Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Monday, 20 October 2014

Real Theodicy

One of the big complaints against God is when bad things happen to good people.  I don't mean like a nice guy getting a parking ticket because he was late getting to his car.  I mean really bad things and really good people like kids getting cancer or elderly widows getting robbed and beaten.  The usual refrain is "How could God let this happen?" followed by some conclusion that He must not be out there, chalilah or otherwise uncaring or impotent when it comes to daily affairs.
Does anyone else out there get the impression that this kind of statement betrays an infantile understand of God and His role in the big scheme of things?
It seems to me that there are two main kinds of bad events - those that are caused by other people and those that seem to occur at random.  Let me first discuss the former.
Consider first the Jewish principle of free will.  As we all know it is an underlying foundation of our faith.  It's what makes our behaviours and the observance of mitzvos so valuable.  Without free will we are automatons who do what we're supposed to but there's really no point to it all.  If I keep kosher despite my lusting for a good meal at McDonald's it's a lot different than if I keep kosher simply because I know of no other way to eat because a treif meal has never occurred to me.  Free will is essential.
So should there be limits on that free will?  If the thug about the home invade the little old lady's condo knows for certain that lightning will strike him the minute he goes to kick in the door will he still attempt the robbery?  Or has he lost a bit of his free will because he decides he'd rather not be a sizzling pile of goo on the floor?  If free will is an absolute value how could God decide to abrogate it in this case?  If He does then where is His red line?
After all it's easy to pick up the extreme cases but after those it gets trickier.  Yes, fry all the home invaders because they're about to commit violence and theft, two things God abhors.  Well according to the Torah God abhors lots of other things.  Most of Wall Street and every Pride Parade would also be legitimate targets if Heavenly fire was a regular occurrence.  While the atheoskeptic crowd might applaud the untimely and spectacular demise of the Lehman brothers they would be enraged when the queer crowd gets zapped.
Consider it in even more banal terms.  You're a Jew about to eat a cheeseburger at McDonalds and a large spectral hand comes down and flicks your Happy Meal into the garbage.  Might that not annoy you?  Might not "Mind Your own business!" flick through your head?
In short, when it comes to person-on-person injustice we're okay with God interfering when we feel He should and outraged when we feel He shouldn't.  We are quite ready to sacrifice someone else's free will when it suits us, but only when it suits us.
But let's move on to the second category because the implications here are a bit deeper.
A 2 year old presents to the local emergency room with intractable vomiting.  After various investigations an MRI is done which shows a brain tumour.  Despite excellent medical care part of the tumour survives the operation.  Another one can't be done without causing significant brain damage which means the child is slowly doomed to death as the cancer regrows.
Who wouldn't be heartbroken by such a scenario?  Who wouldn't be moved to tears and want to move Heaven and Earth to help this child and its familiy?  Who wouldn't ask "Why God?  Why did You let this happen?"  All that is understandable.
Now take a second look at the scenario.  Look at the air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat.  In many ways this is one of the evils the ecofascist crowd has committed with its obsession with climate change.  Most global warming deniers will readily agree there is way too much pollution in our environment and that it is posing risks to humanity but the ecofascists only want to talk about it if the conclusion has something to do with climate change.  As a result we miss other things.
Did this child's family live not so far from a chemical plant that was caught last year illegally disposing of waste into the local river which serves as the city's source of drinking water?  What about all the chemical preservatives in all the food we exposed it to?  What about the ever increasing types of radio waves and radiation we shoot through our environment?  Did mom smoke during pregnancy?  Did she do drugs?  Seriously, do you know how toxic it is out there?
In short, what are the odds that humanity and the push for modern society caused this tumour?
From my vantage point and professional experience, 95% of what ails people in North America is self-inflicted.  Heart attacks, strokes, cancers, emphysema, arthritis, chronic pain, you name it and without much effort you can trace each sufferer's complain back to his lifestyle.  We eat too much prepared food and fruits coated in pesticide.  We don't exercise enough.  We breathe polluted air, smoke and drink to excess.  Why does anyone wonder why our hospitals are all so full?
In short we need to look at ourselves.  Everything we do to ourselves and our environment is done by our free will.  To save any of us from the consequences of this poisoning, God would either have to change the rules of nature, something He said He would never do, or perform outright miracles, something we know He's not inclined towards.  We cannot create a toxic environment and then blame God when the weakest among us suffer as a result.
A child is hit by a drunk driver.  A woman is assaulted walking home from work at night.  God's not at fault and if He prevented the driver from hitting the child  or stopped the rapist He would have interfered with free will.  God's not at fault, the drunk driver and the rapist (and possibly the parole board that gave him early release from his previous jail stint) are.  And as I noted above, once He does that there's no real red line.  Suddenly that same God we cheered for saving the little boy would interfere elsewhere and we'd cry foul because we didn't agree.
To conclude, we have to think deeper than the superficial "Something bad happened and God didn't prevent it so He's either bad or just not there,chalilah."  Thinking like that leads nowhere because it absolves us of any responsibility for dealing with the probem.  Such deeper consideration would certainly allow us to see the responsibility for our own suffering and lead to constructive approaches to alleviating it.


Temujin said...

A brialliant angle on theodicy, Sir Garnel. One Temujin has never come across and one which he will shamelessly purloin to impress guests and hosts at future soirées.

Without challenging your thesis on self-inflicted miseries though...on its own true enough... or the wisdom you gained as barber-surgeon to a multitude, this man doth have a quibble over a particular detail.

On a grander scale, statistically speaking, in the aggregate, modernity and many of the poisons that ail us are comparatively minor irritants, and most have in fact improved our living standards, general health and life expectancies as nothing else ever has. Ever.

The pesticides, synthetic fertilizers on factory farms and dreaded antibiotics in livestock operations make affordable food available to most of us in stupendous quantities. No other, theoretically healthier methods of growing, managing, storing and distributing food can currently replace what chemical and petroleum-based, electrified technology based agriculture has accomplished. Not even close.

Whatever the effects of synthetic additives, or even of inactivity, poorly balanced high-fat and high-sugar diets, smoking, etc are, we easily forget how much more shortages of fats and proteins, vitamins and carbohydrates cost us. How burning wood and dung in poorly ventilated, dusty and often moldy hovels kills entire families in far greater numbers (but less noticeably against a background of staggering death rates) than smoking little wraps of tobacco ever did; what being shackled to the same exhausted lands for generations does to entire nations; or how poor communication ensures the lives of tyrannies for hundreds of years, destroying potential futures. From the horrendous and frequent famines and plagues, the deadly "minor" sores and infections, the culprits were more often than not the common vitamin deficiencies, periodic protein shortages...all products of the primitive, sadly inefficient, "organically" based food production that weakened us individually and collectively, causing incredibly high infant mortalities and short and marginally productive lives. Toxic chemicals strewn about hundred-fold over the levels we currently bear would have been unnoticed as what we think of as minor infections or common flus decimated us, with our weakened and vulnerable constitutions, in the millions. Many of the children that are struck now would have never been born or even conceived in the past, and most...the vast majority... would have lived short lives measured in days, while almost all of our elderly who suffer now from various cancers and other ailments would have died decades ago, in what we call their "middle age"...if lucky.

Perhaps it's the half-empty versus half-full glass syndrome. The one where the barber-surgeon sees unnecessary, self-induced suffering and happy possibilities if people were to only stop being idiots and make responsible choices to enhance the quality and duration of their lives. And the one where Temujin, who remembers a pre-industrial, low technology rural life today sees only stupendous, unimagined wealthy, robust health... and something few ever notice nowadays...crowds of fat, incessantly complaining, but well-dressed and mobile old folks around, and not just masses of skinny, dangerous adolescents skulking about. Yet it's more than just perception, as in this corollary-to-the-topic argument, Temujin has undeniable health and population statistics squarely on his side.

Temujin said...

...aaaaand another thing. This one got Temujin out of bed. We forget to add the nearly incalculable costs of inter-personal and wide-scale conflicts and warfare over food and resources, usually interpreted as struggle over land (arable land), a.k.a., lebensraum.. It's not that democracies don't wage wars against each other because they are democracies, but because democracies are the rare and most likely temporary by-products of food and fuel surpluses.

RAM said...

Since we lack the total Big Picture, no matter who we are, there will inveitably be situations we can't explain in full detail to our own satisfaction. This lack makes human free will and emunah possible.

Garnel Ironheart said...

Temujin's comments might be summarized thusly, with apologies to Pogo: We have seen the enemy and he is us.

Princess Lea said...

Here you reflect the debate: If a person has free will, does he have the free will to hurt someone else?

According to the Ohr HaChaim HaKadosh (whom my father holds with, on this) free will extends even to hurting others, even if the victim was not deserving, since free will is free will.

However, the Rambam (with whom my mother and I hold) says that free will does NOT extend to hurting others, and so if something "bad" happens from another's hand, it was meant to happen.

I prefer to hold by the Rambam, and acknowledge that as a puny mortal, I don't know how the world works.

Anonymous said...

in kiruv world hashgacha pratis is very important. at shabbos dinners or second meals people would stop to break out this week's hp story. this was my first indication something was off about people's thinking.

even the idea of bashert i've seen ruin people. i know several bts who were divorced within a year or two of marriage (one or two within months.) they went crazy with the loss i think partly because the circumstance of meeting their bride "had to be bashert." they spent months and years either fighting the dissolution of marriage to this near stranger or nursing a wound inflicted by this stranger they were bashert to be with.

they also love to tickle the egos of young potential bts - many of whom stumble into yeshiva with a lot of heartache and disappointment already in their young lives - with stories of how their lives will turn around like a disney movie with emunah.

i know many who were taught to grab on to yiddishkeit and watch it turn their life around. the kiruv rabbi is some regular guy with not much money who has this great wife and great kids -- so many of the mikareved have barely ever been able to relate to women. could it be true? this could be my life too? and i don't even have to earn a living? i'll be this exalted guy and my parents will cover my expenses? because i wear a suit every day now?

without hp, you got no kiruv to the hopeless, the weak, the fearful, the fantasist.

it is one of their very best selling tools. like handing these hurt kids a magic wand.

garnel, don't take away the kiruv rabbi's/smarmy politician's magic mojo spell. he's got to turn these wretched, pathetic, ill-parented rubes into frummies.

they are all kind of disgusting people. but like politicians, they know how to hide it!


Mighty Garnel Ironheart said...

Tuvia, I like to think I've always been consistent in my position: Jews need to be religious because of the obligation placed on them by Matan Torah at Sinai. It's not a sexy way to do kiruv, telling people to kosher because they have to, not because it's healthier or some such, but it's more honest, in my opinion.

Anonymous said...

I think more harm is done by telling them that without contextualizing it in some way.

After all, there are Jews who think the Torah is the most important and valued book to the Jews – but is a fiction. There are other Jews whose rational side has them dismissing the Torah (and all holy sefarim) as just books, period.

I personally think the real insult to the Jewish way of life was not modernity itself – the haskala – but the effect it had on Jewish neighborhoods. They basically cratered over a hundred years and now Park Avenue Jews who don’t particularly believe in the religion are denied the rubbing of elbows and sharing of ideas with Hasidim who today would rather not live among secular or atheist or other style Jews (even if they could afford to.)

The results are bad for both sets of Jews (and all Jews in between.)

All items on the religious agenda / secular agenda are twisted into bumper stickers now. Rabbis are forced to speak like politicians and not real people. The lines have been drawn, and instead of neighbors we are strangers.

I think the Park Ave Jew secretly would like to live as a secular Jew in a mixed Jewish world. Those days are over it seems, and so is the likelihood of any healthy Jewish world. But one can hope.


Jeff said...

Hello Garnel,

There are 3 points you fail to address in your analysis:
1. natural disasters that have nothing to do with man's negligence, ie tsunamis and the like. Does God not care about the the quarter of a million people who died in Indonesia? You can't invoke any free will argument here.
2. Before modern science man had little or no knowledge of cause and effect in the environment, so in the case of so-called "man-made" natural tragedies (ie pollution), man can't be held culpable either.
3. In the case of tragedies caused directly by other people-- basically you are saying that the price of free will is suffering. I have no problem with that assertion, but you don't need God for it! A completely secular humanist approach would say the same thing. We pay a price for our freedom. Nothing profound here. So how does adding God to the picture help us or console us? Despite the omnipotence and righteousness of God, how does He enhance the situation or further the cause of justice? Non-intervention is no better than no god.

Mighty Garnel Ironheart said...

Well back Jeff,
1) I'm certain God does care about the quarter of a million people who died in Indonesia. I could point out how various warning systems that might have saved some of them weren't implemented but you'd correctly point out that if this had happened 100 years ago there would have been no warning systems to blame. I can't answer every question, of course, and it would be hubris of me to try. There is a bigger picture and I simply can't explain why everything happens or why its ultimately for the greater good.
2) Yes, before modern times the understanding of the connection between pollution and illness was not well understood but back as far as Roman times at least there was an understanding that living in big cities with the attendant pollution and outdoor sewage was harmful to one's health. Rambam writes extensively about how it's better to live in the open country because it's more conducive to health. They might not have know why but they did see the connection.
3) The difference between the secular and the religious position is one of hope. In the secular position there is no hope. The rapist or murdered who didn't get caught got away with his crime. The religious position is that there is justice, if not in this world then in the next which provides hope and comfort.

Temujin said...

All secular and religious positions are not alike, though. Socialism is essentially a messianic or millenialist atheistic philosoohy which foresees a glowing future for humankind brought by wealth redistribution, cooperation and science ("social justice" doctrine), and Calvinism assumes that God has already chosen the winners and the losers and that there is beggar-all anyone can do about it.