Saturday, January 01, 2005

“Meteorological Judaism,” or Reward and Punishment: What did *anyone* do to deserve a tsunami?

Coming out of the closet as a science fiction fan, I’d like to share this quote (from the third-season episode “A Late Delivery from Avalon”) from the 1990’s series Babylon 5 (chief writer J. Michael Straczynski), spoken by Ranger Marcus Cole to Babylon 5 space station’s chief physician, Dr. Stephen Franklin: “You know, I used to think it was awful that life was so unfair. Then I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be much worse if life were fair, and all the terrible things that happen to us come because we actually deserve them?’ So now I take great comfort in the general hostility and unfairness of the universe.”

Much as I hate to upset the Orthodox visitors to my blog, I’ve always had a great deal of difficulty in accepting the literal meaning of the second paragraph of the Sh’ma, which the founder of the Jewish Reconstructionist Movement, Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, described as “meteorological Judaism.” Here’s my version of an ArtScroll siddur’s/prayerbook’s translation: “And it will be that if you continually hear [hearken to, obey?] My commandments that I command you today, to love HaShem your G-d and to serve Him with all your heart and with all your soul, that I will provide rain for your land in its time, the early [Birnbaum siddur’s translation—autumn] and the late [Birnbaum—spring] rains, and you will gather in your gain, your wine, and your oil. And I will give grass in your field for your cattle and you will eat and be satisfied. Beware [guard yourself?], lest your heart be seduced and you turn aside and serve other gods and bow down to them. And the wrath of HaShem will blaze against you, and He will restrain the heaven, and there will not be rain, and the land will not give its produce. And you will swiftly be banished [Birnbaum: “and you will quickly perish”] from the good land that HaShem gives you.” Sorry, but I simply don’t buy it. My sins affect me and those around me, but what difference do they make to an indifferent natural world? Will the rain not come in its season simply because I eat broiled salmon in a non-kosher restaurant, or because I ride to synagogue on Shabbat? What does anything that anyone does, or doesn’t do, have to do with an earthquake causing a tsunami that kills over 120,000 people?

I may be an egalitarian Conservative in terms of ritual, but disasters such as last Sunday’s tsunami bring out the theological Reconstructionist in me. Zocher chasdé avot (v’imahot)? We should be the ones to remember the kindnesses of our ancestors—and to follow in their footsteps. Soméch noflim v’rofé cholim? Let us be the ones to raise the fallen and heal the sick. Unfortunately, there are plenty of fallen and sick at the moment. Pikuach nefesh (roughly translated, saving lives) is a mitzvah/commandment. Even a donation of chai ($18) could help save lives by paying for a few jugs of safe drinking water. The sooner you donate, the more lives may be saved. Same pitch as last time: Those wishing to donate through Jewish organizations can contact the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee ("The Joint") at or the American Jewish World Service at, among others.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

This Orthodox visitor to your blog, at least, is not upset.
We may have different takes on Reward & Punishment, Providence, and whatever else theological issues, but at least we all love Babylon 5 :-) .

And with that, a comment on Tsunamis and Theodicy:
"Understanding is a Three-Edged Sword."

-Steg (dos iz nit der šteg)

Sun Jan 02, 09:55:00 AM 2005  
Blogger M-n said...

Gut gezukt [Well said]. I'd like to hear more about your Jewish philosophy. You have influences that are not the same as mine, having been only exposed to (immersed in?) frum Judaism. You provide a refreshing angle on Judaism, that properly shouldn't be so novel.

Mon Jan 03, 10:15:00 PM 2005  
Blogger PsychoToddler said...

I have the first 4 seasons of B5 on DVD. The 5th sucked! Oh and Crusade too.

And for the record, the Tsunami was not caused by you eating non-kosher fish.

I have it on good authority that it was caused by me letting my kids play video games.

Wed Jan 05, 05:12:00 PM 2005  
Blogger Noam S said...

R. Student(Simcha) over at Hirhurim has a very nice post on this topic. I even tried to grapple with it myself over at the House. One of the beliefs of ortho Jews is the concept of reward and punishment. We dont know what the specific reward for any specific mitzvah is, except for two which are listed in the Torah. Honoring your father and mother, and sending away the mother bird from the nest if you are going to take the eggs. For both, the reward is long life. There is a story that Elisha ben Avuya, one of the rabbis in the Talmud, saw a boy climb up a tree in response to his father's command, send away the mother bird, take the eggs, and then fall out of the tree and die. He thereupon stopped believing and became a heretic(known as Acher in the Talmud)(see Milton Steinberg's historicalbiographical fiction book As a Driven Leaf for more discussion of Acher).

So, we cannot claim that we know for sure that a specific punishment is for a specific sin But we believe that there is a link between sin and punishment. And, there is good rabbinic support for the concept of looking at yourself and at the world, in the wake of a disaster, and ask, why did this happen? was it because of something I/we are doing? let us examine our deeds and make them better. The rabbis tell us the second temple was destroyed because of sina'at chinam, groundless hate.

No one is claiming that the rains are not going to come because you rode to shul on shabbat. But(I do not want to get into a debate on the Conservative view of riding to shul on Shabbat), the punishment for a sin might be lack of rain. You don't know. I dont know. Maybe it would be better not to sin, then you dont have to worry. Not that anyone is without sin, but that sort of attitude can help avoid sin.(not that serving God out of fear is the ideal, the ideal is to serve God out of love, but sometimes serving out of fear is a step towards serving out of love).
I think I have meandered on long enough.

Wed Jan 05, 09:03:00 PM 2005  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Dilbert, I read your posts concerning the tsunami at and Simcha's/Rabbi Gil Student's posts concerning natural disasters and rabbinic explanations at I'm afraid I simply don't think the way that either of you two thinks. You said, "Maybe it would be better not to sin, then you dont have to worry." That it would be better not to sin goes without saying, but "then you don't have to worry"? I just don't see what sin has to do with natural disasters. Sorry, dilbert, but my inability to believe in reward and punishment is one of a number of reasons why I'm not Orthodox.

Mis-nagid, at this point, I've already written 51 posts, so I'll have rachmones/rachmanut/mercy on you and not expect you to read all of them, but since you've been on a tear on your own blog about "racist ideology" in the response of some Orthodox rabbis to the tsunami, I think you might find my Wednesday, August 4, 2004 post, Va-etchanan: “. . . ein od mil’vado”—On religious intolerance" interesting.

Now, now, PsychoToddler, I didn’t say the *fish* wasn’t kosher, I said the *restaurant* wasn’t. (It's been so long since I've eaten shrimp that I can't remember how long it's been.) As for video games, believe me, I speak from experience when I say that trying to keep your kids away from them is a hopeless battle. :(

On a completely different subject, PT, I think Babylon 5’s fifth season had its moments, and I rather liked Crusade’s Dureena Nafeel and Galen the Technomage.

Sun Jan 09, 03:11:00 AM 2005  
Blogger Barefoot Jewess said...

"Meteorological Judaism"? Heh. It sounds primitive. I can't imagine that the second paragraph could be taken so literally. My take on it is that it is metaphorical- when one removes oneself from G-d for whatever reason (and we all do it at times), and sometimes that reason has valid reason :), one's spiritual and psychic landscape becomes barren and harsh- in mystical terms, too much of an emphasis on Din (Judgment), without the balance of Chesed ( Lovingkindness, Compassion) places one's spiritual life out of whack. I don't understand why Reform removed that passage, unless they took it literally as well or felt that it was a slippery slope to literalism and removed it as a stringency/fence (?).

The recent tsunami and its effect, IMO, and other natural disasters, are totally inexplicable in relation to G-d; we can only speculate.

Sun Jan 09, 10:05:00 PM 2005  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Barefoot Jewess, I'm sorry it took me so long to respond, but I wanted some hard-core evidence to post. Well, here it is, straight from the ArtScroll Orthodox siddur: "While reciting the second paragraph [of the Sh'ma] (Deuteronomy 11:13-21), concentrate on accepting all the commandments and the concept of reward and punishment." Yes, Virginia, there are Jews--indeed, *many* Jews--who accept a literally interpretation of the second paragraph of the Sh'ma.

Peronally, if I were more of a believer, I would prefer your own interpretation. I've heard an ecological interpretation that works a bit better for me, namely, that we "pay" for tampering with the ecological balance of nature, which some might interpret as HaShem's law, since some would say that tradition tell us that HaShem create the original ecological balance in the first place.

Sat Jan 15, 07:24:00 PM 2005  
Blogger Barefoot Jewess said...

Shira, thanks for the research and I apologise for the long time in replying.

I don't know what you mean about being "more of a believer"(perhaps a future post?). My question to you is, do you feel bound by the commentary in Artscroll? Or any commentary? Do you think/believe that it is authoritative?

Fri Jan 28, 01:56:00 AM 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Perhaps you could take the bi about rain to mean this: if we do very bad things and mess up the world we will bring Global Warming? Huh? :) LOL

I'm a Gentile who likes Judaism. I love your blog.

Thu Jul 12, 03:41:00 PM 2007  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Yonatan, as I said to Barefoot a couple of comments ago, "I've heard an ecological interpretation that works a bit better for me, namely, that we "pay" for tampering with the ecological balance of nature, which some might interpret as HaShem's [G-d's] law, since some would say that tradition tells us that HaShem create the original ecological balance in the first place." Great minds think alike. :)

Barefoot, you asked, "do you feel bound by the commentary in Artscroll? Or any commentary? Do you think/believe that it is authoritative?" No. One of the reasons why I'm not Orthodox is that I prefer to observe tradition by my own choice, not because Jewish law requires me to do so.

Fri Jul 13, 03:51:00 PM 2007  

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