Seeing Israel’s Fires as Divine Justice Makes a Mockery of Jewish Theology

December 1, 2016 | William Kolbrener
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As much of Israel was in flames, the chief rabbi of Samaria, Elyakim Levanon, declared that the fires were “divine punishment” for the government’s plans to evacuate the settlement of Amona, built in violation of Israeli law. To William Kolbrener, such simplistic explanations of human suffering insult the Jewish theological tradition.

If only the Regulation Bill—the Knesset move to legalize outposts in the West Bank—had already passed, Levanon assures us, then maybe the nation would have been saved from the punishment of the current wave of fires. “Until the threat of eviction is lifted,” he prophetically intones, “no rain will fall.” But the day the bill is passed, “that very day the rains of blessing will begin to fall.”

Notwithstanding Levanon’s pretense to know the divine mind, Jewish tradition warns against such speculative ḥutzpah. . . . [By contrast], Levanon’s version of the divine is a God tailor-made for his followers, a God who satisfies their simplistic political narrative, but also for the skeptical secular left because this God is so easily dismissed as a childish fantasy. Indeed, Levanon provides a straw-man of God and religion that would make any rational person think: Judaism is a primitive endeavor, a silly crutch for the weak and unenlightened.

But not all Jewish theologians act as God’s accountant, keeping track of the balances of divine reward and punishment. For Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, writing in 1956, the pronouncement in Genesis that the world is “very good” is made only from God’s perspective; man, however, experiences evil, suffering, and death as stubborn realities. Man, with his “partial vision,” Soloveitchik continues, cannot make sense of the universe, certainly not speculate about how God “governs the world.” . . .

[According to Soloveitchik], we cannot explain the existence of evil, but we can ask ourselves what to do when confronted by it. We might ask, for example: what forms of kindness and generosity can we offer to those who endure hardship, to those in Israel who were injured or lost their homes? . . . Soloveitchik may not, like Levanon, offer the consolation of theodicy, with pat explanations of suffering and evil, but he does appeal to the potential for human nobility, to transform the experience of evil into action—into the consolation of others who are suffering.

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