Friday, July 27, 2007

Brutality Again

See here. And the two posts below it. Barbarians.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007


The ninth of Av always brings my mind to the problem of evil. How can God countenance evil? More importantly, how can evil even exist? God is, after all, the supreme good; how can anything but good emanate from Him?

This question has plagued philosophers throughout the ages. It has led many to deny God's absolute goodness, and even to question His existence. Let us begin a cursory review of some Jewish responses to the problem of evil*. This is a work in progress, and any suggestions or corrections are welcome.

The Ra'avad (R Avraham Ibn David) writes in Emunah Ramah that evil comes from matter. The spiritual abstraction that spawned the world (God and the spark of truth that is the Torah) is perfectly good. However, when they become realized in creation, in physical matter, they immediately lose aspects of their goodness. In the transition to physical creation, elements of good are lost, and to the extent that something is physical, it contains evil. Evil is essentially the shadow of the material upon the landscape that was illuminated by God. Thus, when God created matter, he, in effect created evil. However, this evil is more negative existence than actual creation. Ra'avad ends by saying that, taken in context of the universe, evil is really good, only disguised.

This last point is interestingly echoed in the poetic writings of Augustine. He states that we consider some things evil because 'they are at variance with other things.' Ultimately, God should be praised for everything, even things we perceive to be bad, because they all contribute to a harmonious whole. This view does away with the work of theodicy by denying the essential existence of evil. This is hard to take, especially in light of my previous post. While it may be true, it fundamentally takes away our right to examine the world we live in critically.

The Kuzari also does this. He reminds us that all God does is good, and wryly points out that human ability to understand the workings of the world are surely at the bottom of the scale of goodness in this world. Evil and good are rewarded and punished most truly in the realm of the spirit world, that waiting room to the world to come. Thus, we are enjoined to complete our work in this world, and allow the problem of evil to be solved by He who allowed it to (seem to) exist.

Rambam agrees that evil is rooted in matter. The human soul is completely good. Evil is a function of the marriage of matter and spirit. However, the closer Mankind gets to wisdom and study, and the further Humanity moves from passion and emotion, the less will matter hold sway, and the less will this accidental evil presist.

Kabbalistic writings agree with the Kuzarian premise that all activity is ultimately good. Evil is punishment for evil in deed and thought. The concept of the Gilgul, or reincarnation is introduced to solve the problems stemming from the suffering of obvious innocents, such as children. Souls are cast into new lives that receive punishment for past lives' offenses.

The view I find most satisfying (perhaps because I thought of it before researching the subject) is R Sa'adia's. He states (Emunoth V'deoth 2) that evil is simply a product of Man not fulfilling God's will. When humans go against the divine right or do not fulfill it completely, they by negation commit evil. Of course, these results of human activity may be to punish or teach, but they are products of our actions. God has given Man the free will to go against His rule, but ultimately, He is in control of the world's destiny, and evil will be punished. The suffering of the good will also not be in vain.

This may be best left for another post, but I find it particularly interesting to consider the talmudic dictum, 'he who is merciful to the wicked will end up wicked to the merciful'. It is precisely when we veer from divine morality, and attempt to be more moral than God towards enemies of His Kingdom, that we sow the seeds of evil towards those who cling to His ways. It is not always clear how, but the ripple effect is always there. And so, that profoundly Jewish essence of mercy, when mis-applied, will lead to the most perverted and warped injustice against those who demonstrate that very trait of loving-kindness.

* I found an article at helpful in sourcing some of the following ideas. Also, Rabbi Carmy has a book relating to suffering that I hope will shed more light on this topic.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Children of our Past

The ninth of Av. Soaked with the tears of countless who still mourn the destruction of 2,000 years. Please, God, please, let it be enough. End this bitter exile, and redeem us! And the echo that brings our cry back to our own ears seems to say, 'work with me to end it, and to redeem you...' (UPDATE: See the Muqata for another extremely apropos pictoral post.)

Nothing connects me to the pain and sorrow of our history more deeply than the children. Who does not see their own little boy or girl in the pain of a starving child's eyes? Stronger than any קינה, more powerful than six million names, here are the faces that haunt me day and night...

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Religious Renaissance

Rabbi Adlerstein has a post on a disturbing subject at Cross-Currents. He makes some good points, and I do not mean to negate any of the constructive criticism in the post. However, I think an important possibility is being overlooked.

The question is, why is it that seemingly well-adjusted citizens of Israel are moving to Messianic Judaism for their religious experience? While the question was raised in the scope of Israel and Messianic Judaism, the issue is just as valid when asked about youth in any Jewish community who replace the religious experience of traditional Judaism with any alternative. It is my contention that the answer lies in the culture of replacement that we have absorbed from the world around us.

We live in a world-culture whose mantra is, ‘if it’s not perfect, trade it in!’ Every day, people opt to upgrade their cell phones, computers and cars, instead of having their present ones fixed. It is easier, and the thrill of novelty is an opiate to the drudgery that is so much of life.

The same holds true for many aspects of our lives. The current culture is that if a marriage becomes challenging, divorce is the answer. If one's career seems to grow boring, career change is immediately suggested. People pick up and drop hobbies and leisure activities in the blink of an eye. Sadly, this replacement culture has invaded the study halls, as well. Many people feel the need to constantly be presented with novel, interesting subjects in university or the beit midrash. Sadly, even religious experience, no matter how inspiring, can become routine, and that spark we first felt when serving God may be dampened.

The fact is that habit can be a bore. No matter how exhilarating, the doing the same thing every day can become dull, and people will begin to look for new inspiration. And so, we must ask: how are we meant to deal with flagging interest in these areas of life that are so important? Mature people who are confident in their faith will look inward for this renaissance, but many modern people will immediately look outward to find religious renewal.

It is unfair to place the blame for the lack of this external renewal on the practitioners of Jewish Orthodoxy. Even in boredom, it is our job to recognize the inherent value in what we are doing, and re-ignite our passion through it. We can’t just trade it in, when it is an important part of our lives.

This level of responsibility and maturity must be a part of our educational plans for our youth. We must periodically bring up new aspects of the service of Hashem. There are plenty. A good discussion on the power of prayer can be enough to uplift a flagging spirit. Excitement about the poetry and depth of Tanach is another way to boost interest. Educators must make an effort to show their charges the many aspects of Torah, and teach them that they can find renewed inspiration through their age-old traditions, instead of looking for it in other faiths.