December 29th, 2004
With the final death toll in Asia yet unknown, analyzing the calamity can appear callous, especially in the light of ancient Jewish wisdom’s advice to refrain from even comforting mourners whose dead still lie before them, let alone analyzing their loss. Still, once we have, in some human way, associated ourselves with the disaster by means of financial or other contribution, we surely are obliged to try and learn something from it. Sometimes before the answers can be found, the right questions must be asked and there are certainly questions well worth asking. However it is as well not to be distracted by the wrong questions.
"What sort of God would have let this happen?” is one example of the wrong question. Firstly, it is a perfect example of narcissism. The questioners, including one columnist from The Guardian, convert an international human tragedy of mind-staggering proportions into a maudlin expression of their own spiritual angst. This question escalates self-indulgence to new heights of obnoxiousness.
It reminds me of the older man sitting in the next seat during a certain memorable flight I took back in 1980. As the flight attendants graciously served my special kosher meal, he began a conversation. “I am also Jewish” he unnecessarily informed me, as he tucked into his bacon omelet. I responded politely and he resumed. “I used to keep kosher but after Hitler, I could no longer believe in God.”
“And do you by any chance remember how old you were when you first abandoned Jewish religious observance?” I innocently asked. “Sure, I remember, it was my eighteenth birthday and I walked into a non-kosher restaurant for the first time.”
Later as our flight neared its destination, we exchanged further personal and family details. In response to another question of mine, he revealed that he was sixty-five years old. The arithmetic wasn’t hard to do. As we touched down, I leaned over and gently said, “Look, I don’t mean any offense but you didn’t abandon Judaism as a result of God allowing the Holocaust. You entered that restaurant in 1933, well before World War II began. Hitler and his Holocaust merely provided you with the excuse you needed to feel comfortable abandoning your faith.”
To find the same comfort, those who shape their lives according to the doctrines of secular fundamentalism, take an evident delight in stating the usual “Where is God now?” questions after tragedies, especially those natural ones like earthquakes that can’t be blamed on human actions.
While the casualties can’t be blamed on human actions, many of them can certainly be blamed on human inactions. Look, I know that it is nowadays considered distasteful to attribute any complicity in a problem to the victim. It is as if being a victim today, automatically confers moral virtue, but being that delicate can cost us truth. The simple truth is that American seismological specialists in Pasadena, California, and elsewhere were horrified that no warning systems are in place in these Asian countries by means of which residents can be alerted. Remember that there were several hours of warning available. “A warning centre such as those used around the Pacific could have saved most of the thousands of people who died in Asia's earthquake and tsunamis” said the US Geological Survey. Many lives could surely have been saved. Some countries have pleaded poverty, but that is not an adequate explanation. We are not talking rocket science here. We are talking about sirens on poles. Remember them from the cold war era? This is World War I technology and very inexpensive.
In 1953, nearly two thousand Dutchmen drowned when the North Sea breached a dyke and flooded part of low-lying Holland. Within a few years they had commenced the world’s largest civil engineering project and Holland has never flooded significantly since. Sadly, this is far from the first time that some of these nations have faced natural disasters in which people died by the tens of thousands as the result of monsoons, typhoons, flooding, and earthquakes. Yet few warning systems exist, let alone seawalls and evacuation routes.
On December 26th, 2003, over 30,000 victims perished in the Iranian earthquake in the town of Bam. To explain the vast death toll inflicted by an earthquake no stronger than that which struck the Californian town of Paso Robles within a few days, Iranian authorities pleaded poverty. It costs considerably more to engineer large-scale nuclear capability as Iran has done, than it costs to retro-fit buildings for safety in an earthquake-prone zone. The problem is not poverty, it is priority.
Here in the United States, the standard bearer of western civilization, we have two cultural imperatives imbedded deeply within our national DNA. Both flow from the Bible with which our founders were intimately familiar and by means of which they sculpted their world views.
Our first distinctive cultural imperative is to render ourselves less vulnerable to nature. We believed we were following Divine will when we developed medicine and medical technology to dominate disease. We found insecticides to protect our food supply, and we built dams to control rivers. We took seriously the commandment in the twenty-eighth verse of the Bible, “And God blessed them (Adam and Eve) saying ‘Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it.’ ” We never understood “subdue the world” to mean obliterate nature, or otherwise despoil the environment. We knew it meant responsible stewardship and making ourselves less vulnerable to nature which is not always benign. We knew we were pleasing God by making ourselves safer and more secure and this knowledge lent added urgency and meaning to our efforts which then seemed to be blessed. Not by coincidence did the overwhelming majority of these scientific and technical developments take place in the west.
Western civilization’s second distinctive cultural imperative is the importance of preserving human life. This too derives directly from our Biblical roots and distinguishes us from the peculiar fatalism toward death found in so many other cultures.
Together, these two values enshrined in the west in general and in America in particular, are chiefly responsible for the vastly diminished impact that natural disasters inflict upon our society.
God runs this world with as little supernatural interference as possible. Earthquakes, hurricanes, volcanic eruptions, and yes, tsunamis happen. It is called nature, which is not benign. Fortunately God also gave us intelligence and commanded us to make ourselves less vulnerable to nature. He also implanted in us a culture in which each and every life is really important. That is why Deuteronomy chapter thirty states, “I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both you and your seed may live.”
God may have allowed the earthquake to happen, just as he has allowed germs to exist and just as he has allowed cold weather each winter. However under the influence of Biblical culture, people have defended themselves against germs and they have learned how to produce energy to defeat winter’s frigid conditions. A long time ago, in His book, God provided the incentive and encouragement to survive nature. He isn’t to blame for the deaths in the Asian disaster. Many of the deaths are attributable to slowness in adopting the western values that promote technical and economic development along with profound respect for each human life.
Rabbi Daniel Lapin, is president of Toward Tradition, a bridge-building organization providing a voice for all Americans who defend the Judeo-Christian values vital for our nation’s survival.
Read this article on the Toward Tradition website (new window will open). For free and unrestricted use with attribution.