THE BLOG
12/08/2010 07:52 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Does God Cause Natural Disasters?

A giant forest fire in Israel has already claimed 41 lives, hundreds of homes and thousands of trees. Among the dead is Haifa Police Chief Ahuva Tomer who was buried today. The fire and all the suffering it is creating is, according to Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, a punishment from God. Rabbi Yosef, one of the world's most influential rabbis, quoting a passage from the Babylonian Talmud, explained that God is punishing the Jewish people for not properly observing the Sabbath. As grotesque as that sounds to me, I think that his comments deserve our attention.

It's not that I think his words reflect the real reason behind the fire. And it's not that I don't find such appeals to a divine calculus to which we are all privy distasteful, to say the least. In fact, I do. But I also appreciate that there are two lessons to be learned from such utterances -- one which is especially important for people of faith, and one which is important for both believers and non-believers alike.

People of faith, including myself, often feel and express gratitude to God. And yes, I know that some of you will say that is our first mistake. Perhaps you are right, though I wonder too if you ever challenge the foundations of your own atheism as much as you do others' faith. Be that as it may, if we believers are going to thank God for the "good stuff", should we not consider God to be just as responsible for the "bad stuff"?

We cannot simply dismiss Rabbi Ovadia as a doddering old fool spouting off absurd and even obscene notions of global justice based upon religious observance. The God we thank for providing us with that which we like, is surely also the source of those things which we do not.

So what's the problem with Rabbi Ovadia, or any other religious leader who makes such proclamations about the relationship between global events and divine justice? It's not that they are necessarily wrong, though I believe with all my heart that they are. The problem with them is their arrogance and their insensitivity.

Unless these religious leaders believe themselves to be prophets with a direct connection to the mind of God, how can they possibly make assertions about the way in which God chooses to reward and punish? The arrogance of it all is astounding, and were others to make similar pronouncements, ones which did not accord with their view of things, they would be the first to say so. And then there is the insensitivity of it all.

How dare any person apply their personal theology or theodicy to the suffering of others? How can someone see the pain of another person and simply say to them that it will all make sense as long as you believe as I do? I think the answer lies in understanding, though not in excusing what such leaders, including Rabbi Ovadia, are doing.

When He spoke about the "reason" for the current fire, Rabbi Ovadia, with tears in eyes, said, "Entire neighborhoods wiped out, and it is not arbitrary. It is all divine providence." And therein lays the key to understanding what is going on when such statements are made.

The speaker is himself in enormous pain. Unable to bear the possibility that such things are arbitrary, he appeals to a calculus which keeps him from going mad. And that is how it is with most decent people who make such appeals. They do so, not to explain events to others, but to themselves.

In no way does that excuse either the arrogance or the insensitivity of their actions, but it might evoke a measure of understanding and compassion from the rest of us. And that is the lesson for all of us, believers and non-believers alike.

We can simply go on dismissing each other and our respective responses to such tragedies. Or, we could learn that most decent people are burdened with the exact same human challenges at such moments and simply use different systems of thought and belief to address them. While recognizing that will not bridge the gap between the two camps, it will create a measure of understanding and compassion at a moment when people need it most, whatever they believe or don't believe.

At the end of the day, the compassion and understanding evoked, especially at a time of tragedy, should be the test of any system -- religious or otherwise. In his pain, I think that Rabbi Ovadia missed the mark for many people when he made his comments and I think that those who fail to see his underlying motivation are, ironically, making the same mistake.

Now may be a good moment to recall the teaching of Hillel (Avot 2:5), that we not judge others until we have stood in their place. Could we, at least while the fires are burning and the dead are being buried, allow that wisdom to guide us?