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The Morality of Earthquakes, Tzunamis and Nuclear Disasters

03/15/2011 11:27:18 AM


Rabbi George Gittleman

Our hearts go out to the Japanese people, and all the other folks affected by the recent earthquake, tsunami and ongoing nuclear crisis. These are sad and scary times…

Natural disasters often beg the question: “Where was God?” both regarding the suffering that such natural disasters cause, as well as the role God in the unfolding of reality: did God cause the earthquake and everything else that followed?

Was the earthquake an expression of ‘God’s Will’?

Jewish Tradition is not monolithic; there is more than one Jewish answer to this question. One trend that you do find in Jewish tradition, starting in the Tenakh (Hebrew Bible) and working its way through Jewish thought in some circles up until today, is the sense that yes, everything is an expression of God’s will. Thus, when the prophet Amos proclaims, “Adonai roars from Zion, Shouts aloud from Jerusalem; And the pastures of the Sheppard shall languish; and the summit of Carmel shall wither.” (Amos 1:2), he is predicting a large, devastating earthquake, which God will bring against the Judeans because of their moral failures. To Amos and other biblical voices, “the earth and all that fills it” is an organic whole; every move we make in one way or another affects and is affected by God. Thus, if we sin, God reacts and that might mean an earthquake or a famine or an invading army! Whatever happens reflects our behavior and God’s will.

This is the same line of reasoning used by the likes of Pat Robertson and the late Jerry Falwell, who blamed the 911 terrorist attack on “gays”, “abortionists” and the “ACLU”, and the deadly Indonesian tsunami in 2004 on the “moral depravity of the Indonesian people.” It is hard for me to fathom how anyone could take these two (and others like them) seriously. It’s even harder for me to face the fact that, though not often quoted in the media, there are Jews with similar theologies; for example, those who claimed that ”the Holocaust was punishment for the rise of Reform Judaism in Germany…” or that a terrorist attack in Israel was the result of mezuzot on the doorways of the buildings that were not kosher. Enough!

Of all the Jewish views on the causes of natural disasters and other calamities, I prefer the approach of the great medieval rabbi and philosopher Maimonides.

According to Maimonides, there are three causes of evil: that we are material (by definition all material things decay/come in and out of being); what governments do to us; and what we do to ourselves. Wisdom and refraining from idolatry (making something of ultimate concern that is not of ultimate value) are the ways one mitigates against evil. This is how Maimonides might view the recent tragic events in Japan:

First, he would point out that earthquakes and tsunamis are simply a part of reality – the material world by definition is subject to natural forces; material things come in and out of being. Stuff happens…earthquakes and other natural disasters are manifestations of the transient nature of the material world. We do not and cannot control, stop, or alter in any meaningful way such a naturally occurring event. What we can do is use “wisdom” to mitigate the damage it will cause. So, while Maimonides would not have blamed the recent disaster on the moral behavior of the Japanese people, he might question the wisdom of building nuclear reactors in general, or in the specific, earthquake and tsunami-prone environment of Japan. He might also question Japanese society’s priorities; was the focus on things of ultimate concern like safety and preserving human life, or was it centered on more ”idolatrous” objectives like material consumption, profits, etc. (Just think how vulnerable we in the U.S are to this critique!)

Maimonides directs us not to point fingers at each other over the cause of natural disasters but rather to demand that we live wisely knowing that natural disasters are a part of reality. In doing so he inspires us to ask important, fundamental questions about who we are and who we ought to be as individuals, and as members of a more global society.

Maimonides’ perspective is helpful, at least to me, but the first and most important religious response in times like these is to lend a hand in any way we can. Only when the dust settles and all the aid that we can muster is delivered, is it time to ask the tough questions Maimonides’ philosophy demands.

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