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How Could God Allow This Tsunami?
The editor of of Tikkun Magazine talks about theodicy, tsunami, and 29,000 children dying every day.
By Michael Lerner
The following was received in an email from Rabbi Michael Lerner of Tikkun Magazine.
Greetings! In the midst of grieving for the horrible losses of life and collectiing monies to help the victims, I received a note on the Ask The Rabbi section of Tikkun's website (www.tikkun.org). He asked: how could God have allowed this to happen?
Most religions seem to imply that their is order and reason which guide the events of the world. Yet, my questioner pointed out, the recent tragedies in South and Southeast Asia and a range of other unfair things in the world make these notions of order and reason very problematic and unacceptable.
My answer follows.
Let me start with this: I don't know. I think that whatever else I say below, I want to start with the fact that I do not know, that there is a limitation of knowledge and understanding built into being a human being at this stage in the develoment of the consciousness of the universe. I was not there when the foundations of the universe were being put together-and that is a point that was made to in the Book of Job long ago when he similarly questioned the way the universe works. Having said that, I want to consider several lines of possible response, as long as you understand that I know that these are NOT ANSWERS but only responses to the question as you pose it. The difference is this: an answer seeks to dissolve the question, a response recognizes the ongoing validity of the question and seeks to remain in connection with it.
1. I'll start with a response I have some (but not 100%) sympathy with, but which I think deserves some contnuing attention-the answer from karma or universal justice, and it goes like this: The tectonic moves of the earth are part of a totally integrated moral system that has been in place since the earth began to evolve. That moral system, described by the Bible, tells us that the physical world will be unable to function in a peaceful and gentle way until the moral/spiritual dimension manifest in the behavior of God's creatures coheres with God's will: that is, is filled with justice, peace, generosity and kindness. The earth is a biological/ethical/spiritual unity, and its functioning is in accord with its aspirations toward consciousness, love, enviromental sensitivity, generosity, and social justice but when there are contradictions or constraints in the development of love, consciousness, environmental sensitivity, social justice, and generosity then there is a malfunction which eventually manifests in physical disorders, whether they be disease or whether they be earthquakes or tornadoes or floods or other disruptions of nature. This is basically the point of the Bible's account of the plagues facing Egypt, but now working on a global level. As the Torah makes clear, this karmic order doesn't happen on a one-to-one basis: i.e. it isn't as if everyone who suffered in the plagues of Egypt was directly responsible for the enslavement and oppression of Jewish slaves, and the Torah's claim that if we do not create a society based on love, kindness, generosity, justice and peace we will face ecological disaster is not a claim that each person who suffers from ths disaster will be equally responsible for the moral disorder that generated the ecological crisis. But what the Torah is implying is this: there is noone alive on the planet who doesn't have some part of the responsibility for the craziness that manifests in lack of justice, kindness, generosity, peace and love. We are all ONE, and that means the totality of the moral craziness is our collective responsibility, and the environmental dysfunction that that moral craziness produces will eventually impact on all of us alike. Now, if you answer, "but why strike the weak in SouthEast Asia and not the strong in the US?" the answer might be, "it will happen here as well, has been happening in many ways already in the form of cancer epidemics and other environmental diseases," but it might also be, "we are all one, and when the earth is morally dysfunctional the tectonic movement of its plates manifests all over and not in ways that we can directly correlate in a one to one relationship with who did the latest moral outrage and where." An analogy: when we inhale and eat various environmental poisions which we ourselves created in the factories of advanced industrial societies, they may eventually cause cancer of the liver or the kidneys or the stomach. Now imagine a stomach or liver cell making the following argument: "It wasn't me who took in this cancer-causing material, but the brain, the mouth, the hands-so it is unfair that I should be suffering when it was done by these other organs!" Well, I guess it has a case to be made, but only on the supposition that the liver cell or the kidney or stomach cell isn't part of the same unity as the hand, brain or mouth that ingested the poison in the first place. In any event, this is the current form of the argument that there is in fact a karmic explanation for what is happening today that should alert us to the need to do immediate tikkun olam to bring the world into a lasting harmony. [one other objection to consider to this: how can the deaths of tens of thousands be seen as a result of global injustice, which after all is so much of a lesser offense than this massive death caused by the tsunami? Well, if we could measure justice by numbers involved, then the objection is completely misguided. According to a U.N. report issued a few weeks ago, the results of which should be familiar to all of you who regularly receive Tikkun Mail where these results were summarized, over 29,000 children die every single day as a result of malnutrition and diseases related to inadequate food,health care, and other socially constructed problem. More on this below.]
2. But will there really be no earthquakes in the messianic era -the period when human beings create our institutiions based on love, generosity, environmental sensitivity, kindness, compassion for all life, social justice, non-violence nd peace? The first point above needs to claim that that is how it will be, but I'm not sure that that is true. So if it is not, then we need to reject the notion that everything that happens has a divine cause. We need not reject that there is a karmic order such as is described in point one, only that it does not explain IT DOES NOT EXPLAIN EVERYTHING. But, if it doesn't, the questioner can legitimately ask, how do we understand the nature of God? My answer here is very tentative, because I know how very little I can possibly know about the ultimate reality of the universe. So what I say must be filled with the crude level of understanding that we humans have gotten to at this point in the evolution of consciousness. But here is what I would say (Ideas developed partially in my previous books, particularly Jewish Renewal: A Path to Healing and Transformation, and in Spirit Matters: Global Healing and the Wisdom of the Soul, and which will be further developed in a book that I'm writing now for which I have not yet found a publisher: Global Judaism and Universal Healing of the Planet):
First, stop thinking of God as some big man up in heaven sitting there and making individual judgments about who shall live and who shall die, where he should put a tsunami and where he should put a beautiful sunset. Instead, understand God as THE FORCE OF HEALING AND TRANSFORMATION IN THE UNIVERSE, the aspect of the universe that is the source of love, kindness, generosity, social justice, peace and evolving consciousness, and that this aspect of the universe permeates every ounce of being, every cell, and unifies all being as it moves the beiing of the universe toward greater and greater levels of love and connection and consciousness, and makes possible the transcending of that which is toward that which ought to be. Seen this way, God is not the all-powerful being that determines every moment of creation, but rather the part of creation aspiring toward love, kindness, generosity, peace, and social justice which is evolving toward greater power to shape our common destiny to the extent that we choose to embody it more fully. Heresy, you say? Only if your conception of God derives from a Greek notion of the All-Knowing, All Powerful Unmoved Mover-a conception which at times has seeped into and shaped medieval theologies of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, but which isn't the only possible way to understand God. If, on the other hand, we take our cues from parts of Torah that think of God as bemoaning the choices that human beings made, even at times thinking that maybe S/He made a mistake in creating humans, or as weeping over the consequences of Diaspora (Shechina, the Divine presence, going into Exile with the Jews according to one midrash), or as sufferiing from the consequences of human choices, or the Christian vision of God as needing to suffer on the Cross, then you get a different and more vulnerable vision of God, one more in accord with the notion of God not as the one responsible for everything that happens, but as an emerging voice of compassion and love in the midst of a world not totally under His/Her control.In that case, and this conception aligns more closely to what I understand with my limited understanding, God is joining us in mourning for the victims of the Tsunami, not its cause. Or, to put it another way, God is the part of Being (including the part of us) that is yearning for a world in which this kind of suffering will be diminished and in which those parts of the suffering that can't be stopped will be accompanied by responses of generosity and kindness.
The GOOD NEWS OF THE TSUNAMI: Look at the worldwide outcry of pain and concern about the victims of this terrible tragedy, and the universal response of people trying to help, donate money, time, energy to supporting the victims. From every corner of the world people are standing up and acting in generous and kind ways. This is the foundation for our Tikkun Community position of Radical Hope. When people are freed momentarily from the societal constraints laid upon them by the cynical realist worldview that tells them they would be foolish to be altruistic because everyone around them is goiing to take advantage of them should they act on any such "utopian" or "adolescent" fantasies that the world is made up of good people, when they are no longer being told by the media that "the other" is really an "enemy" that is just waitiing for a chance to hurt us, then watch how generously they act! This aspiration toward goodness, generosity, care for the stranger whom we have never met and who will never give us a "return on our investment" of caring--this is the aspect of human nature that is totally obscured and denied by contemporary capitalist culture, as it has previously been obscured and denied by every previously existing ruling elite and their religious/ philosphical/social theory ideologies. When there are no such social, religious, political, or other constraints, when the society momentarily lets down its demands that everyone be a cynical realist, then what pops out from only an inch below the surface of our collective consciousness is a huge amount of compassion, generosity, love and caring for others, caring for the stranger, etc. That is why I interpret the Torah's injunction "You shall love the stranger" not solely as a commandment, but also and most importantly as a prediction of what will happen when we build a world based on our highest understanding of what it means to be created in the image of God.
DOWNSIDE of THIS MOMENTARY UPSURGE OF CARING: Nothing is ever just one thing and not something else as well--all of reality is filled with both A and Not A, because the laws of logic are not a satisfactory description of the way the world really is. So, yes, there is tremendous amount of caring. But there is another truth: the powerful only allow this caring to be expressed when there is no conceivable link to changing their global class structure and the elaborate systems of oppression that they've set up. Let me explain:
The powerful have decided to make this the headline story in every newspaper and every news broadcast on television, radio, and webcast. No wonder they are able to get the world's attention, and once there, and with appropriate cues that it is allowed for us to be generous, the generosity that is REALLY ALWAYS THERE pours forth from all humanity.
But a few weeks ago I forwarded you a UN report that told you that on average over 29,000 children die every single day from preventable malnutrition and disease.
The media gave this almost no attention when it was revealed.
Imagine if every day the headlines in every newspaper in the world and every television show was: "29,000 children died yesterday from preventable diseases and malnutrition" and then the rest of the stories alternated between detailed personal accounts of families where this devestation was taking place, and side bar features detailing what was happening in advanced industrial countries, like this: "all this suffering was happening while the wealthiest people in the world enjoyed excesses of food, worried about how to lose weight because they eat too much, spent monies trying to convince farmers not to grow too much food for fear that doing so would drive down prices, and were cutting the taxes of their wealthiest rather than seeking to redistribute their excess millions of dollars of personal income." If the story were told that way every day, the goodness of human beings would rebel quickly against these social systems that made all this suffering possible, suffering far far far far far in excess of all the suffering caused by tsunamis and other natural disasters (if there really are such things as "natural" disasters--point no. one above questioned that separation between the natural and the spiritual). If we were being told this true story every day, we'd quickly find that the progressive forces seeking a new global reality would come to power in democratic elections, and that the ideas that we in The Tikkun Community propose, like the Social Responsibility Amendment to the US Constitution (corporations with incomes of $50 million/yr or more must get a new corporate charter once every ten years, and will only be granted to those which can prove to a jury of ordinary citizens a satisfactory history of social responsibility), the Global Marshall Plan (let the U.S. lead the advanced industrial societies in a global consortium dedicating 5% of their combined GNP each year for the next twenty years to alleviating hunger, homelessness, poverty, inadequate education and inadequate health care), and the Sabbatical Year (every one on the planet stop producing goods one year out of every seven and we all engage in collective reflection on how we want to remake our world--described more fully in Spirit Matters) would no longer seem "unrealistic" to most people on the planet, but immediate survival necessities. CONCLUSION: those who despair are mistaken--the goodness of humanity is just on the verge of being released, and our task is to find the best way to facilitate that development. The point is that we are never encouraged to show caring for the kinds of problems we could actually deal with through collective restructuring of the world's economic and political arrangements--because that would threaten the interests of the powerful. So they are all too glad to divert our attention to the disasters that can't be changed, and to channeling our anger into anger at God instead of anger at our social system. And this, I might add, is the limit on how we are encouraged to respond. All the newspapers tell us how to make individual donations to relief agencies, and we at TIKKUN 100% support your doing just that. For example, we endorse giving money through :American Jewish World Service, Asia Tsunami Relief, 45 West 36th Street, 10th Floor, New York, NY 10018, 800- 889-7146. However, we also know that there has been little willingness to make demands on the governments ofthe advanced industrial societies to make serious levels of contributions. In light of a comment made criticizing the stinginess of US efforts, the State Dept. announced a decision to increase aid by $20 million, when adequate aid would be in the tens of billions of dollars (still far less than what President Bush will be seeking to pursue his insane and destructive and immoral war on the people of Iraq). As long as the focus is on our individual donations, and not on governments using their huge resources to provide adequate levels of relief and rebuilding, the powerful are happy to focus on this particular disaster while leaving the socially constructed disasters of the globalization of their economic system out of the picture and out of our attention.
In any event, I hope you understand that these reflections are put forward in a spirit of humility, because I do not really claim to understand, and yet still feel that it is important to begin this discussion with those who are asking deep questions about the current disaster. I apologize in advance to those who hold different conceptions of God, or certainty that there is no God, and ask that even with these differences please let us work together to bring about the world of loving-kindness that we seek in The Tikkun Community, because all of these differences are welcome, and our community is not one based on one "correct line" about God or the absence of God, because every form of theology and every form of atheism are still welcome within our community, as long as you remain committed to our fundamental belief: that we can and should build a New Bottom Line of love, caring, generosity, ecological sensitivity, awe and wonder at the grandeur of all that is, and celebration of all th3e goodness in the universe (even as we mourn for and do our best to alleviate all the unnecessary suffering).
It's not too late to help Tikkun spread its message and do the work we are doing--spreading our message of hope, building a Progressive Spiritual Activism, building the support for Middle East Peace and reconciliation, supporting our campaign for ethical consumption in the U.S.and the advanced industrial societies and for a Global Marshall Plan to alleviate world hunger and homelessness and poverty, supporting our campaign to challenge the economic forces that have created global warming, and supporting our campaign for a New Bottom Line in all our economic, political and social institutions. Please send a tax-deductible contribution now-- $5,000, $2,500, $1,000, $500, $250, $100 or whatever you can afford--in one of three ways: 1. Click here to Donate on line to Tikkun
2. Send us a check (if you want it to apply as a tax deduction for the tax year ending Dec. 31st, 2004,please date it by Dec.31st) and mail to: Tikkun, 2342 Shattuck Ave, Berkeley, California 94704. Please accompany it with your email address and phone.
3. Or Send us your credit card info including exp. date and the name as it appears on your card, plus your full mailing address to which the card gets its bills, plus your email andhome phone.
P.s. Some people wonder why these messages get accompanied by requests for donations. There is one simple reason: we could not publish our magazine or afford to sustain our website nor could we afford to pay our tiny staff of five people if we didn't have this support. We work day and night to bring you information, analysis, organize conferences, bring people to DC to meet with the opinion shapers and power brokers, and otherwise get a progressive viewpoint heard in the media--but we can only do that with your financial backing.
Try to imagine for a second how very little I like asking for money. It pains me to have to do this--because I wish I lived in a world where money had been abolished and each of us just voluntarily gave our energies to each other, shared food and resources and talents freely, etc. Warmest regards for a Happy New Year to all who observe this New Year as a holiday!! Let peace prevail on earth, let this year see an end to the war in Iraq, the genocide in Darfur, and the Occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, massive funding to rebuild all that has been destoryed in wake of the Tsunami-- and the beginning of a new awakening of the world toward greater and greater levels of kindness, generosity and love, and a recognition that we are all one, that our well-being depends on the well being of everyone else on the planet.
Rabbi Michael Lerner The Tikkun Community
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