Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

The Problem With the Easy Answer

"He's intelligent but not experienced.  His pattern indicates two dimensional thinking." (Spock, Star Trek II: the Wrath of Khan)

To his credit, Rav Yonasan Rosenblum rarely goes for the easy answers in his writing.  Even when I disagree with him, I always have to appreciate that his position is taken from a position of reason.  But unfortunately his latest essay disappoints in that regard in that, like many other writers from around the world, he tried to explain the mind of God, something we as humans can never completely understand.
The basic points in his piece are sound:
But for all the wondrous powers with which Hashem has imbued Man, those powers are also limited – something that we forget at our peril. On Rosh Chodesh Iyar, we received an important reminder. The eruption in Iceland of a relatively small volcano, with an unpronounceable name, brought European air travel to a halt for nearly a week. Over one hundred thousand flights were grounded, with millions of travelers unable to return home or reach their destinations.

A earlier, the same volcano erupted without incident. But a concatenation of events created a perfect storm this time. The hot magma reached the surface under a glacier, and when the molten lava hit the ice, the result was the creation of glassified silicates that burst three to five miles into the sky under pressure from the steam released. The winds at those altitudes carried the clouds of particles capable of destroying jet engines and cracking plane windshields over most of Europe.
And suddenly Man was no longer master of the skies. As Professor Michio Kato, writing in the Wall Street Journal put it, "We humans often think we are so great, with all our high technology [only to find ourselves] pushed around like pawns as the earth slowly but inexorably changes and shifts."
Believing Jews are taught to look for a message in all such cataclysmic events.
Not much objectionable there.  However, he immediately took a promising start right off the rails with his very next statement:
Some found such message in the fact that Eyjafjallajokull erupted, bringing all tourism to England to a halt, on the very day that the Independent revealed that the United Kingdom Advertising Standard Agency had banned an advertisement for travel to Israel that featured a photo of the Kotel. According to the Agency, the ad misleadingly implied that the Kotel is part of Israel.
How terribly simplistic, and despite the title of the article, not the way to think Jewishly at all.
One of the basic understandings of our faith is that God, having predated all of existence as we understand it exists outside of both space and time.  All that was, all that is and all that will be is present before Him.  He does not wonder what the future will bring or forget what occured in the past.  As a result, He has the ability to control and provide sustence for all of Creation at the same time.  Like an infinite interlocking puzzle, He knows where all the pieces go and how to move everything so that Creation stays in sync at all times.
Humans are not quite as capable of understanding all of this.  We are trapped within time and therefore tend to see things in a temporal fashion along the lines of cause and effect.  We are also selfish, tending either consciously or not to see things through the lens of "how does this effect me?".  As a result, there is always a temptation to try and find deeper meanings in events around us.  Due to our limitations, such attempts are always failures.
Consider a simple example: a mafioso lives down the street.  One day his house burns down with him inside.  The entire city is happy and sees the fire as Heavenly revenge for his criminal ways.  Then his wife, who was out at the time of the fire, invested the insurance money from the mishap and uses it to create an even bigger crime empire.  Was the fire really revenge against the wicked?
The same thinking has been applied to the recent volcanic eruption in Iceland.  The British had just attacked Israel's legitimate claim to Yerushalayim so God punished them, as the notion went, by temporarily grounding their tourist industry.
But any serious examination of the subject immediately tears that apart.  If the British sinned, what did the French, Germans, Belgians and, most importantly, Icelanders do wrong?  Some might scoff and point out that they aren't exactly bastions of pro-Israel activity but that's not the point.  The British have been quietly undermining Israel for years too but the volcano is supposed to be revenge for a specific action, that of the tourism board.  The other countries did nothing in particular against Israel that week.  Why be punished alongside the British?
Then there's the idea that Britian was isolated because of the ash cloud.  Except that it wasn't because it was still quite accesible by sea and rail (through the Chunnel).  Yes there was a huge inconvenience to tens of thousands of travellers but no more than that.  No lives were lost and the economic damage is reparable. 
And mentioning inconvenience, let's also point out that thousands of Israeli and Jewish tourists were affected by the ash cloud.  Is God an indiscriminate brute capable of only punishing in broad strokes without regard for the good and bad?  Of course not.  As Avraham noted when God told him he was going to destroy S'dom, that's exactly what God isn't!
It is always tempting to engage in simplistic thinking.  We've all heard the stories about the people who came late to work on 9/11 only to miss being in the World Trade Centre when it collapsed.  What a miracle, we're told.  Hashgachas pratis, we're told.  And what about those Jews who got to work on time and died?  Hmmmm?
As the end of the books of Iyov and Koheles tell us, ours is not to try and know the mind of God.  As the Navi says, "My thoughts are not as your thoughts".  Ours is to keep His Torah and live our lives as decently as we an, trusting that He will do a perfect job running the universe.


Bob Miller said...


We have to deal with both these principles:

1. HaShem sends us signals for our betterment.

2. HaShem's actions are not always understandable on our level, given that He knows all and we cannot.

Based on your approach, when, if ever, could you discern and properly interpret a signal from HaShem? Or do you rule out such signals altogether except to a genuine navi?

David said...

"...trusting that He will do a perfect job running the universe."

Isn't that kind of silly? How can Pol Pot, Hitler, the Crusades, spina bifida, suicide bombers, flesh-eating virus, appendicitis, Vlad the Impaler, your ex-girlfriend, ingrown toenails, Barney the Dinosaur, and Karl Marx all exist if the universe is perfectly run? Short answer: people who choose to believe that it's perfectly run come up with post-hoc rationalizations of anything that happens, or fall back on the old saw "we can't understand because we don't have the big picture." Don't you ever get tired of that excuse? The universe may be a lot of things, but "perfectly run" is manifestly not one of them.

Anonymous said...

Since when are you, David, the judge of how the universe is run? It's a Jewish article of faith that HaShem runs everything properly, whether we or not we grasp the reasons. If you view this as merely an old saw, how exactly are you Jewish?

David said...

Since when are you, Anonymous, the judge of who gets to be Jewish or not? If it's a "Jewish article of faith that HaShem runs everything properly," does that mean that one stops being Jewish the moment one comes to the conclusion that this article of faith is untenable? I say the belief is silly, Jewish or not, and I further submit that it is inconsistent with a notion of free choice (also a Jewish belief, no?). So, either defend it or yield the argument you're already losing, but don't fling doctrine at me in lieu of reason.

Garnel Ironheart said...

Anonymous isn't judging what gets to be Jewish or not. Some values and beliefs are articles of faith in Judaism whether or not you agree with them. No, you don't stop being Jewish the moment you stop agreeing with the article of faith but you can't turn around and invent new beliefs and call them Jewish because you happen to be.

Nishma said...

Bob's original statement that "HaShem sends us signals for our betterment" is based on the gemara in Brachot but note the subjective nature of that gemara. There is a massive difference between someone coming to a conclusion that some negative consequence is to understood as a result of some misbehaviour and someone stating that this result was objectively God's intent. How are we to know God's intent or purpose? We can though take away something from what happens to us and what we can learn from it.

This point has two important ramifications. First, the gemara's objective is to cause every individual to look at their lives -- not someone else's. The idea that the volcano erupted to punish the British is not only problematic, as Garnel points out, but serves no purpose. What do I learn from postulating that this effect happened to someone else to punish this other person? All I do is find another way to justify me. This is not the intent of the gemara. If you can't learn a lesson for yourself, don't even bother to voice what you think is the reason behind an occurrance. And this leads to the second aspect of this lesson. Its what you can learn. You are not God to even contemplate what his objective is.

In regard to the other debate within the comments, the idea that God is perfect in the way He runs the world obviously is connected to the very objective God has for this world. This world is the perfect embodiment of God's purpose for this world. Any questions on the way God is running the world really are, as such, questions regarding this objective. If we do not see how this world is the perfect embodiment of God's purpose for this world, it may be, in fact it most likely is, reflective of a different understanding of what the purpose of this world is. Given David's list of the horrors in this world, the purpose is clearly not humanity's contentment and pleasure.

Rabbi Ben Hecht

David said...

Garnel, of course Anonymous was judging who gets to be Jewish or not. And, for the record, I did not invent any new beliefs!

Garnel Ironheart said...

David, Perhaps we can look at Anonymous' statement like this: If you view this as merely an old saw, how exactly do you express your Judaism?
In other words, one cannot question whether or not you're a member of the tribe. Menashe haRasha was the worst idolator in our nation's history and was still a member of the tribe. But the question comes back to: what behaviours define one Jewishly?

JRS said...

" can't turn around and invent new beliefs and call them Jewish because you happen to be. "

no, you can't... on the other hand, the belief that every last facet of today's intricate orthodox Jewish lifestyle---from celebrating upsherins to ultra-glam sheitels to bonfires on Lag B'Omer to 5 years in kollel---is all basically unchanged from the time of Sinai (better yet, the Avos, who were shomer haTorah umitzvos!), or even that it was all incorporated into our practices only through proper channels, via a consensus of rabbonim in each generation---this is pure nonsense.