Sermon – To speak of God in the Face of Disaster

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 10 December 2010

Just before Shabbat last week, I found myself grappling with how to talk about the savage forest fire then affecting Northern Israel.  Or rather, not just how to talk about it, but how to talk about it in a religious way…  How to apply the language of prayer, the language of Jewish text to the tragedy and suffering?

What I normally do when something happens in the world is turn to our textual heritage to look to Tanakh, to bible, for sources and inspiration, for this is the building block out of which Jewish prayer comes. Yet this was no help at all.   When I looked to the Book of Psalms, what did I find? Psalm 50 which tells us that “God appeared, preceded by devouring fire” Psalm 21 which praises God “Your hand is equal to all Your enemies, You set them ablaze like a furnace” And most painfully of all from Psalm 83 the call on God: “As a fire burns a forest, as flames scorch the hills, pursue Your enemies, God, with Your tempest.” When I looked for fire imagery in the bible – in search of comforting words, what I found was not an expression of our powerlessness in the face of natural forces, but an expression of God’s power operating within natural forces – what I found was a theology in which God intervenes directly in the world through natural events, and indeed through human beings, and in which the awesome destructive power of fire is identified with divine power.

It is an extraordinarily troubling idea – one that is found repeatedly in the bible.  To caricature the theology: God’s power is unlimited.  God acts directly in the world.  Therefore events that happen in the world can be – even should be – interpreted as expressions of divine power.  In the biblical narratives, these might be positive events – from an Israelite perspective at least – the plagues of the Exodus spring to mind.  Or they may be negative.  To give just one example, the Book of Joel, one of the least read books of the Tanakh, which gives a terrifying account of a locust plague and drought understood as divine punishment, before foretelling, in unashamedly eschatological language, the restoration of the land and the people.

Either way, the underlying theology is clear, that in a world in which God acts, a plague is never just a plague, a swarm of locusts never just a swarm of locusts, and by extension, a fire is never just a fire.  We are thus in the same theological arena as those who today seize upon any natural disaster – tsunami, hurricane, earthquake, fire, drought and attribute it to divine will.

So instead of finding comfort, I found a question – how can I give any weight to this text, how can I even read it?  If this is its theology surely it consists of little more than, in the phrase of the Jewish philosopher Spinoza the “prejudices of an ancient people”, or to use the only slightly more comfortable language of Mordechai Kaplan, the father of the Reconstructionist movement – the “gropings and searchings that went on in the consciousness of our ancestors”?

Fortunately, there is something that saves bible from this theology.  And this is represented very well in this week’s Torah portion.

For in the Joseph narrative we find a completely different model of divine action in the world – a more subtle model of divine intervention.  It is one not without difficulties, of course, but one that is different.

And in this difference we are given a gift – the fact that there is a different model means that our relationship with the text does not stand or fall on our ability to cope with the theology of Psalm 83, or the Book of Joel.

How does the Joseph story understand God?  Well the Joseph narrative is a more human story – one in which God does not act so directly, where God is out of sight, more remote, allowing a world which functions more like our own.  When God comes in, it is in little ways – the success of Joseph in Potiphar’s house and in prison – little nudges along the way.  The story contains what literary scholars have called ‘dual causality’  – a world in which the reader can perceive two parallel causal systems at play.  We see a human story with a logical series of human events, and we also see another track in which God is – or might be – operating behind the scenes.  As Joseph put it to his brothers in the portion that Ryan just read, “It was not you who sent me here but God”

Of course, such a model, if less explicitly troubling, is also problematic, It lends itself to what could be condemned as “gap theology” – seizing on gaps in our understanding of the world to force God in.  But at least it does reflect something more like reality for us – that seeing God in the world is difficult.  Indeed, in a story like our portion for this week, the bible has to guide the reader to see God in the right way – As the scholar Yairah Amit has written: “In most instances the author does not trust his reader and so he takes trouble to guide him towards… realization of the determining role of God”.  And in the real world, as we know, there is no narrator to tell us that we are experiencing a demonstration of divine power.

Still struggling? Well the bible contains other different models as well.

Indeed, the bible is full of different theologies – full of different ways of thinking about how we understand the world around us.  My favourite book of the bible, theologically speaking, is one that does not mention God at all – the story of Esther.  In Megillat Esther, readers are forced to analyse events for themselves.  There are coincidences, allusions and apparent dual causality, but events are left ambiguous.  The author of Esther places responsibility for seeing the divine hand in the story on to the reader. God’s intervention in the book is there as a possibility rather than as a given certainty.  In the theology of the book of Esther, we do not have an author who directs us to a ‘correct’ understanding of what we observe.  Nor can we ever reach the sort of certainty that most biblical texts provide.  The challenge of seeing God’s presence in the world is exactly that, a challenge, and one which falls on us as the reader, and by extension on us in our lives.

What is important is that the bible is not a unified work – at least not theologically.  It is not a systematic presentation of Jewish theology.  It contains differences about some of the most fundamental questions of human existence.  On Wednesday evening Howard Jacobson stood here and said that as Jews we either accept or reject the Jewish God and thus place ourselves inside or outside religiously.  But this is not true.  There is no one way to believe in God – no one way to understand God in the world.  In fact, we could debate long and hard whether belief of any sort is a prerequisite for Jewish existence.  I would argue very strongly that it is not.

The Bible is not a single blueprint for how are to understand world.  Indeed, the bible is not really in the explanation business at all.  It is in the expression business.  It expresses in different ways the human search for meaning, the way in which our ancestors processed their experience and their encounter with God’s presence in the world.  It expresses this encounter in different ways because we all experience that encounter in different ways – differently from each other and in different ways in our lives.  Some of us may need to believe in a God bringing awesome power on our behalf – or need the deterrent of what that power might do to us.  Some of us need to believe in a God who nudges along the way.  Some of us are able to claim little more than that when we look at the world we want to see order, and purpose, and to be open to the possibility of more.

Good religion is really not concerned with explaining – explaining events both human and natural – fires among them.  Rather its power is expressive.  Of our search for meaning, Of our aspirations for the world and for ourselves, Of our encounter with God, Of our search for divine presence in the world even when that world is unleashing upon us its most destructive forces.