Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Noach, breakfast rolls, and the way of the world

Note: R. Student at Hirhurim has an excellent erudite post on this topic

Obviously many bloggers have taken note of the tsunami and the horrible events in southeast asia. Miriam (bloghead) had a very appropriate quote from the chief rabbi of England, R. Saks, who essentially said our obligation is to ask what can we do to help, no matter what the why's are. Shira Salamone(On the Fringe) rejects what R. Mordechai Kaplan termed meteorological Judaism, and in a a somewhat similar fashion calls on us as human beings to assume responsibility for helping out, kind of leaving God out of the equation. I obviously agree that all of us have an obligation to help as much and as quickly as possible. But I also wanted to address a bit of the why , or at least my way of looking at it.

In Genesis 8:22, God says to himself "..in addition, all the days of the earth,(there will be) planting and harvesting, cold and hot, summer and winter, day and night, it will not cease." This appears to be a statement from God that the way of the world, what we call laws of nature, have been set in motion, and will continue to operate unimpeded until the end of time.(Incidentally, I have seen this used as a assurance that mankind will not self-destruct). One of the Parasha sheets I read in shul noted that orderly laws of nature are a gift to mankind. Instead of wondering when the sun will shine, when the rainy season will come, if the apple will fall up or down, there is a (at least partially) comprehensible pattern to the world that we can learn about, follow, and rely upon. The bounty of the harvest, the beautiful beaches, sunrise, sunset, volcanos, earthquakes all follow from this orderly march of the "laws" of nature. Our ability to treat sickness, have rocket ships, clone, predict the weather(sometimes) all stem from our understanding of nature. Very unfortunately, natural disasters occur in the course of nature. If we had known more about predicting earthquakes, if the areas had been in posession of early warning systems, much of the tragic loss of life could have been avoided.

So, where is God in all of this? Can there be supernatural events? I dont know, I can only tell you what I believe. There are three options. One is to deny the existance of God. Secondly, to believe that God wound up the clock and left it to tick tock on its own, taking a hands off approach, letting event unwind on their own without His intervention(possibly evening things out in the afterlife or some other way(gilgul)). Thirdly, that God takes an active interest and part in the world. This can be either by so perfectly setting up the world in the first place that His interventions are consistant with the laws of nature as we know them (has poor implications for the doctrine of free choice, if everything is set up in advance) or by intervening in a specifically supernatural way, that is clearly identifiable as something that is not consistant with the laws of nature. The Rambam and Ramban debated the nature of miracles on similar grounds. What comes from this analysis is that you cannot "prove" the existance of God from looking at nature, unless you have specific proof of a supernatural event(everyone will have their own definition of what this is). I choose to believe that God is taking an active interest and part in the world, but I cannot prove it.

In every US airport I have been through, there is a Cinnabon stand, selling deliciously smelling sweet rolls, and the aroma is identifiable instantly. Many times I have been tempted to have one(just for background, I only eat uncooked fruit or veggies at the myriad of non-Kosher restaurants that I get dragged to for meetings). I even went so far as to look at the ingredients and see if there is anything specifically not kosher(there isn't). Aside from my usual inhibitions about not eating questionable foods, I worry that if I eat that Cinnabon, the plane that I am about to board is going to crash. The specific cause of the crash could be one of many different reasons, ice on the wings, landing gear failure to retract, spark in the fuel tank, lots of things. But I feel that by eating that Cinnabon, I will increase the chance that one of those events will occur. Obviously, this is somewhat of an irrational fear, but this illustrates two points. One, that what might appear to be a event occuring in the natural course of things(plane crash due to icing, for example) is actually an event orchestrated by God for a specific purpose(punishing me for eating the Cinnabon), and two, that in the usual course of our day to day life, we dont usually think that events that occur are specific punishments(or rewards) for our activities. It is only in certain instances, like being at the airport, or seeing a horrible disaster, that we start to question the links between our actions and what happens in the world around us. Please do not misunderstand, I am NOT making a claim that the tsunami was a punishment by God for anyone or anybody, or in response to a particular sin or misdeed(nor am I ruling it out). However, as a human being, I should do my upmost to help the victims in everyway I can. As a Jew, believing that God does watch over the world, and that in some mysterious way He brings perfect justice to the world, I should use this, and every opportunity, to look at what I do, and what we as a people do, and ask, what can I and we do better?

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