Thursday, July 21, 2011

A sadly serious post

I was saddened by the recent death of an 8 year old boy in Brooklyn. What has come to light is the statement by a religious leader that the boy's death was the result of (and I'm being vague on the nature of the connection) NY State's decision to legalize gay marriage and the lack of protest from within the Orthodox Jewish community.

Side note -- I'm not discussing the propriety of gay marriage, nor am I discussing homosexuality in general. That's not what this is about.

I read some articles and the comments from people about this public statement and I wanted to put a few ideas down on virtual paper about it.

Let's say that god uses earthly events as a result and response to human events that he doesn't like.

Let's say that god holds the Jewish community responsible for not protesting a law passed by the secular state.

Let's say that it was our job to try and make connections between events and learn god's will through them.

Let's say that we could make these connections and claim therefore to know what god intends.

I still don't get it. And I have tried. I have tried to find what could come out of this in a spiritual sense or what reason in the divine master plan this tragedy could have. But I don't see it.

I haven't checked the newspaper, but on that day, I'm sure that there were a number of other deaths in the community and all around New York. In fact, I'm sure that in some Jewish community, on that day, someone died in a way that relatives and friends would consider tragic. Can we know which particular death is the one god wanted us to learn a lesson from?

I also haven't checked, but I have no doubt that there were other news events taking place around then and I'm sure that some ran against the norms of the Jewish community. How do we know which news item was the trigger that god wants us to rail against?

Also, assuming that this was an issue connected to gay marriage, wouldn't it have made sense for something in the "lesson" to be related to gay marriage? The innocent child had nothing to do with it, nor did his parents. Even his abductor and killer had been in hetero-marriages twice already. How does anyone decide that there is a link?

Ignoring that same sex marriages have been around on the practical level for over 5 years and have been a legislative issue since 2007, the newest legislation passed on June 24th, 2 weeks before the unfortunate events in Brooklyn. is there a statute of limitations on these things? Will a sad event next week be god's response to en event from 2 years ago? How can we know?

Similar claims have been made about the Haitian earthquake and the Japanese tsunami -- they are the result of an acceptance of a certain problematic way of thinking or acting. But there the response is on a large scale. Here a single victim is supposed to point out a greater societal ill?

Now, I know that there are movements within Judaism to explain tragedies and tie them to behaviors or a failing in the greater group. Prophetic texts warn of horrible events as results of the people's misbehavior. Of course, then, the religious leader pointing this out should have warned us clearly before hand if he wanted to be taken seriously. Additionally, the Rabbinic sources try to create a link between the events and the nature of the ill.

Does this mean that this boy's death should teach us nothing? Absolutely not. And if his death causes us as a group to be introspective about all of our own misdeeds, and yes, even about our response to secular legislation, then so be it. Every man's death should sadden us and wake us up to the need to be better at who we are and even, how we make our voices heard on issues which should concern us. But to make a direct and absolute causal link smacks of arrogance and insensitivity.


  1. Many of the things you said here apply to the Rabbinic statement that the 2nd Temle was destroyed because of "sinat chinam," or, baseless hatred. I was just think about this recently for reasons I probably don't have to mention. Assuming that they had no divine revelation, is it not the epitome of haughtiness to suggest that, no matter how brilliant or holy one is, they know the single reason for one of the worst and most tragic events (at least from those person(s) point of view)in human history, and that it is the result of certain behaviors of certain other people? I mean, surely there were people who were punished as a result of that great and awful tragedy who were righteous and did not practice baseless hatred. I'm not arguing that it's unfair for God to punish those good people as part of some lofty "bigger picture" in which other people are held accountable - Perhaps it would be, but I have no reason to believe it is just because a bunch of mortal men arrogantly decided it was... especially because that explanation would be insulting and downright unfair to those righteous men and women who lived their life in accordance with everything God asked them to do in order to receive His favor and to their memory. It would be like suggesting that the Holocaust happened as a direct effect of X Y and/or Z (any situation where many good people are punished for the immoral actions of others). Even if these immoral actions were widespread, it doesn't make it just for a large amount of people to be punished because of them, and it's just disgustingly arrogant for a group of other people to suggest that they somehow know that all those good people died for the comparatively paltry actions of other bad people. (And let's face it, "baseless hatred" is far too vague and comparatively insignificant to really be the cause of such a tragedy, anyway, but that's not the point.)

    My question - If you follow through with your reasoning, then you don't think that there's sufficient evidence to prove that the 2nd temple was destroyed because of the now famous reason the Rabbis said it was and that it "smacks of arrogance and insensitivity." So what do you think of that Rabbinic statement?

  2. I should clarify that when I said that I wasn't arguing that it was unfair for God to punish good people for some bigger picture, when I said that I had no reason to believe it is I meant that I have no reason to believe it is the reason for the destruction of the Temple just because of that seemingly arrogant Rabbinic statement... Not that I have no reason to believe it's unfair just because they said so (obviously they don't seem to find it unfair).

  3. While I understand the point you are making, I think that I don't have the same problem with the rabbinic statement that you do because I see it in a different light. The statement that the 2nd temple was destroyed "because" of baseless hatred does not seem to me to be a direct cause and effect. We know that ills befall the Jewish people (among others) as a whole because of underlying societal deficiencies (the textual curses actually lay out our fate if we disobey the laws and we say in the davening of the shalosh regalim "mipnei chata'einu galinu me'artzeinu"). Sdom and Amora were destroyed because of the behavior of the residents. Even the world was destroyed by the mabul because of sinful behavior. So this is nothing new. There is a notion that if we, as a group, don't deserve the protection of God, then we are open to the attacks of others and of the world. But this is not to say that a particular event can be tied to a single instance of a sin (the talmudic examples are just that, examples of pervasive and destructive behaviors which, themselves, were directly tied to the outcome).

  4. Baseless hatred made it impossible for the Jewish people to defend itself as a united group. Baseless hatred made it impossible for the people to remain in any sort of spiritually superior position. These, then directly related to the Jews' becoming susceptible to the evil machinations of their enemies. The rabbinic statement does not, to me, seem to be a listing of what the Jews did to earn specific punishment, but what cancer was evident amongst the people that made it impossible for them not to be victimized. This is why we still believe that we have to remediate our own baseless hatred so that we can merit the rebuilding of the temple -- not because we are committing acts of hatred which cause us to be constantly oppressed. In our current state, we certainly don't feel oppressed on a daily basis. But because of the stain that sin'at chinam places on our souls that makes us unable to rise above our current position in exile and unify in order to effect the redemption.

    The rabbinic statement seems to me not to be an arrogant and insensitive statement -- it is a way of understanding a process and show our fault and blame for our downfall. To try and make a specific connection between any single tragedy and a specific sin, and tie a direct cause and effect is categorically different, and not in the spirit of what the rabbinic statement back then was.

    As to the question of whether the Holocaust can be "explained" in a similar way as it is more analogous to the temple than to the butchering of an individual by a crazed madman, I say the following. The rabbis in the temple time were on a level of insight and spirituality that goes beyond what we can divine. Their understanding of the cultural blemishes which allowed their own generation to fall was, I think, more acute than our looking back and tryign to explain the Shoah away. But I think there is validity to saying that Judaism in Europe had reached a point of too much complacency and assimilation was becoming a problem. So if someone were to say "the Jewish communities of Europe were destroyed 'because' of a sense of disunity amongst the people, and a lack of focus amongst the worldwide Jewish community on aliyah and creating an autonomous and independent Jewish presence." Whether or not you agree with my assessment of geopolitics and theological insight, I hope you can see that my statement is less cause and effect than it is a way to understand how a situation came about on that grand scale.

    Finally, we have in Judaism "schar va'onesh" and we do believe that there are punishments for sins. But we also belileve that "ish bchet'o yumatu" a man dies because of his own sins. The arrogance creeps in when one attempts to explain the killing of person A by saying it comes about because of the activities of person B (or even people B through ZZ). The sages in talmudic times saw divine decree (as a fulfillment of prophecy and) as a punishment on A-Z because fo the sins of A-Z (and in halacha, the minority who did not engage in improper behavior were liable because of their tacit approval of those who did sin).

    But that's just my opinion.


Feel free to comment and understand that no matter what you type, I still think you are a robot.