Are You There, God?
While the pain of the Sept. 11 attacks still churns like the smoke and dust that continue to rise out of Ground Zero, eight weeks has done something to begin our healing process.
Some of the rawness of our national wound is beginning to abate, allowing us to use the clarity and insight of the still-sharp lens of grief to encounter the big questions about God and humanity that the terrorists threw into our faces.
The questions, of course, are hardly new: How can we square the lethal expression of mass evil with our notion of a compassionate God? Were the attacks the hand of God, God’s withdrawal from humanity, or simply the nature of God’s universe?
Certainly Holocaust theology has dealt with these questions, and as a people the Jews have a too-long record that has enabled us to retain faith in God in the face of unspeakable evil.
"The questions are perennial, but each new instance of evil makes them poignant and powerful," says Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple.
Our grappling with the universe is augmented by the fact that Sept. 11’s ties to religion and God are manifold — some overt, some subtle. The terrorists were acting in the name of God. The Sept. 11 anthem has become "God Bless America." Hundreds of thousands turned to houses of worship in the immediate aftermath, and whether they did so for God or for the comfort of community, what they found was God.
For Jews especially, the timing of the events brought the theological questions into immediate and sharp focus. Within days of Sept. 11, many of us recited the words "Who shall live and who shall die … who shall be at peace and who shall be tormented." Many of us proclaimed our trust in the universe by sitting in flimsy sukkahs with the image of crumbling concrete icons of power still fresh in our minds.
Rabbis and community leaders across the ideological spectrum report that people seem to be yearning for a crystallization of what might have been, until now, a murky lay theology.
"When you are a rabbi, you think you are talking about God all the time, and I assume that my congregation knows what I believe about God because I feel I speak about it often," says Reform Rabbi Laura Geller of Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills. But after she addressed theology directly in her Rosh Hashana sermon, the reaction was intense.
"I think that people just listened differently this year," Geller says.
Her High Holy Day sermon and the private conversations she has had with congregants reflect her personal theology and understanding of God.
"God is not in control of what we do to each other. We are responsible," she said in her Rosh Hashana sermon. "The God I believe in doesn’t write in a book of life or death, doesn’t decree who will live and who will die. No, the God I believe in animates a material universe where everything that lives eventually dies…. But the God I believe in has given human beings a way to make meaning out of lives that are finite."
That crashing airplanes into buildings was a result of human free will is a widely accepted belief. The questions arise when we examine the interaction between free will and God’s role in the universe.
"God has set up the world in such a way that people are asked to be good, even though in the end it might not save them," Wolpe says. "If you say, ‘I’ll be good, and don’t let anything bad happen,’ what kind of goodness is that? That’s not goodness, it’s prudence."
Evil acts, then, are a necessary result of God’s letting the universe function as it must.
The outcome of human free will might indeed further the Divine will, says Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism.
"Human freedom is one of the building blocks for God’s plan," Artson says. "We make choices, and God uses those choices to achieve a certain outcome."
In this case, perhaps God’s hand can be seen in the overwhelming outpouring of goodness.
"There were four evil acts, and then there have been hundreds of thousands of acts of goodness," Artson says. "That is where I tell students to look for the hand of God."
Rabbi Nachum Braverman of Aish HaTorah in Los Angeles takes it a step further, saying that the national and international introspection that has followed Sept. 11 was not only a byproduct of the terror, but perhaps its very purpose — and a sign of God’s love for humanity.
"We live very drowsy and comfortable lives, and the Almighty comes along and blows the shofar and says, ‘You’ve got to wake up,’" says Braverman, noting that the event touched every human being on the planet. "God acts through events in the world to move us to live lives that matter, that take account of the covenant and take account of the meaning of Jewish life. That seems to me consistent with a God who loves us…. I think it’s an expression of God’s love that he calls us to accounting. To permit us to sleep our lives away would be indifference, not love."
While Braverman says he cannot answer whether God had pegged each person who died to meet his or her end that way on that day, he does think it was part of a Divine plan.
"In my own life, the most important discoveries, the most important growth as a human being has come through the greatest pain and terror," he says.
About 10 years ago, his now healthy 11-year-old daughter was diagnosed with cancer.
"I believe if I make of my life something that matters, it will be because of the door opened through my daughter’s illness," he says.
But other Orthodox rabbis — who share Braverman’s belief that God acts through history and that everything that happens on Earth is part of a Divine plan — are reluctant to ascribe universal meaning to any event.
"I think it’s OK in a small setting for a person to say, ‘This is what it’s done for me,’ and everyone has an obligation to take the events of Sept. 11 and internalize them," says Rabbi Daniel Korobkin, community leader for Yeshivat Yavneh. "But to dictate a specific message can become burdensome and onerous. It is counterproductive to speculate."
In fact, Korobkin is uncomfortable with humans trying to ascribe purpose to God, because God is by definition unknowable.
"We will never truly be able to understand how God works, because the human mind is confined to thinking in a four-dimensional universe [three dimensions plus time], but God works outside that box," says Korobkin.
It is that acknowledgment that allows Korobkin to live with seemingly irreconcilable contradictions in the human understanding of God.
Orthodox theologians have spent centuries grappling with the notion that human free choice coexists with a God who is omniscient, who approves of everything and intends everything that occurs in the world.
Likewise have theologians tried to explain evil in a belief system where it is taken as axiomatic that God is compassionate and just.
So how to explain not only terror attacks but birth defects and natural disasters?
"This world is the corridor to the next world. When something happens here, we only see the tip of the iceberg," Korobkin says, offering one of several classical explanations. "So if a person has a short life in this world, or a tragic life, that is really a small portion of the totality of that person’s existence."
Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom, associate director of Project Next Step at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, says even our limited vision of events in this world hampers our ability to judge.
"We are horrified at what happened, but how many others might there have been?" he asks, pointing to other terrorist attempts that were foiled. "Relative to the apparent security in which we live, we were shocked out of the blue. But relative to what people might want to do, maybe it’s a miracle that more things don’t happen," Etshalom says.
Rabbi Stephen Robbins of Congregation N’vay Shalom in Beverly Hills says that in Kabbalistic thinking, evil — the Sitra Achra — is a necessary and Godly part of the continuing process of creation.
"Everything in this world is an expression of God and the will of the Holy One, including darkness and evil," he says. "But evil has an intent, has a purpose, and that purpose is to challenge us to take care of and to protect the presence of the Holy One in this world."
Too much evil blocks the light of the presence of God, he says, eclipsing God. Nonetheless, God has built in a remedy for an evil that results from judging each other harshly.
"The principal of judgment, of strictness, is always mitigated in Kaballah by that of rachamim, of compassion," he says. "If you cannot see that everyone has been created in the image of God, you can’t see that you are in the image of God either, and then we are all separate and all alone, all struggling for survival instead of working to fulfill a purpose and a goal. And when we are locked in survival mentality — as the world is now — nobody survives."
That balance of judgment and compassion cannot just be internal, Robbins says, but must be worldwide.
"It’s so easy to demonize people and create devils who are separate from the Divine human reality in which we live," he says. But we must not let our instinct for compassion be quashed.
"Compassion is not forgiveness, compassion is understanding — understanding how sick these people are, how profoundly twisted in their own rage and pain and darkness they are," he says. "It doesn’t in any way excuse or mitigate what they have done, nor does it distance them from judgment and punishment. But it teaches us that the very thing that twisted them is alive and well and working on others in the world, and those we must heal before they do it again and again," Robbins says.
Wolpe agrees that Judaism has a "very palatable sense that there is evil in the world and that … it has be fought," he says. "We should be very grateful that we are in a powerful nation and that we have the capacity to fight evil now."
While individuals can use this opportunity to examine their role in this world, Wolpe says, we should not let the existence of evil imperil our sense of Divine mercy, whether we attribute it to humanity gone bad or to our limited scope of understanding the Divine, or to a larger picture that includes an afterlife.
"I’m convinced this world is both random and unfair; about that I have no question," he says. "But I also believe that God is compassionate and just, and how that gets sorted out is, fortunately, not my responsibility to figure out — because I can’t."