Sermon: Earthquakes and divine intervention

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 22 January 2010

A sermon given on in response to the earthquake in Haiti

On the first of November, 1755, at approximately 9:20 in the morning, the city of Lisbon in Portugal was devastated by an earthquake.  It was one of the most destructive and deadly earthquakes in history, killing well over 100,000 people. It was followed by a tsunami and fire, resulting in the near total destruction of the city.  In its wake the earthquake brought a shift in thinking about the role of God in the world. The French Enlightenment writer and philosopher Voltaire, in his “Poem on the Lisbon Disaster” asked:

In answer to the half-formed cries of dying voices… Can you say: “This is result of eternal laws Directing the acts of a free and good God! Will you say…“God is revenged, their death is the price for their crimes?” What crime, what error did these children… commit? Did fallen Lisbon drink deeper of vice Than London, Paris, or sunlit Madrid?

On Tuesday 12 January 2010, at just before 5.00 in the afternoon, a massive earthquake hit Haiti.  It has been one of the most devastating earthquakes of modern times, destroying local infrastructure and claiming the lives of possibly 200,000 people.   In the wake of the quake the American Televangelist Pat Robertson explained why the disaster had taken place – how, not long after that disaster in Lisbon, the Haitians had pledged to serve the devil if this would help them in their quest for independence.  And ‘ever since they have been cursed by one thing after another’.

Of course, this is a slightly unfair comparison.  I do not wish to suggest some regression in religion – tempting as this might be.  There were, of course, plenty of, especially Catholic, preachers who did not see things quite how Voltaire did back in the 18th century.  To quote the Italian missionary Gabriel Malagrida writing in 1756:  “It is scandalous to pretend the earthquake was just a natural event, for if that be true, there is no need to repent and to try to avert the wrath of God”.

Yet the comparison is a stark one – One that presents two very different extremes, two very different models, of divine operation in the world.   On the one hand, in Voltaire we hear an early voice of modernity.  As we discover more about the world, we might be able to identify the patterns underlying the natural order, but they remain ones which we cannot control.  And so we face a religious challenge – of understanding a natural world which time and again reveals its ability indiscriminately to bring pain and devastation.

On the other hand we see in Robertson, Malagrida and the like a definite faith – a faith that this devastation is not random, but that it represents the will of an intervening God.  That there is a God who, as in the bible, uses the natural world as an instrument by which to interact with human beings.

So where does Judaism stand between these two extremes?

Alas, if you were hoping for a simple answer, I am afraid you are about to be disappointed.  The question is perhaps better suited to a twelve week series of theology seminars rather than a twelve minute sermon.   For there is no single Jewish voice – only a tradition of struggle – of struggle to understand and to interpret.

In the Torah we repeatedly find models of the sort that Robertson would understand.  The ten plagues which we read from this morning are a great example of God’s intervention in the natural world to meet a divine plan.   On a less miraculous level, we have the example of the second paragraph of the Shema from the book of Deuteronomy.  Here we see the world view in which God intervenes expressed explicitly – the rain and agriculture are a tool for divine reward and punishment.  Incidentally, this is why the early reformers, immersed in Enlightenment thought, removed the second paragraph of the Shema from their liturgy, and why our Siddur still contains alternative paragraphs.

This model finds its way too into later texts.  In a tractate of the Mishnah called Ta’anit – Fasts, we find detailed instructions on the appropriate fasts and rituals for events such as droughts, and indeed, earthquakes.  Our ancestors seemed to understand God as directly controlling the natural world in response to human activity.  The answer to suffering is to be found in prayer for divine help. This strand remains in places in our prayer book.  I was rather surprised on its publication to find a section called ‘A liturgy for a time of community threat or disaster’ based loosely on the Ta’anit model.  Though this is clearly intended to be an expressive rather than a theological statement, it still reflects this world view.

Yet, at the same time, there is another voice in rabbinic literature.  This voice recognises that divine intervention is not what we observe happening around us.  And it denies God’s ability to continually intervene in the world.   This voice seeks to resolve the problem of interpretation which comes out of the biblical miracles which subvert the natural order.  How can we understand the stories of the Torah if we do not accept that God intervenes in the world.  Yet if we were to read the narrative as evidence of an interventionist God, how could we possibly reconcile this with the world around us?

The rabbis invented an interesting mechanism to solve this problem.  In Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers, we find a list of ten things which were created by God at twilight on the eve of the very first Shabbat.  These ten include many of the biblical natural miracles – the rod used by Moses to, among other things, bring the plagues; the rainbow which appeared after the flood; the mouth of the earth that swallowed Korach and his followers after their rebellion; Balaam’s talking donkey.  This passage is often used to show how unequivocally the rabbis accepted the veracity of the biblical miracles.  But it also shows how aware they were of the challenge that this acceptance presented.  In describing biblical miracles as pre-ordained, as prepared by God in the penultimate act of creation, the rabbis created a structure for deviations in the natural world, one which ensured that these supernatural events did not challenge the natural order but were part of it.  They explained why we can not now expect to be able to summon up new miracles to fulfil our needs, nor can we read every subsequent natural event as the actions of an intervening God.

The same logic was applied by the rabbis to the division of the reed sea.  In a beautiful account in Exodus Rabbah, Moses is described as arguing with God when God tells him what is planned.  To divide the sea, Moses argues, would involve making a breach in God’s own creation.  No, God explains in this midrash, I made a condition at the very beginning that I would one day divide it.  In other words, as a matter of course, seas can not be divided (even, the implication is, by God).  From the start of time, this has been allowed only for this one sea.  God no longer communicates with human beings in this way, indeed is unable to do so.  The primacy of the natural order is never compromised even by God.

Through this mechanism the rabbis sought to reconcile a reading of the Torah as literal truth with their own reality – that many of them privileged the reality of the world they saw over that of the text.  And in so doing they provide us with a helpful insight into the world that we experience.  That while our foundational myth presents a God who can intervene in the world, we can not extrapolate from this to the world around us, as do the Pat Robertsons of this world.  The natural order is set within the creation of the world – that is in the very nature of the world itself.   Even if we believe in a creator God powerful to intervene, they teach us, no level of divine intervention could change this world without undermining the very world itself.

Our universe is an incredibly complex and beautiful one. And in that complexity it is also very fragile.  To quote the 12th Century Jewish philosopher Maimonides: “The same force that originates all things, and causes them to exist… that same cause becomes a source of calamities… of terrible catastrophes by which a place or many places or an entire country may be laid waste”.   In other words, it is in the nature of the world that there is the potential for disaster and even a supernatural God could not make the world otherwise. Without these forces we would not have disaster, but equally we would not have life.  As my colleague Rabbi Mark put it recently: “We have to recognise that the same tectonic forces which enable us to walk and ski on a beautiful mountain, for the mountain would not be there had the earth not folded and bent, make all of our ground inherently unstable.   The tectonic forces which create our coastlines… mean that the earth’s crust is always moving”.

This being the case, our challenge as Jews is not to uncover divine will behind natural disaster, but to reflect divine will in our response to it.  Not to seek divine intervention to change the world, but to change the world.  It is not to pray that such disasters not happen, but to respond to them in a way which reflects our sense of Jewish obligation to those in need.  It is our obligation to act – however little we might feel able to achieve – to repair a world that is by its very nature broken, or breaking.

It sometimes does not feel like it is enough.  It is a pretty useless answer to those who suffer.  Yet it is what we are left with – And in truth it, rather than statements of theology, or the value of our prayers, is the true mark of our quality as Jews and as human beings