Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart
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Sunday, 15 March 2009

Selective Gratitude

A recent post over at Modern Orthoprax really illuminates the limited thinking of the so-called skeptics and I'd like to comment on that.
The problem of evil in the world is one that has bedevilled thinkers from cultures all around the world for millenia. Jewish thought has not shirked from dealing with this issue and providing answers. Unfortunately, if your agenda before reading these answers is already pre-decided, they're not likely to be of much use to you.
The first, most important answer, is that evil is not a contradiction of the goodness of God. While other cultures dealt with the issue of evil by either inventing a powerful anti-god figure for their theology (the devil in Chrisian mythos, for example), others dealt with it by creating a dual system of gods, one good, one evil (the Zoroastrians, for example). Judaism, with its strict undertstanding of the allmighty nature and total unity of God, could not accept either of these approaches.
Even within Jewish though there have been different approaches. Closet non-believers have advance the theory of God not really being that omnipotent. This approach is interesting but completely at odds with what little understanding we have of God. It also has the disadvantage of making no sense. God can create the entire universe but He can't stop a child from getting cancer, chalilah.
Other, more intelligent and faithful religious thinker have attacked the issue as well and come up with answers that do not a priori require one to refute fundamental Jewish principles. This post isn't the place to review their persuasive arguments but rather I would like to note that this issue has been dealt with seriously by committed Jewish leaders who are sincerely bothered by the idea of evil and need to understand its role in Creation.
All this is lost on some folks who can take all the effort made by these great men and dismiss it in a sentence or two. Naturally they don't see that this casual dismissal reflects more on their stupid self-centred arrogance than on the works they are disparaging.
But beyond that, once in a while they themselves will admit their limited logic.
In response to XHG's idea that cancer is evil because it kills little children, I noted that cancer itself isn't actually evil. It's a disease with no ulterior or malicious motives. It kills because that's what cancer does. To which his response was: You're right. Cancer's not evil. God is.
Now consider how stupid that statement is. Here's the bottom line of XGH's thinking:
This child has cancer. That's evil. God gave it to her, therefore He is evil.
I have good health. That's good. But there's nothing deeper to it than that. God doesn't give me good health. Therefore I don't have to consider God good.
From the book of Iyov Chazal learn that we have to bless God for both the good (hatov vehametiv) and the bad (dayan haemes). But why bless him for the bad? One could easily acknowledge God's role in even the bad things in our lives by a different formula: Dear God, please take this badness you allowed to afflict me away! Why davka bless Him for it?
From our limited perspective, we too often ignore that which is good and right in our lives and focus only on that which discomfits us. Did you wake up healthy this morning? Big deal, matter of routine, it's coming to me really. Did I get a bad headache and have to miss that family party this afternoon? Dammit, why did God allow this to happen?
What we perceive as good and evil are our perceptions. That's legitimate since it's all we have to work with, but we still have to take a step back and realize that those perceptions are limited to our temporal, mortal conceptions of reality. The big picture, the grand unifying scheme that God runs the universe with is beyond us. What we perceive as evil is only so because we don't see that bigger scheme. So we recognize it, rail against it but at the same time recognize it is as much from God as what we perceive as good. And just as we must always be aware of the presence of God when something goes wrong, we must also be aware when things go right. In truth there is no meaningless normal routine to the day.
Except for skeptics who want only the good because, well the definition of "God is good" equals "God gives me everything I ask for without expecting anything back because that's what I think is 'good'". And if God says no, well that's just wrong.

27 comments:

Friar Yid (not Shlita) said...

I accept the argument that an all-powerful God must be responsible for both good and evil. What I can't get behind is the concept that bad things are not "really" bad because they might really be good in ways we don't perceive. I would suggest there is a marked difference between missing a family party (of which there are many potential silver linings, including not interacting with annoying relatives and sparing your waist line another few centimeters) and getting cancer, particularly the terminal kind. There's looking on the bright side and then there's delusion.

Another example: try as I might, I cannot find the "silver lining" in mass genocide- there was goodness during the Holocaust, certainly, but I don't see how everything "turned out for the good" for the millions who didn't survive it- and to imply that somehow this is ok, or potentially ok, because it's all part of an unknowable, imperceptible master plan, seems to be downright insulting, by minimizing the pain and suffering (as opposed to mere annoyance) that mankind has lived through for millenia.

I'm ok with classifying cancer as morally neutral (not having any consciousness of its own), but can't agree with reducing it to a trifle because various other "minor miracles" occur all the time. We should indeed be grateful for all that we have, but it seems very facile to dismiss legitimate concerns about evil and suffering by telling someone with a serious problem or affliction that they should really be focusing on how blessed they are that they didn't spontaneously combust just now. This does not address the problem of evil as much as it sidesteps the question.

I do not discount the possibility that there is a larger plan. But for me that still cannot excuse or validate the suffering of innocents in the world. And while cancer may be morally neutral, the logical consequence of omnipotence and omniscience is total responsibility. Cancer is not evil. But I don't see how GIVING someone cancer can be anything but.

I may be too small to sit in judgment of something I can't fully perceive, but I'm willing to accept the possibility that I might be wrong. In the meantime, all I can do is call things as I see them, and say that I've never been impressed-- or convinced-- by theodicy.

The Leader, Garnel Ironheart said...

Excellent points and good to have you commenting.

The rational part of me agrees with most of what you say. Theodicy is a subject fraught with difficulties and uneasiness.

The faith part of me knows the rational is probably right but believes that in the bigger picture there is a point. Otherwise, why go on?

Off the Derech said...

>Otherwise, why go on?

You have a choice, you know. It's called being honest (gasp).

David said...

"Unfortunately, if your agenda before reading these answers is already pre-decided, they're not likely to be of much use to you."

[chuckle] Wasn't your agenda pre-decided before offering those answers? Wouldn't that mean that the only people likely to find those answers of any use are those whose pre-decided agendas are consistent with your answers?

Your answers are the same thing all over again: 1) chazal said X; 2) chazal are so mind-blowingly brilliant that anyone who disagrees with X is "stupid." Why would anyone on earth find that persuasive?

Assuming no agenda whatsoever, the "child with cancer" problem leads to a limited number of possible conclusions: 1) the child was naughty and deserved to die of cancer (not satisfying); 2) the child's parents were naughty and deserver to have their child die of cancer (not satisfying); 3) God doesn't exist or, if He exists, just doesn't get too involved in whether or not a child gets cancer (maybe not very encouraging, but at least plausible and not offensive to one's sense of justice); 4) God is fully involved, but simply enjoys inflicting random plagues on innocent people (very unsatisfying); 5) God is partially involved, and can't manage to do everything (as you point out, inconsistent with His role as creator); or 6) God is fully involved, and all these things work out for the best, so after the child dies his/her slow, lingering, painful death, he/she goes to a better world (you really like this one, I know).

Tell me why a neutral person with no particular agenda would find #6 more probable than #3?

SJ said...

>> Except for skeptics who want only the good because, well the definition of "God is good" equals "God gives me everything I ask for without expecting anything back because that's what I think is 'good'". And if God says no, well that's just wrong.

This is a bigoted portrayal of skeptics because it diminishes with a bad attitude real questions that skeptics have.

Garnel Ironheart said...

No, you guys all missed the point.

When something bad happens, skeptics blame God.

When something good happens, skeptics just take it as given.

Chazal said of the bee "Neither your sting nor your honey." For example, when discussing the troubles that will grip the world before Moshiach comes they said that they'd rather not be alive for Moshiach than have to live through the tribulations.

Skeptics are selective: they don't want the sting, they do want the honey and they don't want to say thank you.

David said...

"When something bad happens, skeptics blame God."

That's incorrect, almost by definition. When something bad happens, skeptics use it as an example of why the proposition that God controls everything for good purposes is dubious. We don't "blame" God, because we're "skeptical" about His involvement in day-to-day affairs.

"When something good happens, skeptics just take it as given."

Actually, we're generally pleased when something good happens.

"Chazal said of the bee 'Neither your sting nor your honey.' For example, when discussing the troubles that will grip the world before Moshiach comes they said that they'd rather not be alive for Moshiach than have to live through the tribulations."

Lucky for Chazal, they got their wish. They're all dead, and, two thousand years later, no moshiach. Careful what you wish for.

"Skeptics are selective: they don't want the sting, they do want the honey and they don't want to say thank you."

Believers are silly. They think all the good things that happen to them are personal favors from the Creator of the Universe who is kind and loving and always does good things, and then they do intellectual back handsprings to explain away the horrors of the world as either divine justice or part of a "big picture" which, gosh darn it, they just can't see.

In fact, the skeptic is far more consistent than you-- we have the same attitude towards both good and bad: "sh_t happens." You, on the other hand, get to dance and shriek "hosannah" when good things happen, but you are constantly in need of silly and unpersuasive rationalizations for bad things, because, in your universe, by definition, bad things can't happen.

Bet Shemesh Board Gaming Club said...

Thanks for the purim card :)

Freelance Kiruv Maniac said...

I think the point Garnel is making is this:
God doesn't owe any child (or adult) life. Saying that God giving someone cancer and killing him is evil is transposing God for a human being who cannot genreate life from absolute scratch but can only take it away.
For a human to take away a life that the did not bestow is evil.
For God to take away a life that He Himself bestowed is simply minimizing the gift He gave.

ANY amount of life is an undeserved gift by God and He is not morally beholden to continue giving it to anyone under any circumstances.

I heard that this is one of the lessons of the Akeidas Yitzchak and this is what we characterize as Yitzchak Avinu's gevurah in accepting the moral right God has to take away His gift of life at will.

David said...

FKM--

Unpersuasive argument. What you're saying is that, since God owes us nothing (doesn't He?), He is free to engage in arbitrary and capricious behavior, and bless, curse, nurture or smite for any or no reason.

Except that the Torah implies that He is just, and it is not just to treat people randomly, regardless of what you do or don't owe them.

If I hire you for a high-paying job, and you move your family to Albuquerque to take this job, and you work really hard and do your best, and then I fire you after two weeks because I woke up in a bad mood, it may be my legal right to do so, but it's hardly the decent thing to do.

Freelance Kiruv Maniac said...

I focused my argument on the specific issue of God taking away life. You have not argued that we have any moral claim on more life from God.

I'm not saying it can be arbitrary at all. But God should be allowed to "play God".

For example, there is a gemara Ta'anis daf 5b which says Shmuel Hanavi was killed off by God prematurely at the age of 52 because he was connected to King Saul's reign which was coming to an end, and King David's time to start his own dynasty had come.

This kind of reason is not morally acceptable for one human being to kill another human being, but it is a sufficient reason for God who gave life to Shmuel in the first place.
It's not arbitrary. It's a just and moral standard commensurate with God's unique status as life-giver.

David said...

Sorry, FKM, I'm not following your point; either your argument was too subtle for me, or you just offered an assertion in lieu of an explanation.

How is a child dying of cancer indicative of a "just and moral standard?"

Freelance Kiruv Maniac said...

As long as it's not arbitrary and that God has His reasons, there simply cannot be any moral complaint against God for taking back what He gave.
Being the very provider of life --gratis with no obligations to the receiver-- puts God in a much better moral position to kill.

I agreed completely with your point that God cannot kill arbitrarily. I just added that what is a "bad" or "trivial" reason for a human being for taking away another human life may not be a "bad" or "trivial" reason at all for the Being who bestowed that life in the first place.

David said...

"As long as it's not arbitrary and that God has His reasons, there simply cannot be any moral complaint against God for taking back what He gave."

The first half of that sentence propounds a condition which has not necessarily been met (who says it's not arbitrary and that God has reasons?); the second half is an unsupported assertion.

Seriously, I don't follow your reasoning.

Freelance Kiruv Maniac said...

Okay, let me rephrase it as a question then:
What moral claim can you have against God for taking away any life?
I think the only answer is that you cannot have any moral claim.
Why?
Because God as life-giver is entitled to take back what he gave freely with no obligations to the recipient.

You said that this right to reclaim his gift has some limits. It should not be taken back arbitrarily without a reason.

I agreed with this limitation but it as not as big a limitation as one might have thought. The threshold for God's reasons for taking back life may be lower than what we would demand if another human being were to take away a life.

You now asked:
who says it's not arbitrary and that God has reasons?

Well, who says it is arbitrary and that he doesn't have reasons?
Its your guess against mine, isn't it?
Our prophetic tradition explicitly claims that God always has reasons and He does not act arbitrarily. I don't see how this claim is being countered by anything more than a guess on your part.

David said...

"God as life-giver is entitled to take back what he gave freely with no obligations to the recipient."

No, giving someone something may obligate a giver, particularly when the gift is such as to place the recipient in complete dependence on the giver.

You agreed with me that there are limitations on God's actions, and that life "should not be taken back arbitrarily without a reason."

Then, however, you claimed that the "threshold for God's reasons for taking back life may be lower than what we would demand if another human being were to take away a life." Why is that? Perhaps the threshold should be higher, as would be commensurate with God's dramatically greater abilities and position.

In response to my suggestion that life and death appear to be handed out fairly arbitrarily you said that "Its your guess against mine, isn't it?" But it's not. It's my take on observable phenomena against your speculation as to non-observable phenomena.

I can come up with endless anecdotal evidence of undeserved suffering and unjust death. If you prefer statistics, I can come up with lots of concrete evidence that rich people in developed countries live longer than poor people in 3d world countries (God must like rich Americans better than poor Sudanese). Go figure!

Then you state that our tradition argues that "God always has reasons and He does not act arbitrarily," and that you "don't see how this claim is being countered by anything more than a guess on [my] part." Well, with all due respect, I don't see how the claim itself is anything more than a guess, and a weak guess contradicted by all available evidence, at that.

Moreover, you seem to be ignoring the fact that the validity of our tradition is exactly the substance of our disagreement. Therefore, you cannot advance your argument merely by citing the tradition; you actually need to defend it. You still haven't even tried to do that. Tell me-- why should I accept the "traditional" view that God has a sound, non-arbitrary reason for (say) the approximately 500 children under 15 who died of leukemia in the US in 2008?

Freelance Kiruv Maniac said...

No, giving someone something may obligate a giver, particularly when the gift is such as to place the recipient in complete dependence on the giver.

I hear this problem only if the recipient started out independent and the gift had a downside of making him dependent. But here, the person starts out in total non-existence. God gives him existence and life for a limited time and then takes away life.
Sounds like a total net gain to me.


Then, however, you claimed that the "threshold for God's reasons for taking back life may be lower than what we would demand if another human being were to take away a life." Why is that? Perhaps the threshold should be higher, as would be commensurate with God's dramatically greater abilities and position.

Why do greater abilities morally obligate someone to be more generous against his own interests?


In response to my suggestion that life and death appear to be handed out fairly arbitrarily you said that "Its your guess against mine, isn't it?" But it's not. It's my take on observable phenomena against your speculation as to non-observable phenomena.

I don't understand. The only thing that is observable is the suffering. How the arbitrariness in the cause of suffering observable?
It's just a claim of ignorance of cause!
It's like saying lightening seems to strike the ground under a storm arbitrarily. But in reality we are just ignorant. Scientists with sensitive enough instruments could theoretically tell you where the strongest concentrations of electric fields are and explain why lightening struck that area and not another one.


I can come up with endless anecdotal evidence of undeserved suffering and unjust death.

They are all assumptions out of ignorance. You just need a better imagination or more information.

If you prefer statistics, I can come up with lots of concrete evidence that rich people in developed countries live longer than poor people in 3d world countries (God must like rich Americans better than poor Sudanese). Go figure!

This is clearly human self-inflicted suffering--don't blame God for a government's self-destructive policies!

Well, with all due respect, I don't see how the claim itself is anything more than a guess, and a weak guess contradicted by all available evidence, at that.

It's not evidence just pre-mature assumptions due to lack adequate of information.

Moreover, you seem to be ignoring the fact that the validity of our tradition is exactly the substance of our disagreement. Therefore, you cannot advance your argument merely by citing the tradition; you actually need to defend it. You still haven't even tried to do that.

Once we agree about God's existence (for whatever rational or irrational reasons we both may have) it makes sense that He has a purpose for creation and would communicate that purpose if we had anything He wanted us to know or to do.
I admit it is an assumption but since its a reasonable one, it has validity and I don't see the difficulty in accepting that God told us that He runs the world without arbitrariness and specifically gave us moral intuitions to enable us to follow His example.
Therefore, we can have confidence that we are not more morally sensitive than God Himself and all the suffering we see has justifications which we are simply not privy to observing.


Tell me-- why should I accept the "traditional" view that God has a sound, non-arbitrary reason for (say) the approximately 500 children under 15 who died of leukemia in the US in 2008?

Because I can list about a half-dozen of them from here:

http://www.dovidgottlieb.com/lectures/providence_and_evil__bad.htm

I. General Principles

A. Critic must show absolute contradiction: omniscience, omnipotence, moral perfection vs. evil

B. Evil = undeserved suffering

C. General explanation, not for individual cases - compare physics

II. Past Justification

A. "Good" people?

1. possibility of bad private life

2. incomplete list of responsibilities

3. higher standard

B. Self-induced suffering

1. physical, emotional self-abuse

2. waste of resources

C. Reincarnation (gilgul neshomos)

III. Future Justification

A. Cosmic

1. psychological - world = G-d's hiding place to enable free will - so impossible to systematically prevent or punish evil; nature must be morally neutral so natural evil is explained; not only must the righteous suffer, but the wicked must also prosper

2. logical - virtue means doing the right thing for the right reason - for no personal advantage

B. Social

1. clarify motivation of righteous to set example

2. to atone for generation

[Note: A and B are fair since the suffering individual contributes to
a system from which also he benefits]

C. Personal

1. suffering to focus the sufferer on really important aspects of life

2. develop virtues - courage, charity, compassion etc.

3. increase reward in Olom Haba (savage-gems)

[Note: IIC, IIIA, IIIC1-3 apply to children's suffering]

IV. Absolute contradiction only if proven that none of the justifications applies - clearly impossible; mercy, goodness in addition to justice (future justification)

V. Each pain is suffered by an individual person. "Collective pain" is just the sum of individual pains. The problem of explaining suffering is not affected by the concentration or diffusion of the pain. Therefore the Holocaust does not present a special problem of evil: if each pain suffered can be explained then the problem is solved.

The Leader, Garnel Ironheart said...

Davdi, here's my final explanation.
As a believing Jew, I accept that there is a perfect God out there who exists beyond space and time. He is the same God as He was 2000 years ago and will be 2000 years from now. As He is perfect, so is His creation in totality. That doesn't mean that if I look at any given point in the process I won't see problems. If I look close enough at a woven cloth all I see is holes! But I have faith that in the sum, when all is said and done, perfection will have been achieved.
Being a being trapped within time, I can't rationally appreciate that. I see a child dying of cancer, rahamanah litzlan, and wonder how this could happen. I see a man who is a horrible megalomaniac murdering his own people while the world sits and calls him President Mugabe and lets him get away with it. How could this happen?
But I have faith, not cold scientific rationality, but absolute faith that in the end I am only a tiny cog in a huge machine and that overall when the time comes to appreciate the whole machine that things will work out.

David said...

"Once we agree about God's existence ... it makes sense that He has a purpose for creation and would communicate that purpose if we had anything He wanted us to know or to do."

That's nonsense. If we accept God's existence as you appear to, then we accept that He is infinite and not capable of being confined within our understanding and that it would be arrogant for us to attribute our own characteristics to Him (the way the Torah constantly does). Thus, we cannot understand or even speculate as to His purpose (if any). Even if I follow your bizarre assumption that far, howeer, how do I know that His purpose isn't watching gladiator-style matches between His creations?

As to communicating His purpose, that's also ludicrous. If it were true, however, He'd certainly have come up with something better than singling out one tiny group of people, ignorning almost everyone else, handing them a parchment scroll that appears to have multiple authors and provides multiple seemingly contradictory and inaccurate stories, and then leaving a collection of self-appointed rabbis to speak on His behalf for the rest of history. Do you seriously think that's a sensible interpretation of the facts we actually see? If He wants to communicate His purpose, why not send out a mass e-mail? Why the narrow audience and the long silence? For an omnipotent being, communication really isn't His forte, is it?


"I admit it is an assumption but since its a reasonable one..."

No, it's not. I'm not even sure it can be described as a sane one.

As to Gottlieb, color me unimpressed with this clod who actually denies evolution. Moreover the arguments you present are simply false. A critic does not have to show absolute contradiction-- if you tell me that you have a magical pot of gold buried in your back yard, I do not have to dig up every square inch of your back yard to be unwilling to accept your claim. Rather, it is on the proponent to establish the validity of his claim.

As to the possibility of a "bad private life," "self-induced suffering," "self-abuse," or a "higher standard" as a justification for a child's death from leukemia, I assume you're either kidding or just cutting and pasting without actually reading.

As to reincarnation, this is another piece of nonsense. It's obviously made up as an excuse for the unjust suffering which occurs, and for which there is no apparent explanation (oh, well, the kid did something bad in a previous life). Please.

David said...

Garnel:

"As a believing Jew, I accept that there is a perfect God out there who exists beyond space and time."

That's charming, and, to be honest, I don't have any trouble with your believing that. Where you and I part company is that you seem to assume that other Jews are somehow bad or less worthy if we don't acknowlege as true what you accept on faith.

Faith, as Mark Twain put it, is believing what you know ain't so. Since your own view on these things amounts to a willing acceptance without the need for proof, and in spite of what others might reasonably view as evidence to the contrary, it seems to me that it's unfair for you to expect universal acceptance of a matter that lies outside your ability to explain.

Garnel Ironheart said...

> Where you and I part company is that you seem to assume that other Jews are somehow bad or less worthy if we don't acknowlege as true what you accept on faith.

I don't have a problem with a Jew who doesn't acknowledge as true what I accept on faith. Chas v'shalom I should think they're less worthy or bad. As it says in Avos, don't despite anyone because everyone gets their 15 minutes of importance. There is only one true Judge, and He ain't me.

I do have a problem with people who say that I'm stupid and that my faith is somehow illegitimate or wrong. Those are the folks I'm on the offensive again.

David said...

"I do have a problem with people who say that I'm stupid and that my faith is somehow illegitimate or wrong. Those are the folks I'm on the offensive again."

Me, too. They're just being rude. It's no more helpful to say that believers are stupid, illegitimate and wrong than it is to say that skeptics are stupid, illegitimate and wrong. Particularly because (in all probability) to one extent or another, we're all stupid, illegitimate and wrong.

Garnel Ironheart said...

So 50 comments or so later we agree. Figures.

David said...

Pays to hash these things out, doesn't it?

Freelance Kiruv Maniac said...

No, it's not. I'm not even sure it can be described as a sane one.

I detect a little hostility and insult in this response. Any reason?


I do not have to dig up every square inch of your back yard to be unwilling to accept your claim. Rather, it is on the proponent to establish the validity of his claim.

I don't see why your claim that there is in fact UNdeserved suffering needs any less substantiation than the claim that all suffering is deserved.

You have not responded at all to my argument that all claims of UNdeserved suffering is not evidence based whatsoever but merely a superficial assumption.


As to the possibility of a "bad private life," "self-induced suffering," "self-abuse," or a "higher standard" as a justification for a child's death from leukemia, I assume you're either kidding or just cutting and pasting without actually reading.

Quite correct. Unfortunately, you overlooked the bracketed sentence which clarified:
[Note: IIC, IIIA, IIIC1-3 apply to children's suffering]

That's why I prefaced that I only had half-a-dozen reasons for children suffering-. I did not mean to imply that the entire list posted was relevant to children. Sorry for the confusion.

The Leader, Garnel Ironheart said...

Once again I would like to remind OTD and everyone else to take their psychiatric medication BEFORE posting comments. It makes life better for everyone involved.
Thank you.

Freelance Kiruv Maniac said...

Some responses to the side-issues:
David said:
then we accept that He is infinite and not capable of being confined within our understanding and that it would be arrogant for us to attribute our own characteristics to Him

Where did I do that? I'll repeat what I said:
I don't see the difficulty in accepting that God told us that He runs the world without arbitrariness and specifically gave us moral intuitions to enable us to follow His example.

David:
Do you seriously think that's a sensible interpretation of the facts we actually see? If He wants to communicate His purpose, why not send out a mass e-mail? Why the narrow audience and the long silence? For an omnipotent being, communication really isn't His forte, is it?

You seem to harbor the naive expectation that all the fundamental truths about the meaning of one's life and God's role for Man in history should be readily apparent and obvious to anyone's casual observation.

I see a common thread to your responses. You accept all the superficial assumptions of the casual observer and then claim that this is evidence against Jewish tradition.
In reality, they are all just hasty conclusions based on sheer ignorance.