Sunday school: A rabbi explains the spiritual lessons we should learn from hurricanes

September 10, 2017 • 9:00 am

Why do bad hurricanes happen to good people?” is the title of a PuffHo article by Rabbi Pinchas Allouche of Congregation Beth Tefillah in Scottsdale, Arizona. And indeed, one may well ask why a loving and omnipotent God would allow innocent people to die. More than that—if he’s omnipotent, then he’s actually killing them by not intervening. The “evil as byproduct of free will” argument won’t work for physical “evils’ like earthquakes and hurricanes, for the damage is not done by other humans exercising their so-called will, but by blind physical forces or microbes without free will.

The suffering or killing of innocent humans by disease or natural disasters is the Achilles heel of theology, for there is no explanation that either punts and says “we just don’t know” or confects a convoluted scenario that is risible for everyone but religionists.

Rabbi Allouche appears to choose the first alternative, quoting another rabbi:

Rabbi Yekutiel Halbershtam, of blessed memory (1905-1994), who lost his wife and all eleven of their children in the Holocaust, was asked a similar question. His response was moving:

“I too have many, many questions for G-d,” he once revealed to his students. “And I know that G-d would be glad to invite me to the heavens and give me the answers to all of the questions I have. But I prefer to stay here on earth with my questions, then to die, and go up to the heavens, to receive the answers.”

Indeed, tragedies are, almost always, inexplicable, in the realms of human understanding. Sometimes, G-d is super-rational. And, sometimes, our finite minds will never be able to comprehend the ferocious disasters conducted by the infinite Creator of the heaven and the earth.

Well, if you can’t answer that question (and the Holocaust is as good an example as any), then how do you know that “G-d” exists at all? Or that G-d is benevolent rather than malevolent?

And since when did Jews believe in Heaven anyway? It’s not mentioned in the Old Testament, though with judicious scrutiny and arduous mental labor you can barely scrape the concept out of the Talmud. But never mind. The existence of the Holocaust should turn any rational Jew into an atheist.

Instead of pondering these unanswerable questions, rabbi Allouche chooses to draw some “spiritual lessons” from hurricanes and their attendant tragedies.

Therefore, it would behoove us to replace the unanswerable question of “why” with the challenging questions of “how should we respond” and “what can we learn from this.”

These questions are diametrically opposed. Asking “why” to a question that cannot be grasped, leads to passivity and despair (even if some fools claim to know the answers to these impossible questions). Yet, asking, “how should we respond” and “what can we learn from this” propels us to take positive action, and provide direction to a world that seems to have lost it.

So what are the lessons that “provide direction to the world”? There are two:

1).Where there is destruction, we must respond with construction.” In other words, help shelter strangers, send medical supplies to the affected areas, and tender other diverse means of help.

 2) “Live a life that matters.” Here’s the good rabbi’s advice:

For when death rears its ugly head, and we are struck with the realization that life – with all of its material pursuits and possessions – is so vulnerable, we are then forced to ask ourselves:

“Am I living a life that matters, or am I wasting it on temporary activities and pleasures? Am I making the important – important, and the trivial – trivial? Am I devoting adequate time and effort to that which will live on forever: my soul, my family, and my values? And have I made a difference yet today in this world, and in someone’s life, with acts of unconditional love and kindness to my loved ones and strangers alike?”

 Except for the “soul” part, this is the same lessons that many secularists can and do draw from physical tragedy: help other people who are afflicted and, realizing your life is ephemeral, make every day count. As James Taylor (not a rabbi) wrote, “Shower the people you love with love.”)

It’s telling that a rabbi, faced with the hardest questions of theodicy, retreats into pure secularism. You don’t need any god to support those answers, and you don’t need any rabbi to give them.

35 thoughts on “Sunday school: A rabbi explains the spiritual lessons we should learn from hurricanes

  1. Just another idea aside from the real one, which is, g*d does not exist, maybe the omnipotent part is not there in this g*d. He did say that man was made in his image and we now know that free will is a myth. So it would stand to this reason that g*d has no control over hurricanes or death.

    One thing that seems very clear from this hurricane happening now in Florida – the media bias toward the east coast, where most of them reside, once again shows that it is all about me.

      1. I am unclear of your meaning. Population of one part of Florida over another is not at all what I am implying here. I am saying the old standard of focus on where we are and what we cover goes for the U.S. media as it always has. Anything that happens on the eastern side of this country gains maximum attention. The same events in other parts may get a mention or less. CNN and other media have been covering this east coast hurricane non-stop for three days and it just arrived this morning. Nothing on the news but this. Nothing from Houston, nothing from the earthquake in Mexico, this is all that matters. It is all about us as always.

  2. I find it abhorrent how many folks are praising god and thanking him for answering their prayers and shifting Irma to the West coast of Florida. That says all I need to know about these people!

  3. The explanation of evil and bad things by religionists that mere humans cannot understand the ways of God is what I call the universal cop out. This “explanation” has always been the case and will always be. It explains away everything. Remarkably, except for the problem of evil, God has dictated in great detail everything else that he expects from humans. Theologians and prelates make a living telling us how God expects us to live our lives. The grip of the delusion of religion and the need to believe in a “higher power” on so many people is a sad commentary on the human condition, although I suppose there was once some sort of evolutionary benefit to this.

    1. Sorry, but you can’t be serious; or, if you are, you’re badly mistaken.

      Video #1 says that we’re simply unable to see God’s “greater plan” that includes suffering. Alternatively, “suffering can bring about a deeper awareness of God.” Well, it’s easier for God to just appear himself and give us evidence than make little kids get leukemia. That doesn’t bring them to an awareness of God. Also, someone killed in a hurricane doesn’t get to know about God more deeply. And so it goes–William Lane Craig apologetics.

      Video #2 is the “free will” argument, which says nothing about physical evil. The alternative is that God has his own reasons for giving kids cancer because it results in a “greater good”. WHAT greater good? That’s a monstrous argument and doesn’t even make sense. A greater good for doctors to demonstrate their non-curative skills? Give me a break!

      These videos show the intellectual vacuity of theodicy.

      1. Not to mention it’s often enough that tragedy, and God’s apparent silence, that moves people to question their belief in God, and move not a few away from belief.

      2. In one sense however the problem of evil is not a logical proof that a god does not exits. It pretty much allows for an evil god, or an indifferent god, though few theists are happy with the idea. I think there are a few religious sects which believe god is responsible for evil, which accounts for the suffering in the world. The Greek gods, for example could be capricious and were usually not seen as being especially concerned about human welfare.

        1. So the real meaning is that God, if such a being does exist, is a jerk with a sick sense of humor. Or, for those of us living in the real world rather than in fantasies, there are no supernatural causes for natural disasters, only purely natural forces, including the actions of people.
          I’m in NE FL, been raining here for several hours now and I lost power for an hour this afternoon and internet connection for about 3 hours and likely may lose power again before all this is over. So far getting 3 days of administrative leave from the Courthouse where i work, last Friday and tomorrow & Tuesday. My dad & stepmother live in Clearwater, right along the projected path of the eye of the storm.

        2. If you ignore “evil gods”, the problem of evil is actually “almost” a deductive refutation. Consider the case of a small evil that a 6 year old child could prevent if aware of. Ex hypothesi, god is aware and and does nothing. Ergo, god is less moral than a 6 year old. Ergo, god does not exist.

          The “hidden goal” defense basically says that god is not good in our sense at all, and at best one is equivocating.

          1. Ex hypothesis, god is aware and and does nothing. Ergo, god is less moral than a 6 year old. Ergo, god does not exist.

            For this to hold logically you have to add another premise. God cannot be less moral than a 6 year old. But, the fact of the matter is all Christians believe God is “good”, so your statement works within that domain.

  4. And it’s not like any other theologians give any better answers. Take Alvin Plantinga. His answer to why there is natural “evil” like disease, hurricanes, etc.

    It could be the work of “The devil and his minions!”

    Seriously. That’s as good as they’ve got.

    The retreat to God’s mystery used by the Rabbi can be used to justify any insane belief, given any problematic question can be reduced to our own inability to know God’s reasons.

    Donald Trump is God.

    This raises all sorts of troubling questions.
    Why would God spout inane tweets? Why would God talk about grabbing women in the p*ssy, and for that matter not even know He is being recorded? Why would God espouse all the troubling rhetoric that comes out of Trump’s mouth? Why would God manifest in human form as an orange skinned, crazy-haired ignorant-sounding, rich, callous, privileged blow-hard in the first place?

    Answer: These are troubling mysteries that we as mere humans are simply not in a position to answer. Instead, let’s talk about how we respond to God…

  5. The Book of Job is instructive in this regard. After God has wreaked havoc on Job’s life (because of a bet he has with Satan,) Job asks God why he has punished him so badly (including killing his wife and children.) God replies by calling Job out on the arrogance of even asking the question.

    God gets really angry tells Job how wonderful and amazing he (God) is and how he beat some scary monsters, and threatens Job for even questioning him.

    The take home message is that God can do random acts of evil just because he’s really powerful and gets to do whatever he wants.

  6. Dr. Shabir Ally is the president of the Islamic Information & Dawah Centre International in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Wikipedia). At 10′ he explains God’s reasons to bless us with earthquakes: to fertilize the earth.

    LinkText (note space after first “a”)

  7. The idea that free will is the origin of human caused evil is interesting, since it is incompatible with the Christian view of the perfection of Heaven. Christians generally believe that without free will we would be less than human. In particular, unfeeling, mechanical and robot like.
    It follows, since heaven is without the taint of evil, that the occupants of heaven must lack free will. They are therefore less than living humans. Of course, some spin-doctor theologians will come up with garbage arguments to refute this conclusion!

    1. Charles,

      This is a good point, and J.L. Mackie makes this point also. However, theists have a reply.

      Theists can hold it is in fact the case that God could have created free individuals who never chose evil. However, in that types of world of free individuals, particular goods could never be exemplified.

      In a world without evil/suffering, there could be no mercy, forgiveness, or courage in the face of evildoers or those who commit injustice. So, if God wanted to create a world with that type of stuff, then some evil is required.

      1. Before we go any further, please state what you consider to be evidence for the existence of a God instead of your torturous rationalizations of how there could be a God an evil.

        I would like EVIDENCE please. Not just confabultion, for there is always a way theists can rationalize ANYTHING with the existence of a God. The existence of evil is explained more parsimoniously if there is no God, so before you go on arguing, convince us that a God exists. Otherwise we can ignore all this theological pabulum.

        1. Whyevolutionistrue,

          Re: “Before we go any further, please state what you consider to be evidence for the existence of a God instead of your torturous rationalizations of how there could be a God an evil.”

          Here’s a good start (from William Lane Craig):

          1) Kalam argument:
          2) Contingency argument:
          3) Moral argument:

          Personally, I think the Thomistic proofs are stronger, but they are harder to explain.

          1. Are you serious? You want to offer as proof of God’s existence three videos from “Dr. Craig’s Arguments” site? All of those arguments have been refuted by philosophers or logicians. Further as you surely know, the “Thomistic proofs” include the causation and contingency arguments, so it’s ludicrous to say that they’re “stronger.” You seem to be a devoted acolyte of Craig, regurgitating here whatever he says by way of proofs, apologetics, and so on. I’m sorry, but since you can’t even come up with a remotely convincing argument for God’s existence, we don’t need to hear your justifications of how such a god is compatible with the existence of evil.

            I suggest you don’t waste our time further, for you are not open to counterargument, and go over to the many websites where Christians console themselves with mutual affirmation of what makes them feel good.

          2. Anyone who brings up Kalam now is dishonest – Vic Stenger spent his entire second career explain to the WLCites that the argument is ludicrously false. (The universe proper did not *begin* at all.)

      2. So, if God wanted to create a world with that type of stuff, then some evil is required.

        So therefore, god is not in control and is not omnipotent.

      3. My response:

        If the Christian accepts that God (or Jesus) only ever chooses good, but also has free will, then to accept that is to accept that a being with free will who only chooses good is logically possible.

        Given God can purportedly create whatever is logically possible, it follows God could have made free-willed beings who choose good.

        And any choice that would result in evil would be gratuitous evil, which is inconsistent with a Perfectly Good God.

        Alternatively, if God does not have free will, then God being the Ultimate Example Of Value entails free will isn’t particularly valuable or necessary to have, and can not be “worth” creating all this suffering to have.

        Theists can hold it is in fact the case that God could have created free individuals who never chose evil. However, in that types of world of free individuals, particular goods could never be exemplified.

        That would then imply that before creating the world, God could not have been Perfect because God lacked those goods.

        Either that, or the “goods” God wanted to create were not *necessary* goods. But if they were not necessary goods, and those goods entailed or resulted in the flourishing of evils, then the existence of those evils were likewise unnecessary. That does not seem to comport with a God who is All Good, insofar as, logically, such a God would not create gratuitous (unnecessary) evil.

        In a world without evil/suffering, there could be no mercy, forgiveness, or courage in the face of evildoers or those who commit injustice. So, if God wanted to create a world with that type of stuff, then some evil is required.

        That logic is a sinister slippery slope. It implies that creating suffering becomes justified because a virtue arises out of combating the suffering. God creating a Cancer, for instance, is justified because the virtue then arises of “being able to care for someone with Cancer.” First, that posits some people essentially being sacrificed for the “virtue-making” of those that care for them.

        Worse, that would justify creating any suffering so long as a virtue would arise. Biologists may as well get busy creating new diseases – “We’ve created the disease Braxolism, which eats away at the brain. We can now have the virtue of caring for people with Braxolism, or the virtue of bravely facing Braxolism as you brain is eaten away.”

        This is monstrous stuff, and yet it is essentially the logic we are supposed to accept for God creating/allowing suffering.

        And much hinges on the part “if God WANTED to create a world with that type of stuff…”

        Again, if God is the Ultimate Paradigm of goodness, and God does not suffer, nor need bravery, or cancer, or war, or fear, or any of those things, then it is unnecessary for God to create Beings who DO require all those evils and ways of suffering. That is, once again, creating gratuitous evil and suffering, which is in contradiction to the claim of God being Perfectly Good.

  8. Reminds me of that hogwash that cancer is a blessing. It’s true one can be become stronger as a result of overcoming adversity or tragedy, but that hardly makes a tragedy a blessing.

  9. The Rabbi says that sometimes his Invisible Magic Friend is “super-rational”. I’m afraid I have no idea what this is supposed to mean, or how it can possibly relate to the rationality that most of us try to practise.

  10. “And since when did Jews believe in Heaven anyway?”

    There is some kind of poetic justice in this — a secular Jew giving a rabbi a ding on the head for breaking with traditional Judaism.

  11. “And since when did Jews believe in Heaven anyway? It’s not mentioned in the Old Testament….”

    True. But the Jews developed a belief in resurrection of the dead around the second century BCE. See Daniel ch. 12 “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth will wake, some to everlasting life….”

    Around that time, they also developed the idea that the body dies forever but the soul is immortal. See for example, Ethics of the Fathers ch. 4: “Rabbi Yaakov said: ‘This world is comparable to the antechamber before the World to Come'” (that is, this life is only a preparation for eternal life in Heaven).

  12. Construction is the answer to destruction? Now, that’s spiritual! One needs, I suppose an entire spiritual tool kit: a spiritual saw, spiritual drills, spiritual hammers, etc. to do this kind of work (working in God’s fields?).

    And why the emphasis on what happens on Earth when it is not even 0.0000000000001% of our soul’s lifespan?

    And if God has created a fantasmagorical place, Heaven, why were we shunted into this shit hole?

    He works in mysterious ways, indeed. Mysterious and non-existent at the same time! Now that’s spiritual!

  13. Surely the lessons any reasonable doG would want people to learn from hurricanes are:

    don’t build your house in the floodplain

    if you live in the coastal southern and eastern USA expect the inevitable hurricane from time to time

    remember the hurricanes were here before the people

  14. One of my favorite Coen Brothers film is “A Serious Man”. In it one can find the ultimate answer – the perfectly clear explanation and complete resolution of the problem of evil, given by the Junior Rabbi, Rabbi Scott.

    Rabbi Scott:
    “But-this is life. For you too. You can’t cut yourself off from the mystical or you’l1 be-you’ll remain completely lost. You have to see these things as expressions of God’s will.
    You don’t have to like it, of course.”

    “The boss isn’t always right, but he’s always the boss.”

    Rabbi Scott:
    “Ha-ha-hal That’s right, things aren’t so bad. Look at the parking lot, Larry.”

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