact with devil and have been punished ever since.

Mainstream Jewish theology, in contrast, abjures trying to read God's mind. Rabbi Emanuel Feldman, former editor of Tradition magazine, cautions rabbis not to use their Shabbat sermons to offer glib theological "reasons" for why the Haiti disaster occurred - as if they have a direct line to the Almighty. God's actions, many Jewish thinkers would argue, are simply unfathomable to the limited human mind.

And yet we feel impelled to search on. From time immemorial, humans have tried to find spiritual meaning for personal loss and the tragic consequences of natural and man-made cataclysms. While some will say this quest is a prescription for banality, there is an unquenchable thirst for ideas that try to make sense of it all.

The top New York Times nonfiction bestseller this week is Have a Little Faith by Mitch Albom. Book dealers are also featuring The Case for God by Karen Armstrong, a former Catholic nun, and The Evolution of God, by Robert Wright, who makes the subtle argument that when people define God more by His compassionate - than other - attributes, humanity is drawn closer to some underlying truth about the divine.

Perhaps the most evocative popular treatment of the "Where was God" conundrum came in Paul Young's The Shack, a Christian novel about a father grieving over the murder of his daughter, who is granted the opportunity to challenge God (in the form of the Trinity). The book sold over 7 million copies in 2009.

FOR SOME, the process of probing why bad things happen is a salve in itself - a case of the journey being as important as the destination.

It's a process that's taken some Jews to mysticism. In the Kabbala we find the suggestion that bad things happen because God has pulled back from the world - tzimtzum - to make room for the finite. And in The Disappearance of God, Richard Elliott Friedman suggests that while God gradually vanishes in the narrative from Genesis to Second Chronicles, the intended endgame is a divine-human reunion.

Reflecting on such ideas can be consoling as we watch the horrible images coming from Haiti. Meanwhile, however, the survivors need tangible help repairing their broken world.

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