12/20/2012 10:30 am ET Updated Feb 19, 2013

Who Is to Blame? God, Society or Me?

When something terrible happens whom do we blame: God, society or ourselves?

There is a case for the guilt of each in turn. Blaming God makes sense if God initiated the whole mess. A rabbinic story compares Cain's murder of Abel to gladiators in a ring. When one kills the other he looks up at the Emperor and exclaims "This is your fault!" Had they not been placed in the ring, the murder would not have occurred. Had God not put human aggression in our breast and pitted us against one another we would not kill.

On the other hand, there is a plausible case to be made for blaming "society" -- the collective of us all. In the aftermath of Sandy Hook, the diagnoses came fast and furious. It was guns, or lack of care for mental illness, or inadequate security, or something that as society we neglected or distorted. The problems of one are, properly, the problems of us all. Social arrangements are fluid and it seems we could adjust them to fix this if we had the collective will. So if you want to ease the burden of God -- who after all has plenty to deal with -- you can affix it on society.

But blaming all of us may be too facile. Inside of each person of conscience there is something that rebels against the easy road. After all, what have I done? Signed a petition here or there? Read the paper with sadness and disapproval? Have I actually lobbied for gun laws I think are worthy, or worked on treating the mentally ill? To what extent may I take the strange satisfaction of sitting back and blaming others for a tragedy that I did nothing to prevent? In the end, while no one would blame him or herself wholly for Sandy Hook or other similar events, is it legitimate to exempt ourselves?

Here the crystalline words of Abraham Joshua Heschel are helpful: "While few are guilty, all are responsible." Not every evil act implies guilt beyond the perpetrator. Is God guilty for the wayward action of one of God's creations? Only if we wish God to intervene at every moment when we threaten one another. Perhaps God could reach down and place a hand in front of every bomb, bullet and knife. Were that to happen though, we may as well give up the human experiment. We would be puppets and robots, not human beings. God may indeed bear responsibility for the design of this wayward world. Still, to deprive us of the chance to choose cruelty is to deprive us of the chance to make choices. It is a terrible, a savage, price; would we truly wish it otherwise?

Society changes in response to what happens. Society in general is less visionary than reactive. Sandy Hook may force changes. Many might have happened sooner. Yet Society has a short attention span. Each day new problems and situations arise that demand focus. The fading of one event is precipitated by the prominence of another. So society has a responsibility to react but to make it guilty for each depredation of its members is a stretch. It also deprives the individual of agency. If it is everyone's fault, it is no one's fault.

And what of me? Truly each day I do things I ought not, and I don't do things I should. To invoke Heschel again: a man once approached him and said "I am a good man. I don't need God." Heschel's answer was classic: "I envy you. For myself, each day I say things I should not say. I don't say things I should. I think of kindnesses and don't do them. I am not so good. I need God." All of us: God, society, individuals, have a role. Guilt may not be the answer. We do not have to constantly hang our heads. But we are all responsible. We could all do better.