Friday, 15 November 2013

On Typhoon Haiyan and the Lisbon Earthquakeof 1755



There is an irony that this Synagogue was founded because of a theological argument about who wrote the Torah, because the thing I’m worried about, when I am called before my creator to give account of such heresies as I believe, has nothing to do with the authorship of the Torah, and much more to do with the supposed doctrine of reward and punishment.


Gomeil lish hesed kemifalo

Notein l’rasha ra v’rishato


Gives to the righteous person according to their actions

Sets for the wicked according to their wickedness


That’s a phrase from a song based on the key outlining of Jewish theological dogma by Maimonides, Ramabam.

God punishes the wicked and rewards the righteous.

And this week, with these horrendous pictures of the aftermath of a terrible typhoon I’m struggling, again.


I wanted to share my theological wrestling and suggest other ways to respond to these horrendous acts of destruction that are equally Jewish and a little more sophisticated than simply blaming this destruction of sinful practice,


But I’m ashamed to be waxing theological over the dead bodies and the destroyed homes and obliterated infrastructure. So I’ll tell you now how this sermon will end. This sermon will end with the plea that we take a moment to support World Jewish Relief’s Typhoon Haiyan emergency appeal.


On with the theology.


In 1755 there was an earthquake which struck Lisbon, one of the greatest cities in Europe of her day; capital of a mighty Empire, with architecture rivalled only by Rome.

The city was largely destroyed.

Even those buildings that survived the initial quake were brought down by the 40ft waves that roared up the river Tejo

Up to 50,000 of the 270,000 inhabitants were killed.


Lisbon was a deeply religious city and in the immediate aftermath of the destruction clerics were quick to justify the destruction as a deserved Divine response to the infidelities of the city and it’s inhabitants.


John Wesley, the founding father of Methodism, in a sermon on "The Cause and Cure of Earthquakes," claimed "sin is the moral cause of earthquakes, whatever their natural cause may be,"


Reason, as well as faith, doth sufficiently assure us it must be the punishment of sin, and the effect of that curse which was brought upon the earth by the original transgression,’ Taught Wesley citing, let it be admitted a slew of Biblical verses that buttress his teaching, ‘Let us then conclude,’ he went one, ‘both from Scripture and reason, that earthquakes are God's strange works of judgment -- the proper effect and punishment of sin.’


The Lisbon earthquake drew the attention of every great thinker of the C18, from Leibniz to Voltaire and Kant.


Leibniz’s philosophical position is not so different to Wesley’s pure theology. He suggested that that since this world exists it must a good world and everything that happens in it is for the good. In other words if there is a disaster and we cannot understand how or why it could possibly be justified, we should just admit to our own shortcomings and know that somewhere, from the perspective of the Divine, it all made perfect sense. Everything could be lined up and the sense of the world could be assumed. The technical term is ‘theodicy’ Leibniz justified God the omnipotent and all good creator of the world, earthquakes, typhoons and all.


This was too much for one of the other great thinkers of the day, Voltaire. The earthquake in Lisbon sent Voltaire into a deep depression. "Why is Lisbon engulfed, while Paris, no less wicked, dances?" he wanted to know. Voltaire eventually produced Candide which made a mockery of Leibniz’s theodicy. The world is not all good, insisted Voltaire. He was utterly unable to accept the notion that a good all powerful God could possibly allow an earthquake on the scale of the destruction visited on Lisbon.


Classic theodicy, the classic view that God is all good and everything in this world fits into the plan of an all good and all powerful deity has never recovered.

In some ways this is the dawn of modernity in the non-Jewish world; the end of the assumption that everything is going to be just fine and the beginning of the realisation that we have levels of responsibility over our own lives and that the world will unfold in ways utterly unpredictable.


What’s any of this got to do with Judaism,

I don’t think it’s unconnected that the way in which most people have come across Voltaire’s critique of Leibniz is through the words and music of two great 20th Century Jewish artists, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim – whose Candide has been performed across the world.


Because the rejection of the sort of utter conviction in perfect power and beneficence of a God lurking up remote and obscure in the heavens has, despite the language of the Yigdal, has never the only Jewish way to approach questions of disaster and loss.


There are places in the Torah and Rabbinic thought that makes the sorts of claims Welsey and Leibniz make, that this is all God and this is all good. But there are many other insights that cut against this classic theodicy which I find simply unacceptable.


Before God destroys Sodom and Gemorrah he is subjected to probing examination of His motives by Abraham – what about the good people in the city, Abraham wants to know, ‘ha-af tispe tzaddik im rasha’ – will you also destroy the righteous with the wicked. Abraham is millennia ahead of Kant, another C18 philosopher fascinated by the Lisbon hurricane. It’s not just to treat good people as casualties in the destruction of the wicked. It is unacceptable. For Jews it always has been.


And then there is the book of Job.

Job is the most sustained engagement in the question of why bad things happen in the Torah. There is a good man and he suffers. And he wants to know why he has suffered and friend after friend try and explain how this suffering might be deserved, and Job rejects every suggestion that his suffering is somehow justified.

He rejects any suggestion that the destruction wrecked on him and his family is somehow his own fault.

Eventually God arrives in a burst of zoological fury, demonstrating volcanoes, typhoons and earthquakes and insists that every human attempt to make sense of the world worthless.

‘Have you comprehended the expanse of the world, declare if you know all.

‘Where is the way light lives, and where is the place of darkness.’

How can you possibly make any assumptions.


In part the Book of Job is a mockery of the approach of Leibniz who claimed this was the best of all possible worlds and everything is for the best.

Don’t make the assumption that this is good, warns God, in the book of Job.

You have no idea what good is.

Goodness and evil, creation and destruction exist beyond human’s ability to wonder.

This might sound quite classical, as an approach to that age-old question – why do bad things happen to good people.

You can’t know.

Just get on with being good anyway.

But there is something else.


I mentioned the book of Job opens with God punishing Job, actually that’s not quite right. The book of Job opens with God boasting about Job to Satan and getting involved in a bluff which Satan calls.

‘He’s only nice to you,’ Satan suggests, because you are nice to him, try making him suffer. So God makes Job suffer.

That’s extraordinary.

God is caught out in a game of poker by a better player and ends up destroying everything Job has because of His own, God’s, ego.

God emerges from the first chapters of the Book of Job as a naïf egotistical simpleton.

And that’s what the Bible says.

And quite why Wesley, and so many other theologians ignore that, surely has more to do with their Christianity than their reading of the Hebrew Bible.

The point is that there is no point.

There is no over-reaching goodness that makes everything the best of all possible worlds.

The point about the earthquakes and the thyphoons and the destructive power in nature is that, that’s nature.

It’s not to be gainsayed, or justified or excused.

It’s horrible, indefensibly so, whenever any innocent died.

And in this most recent thyphoon many many innocents have died.


And so what.

In this world which is not the best of all possible worlds,

In this world which is bruised and battered by storm and quake

In this world where bad things happen to good people for no good reason.


As it says in Mishnah Avot

Bmakom she’ain ish hishtadel lehiyot ish

In a place where there is no ‘ish’ – no force capable of acting in goodness and kindness – be that force.

That’s the call.


Actually there was something else that happened in the aftermath of the earthquake in Lisbon, all those years ago.

There was an international relief effort – the first in history. In the aftermath of the Lisbon earthquake England provided £100,000 pounds sterling in economic aid, back in the days when £100,000 was a lot of money. And that brings us back to where I started.


In a world where we cannot assume that this is the best of all possible worlds. In a world where we should not, must not attempt to justify the loss of life and property that follows these horrendous natural disasters.

In that world we should respond with the offer of relief, an open hand shared in kindness and brotherhood for we know how fragile the life we take for granted truly is.

In that world, in this world, we should respond with a donation of funds.

And I recommend World Jewish Relief.

You can go on-line after Shabbat –

Shabbat shalom



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