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Tuesday, July 18, 2006

The Right Way to Do Things

Longtime readers of my blog may be aware of my utter distaste for attempts at theodicy in the wake of disaster. We saw it last summer after the disengagement, and we saw it after Hurricane Katrina. We hear about theodicy from both Rabbis and laymen.

So I was heartened to read about a letter published by Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, and Rav Aharon Leib Steinman, in regards to the war in Israel. These Gedolim set an example with their words for anyone who ever attempted to ascribe specific outcomes to specific misdeeds. According to this article, Rav Elyashiv and Rav Steinman explain in their letter that though they do not know what caused the escalation of the situation in Israel, people should nevertheless examine their deeds. There is a tremendous distinction between what these Gedolim are recommending, which is an instrospective look at one's deeds with an eye toward improvement, and the theodicy that I have expressed distaste for in the past - where people claim to know the specific shortcomings in our actions that cause God to dole out retribution of specific outcomes. While every tragedy or disaster is a collective opportunity to examine and improve our actions, only God knows which deed in particular is the "one" that needs improvement - if it is even just one.

Rav Steinman and Rav Elyashiv do suggest in their letter some specific deeds for the community to improve upon, such as, first and foremost, the avoidance of conflicts:
"One should do anything so at least he didn't fail doing the opposite of charity, meaning causing harm to his friends or the public."

The rabbis said that even in times when the Jewish people had foreign elements in their midst there was no conflict among the people. "We used to face the war and win, while it is not the case at times of conflict, may the All-merciful protect us, and we need to try our best to have peace between the people."
Keeping Shabbat is mentioned as well:
Keeping Shabbat is also a major point in the letter. "It is well-known that God almighty likes the Shabbat keeping, and the opposite is hated."

The rabbis also ask not contribute to desecration of Shabbat in cases that are not life-threatening and one should not sponsor places that desecrate the Shabbat. "This is one the things that should be accepted – do not despise the Shabbat," they rabbis ruled.
And attention to modesty gets a mention:
The rabbis also touched on the subject of modesty "that needs correcting, since when there is no modesty, God will ignore our requests."
But all of these suggestions are done in a positive manner, with an eye toward improvement - not with exhortations of God's wrath and all-knowing declarations of how we ourselves brought that wrath upon us. It is important to note that when Gedolim who actually know what they are talking about address these issues, they show us how it's done. None of the ridiculous omniscience and claimed knowledge of God's will that we hear from lowly bloggers and some local Rabbanim in the wake of bad things happening. Just recommendations of which areas in our lives show particular room for improvement, and most importantly, this point:
Concluding the letter, the rabbis explain that they do not know what the reasons for the troubles are, "But clearly anything we strengthen could be useful for God to let up his wrath."
I am perfectly willing to accept that any good deeds that we can strengthen, particularly in the arena of avoiding interpersonal conflict, can only help. It's only when the attitude becomes only about exhortations that God is particularly incensed by a specific misdeed that I get steamed.

24 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

OM, you don't think stressing observing of specific mitzvoth is an allusion to knowing God's ways? The Gedolim you reference may not be directly saying that Sabbath desecrators and immodest women caused this, but aren't they implying it?

9:58 AM  
Blogger OrthoKrum said...

I'm so glad that you are heartened by the words of R' Elyashiv and R' Shteinman (despite the fact that he often times displays his celebrity-like capriciousness).

Further, that you are "perfectly willing" to accept their words, should be an inspiration to us all. G-d bless you.

10:00 AM  
Blogger orthomom said...

Anonymous said...

OM, you don't think stressing observing of specific mitzvoth is an allusion to knowing God's ways? The Gedolim you reference may not be directly saying that Sabbath desecrators and immodest women caused this, but aren't they implying it?


I disagree. I think it is perfectly clear that these Gedolim are not ascribing the war to any specific cause, just making suggestions to better ourselves by doing good deeds. They are syressing the positive, rather than the negative.

10:02 AM  
Blogger orthomom said...


OrthoKrum said...

I'm so glad that you are heartened by the words of R' Elyashiv and R' Shteinman (despite the fact that he often times displays his celebrity-like capriciousness).

Further, that you are "perfectly willing" to accept their words, should be an inspiration to us all. G-d bless you.


Hey, OrthoKrum! Great to see you back!

10:02 AM  
Blogger Pragmatician said...

I'm pleasantly surprised at the neutral tone of the letter, however still no plea for a better understanding between Jews from all walks.
I guess they acknowledge the existence of bein adam lachaverha at least, that's something.

10:05 AM  
Blogger Rebecca said...

I am glad that they are not blaming what seem to be the typical scapegoats these days, but my objection to what they say is much greater than that. It seems to me that they are essentially denying any obvious causation for the current war between Israel and Hizbollah - rather than looking at the political/military causes of the present fighting (whether short or long term), they see only hidden causation. According to them, some lapse in the conduct of the people of Israel leads G-d to withdraw some of his protection from us.

This is the only cause of events, for them, at least as regards the people of Israel. It seems to me that this ineluctably (nice word, eh?) leads to the very theodicy that you dislike, Orthomom, although in a much subtler fashion than practiced by various bloggers. For them, the only thing that matters is whether or not the people of Israel keep the mitzvot. Nothing else matters, in particular the will of other nations.

If this line of thought is followed logically, it leads to the conclusion that the Nazis were permitted by G-d to kill six million Jews because those Jews were insufficient in their observance of the mitzvot.

I, personally, think that this is a vile theodicy, whether in its cruder or more subtle variants, because it ends up blaming entirely innocent people for the wickedness of others. Doesn't Nasrallah, the head of Hizbollah, have the free will to decide to kill Israelis, which he is now exercising - and isn't he, therefore, morally responsible for his crimes?

If we hold to the theodicy espoused by these gedolim, it also implicates G-d in Nasrallah's crimes - G-d lets Nasrallah kill Israelis because of some alleged moral/religious lack in us, and therefore G-d does not hold Nasrallah wholly responsible for his own crimes.

I prefer not to see G-d as the executioner, which seems to be the role the gedolim are putting him in.

10:20 AM  
Blogger OrthoKrum said...

momof4,

Thanks. I actually never left and was enjoying your posts all this time, seriously. It is true though that I am back on the comment page, but you did invite me. :)

10:46 AM  
Blogger eem said...

Rebecca,
If I understand correctly, you're taking away G-d's omnipotence. Is that right?
"...and therefore G-d does not hold Nasrallah wholly responsible for his own crimes."
According to the traditional Orthodox view, your logic is off. The fact that G-d effects events in this world does not take away from the fact that people are responsible for their actions. G-d did not come to Nasrallah and tell him to attack Israel;this was his own choice and he is held accountable. If G-d wants to bring a punishment to a person or people, there are many ways, and had Nasrallah not chosen to do this...unfortunately, we know of many other tragedies that befall people.I don't think the point here is to say that tragedies are not a call to us to change our ways. I think the point is that for someone to claim that he knows THE reason for the tragedy is,well, stupid to say the least. And although we know that it is our actions that bring consequences, leaders must be careful and sensitive in how they say this, in order to urge people to grow, instead of making them hopeless, defensive, and angry.

11:15 AM  
Blogger Ari Kinsberg said...

I am glad the gedolim are saying this, but as usual, their dicta are often ignored by the laity. I posted the following incident (http://agmk.blogspot.com/2006/07/wrap-up.html):

As long as we are talking about God, I heard a disturbing remark in shul today after mincha. One man commented to his friend something to the effect of that the rockets falling on Israel is God’s response to the disengagement.

And I wondered, what was the reason Israelis were killed when they were still in Gaza?

11:29 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I, personally, think that this is a vile theodicy, whether in its cruder or more subtle variants, because it ends up blaming entirely innocent people for the wickedness of others. Doesn't Nasrallah, the head of Hizbollah, have the free will to decide to kill Israelis, which he is now exercising - and isn't he, therefore, morally responsible for his crimes?"


You should read Derech Hashem - The Way of G-d - by Moshe Chaim Lozzatto, where he describes how Hashem set up the world to work in a certain way where doing mitzvos causes Hashem's protection to shine down on us whereas sinning causes that protection to wane. I like to think of it like energizing a protective force field or letting the force field weaken. There is constant bracha coming forth from Hashem and radiating down to us. However, like a radio with a tunning problem, if we aren't tuned to the right station, we won't pick up the signals.

Sure, the arabs are totally at fault (and will be repaid) for every rocket they shoot. However, once fired, those rockets could fall on unpopulated areas, or the opposite. In either case, the terrorists will be punished for shooting the rockets. But, the end result of that shot is a product of how well our force field is holding up. We are responsible for that. If we energize the force field, the rockets will have minimum negative effect. If there is a hole in the force field, the rocket will do more damage. According to sefarim, as I said, the power to strengthen or weaken that force field is in our hands.

This is not blaming the victims. This is telling us that we have a certain amount of power to minimize the effects of those bombs. But, we have to work together.

11:31 AM  
Blogger Charlie Hall said...

Promoting charity, peace among Jews, Shabat, and modesty are things rabbis should always do. Maybe it won't help in this war -- but then again, maybe it will!

3:19 PM  
Blogger Rebecca said...

Eem, I do see that problem with my thinking. It is a real problem and it troubles me, because I also don't want to believe that God is not omnipotent. It's the classic problem of theodicy - if God is all-powerful, then why does he not prohibit evil from happening? I don't have an answer.

Anonymous 11:31 AM - Luzzato's argument still, it seems to me, results in blaming innocent people. If I am a sinner, I should then be punished for my sins - but should my innocent children be punished for them as well? I think his argument really falls down when we consider the problem of bad things happening to good people (not just innocent children) - people who follow the mitzvot, who are notably kind and generous, who extend themselves for others - what about the protective force field that is supposed to guard them from evil? There was no such force field during the Shoah nor is there one now.

3:24 PM  
Anonymous chareidiman said...

One should do anything so at least he didn't fail doing the opposite of charity, meaning causing harm to his friends or the public."


well it is time to close your blog

3:47 PM  
Blogger Halfnutcase said...

um, modesty isn't just aplicable to women. (and the assumption that it is may be contributing to the problems)

everything anyone does must be modest, and men are just as chayiv as weomon

9:51 PM  
Anonymous deemer said...

Rebecca, you said:

--Eem, I do see that problem with my thinking. It is a real problem and it troubles me, because I also don't want to believe that God is not omnipotent. It's the classic problem of theodicy - if God is all-powerful, then why does he not prohibit evil from happening? I don't have an answer.--

No one has an answer. Only Moshe Rabbainu was privileged to have God answer this question to a minute degree. And even he didn't understand the answer. Why should you?

There's that famous story of four rabbaim that "walked in the ways of God". Out of four, only Rabbi Akiva walked in Pardes, and lived to tell about it with a whole mind. Because he accepted that there are certain things he will never understand, and he entered in peace and left in peace.

If we don't live in a world where our deeds affect what happens to us, then how can we explain why anything, good or bad, happens to us? I don't subscribe to blaming who and what is responsible for the Holocaust. But everyone realizes that SOMETHING must have been off. We must have done SOMETHING wrong for it to happen.

I don't believe that not knowing the ways of the world negates God's omnipotence.

10:50 PM  
Blogger joel rich said...

I would summarize R'YBS on theodicy as don't ask why (we can never understand the infinite "mind of HKB"H -although if you read the recently released "The Lord is righteous in all his ways" from Rav Soloveitchik's talks you will see on Tisha Bav until mincha we have special dispensation to ask why) but ask what; what does HKB"H(halacha) want me to do now? While there may be generic answers as a community, we need to look homeward angel for our own personal answers
KT

5:44 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's plain to see: the reason for this war is that some pizza shops in in the 5 Towns serve products with cholov stam and the women do not wear stockings

9:34 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with you that it is a bit disconcerting to hear rabbaim or lay people try to ascribe certain events as reflections of certain aveiros i.e. monday morning quarterbacking, however let us not lose sight that these events do not happen merely by chance. Events happen because of the performance of mitzvos or aveiros. A Rav of mine once gave this helpful allegory. A man was going out of town and asked his friend to watch his house. He gave him specific instructions: every morning and evening push the green button, every other day push the blue button and on Monday and Thursday push the purple button.
The friend initially adhered to the instructions but after a few days and seeing that nothing happened he became lazy and failed to follow the directions. When the owner returned he furiously berated the man for failing to follow directions. The friend replied but look no harm no foul nothing happened. The owner then said that the green button provided power to the town down the road, the purple button provided the water and the blue button controlled the sewer pumps. The Nimshal is that our actions today might impact other people that we have never met accross the globe. We read every week on shabbos of various behaviors and punishments hashem provided, even Moshe Rabeinu was punished for not following hashem's commanded instructions. We have gotten too soft and pc to say it like it is. We are punished because we dont follow the torah. Period end of story.

3:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think the point, Rebecca, is that we don't know why Hashem would allow the current crisis to occur. You have to separate in your mind the evil free choice of Hizbololah, and G-d allowing Jews to die and be terrorized. They will be dealt with separately by G-d.
That said, as we don't know whether it's related to the Hitnatkut, the gay pride parade, or the fact that I forgot to bench after my sandwich at lunch, these Rabbanim are giving us very concrete things we can do NOW. Either the fighting will stop because of it, or it won't, but nobody ever lost anything by being more careful about their own tznius etc.

3:29 PM  
Blogger Rebecca said...

Deemer said: "If we don't live in a world where our deeds affect what happens to us, then how can we explain why anything, good or bad, happens to us? I don't subscribe to blaming who and what is responsible for the Holocaust. But everyone realizes that SOMETHING must have been off. We must have done SOMETHING wrong for it to happen."

I think the problem is that actually, we cannot explain why something good or bad happens to us. I was listening recently to a talk given by Elie Wiesel. In response to a question of why he thought he had survived the Holocaust, he said, "chance."

I think we are chasing a chimera when we try to figure out what the "something wrong" is that we might have done - either to cause the Nazis to decide to exterminate the Jews or Hizbollah to attack Israel. In the case of Hizbollah, it is possible to point to a series of historical events involving the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, the rise of HIzbollah and Islamic fundamentalism, etc. - some of which do have to do with actions performed by Jews, and some of which have nothing to do with Jews.

What I don't understand is why people seek explanations that have nothing to do with the actual interactions between Israel and Hizbollah, or Lebanon as a whole. Why would immodest dress, violations of Shabbat, or other sins have anything to do with what Hizbollah decides to do?

One of the things that I like about the book of Job is that Job makes many magnificent speeches trying to understand why such horrible things have happened to him, and his friends make other beautiful speeches trying to do the same thing - but in the end, God says to Job, "Where were you when I established the earth!" and Job repents in dust and ashes - but God rebukes Job's friends, not Job.

3:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Rebecca, you are right. We don't know the reasons why G-d is allowing the current crisis. And, perhaps more importantly, we certainly have no control over the political, historical, diplomatic forces behind it. The one thing we do have control over, is our own actions. Having more Mitzvot in the world can only be a good thing. It has nothing to do with seeking explanations, which is I think what OM was trying to say.

7:07 PM  
Blogger Rebecca said...

Yes, I would agree, anon 7:07

2:57 PM  
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