Acts of God? A Jewish Perspective on Natural Disasters

Was the tragedy in Japan unleashed by the earthquake and tsunami, as well as the damage to the nuclear power plants, an act of God? Of course, it depends on what kind of God you believe in.
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There's a famous joke that purports to describe the difference between religions. I'll clean it up a little so this can be published:

TAOISM: Bad things happen.
BUDDHISM: If bad things happen, it isn't really bad.
HINDUISM: This bad thing happened before.
ISLAM: If bad things happen, it is the will of Allah.
PROTESTANTISM: Let bad things happen to someone else.
CATHOLICISM: If bad things happen, you deserved it.
JUDAISM: Why do bad things always happen to us?

What all religious tradition traditions seem to have in common is the truth that things happen that many people experience as bad. And, as the atheist position in the joke proclaims, some people blame God. In fact, the term "act of God" is used in a legal context for "an event which is caused by the effect of nature or natural causes and without any interference by humans whatsoever." Was the tragedy in Japan unleashed by the earthquake and tsunami, as well as the damage to the nuclear power plants, an act of God?

Of course, it depends on what kind of God you believe in. If you believe in the literal word of the Bible, that God really can split the sea or that God is responsible for a flood that wipes out the whole earth, then you might believe that God is responsible for the earthquake. But that is not the God I believe in. I don't think it is the God of Jewish tradition either.

Jews don't read the Bible literally. We read it through the lens of generations of interpretations and acknowledge the evolution of human understanding of God. The Talmudic image of God is vastly different from the image of God presented in the Bible. The God described in Talmud is not responsible for what we call "acts of God."

Two classic Talmudic texts make this point very clearly: "Suppose a person stole a measure of wheat and went and sowed it in the ground; it is right that it should not grow, yet the world pursues its natural course, and as for those who transgress, they will have to render an account. Another illustration: Suppose a man had intercourse with his neighbor's wife; it is right that she should not conceive, yet the world pursues its natural course."

The tradition is claiming that God doesn't interfere with the natural course of the world. Earthquakes happen. Things that don't seem fair from the perspective of morality happen because of laws of nature. People suffer as a result, but not because God has willed this specific tragedy to occur.

A second text is even more powerful. It plays off the two biblical commands, which carry the reward of living a long life: honoring your parents and shooing away a mother bird before you take her eggs, presumable to spare her feelings.

"The boy's father said to him: 'Ascend to the loft and bring me the eggs in the nest...' If the boy ascends, dismisses the mother bird and takes the young, and on his return falls and dies, how can it be explained?" (After all, the boy was fulfilling the two commandments that come with the reward of long life -- he was honoring his father and he was shooing away the mother bird.) After offering possible explanations for why this bad thing might have happened, Rabbi Eleazar says: "It was a rickety ladder, so injury was likely. Where injury is likely one cannot rely on a miracle."

Earthquakes happen. We can't depend on miracles. But we are responsible for the rickety ladders in our lives. The earthquake, the tsunami -- that is the world pursuing its natural course. But building a nuclear plant so close to a fault line? That is the rickety ladder. We are responsible for that.

Bad things will happen. People will get sick and die. Hurricanes will devastate a city. Tornadoes, earthquakes, drought -- this is the world pursuing its natural course. But we are responsible for the rickety ladders, the extent to which global warming is created by human beings, the dangers posed by depending on energy sources that are dangerous, and the connection between our consumption and the planet's inability to sustain all of us. We can't depend on miracles, only on our resolve to take responsibility for what we can change to make the world safer.

So was God in the earthquake? Not in the way fundamentalists use the term. But perhaps in a different way, captured by the classic story:

"A young man once came to Menachem Mendel of Kotzk. 'Rebbe, I can no longer believe in God. I can't believe in God because the world is so filled with pain, suffering, ugliness and evil. How could there be a God in such a world?!' 'Why do you care?' asked the Rebbe. 'What do you mean, why do I care? How could I not care? Innocent people suffer; the world is ruled by cruel people. Why does God allow it?'

Again, the Rebbe inquired, 'But why do you care?'

The young man screamed out: 'Someone has to care! Someone has to see the pain of the world and cry out! If not, all the suffering is meaningless. I care because I want a better world, not only for my children but for all children!'

The Rebbe responded, 'If you care that much, then God exists. You see, God exists in your caring.'"

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