Hollywood and Russell Crowe have caused us all to focus on the most painful of all religious questions: Is G-d responsible for calamitous human suffering?
A few weeks before Hurricane Katrina I visited the Gulf Coast states of Mississippi and Louisiana on a radio road trip with my family across the Deep South. When I arrived on Bourbon Street in the French quarter of New Orleans, with its sex shops and year-round Mardi Gras festivities, I joked to my listeners that the Big Easy would one day be swallowed by the earth in some awesome display of the divine wrath. The joke became all-too-real in the terrible aftermath of a storm that devastated the Gulf Coast, leaving New Orleans submerged in a terrible deluge reminiscent of Noah’s flood.
I have no idea why G-d allows such terrible calamities to befall and kill innocent people. Those who suffer the most in these natural catastrophes—the poor and the destitute—are usually those to whom life has already been unkind, and it was an added misery that Mississippi and Louisiana, among the poorest states in the Union, bore the brunt of the monstrous storm.
But a famous evangelical pastor who is a regular on my radio show said that, while he did not quite know why G-d sent the hurricane against the New Orleans area, he did know that a city-wide gay pride parade that was scheduled for the following week had been cancelled by the storm. Many of my religious callers, while declining to say outright that G-d had punished the area between Biloxi (gambling) and New Orleans (sexual immorality), they certainly reminded me that the Bible does say that G-d’s wrath will not rest forever. (The discussion became positively painful when two callers insinuated that the Holocaust was a divine punishment for the Jewish rejection of Jesus).
At issue here is not just the rancid old chestnut of some religious people attributing natural disasters as the consequence of sin, but something far more insidious.
Karl Marx famously argued that religious people are drug addicts whose barbiturate of choice is G-d, a weak man who used religion as a crutch even as his faith rendered him passive, feeble, and subservient. Religion taught people not to challenge, but to submit. Not to question, but to obey. Not to stand erect, but to be stooped and bent in the broken posture of the meek and pious. Indeed, secular historians have made the case that only the emancipation from religion in the modern secular age has allowed for the explosion in technological innovation characteristic of the age of science. Science boldly asks the questions that religion is afraid to answer.
There is some truth to this criticism. Many religious people I know have had their will broken by what they perceive to be G-d’s overpowering yoke. As many of my friends have become more religious, they have allowed their personalities to atrophy and have been rendered colorless. From the many religious couples who write to me that their sex lives have been undermined by inhibition and a discomfort with carnal indulgence, to the conformist trends of the religious clergy which has made some rabbis and priests dull and uninspiring, religion has snuffed out the spark of some of its adherents. Rather than charismatically leading their congregations with the spark of their own individuality, they put them in comas with empty platitudes of faith.
For many of the faithful, the closer they come to G-d, the more distant they become from their own humanity. I call this the submissive man of faith, the man or woman who believes that the foremost calling of religion is the erasure of their individuality and total blind obedience in the face of the divine will. And the principal characteristic of the submissive man of faith is to always implicate man and exonerate G-d.
When a cataclysm renders tens of thousands of innocent people homeless, it is the victims who are guilty while G-d is always innocent. Perhaps these communities tolerated large homosexual populations. Maybe they allowed an abortion clinic in their midst. While G-d is perfect, man is inadequate. While G-d is righteous, man is sinful.
The unique contribution of Judaism to world religion is a rejection of a compliant religious posture in favor of a brash and audacious spirituality that is prepared to wrestle even with G-d in the face of seeming divine miscarriages of justice. In Christianity grace is not achieved without the total surrender of the believer to Christ. Likewise, the very word Islam means to submit. But Israel translates literally as ‘he who wrestles with G-d,’ the man or woman who is prepared to rattle even the foundations of the heavens in the name of life and justice.
Judaism gave rise to the defiant man of faith, the man who, like Jacob, spars with angels and defeats them. A Jew is a child of Abraham who went so far as to speak to G-d of His potential injustice when the Almighty sought the simultaneous destruction of both the righteous and the wicked of Sodom and Gomorrah. A Jew is the disciple of Moses who thundered to G-d that he wished to be disassociated with the holy Torah if the Creator carried out His stated intention of wiping out the Jewish nation after the sin of the Golden Calf. Like King David who declares in Psalms, “I shall not die for I shall live,” the Jew has achieved immortality through an impudent insubordination in the face of historical inevitability, daring to defy fate and forge an audacious destiny.
Today, negative religious stereotypes have gravely harmed the cause of faith. Secularists point to fanatical Islamic terrorists who blow themselves up as proof that religion is dangerous to the body. They point to crazy statements by religious leaders as proof that religion is equally dangerous to the mind.
What is needed is the defiant man of faith who believes that his principal religious calling is defense of human life. The orthodox Jew who, when Israeli soldiers die, never seeks to blame such deaths on desecration of the Sabbath. The religious Christian who does not see America as a land of abortions and homosexuality that may therefore be punished by terror, but as the most benevolent nation whose soldiers fight and die for complete strangers on the other side of the globe. The moral Muslim who condemns Islamic terrorists who defile his glorious religion.
Let’s remember that it was G-d Himself who promised, after Noah’s deluge, that He would never again punish the world with such a sweeping calamity. This time the flood is entirely Hollywood’s creation.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi,” whom Newsweek and The Washington Post call “the most famous rabbi in America,” has just published The Fed-Up Man of Faith: Challenging G-d in the Face of Tragedy and Suffering. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.