Sunday, February 14, 2010

Theodicy and the Wrath of G-d.

Theodicy, simplified, is the age old question of why bad things happen to good people.  I have always asked myself this question.
It started at an early age, I had a younger sister that died at around age two.  It devastated my mother and she has never been the same.  Later on in life, I questioned how G-d could let the Holocaust happen.  More recently we had the Tsunami and the earthquake in Haiti.
In fact, the earthquake and Pat Roberston, the Evangelical Christian host of the 700 Club are part of the reason that finally drove me to write this. I find the guy hideous to accuse people who are victims of an earthquake of making a pact with the devil.  Whatever happened was not the wrath of G-d, it was a horrific geological event of nature.
If one thinks that every bad thing that happens is G-d punishing someone, well then what did the the victims of the Holocaust do?  Wait a minute...let me guess, Pat, they weren't Christian?  Would we say the same thing for people who get cancer, even young children?  Where does it end?  Working in health care, I see inexplicable tragedies as a part of life almost everyday.
This view of G-d punishing people is comparable to belief in Santa Claus.  Those kids that are nice will get the best presents and those that are naughty will get nothing or something bad.  What about those kids that are poor, were they not nice?
If you just read the Bible and take every word literally without Midrash, without analysis, and without discussion you could draw simple conclusions like this.  Life is just not that simple.  This is why we need to continue to explore the Torah and it's meaning forever.  It is not document to be read in black and white as a fairytale would be to a 7 year old.  It is not for us to take the story of Sodom and Gemorrah and apply it to every disaster on earth.  We cannot make life into a Star Wars story of sheer good verses evil...with G-d playing Luke Skywalker and the devil playing Darth Vader.
Rabbi Mark S. Golub, in response to this Haiti disaster, brought up the passage from Deuteronomy 30:19 during his Shalom TV presentation of Jewish 101.
The Jewish Study Bible Translation:
"I put before you life and death, blessing and curse.  Choose life-if you and your offspring would live."  So what's the message there in all this?  For me it says, here it is the world in all its good and bad, but no matter what happens don't abandon G-d.  Instead do what you can to promote good in the world and loving kindness.  As with any portion of the Torah, I will leave it to all of us to interpret.
And what about the Shoah, the Holocaust?
In the book Essential Judaism by George Robertson, he brings up some of the responses drawn using the work of Stephen Katz, director of the Elie Wiesel Center for Judaic Studies at Boston University.  There are 9 of them, but only some of them speak to me.  I have placed them loosely in order of their importance to me, not in the order in which they were written in the book.
1.  "G-d does not act in human history: God gave humanity free will.  Radical evil of the sort manifested by the Nazis is the price we pay for freedom.  The Shoah is the work of men, evil men, not G-d."
2. "The Holocaust is like all other tragedies.  While it raises once again the question of theodicy, it does not significantly alter the problem"
3.  "The Shoa is an inscrutable mystery, transcending human understanding.  Like all G-d's mysteries it demends of us faith and silence."  (I would not subscribe to silence as I think we must remember this tragedy to prevent it happening again.)
4.  "Like the binding of Isaac, the Shoah is a test of our faith in G-d."
5.  "The Shoah is an act of revelation in which a new, 614th Commandment was voiced:  You shall not grant Hitler a posthumous victory, you must survive."
The ones I don't necessary feel speak to me are the following:
6.  "As stated in Isaish 53, the Jewish people are the "suffering servant" of all mankind, suffering in atonement for the sins of others."  (This one sounds a little too much like Christianity to me, just replace "the Jewish people" with the name Jesus).
7.  "The Shoah is an example of hester panim/the hiding of the face of G-d, an occasion in which G-d is absent from human history."  (While I just don't believe G-d takes a leave of absence, however, from the point of view a victim, I could see why this conclusion would be drawn.  I would not begin to understand their experience.)
8.  "G-d is dead.  If there really was a just and powerful G-d, the Shoah could not have taken place.  Therefore, G-d is either dead or never existed."  (While this approaches blasphemy to me, I don't believe G-d is a mortal being who can die.)
Finally, the one I totally disagree with:
9.  "The Shoah, like the destruction of the Temple and other national catastrophes, was punishment for the sins of the Jewish people, who had forgotten the mitzvot."  (I think people like Pat Robertson came up with this one.)
So I would say to anyone reading this...sure, it would be nice to arrange life into neat little cubbyholes and explain everything.  Fortunately, we are given the brains to explore the deeper meaning of life.  Don't take the easy way out, instead look for explanations with substance.
30th of Sh'vat, 5770 / ל׳ בשבט תש״ע

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Why ask why? Building My Jewish Identity

Alright, I have realized I am tired of explaining my Jewishness to people.  So outside of my sponsoring Rabbi and the Beit Din, I am done.
I find myself constantly doing this with anyone who knows that I am converting.  I need to stop.  Once I convert, I am Jewish and it should not matter I was not born and raised that way.  Yes, I have a lot to learn, but on the other hand who doesn't?  I have a lifetime of study ahead of me as does any other observant Jew.
I find myself explaining these personal things yet again in my Torah class or to a new person I meet who happens to be Jewish.  Not everyone needs to know my business.  I realize there will be occasions that I may need to share this with others, but not ALL the time.  I found myself thinking I have verbal diarrhea when it comes to this subject.
My rabbi gave me an article called "Ethnicity is Not Judaism" by David Essex...
It talks about Judaism being based on Torah, Israel and the Sages, not being traced to the shtetls of Eastern Europe.  While 1/2 of me can be traced to Italy and 1/4 of me to the Civil War, that last 1/4 can indeed be traced to Eastern Europe.  Grandma did wear a babushka (you know one of those gorgeous scarves women wore from that area, whenever it was slightly windy). 
So what is my problem here?  I would say I am ashamed of my family's own identity crisis.  I am ashamed that my family felt it was so bad to be Jewish that they blew it off and converted.  What the heck were they thinking?  Where were their values?  What brought this on?  I wish that for one day I could go back to my great-grandfather's life and be that "fly on the wall".  Realistically, I will never know the answers to these questions.  I will never know what was so terrible in their life that they decided to abandon Judaism or did they have some sort of crazed Christian evangelical light bulb go on in their heads?  Honestly, I think it boils down to one simple thing, it made life easier.  I did not live in their time, nor did I walk in their shoes, but my gut feeling is simply someone followed the path of least resistance.
The problem with my gut feeling is that in any event, I feel guilty for what they did.  Which logically is totally not my fault.  Albeit, I live in 2010, on the East Coast, where it is comfortable for me to find a Jewish life.  They didn't. 
For some reason, they chose to settle in Western Pa.  Originally, they were in Cleveland and Sharon, Pa where there were some Jews.  Then they went to New Castle, PA.  Good luck being Jewish there.  I can only assume it was the work and the possibility of having a little money for a change that attracted them to New Castle.  But here I am making excuses for them again. 
Bottom line, it is unfortunate my great-grandparents did what they did.  On the other hand if they hadn't I would not be here, a child of intermarriage both ethnically and religiously.  While I am convinced G-d does not chisel our destiny out for us and free will is an option..I am here because he put me here and I certainly have a right to exist.  I also have a right to be Jewish.  This goes regardless of what my grandparents decided.  I have to live my own life.  Judaism has given me the structure to live it in a more productive way.  It is the right solution for me and the right religion for me.  I need to become more comfortable with the fact this was an individual decision and not just some sort of magical genetic trait.  I need to continue to work on building a Jewish way of life and accepting my new identity because it is what I want.
Building Identity Piece by Piece
19th of Sh'vat, 5770 / י״ט בשבט תש״ע