On Bikinis and Earthquakes

It was near the end of the Kol Hamevaser Shabbaton in Teaneck, New Jersey. The forty students who identified with the magazine or simply felt like going out for the Sabbath were congregated in the basement of Congregation Rinat Yisrael for a question and answer session with R. Jeremy Wieder, a rosh yeshivah at Yeshiva University. R. Wieder was responding to a set of prepared questions and brought up a recent news article.

“I just saw in the news that an imam blamed the Haiti earthquake on women dressing immodestly.[i] Does anyone here consider this a reasonable position?”

A grand total of zero hands were raised in response to R. Wieder’s question.

What if the question had been different? What if the Sages of the Talmud had been under fire, rather than an Iranian cleric? Suppose a pulpit rabbi had stood up and posed the following question: “I read in the Talmud that twenty-four thousand students of Rebbe Akiva died for the sin of not sufficiently respecting one another.[ii] Does anyone in this room believe such a thing?” Would we raise our hands in support of the Talmud, however unintuitive its claim? Why, then, should we so quickly reject this poor Muslim prayer leader, when he says something so similar?[iii]

There appears to be a startling disconnect between the Modern Orthodox worldview and the positions of its predecessors. As demonstrated by the show of hands in response to R. Wieder’s question, Modern Orthodox Jews are remarkably unwilling to connect acts of God to actual divine retribution. But earthly reward and punishment have been prominent features of all forms of Judaism since its miraculous revelation at Sinai. For if there is one principle that remains constant and unquestioned from Genesis to Job, it is this: God acts. God brings floods and famines, Babylonians and wicked viziers, all to punish His people. Furthermore, the Talmud states:

“Why was the first Sanctuary destroyed? Because of three [evil] things which prevailed there: idolatry, immorality [gillui arayot], bloodshed. […] Immorality [prevailed] as it is written: ‘Moreover the Lord said: Because the daughters of Zion are haughty, and walk with stretched-forth necks and wanton eyes, walking and mincing as they go, and make a tinkling with their feet. Because the daughters of Zion are haughty,’ i.e., they used to walk with proud carriage. ‘And wanton eyes,’ i.e., they filled their eyes with kohl. ‘Walking and mincing as they go,’ i.e., they used to walk with the heel touching the toe. ‘And make a tinkling with their feet,’ R. Isaac said: They would take myrrh and balsam and place it in their shoes and when they came near the young men of Israel they would kick, causing the balsam to squirt at them and would thus cause the evil desire to enter them like an adder’s poison.”[iv]

Not only does God act, Rabbinic Judaism claimed to know why He acts. It certainly claimed to know what He detested, and breaches of sexual propriety were near the top of the list. So how did attributing misfortune to corruption and immorality become unacceptable?

The quintessential formulation of God’s reward for good deeds and punishment of sins comes in Moses’s speech to the Hebrews in Deuteronomy 11, part of which is immediately recognizable as the “Ve-Hayah im shamo’a chapter of the Shema. In it, Moses details the repercussions of following the Lord or rejecting Him. The included promises of peace and prosperity troubled the Talmudic Sages, who debated whether God really rewards good deeds on Earth. In Kiddushin 39b, the Sages confront the problems of theodicy by claiming that God rewards the righteous in the afterlife, rather than on Earth. However, this rule is not universally applied; the Gemara admits that anyone who sets off to perform a good deed will be protected from unlikely injuries. Moreover, the Gemara contends that people are punished for sinning against God when it attempts to justify the death of a man by claiming that he had idolatrous thoughts. Throughout the Gemara’s discussions, in Kiddushin and elsewhere, one thing is clear: God does possess the power to influence events on Earth and He makes use of that power. And, of course, we pray thrice daily for God to heal our wounds and bring forth fresh produce from the Earth, which presupposes God’s ability to influence the physical world directly.

So why have we moved so far from the formulations of our forebears, to the extent that divine intervention is viewed by many as an impossibility? Much of this divergence can be explained by the decline of the “God of the Gaps” theology. Early religious people saw God’s hand in bolts of lightning and other mysterious phenomena. As a modern society that has recognized that lightning, like other “supernatural” events, is merely a natural process, we are understandably wary of repeating the mistakes of disproved fundamentalists. Moreover, modern science leaves very little room for outside influence, so how can we attribute natural misfortunes to God? I know of two approaches to this question.

The first, advocated by Maimonides, is that God does not control nature but does influence human minds and can thereby affect who is in a position to be hurt by earthquakes and to what extent.[v] However, as the cognitive sciences progress in their understanding of the human brain, I expect that this theory will become harder to maintain – Artificial Intelligence may bury it.[vi], [vii] The other approach, based in part on Maimonides’ theory of miracles,[viii] argues that God knew mankind’s future from the time of Creation and built earthquakes and similar changes into the Earth itself (and timed them to go off) in order to punish mankind when appropriate. This theory must take account of the fact that changes propagate themselves. That is, if one man misplaces a set of keys, he may miss his plane and an important meeting. The cancelled meeting will change the schedules of a dozen other people who will then change others’ lives as well. Hence, if God were to cause an earthquake, it would need to be carefully calibrated to affect every man on Earth in direct proportion to his merits. This problem is obviously more complex than virtually any studied by complexity theorists (who analyze the computational difficulty of problems), yet the very laws of our universe must lead to a solution. And though one misplaced stone or unintended injury during the course of history could ruin the endeavor, God must punish great sins with calamities of similar magnitudes.[ix] Despite the difficulties with these two approaches, they seem to be the most plausible scientific frameworks for divine interference.[x]

Though clinging to a perspective of the universe that is admittedly difficult to reconcile with its physical laws cannot be an easy proposition, the alternative may be a non-starter. The moment a stock market crash, an earthquake or any personal misfortune can no longer serve as an impetus to reflect upon one’s actions (to conduct a heshbon ha-nefesh, to use the Hebrew formulation), Judaism will lose a crucial bridge between religion and daily life that has sustained it for centuries. Concluding a long arc of history, in which the perception of God’s influence on Earth gradually shrank to almost nothing, we will reject hashgahah peratit (divine providence) entirely and thereby expel God from our lives. It would be an ignoble end to a proud tradition and one that I expect most Orthodox Jews would rather stave off for as long as reason permits.

Modern Orthodox Jews may naturally shrink away from talking about divine punishment, because they associate such discussion with the angry, bigoted statements of men like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson.[xi] When R. Ovadia Yosef famously proclaimed that the six million victims of the Holocaust were gilgulim, or reincarnations, of earlier sinners, many Jews were justifiably outraged.[xii] Though he was talking about the beloved parents and siblings of Jews still living that had died gruesome deaths, he somehow found it within him to label them the reincarnated thugs, murderers and rapists of previous generations. But for all of R. Yosef’s insensitivity, we cannot ignore the Holocaust from a theological perspective. For generations, we attributed the tragedies that befell us to our sins and our Exile to God’s retribution; shall we now treat the Holocaust as simply a chance of fate? Dr. Haym Soloveitchik claimed that, after the Holocaust, “it [is] safe to say that the perception of God as a daily, natural force is no longer present to a significant degree in any sector of modern Jewry, even the most religious.”[xiii] If Orthodoxy takes this even further, and rejects the notion of a personal God in doctrine as well as experience, this, too, would be a tragedy.

In the Book of Jonah, an ever-present God asks: “Should I not have mercy upon Nineveh, that great city?”[xiv] But how should we react to the modern Ninevehs of New Orleans, Haiti and Islamabad, where God’s mercy simply was not enough? When the floodwaters surged through Pakistan to leave the land desolate, perhaps our first duty was to contact our aid agencies and see how we could help those who were spared. But our second duty, as religious people, must be to consider why God brings such calamities upon mankind and attempt to learn from them. I imagine R. Wieder would prefer that we learn our lessons from calamities brought about by factionalism and strife rather than tight clothing, and I would agree with him. But if we add our voices to the jeers that greeted the poor Iranian prayer leader that dared claim that God may punish immodesty, I fear it will come back to haunt us. For the next time a rabbi tries to attribute an event like the stock market crash of 2008, not to a lack of Congressional oversight or the overleveraging of Richard S. Fuld, but to the greed and avarice that characterized men like Bernard L. Madoff, he, too, may be jeered. But the greatest blow will not be to the preacher, but to a newly godless religion.

Reuven Rand is a senior at YC majoring in Mathematics and Computer Science.


[i] “Iranian Cleric Blames Quakes on Promiscuous Women,” BBC News (April 20, 2010), available at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/8631775.stm.

[ii] Yevamot 62b.

[iii] I should note that it is possible to construe R. Wieder’s challenge in an entirely different light. He may have objected that the prayer leader’s statement served to reinforce the Iranian patriarchy by denigrating women and blaming them for natural disasters. However, none of the men and women with whom I talked after the session offered this as their rationale for rejecting the prayer leader, objecting to his statement on broader grounds. It is these grounds that I wish to address.

[iv] Yoma 9b, Soncino translation.

[v] Maimonides, Guide of the Perplexed III:17.

[vi] It should be noted that Judaism may require a similar formulation in any case, in order to protect the notion of free will, so we may well accept Maimonides’ solution in order to kill two birds with one divinely foreordained stone.

[vii] Maimonides’ approach also proves too limited to grant God many of the powers He is assumed to have. For example, if you follow this approach of Maimonides, the yearly prayer for God to bring down rain would seem to be an exercise in futility.

[viii] Maimonides, Guide of the Perplexed II:29.

[ix] Such a flaw would presumably require a fundamental working of the laws of physics, assuming that God has not directly interfered with its laws since the Big Bang. However, a proponent of this theory might respond that there is no upper bound to the number of theoretical substructures for universes; hence, God could view problems and their solutions until He produced the works of Shakespeare, as it were. We may also offer that God’s judgment need not be exact and that some wrongs may be righted in the World to Come (as per the Talmud), but this does little to change the nature of the dilemma. If a more rigorous mathematical analysis of the problem were possible, I would like to see it.

[x] A third formulation rests upon the principle of quantum indeterminacy, which contends that God can influence the incalculable position of elementary particles and thereby influence events on Earth. (This principle is also invoked in order to justify free will.) I do not know of any actual physical model for the propagation of this influence and therefore cannot judge whether it is feasible or not.

[xi] It goes without saying that they would be repulsed by the recent actions of the Westboro Baptist Church, which picketed the funerals of fallen soldiers, blaming their deaths on homosexuality within the military. The distinction between preaching that we as a society have sinned and engaging in the verbal abuse of individuals (the biblically proscribed ona’at devarim – see Bava Metsi’a 58b) should be clear.

[xii] Jack Katzenell, “Rabbi Says Holocaust Victims were Reincarnations of Sinners,” The Independent (August 6, 2000), available at: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/rabbi-says-holocaust-victims-were-reincarnations-of-sinners-711547.html.

[xiii] Haym Soloveitchik, “Rupture and Reconstruction: The Transformation of Contemporary Orthodoxy,” Tradition 28,4 (1994): 64-130.

[xiv] Jonah 4:11.