The theological debate over the role of God in the aftermath of the Newtown, Conn. school massacre continues to play out in the Jewish Exponent. For another view, see related stories and our letters section.
In the pages of this newspaper, respected rabbis and teachers have offered thoughts intended to help us cope with the massacre of 20 children plus adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
Recently, for example, one rabbi suggested that this horrific crime, these horrible deaths are part of a divine plan. Admittedly, he writes, we do not know what that plan might be. Nevertheless, if we can believe that there is a plan, we can continue to have faith and to pray to God, difficult as it may be, believing that this is all for the best.
For me, the deaths of children compel us to rethink the belief that this and other tragedies happened for a reason. I cannot believe that this act was part of God’s plan. Moreover, I do not find persuasive at all the suggestion that there is some inscrutable reason that requires and justifies the deaths of children. Indeed, if it could be demonstrated that these deaths were part of God’s plan for the cosmos, I would lose faith in God.
I cannot believe in, nor pray to, a God whose plans would require the deaths of children, no matter what the plans might be. I could not turn to a God for comfort, solace and hope, if I believed that God was the author of this sort of evil. Moreover, if these events were part of God’s plan, we must assume that the perpetrator was acting as an agent of God. I find that suggestion repulsive.
The notion that there is a plan is not something on which there has been uniform agreement, not among modern thinkers and not among the sages of our tradition. The sages of the Talmud, for instance, envision Moses asking this question of God:
“Master of the Universe, why is it that there are righteous people who do well, righteous people who do poorly, wicked people who do well and wicked people who do poorly?”
God’s answer to Moses is vague:
“I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious”… although they may not deserve it; “And I will show mercy on whom I will show mercy” — even if they do not deserve it (BT B’rachot 7a, citing Exodus 33:19).
Is there a plan even if we do not see it, or is there no plan at all? Our sages seem to ask this question without providing a clear answer. They want to know that the violence and evil that occur in this world do not mean that chaos is the world’s order. We yearn to know that God is in control, even if we are not certain where we are headed.
Indeed, if this is not part of God’s plan, then who is in control of such events? To some, the answer that there is no plan seems more frightening than the possibility that God’s plan includes the killing of children. But for me, the possibility that this is God’s plan is more frightening.
I believe that we know God’s plan for us. It is a plan that is neither clandestine nor inscrutable. God hopes that we will act in a way that brings holiness and kindness to the world. And we must act with free will.
Our actions are not predetermined. It is because we choose that we must take responsibility for our actions. When evil stains the world, it damages God’s plan. And when God’s plan is subverted and undermined, I believe that God cries.
The question for me is not whether God could have intervened in Newtown, or whether or not this massacre was part of God’s plan. The question, I believe, is whether we can turn to God for comfort and hope in the face of evil.
For me, I could not turn in prayer to God, knowing that the killing of children is part of a divinely approved plan. Rather, it is because God cries when such evil interrupts the world’s order that we can turn to God in our misery and fear, to gain the courage, to persevere and to find the comfort and faith necessary to endure in a world too often stained by evil. l
Rabbi Neil Cooper is religious leader of Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El in Wynnewood.