So I woke up at 4am this morning, sick, and watched my Twitter feed intently, fretting about my friends in New York. Hoping that Hurricane Sandy would not turn out to be that bad.
And as I lay in my bed, my room lit by the glow of my smartphone, I wondered about G_d and hir role in natural disasters. If you believe in a G_d, then where are they? Can we locate G_d in the storm (as fundamentalists are wont to do, storm as punishment for our sins) or in the avoidance of tragedy, in the thousand tiny near-misses that preserve life?
If it’s the first: what about human free will? It’s hard not to see the increased ferocity and frequency of hurricanes is a result of human activity, of our pollution, our morally bankrupt capitalist system. There’s numerous times in Tanakh when G_d allows catastrophe to strike the Jewish people, but the idea is rather less popular now—especially among Reform Jews. Would G_d “want” that? Why? Does that make G_d not good?
If it’s the second, G_d as mercy, the alleviation of pain, then we might well ask: why did G_d not intervene explicitly and prevent the thing in the first place?
It all comes down to theodicy, which Mirriam Webster defines roughly correctly as the “defense of God’s goodness and omnipotence in view of the existence of evil,” to which we might add suffering in general, because the suffering of good people is what pre-occupies us as much as the existence of evil.
Most of us have inherited something of the “strong” view of theodicy, which is that G_d is good, omnipotent and omniscient and evil is explainable either as punishment for sins or part of G_d’s mysterious plan, everything happens for a reason etc. G_d might “let” horrible things happen as a warning for us to change our ways.
But what if G_d is not strong, but in fact rather weak? This is the view of some Jewish theologians writing after the Shoah, where the idea that the six million deserved their treatment at the hands of the Nazis is repugnant. Jewish tradition teaches that G_d listens when the Jewish people collectively cry out in suffering, but a weak G_d would be unable to respond in any large way, just to shift history a tiny little bit. That G_d would be in the exceptions, the escapes, the good fortune, the relief of pain. Just as there are horrors in human history, there are countless wonders, too. Coincidences, and the inexplicable irrational goodness of some people in inhumane situations.
Which of these is more compelling? I think the strong view of theodicy is unsustainable, that it makes G_d abusive, the perpetrator (at worst) and bystander (at best) of horrors.
Instead, I’m reminded of our active role in the world. Much of Judaism talks about the way in which we collaborate with G_d in creation. We’re not just created, but creating, and Israel, after all, is G_d’s bride, partner. Just as our collective actions have led to devastating climate change, so too can they begin to heal the world.
And really, they must, because theist or not, it seems fairly clear that the human race is in for a very, very rough time if we don’t find another course.