For many religious people, the most natural thing about a natural disaster is the subsequent attempt to find spiritual meaning in the destruction and to engage in justification of its Divine cause. Rabbi Natan Slifkin discusses this in his blog “The Theology of Sandy,” and tells of his conversation with one Rabbi who sought to attribute the reason for the hurricane’s devastating effects to the iniquities of Atlantic City.
These kinds of post facto explanations for horrific tragedies are not new. In his A Crack in the Edge of the World, Simon Winchester describes what may have been the greatest natural disaster in the history of America, the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906. “The Big One,” and the fire it triggered, caused billions of dollars worth of damage to property, killed thousands, and produced a quarter of a million refugees.
Never was there a city so diametrically opposed to the piety its name would suggest. San Francisco was born of greed with the 49’ers pouring in from every corner of the globe to fill their pockets with the gold dust of the Sierra Madre and the silver of the Comstock Lode. It was a city famous for its saloons, brothels, and Chinese opium dens. When it was leveled as the Pacific plate slipped by 21 feet relative to the North American plate along the San Andreas Fault releasing an unimaginable amount of energy, it was not surprising that many would describe the event as “an act of God” meant to punish the inhabitants of this modern day Gemorrah.
One group in particular is associated most closely with promoting this approach, namely the Pentecostals. As Winchester recounts, the one-eyed preacher William Seymour had been forced to leave his parish in Los Angeles and move to Azusa Street in San Francisco after a particularly rambunctious celebration left the church floor broken. (This fervent dancing was due to a young woman named Jenny Moore who, in reaction to a sermon by Seymour, exhibited a phenomenon called xenolalia, and began to play the piano and sing in what was thought to be Hebrew – though she had never played any musical instrument before, nor had she ever heard the Semitic language.) The move to Azusa street took place just days before the earthquake, and when it hit, Seymour’s protégé Frank Bartleman immediately recognized that its proximate theological cause was based on Isaiah, Chapter 26 verse 9: “When Thy judgements are in the Earth, the inhabitants of the world will learn righteousness.”
That the earthquake was visited upon San Francisco as a punishment for its sins was a message that resonated with people, and the Azusa Street Revival became the center for the meteoric rise of Pentecostalism throughout the world over the next decades. The modern day importance of this charismatic strain of Christianity, as a religious as well as political force, can be traced back to the devastating disaster in 1906.
Not everyone, however, accepted the explanation for the quake as the wrath of God, and some were skeptical. They pointed out that while over 90% of the city was utterly destroyed, one liquor warehouse, owned by A. P. Hotaling, was left completely unscathed. The poet Charles Kellogg Field mounted a whimsical challenge to the theological interpretations of the quake:
“If, as they say, God spanked the town
For being over frisky,
Why did he burn the churches down
And save Hotaling’s whiskey?”
Judaism, of course, has grappled with the issue of theodicy extensively. A recurring theme within the Bible is that God brings ruin and catastrophe as punishment for our sins, and to induce us to correct our ways. Everything comes from God, as Jeremiah laments, “Out of the mouth of the Most High do not the bad things come and the good?” (Lamentations 3:38) Or as the Baal Shem Tov put it: “Even the movement of a leaf in the wind is planned by God.”
But there is another opinion, quoted in the name of the great third century Babylonian amora, Rava, “Life (health), children, and sustenance, they are not based on merit, but rather are they based on mazzal (luck, chance, or destiny).” (Moed Katan 28a) This approach seems to negate any attempt to pin tragedy (at least on a personal level) on sin in general or on a specific transgression.
So how should one view Sandy, or indeed any tragedy, general or personal? Since there are conflicting opinions among the greatest Jewish theologians, I would suggest a compromise. When involved in introspection, one can always find room for improvement and therefore should view events as an opportunity to grow spiritually and to develop in terms of charity, kindness, and other good deeds and attributes. When viewing one’s neighbor, on the other hand, it is best to adopt Rava’s approach and treat suffering and loss with the utmost sympathy, never daring to explain it away in terms of sin or punishment. To ascribe sin to Job was ultimately the great mistake of Job’s friends.
There may be great psychological motivations for ascribing natural disasters to this or that offense, and to set right the celestial balance sheet, but such attempts are often too facile. And do they really bring anyone closer to God?
– Prof. Leo Taubes –
One hundred and fifty years before the devastating San Francisco earthquake, on November 1, 1755, to be more exact, a far greater catastrophe struck in Portugal. This was the great Lisbon earthquake, which destroyed most of the city and caused from 50,000 to 100,000 deaths. Churches were crowded with people celebrating All Saints Day, and the collapsing buildings killed thousands. Survivors rushed to the open spaces around the port area and were amazed to see that the water had receded to the extent of exposing shipwrecks on the ocean floor. It was an ominous sign.
About half an hour after the tremors subsided, a giant tsunami came roaring in, adding to the destruction and sweeping additional thousands out to sea. What the earthquake and tsunami spared was ravaged by fires that burned for days on end. Lisbon had experienced earthquakes before, but nothing on this cataclysmic scale.
It was not long before self-appointed interpreters of the will of God determined that the disaster was the result of divine displeasure, and that the cause of God’s wrath was…. Here there were various options. Catholic theologians ascribed it to the sinfulness of the people of Lisbon, and to the presence of Protestants in the country. Protestants were equally certain that God was punishing the Catholics, who were corrupters of the true faith. And skeptics wondered why all the churches were destroyed while the notorious red light district of Lisbon escaped significant damage, as later some Americans wondered why a liquor warehouse had been spared in San Francisco.
Skepticism, however, was not the most significant reaction in San Francisco. There the quake provided an impetus for the spectacular growth of American Pentecostalism. The Lisbon quake produced quite different results; it led to a major change in the prevalent intellectual climate of Europe.
The earlier eighteenth century was an age characterized by philosophical optimism, an age in which reason, particularly as embodied in brilliant scientific advances such as Newtonian physics, demonstrated human enlightenment and progress. The problem of the persistence of evil in a rationally constructed universe governed by a benevolent and omnipotent deity had been dealt with by the German philosopher Leibniz. His Essay of Theodicy on the Goodness of God, the Freedom of Man, and the Origin of Evil famously characterized our world as the best of all possible worlds, one that maximized good and minimized evil.
In England, Alexander Pope’s Essay on Man arrived at similar conclusions. The poem set out to “vindicate the ways of God to man,” a variation of Milton’s aim in Paradise Lost to “justify the ways of God to men.” Human life seems random and filled with evil, but it is in fact part of a divinely organized, rational, perfect world, one that our limited human intellect can only grasp partially and imperfectly. Pope concludes that “One truth is clear, ‘Whatever IS, is RIGHT.'”
The poem was enormously popular throughout Europe, and one of its greatest admirers was Voltaire, who praised it extravagantly, describing it as the most brilliant didactic poem ever written. But in December of 1755, the month after the great Lisbon earthquake, he wrote a Poem on the Lisbon Disaster, a cry of despair and a vehement denunciation of the optimism of Leibniz and Pope, and of all attempts to understand the horrific event as an instance of divine reaction to human evil. Can the deaths of tens of thousands, including many children, really be seen as justifiable punishment for sin? Was Lisbon more addicted to vice than London or Paris that wallowed in sensual delight?
Four years later, Voltaire published Candide: or,Optimism, his most famous work, which satirically destroys the notion that “all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.” The book spread rapidly throughout Europe, and in intellectual circles the beliefs of Pope and Leibniz were no longer tenable. Natural disasters were increasingly accounted for by scientific explanations rather than theological apologetics. Where the San Francisco quake led to greater religiosity, the Lisbon quake led to greater skepticism and secularism.
That God’s general providence oversees the world of man and that good is rewarded and evil punished are basic tenets of Judaism. Their specific application, however, is never simple or obvious. The philosophical problem of evil, of how to make sense of the existence of evil in a morally coherent universe governed by an omniscient, omnipotent, benevolent God, logically leads either to atheism or to one or another form of theodicy. Thus the Psalmist writes that the boor and the foolish man cannot understand that the wicked flourish only to be forever destroyed. But Jeremiah, who was neither a boor nor a fool, asked in despair, “Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why are the workers of treachery at ease?” And the corollary to that question, of course, is why the righteous suffer.
When tragedy or major disasters strike, there are always those who come up with instant glib analyses and ready accusations. To some, hurricane Sandy was a punishment for America’s support of Israel, or opposition to Assad. Others insist that America was punished for permitting gambling, or abortion, or same sex marriage, or whatever. Nothing is easier than to claim an insider’s knowledge of the mind of God, and nothing more spiritually dangerous. It takes a certain arrogance, a certain smugness and self-satisfaction to presume expertise in the ways of God. It is far better to heed the statement of R. Yannai in Pirke Avot: It is not in our power to explain either the tranquility of the wicked or the suffering of the righteous.