Friday, August 11, 2006

Speaking of Tisha B’Av & the current war in Israel, my husband & I are having a serious theological problem--it's called “Reward & Punishment"

Parelleling my attempts to increase my level of observance, my husband and I have occasionally discussed what it would be like to become Orthodox, and this is one of the problems that we’ve encountered.

This quote, from the 1990’s science fictiontelevision series Babylon 5 (chief writer J. Michael Straczynski), which I cited previously here, expresses our attitude pretty well:

“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.”

This quote, from the Musaf Amidah prayer on the Shalosh Regalim/Pilgrimage Festivals, expresses the traditional Jewish attitude:

Mipné chataénu galinu méartzenu—because of our sins, we were exiled from our land.”

Better yet, try the “evening and morning every day always” version (recited in every evening and morning service), the second paragraph of the Sh’ma (Deuteronomy 11:13-21).

And here’s a very recent version voiced by blogger Rock of Galilee:

". . . I thought that when I got to the wall I would be one of those people who yell, "WHY???!!!" or "WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU THINKING?????!!!?" I thought about it for a second and grabbed onto a fleeting thought that everything that God does is for the best, whether we understand it or not. Instead of asking questions of God and leaving the wall very unsatisfied, I focused on the truth of God and read the shemona esrei, the 19 blessings that we say every day praising God and asking him to help us with our daily lives. I focused on the absoulte power and holiness of God in the first section and then during the section where you request from God I asked him (in the preordained order) to:

give me the knowledge and intuition to deal with the family in this siutuation.

Return us to the Torah study, which is even less then usual while we are in exile

Forgive our sins which have definitely brought about this tragedy

. . .

[Red added by me.]

A former rabbi (Conservative), knowing that my husband and I had been members of a dual-affiliated Conservative/Reconstructionist synagogue, once commented that a belief in Reward and Punishment was one of the concepts that distinguished Conservative Judaism from Reconstructionist Judaism.

That’s one of the chief reasons why I still have half a foot in the Reconstructionist camp, though I disagree with their decision to accept patrilineal descent.

So what exactly is this theological concept, some interesting combination of masochism and a classic case of blaming the victim?

The first Temple gets destroyed by the Babylonians, the second Temple by the Romans, and we’re to blame?

Children die of illness, mothers get killed in car collisions, and we’re to blame?

Tsunamis kill thousands, hurricanes devastate coastal areas and leave thousands homeless, and we’re to blame?

Hamas is tossing Qassams at S’derot and Hizbollah is raining Katyushas from Lebanon, and we’re to blame?

How did a bunch of guys as smart as our ancient sages manage to develop a theology that, in addition to being perfect for creating major guilt trips, plays straight into the hands of our enemies?


Blogger Elie said...

Wow! There are a lot of different issues here that I'd like to address, but I don't want to go writing a major "exposition" in your comments (that's my blog's place! ;-))

But briefly, three points:

1) The concept of God rewarding good and punishing bad is certainly not Rabbinic in origin (unless one believes the written Torah is such, which maybe you do based on Conservative theology?). The written Torah emphasizes this point constantly. Just in this and last week's parhiyot there must be a dozen such verses - not to mention in the ten commandments. So the Rabbis can't be "blamed" for this fundamental theological idea.

2) However, another fundamental Jewish belief is free will. Therefore, I don't think anyone holds that victims are "responsible" for the actions of the aggressors. Even if a person believes that a given tragedy occurred to them as a punishment, that doesn't mean the perpetrators of the evil are off the hook. The gemera makes this exact point in explaining why the Egyptians dererved to be punished even though the Israelites were "destined" to be slaves in a foreign land, as told to Abraham in the "bris bein habesarim". The Egyptians didn't have to step up to the role of enslavers; that was their choice.

3) Given all that, there is still the basic question of why good things happen to bad people and vice versa; i.e., why does punishment (and reward) often seem undeserved. Jewish scholars and philosophers have wrestled with this question for literally thousands of years, and I don't believe anyone has come up with a satiafactory answer. Certainly I have none. I just keep on trying my best to maintain my faith, without ever expecting proof or understanding, that there is some kind of Divine plan far beyond our ability to even fathom, which requires all the tragedies we suffer. I don't always succeed. But along the lines of what you said in another post, I have found that faith - like prayer - is its own reward.

Fri Aug 11, 10:37:00 AM 2006  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

"1) The concept of God rewarding good and punishing bad is certainly not Rabbinic in origin (unless one believes the written Torah is such, which maybe you do based on Conservative theology?)."

Oops, sorry, Elie. My apologies. I did not make it clear that I do, in fact, support the
Documentary Hypothesis, an approach admittedly not generally accepted within the Orthodox commununity. So yes, I do believe that the entire Torah was written by inspired humans, and that, therefore, the concept that G-d rewards good and punishes evil comes from humans.

That said, would that I had your faith.

Fri Aug 11, 07:28:00 PM 2006  

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