A letter in a recent edition of the Jewish Exponent took issue with my quotes regarding the murders in the Sandy Hook Elementary School. A local Reform rabbi wrote, “We do not do our congregants a favor by positing a God who actively intercedes in our lives. The Holocaust should have put an end to that kind of thinking.”
This notion of a “non-personal God” is neither traditional nor comforting. It seemingly posits a God who, rather than being “Our God and God of our ancestors,” whom we beseech in prayer and serve through our mitzvot and who has a relationship with us and loves us, is instead a “To Whom it May Concern” deity removed from our lives.
Though I’m an Orthodox rabbi, I grew up in the Reform movement and, at various times, identified as Reconstructionist and Conservative. Therefore, I feel unusually qualified to note the differences between various Jewish theologies. When many people think of Orthodox Judaism and how it differs from non-Orthodoxy, they think of our commitment to a system of Jewish law that is essentially unchanging. (Though there are clearly new issues that arise, we address them using the same system of Jewish law that has existed for thousands of years.) However, many people do not consider the source of that commitment.
An essential element of traditional Orthodox Judaism is the understanding that God revealed the entire Torah (both the written Torah and oral Torah) to his chosen people, Am Yisrael. At that moment, we became as bride and bridegroom — forever bound to one another. Am Yisrael will always be God’s chosen people, and we will always be bound (as individuals and as a nation) to obey God’s will as expressed in our Torah. Therefore, it is impossible for the Torah to change as the Torah, and our relationship to God who gave it to us, is eternal.
Such a relationship is only possible with a God who is intensely personal — who indeed actively intercedes (or chooses not to intercede) in the lives of individuals, the Jewish people and the world as a whole.
Practically speaking, this means we believe that God knows, cares for and judges each and every individual on the face of the earth. One of my favorite images is the Mishna in Rosh Hashanah (1:2) that speaks of God judging every human being as a farmer counts his sheep or as a general counts his soldiers — with complete awareness of every individual.
We human beings are individuals. And God sees and cares about each and every one of us. When we do mitzvot or when we sin, God sees us and judges us. Our prayers do not go to a distant “To Whom It May Concern.” When we pray, God hears us. This does not mean He responds in the way we may wish. Prayer is not a magic trick that forces God to give us what we want. Our history as a nation is a sacred one, guided by God. He cares what happens to us.
We are aware that God gives human beings free choice. People may choose good or choose evil. And when they choose evil, all too often the innocent suffer. How can we understand this? How do we understand the death of an innocent child, the massacre of innocents or the destruction in the Shoah?
In Mishna Brachot (9:2), we learn that unlike the Zoroastrians who believed in a “god of good” and a “god of bad,” we understand that God rules the entire universe. He is the source of all. Therefore, there is a blessing for good news and a blessing for bad news. Nothing can happen in the world that He does not know of and allow to happen, as Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, head of Yeshiva Ateret Yerushlayim wrote while Jews were being injured and killed by Arab terrorists.
However, unlike the Prophets to whom God spoke directly, we do not have the ability to understand why God decides to allow (or not prevent) evil to happen in a particular case. As I often tell students, we know that God has a reason for everything. But that doesn’t mean that we can know the reason.
Therefore, when we see people in pain, our obligation is not to seek a reason, but to obey God’s commandment of chesed (“lovingkindness”). We do God’s will by comforting the mourner, visiting the sick, and clothing and feeding the poor. Though pain and sadness is always a proper time for self-examination and personal improvement, it is not the time to attempt to find a cause for the pain of those who suffer. It is the time to try to relieve their pain — both through chesed and through prayer.
Even as we cry out in pain to our God who hears every prayer and counts every tear, our final answer to all questions of “Why?” is as unchanging as the Torah itself.
We do not know. Yet we believe that God has His reasons. And most of all, we continue to believe in, and love, God. And He loves us — as individuals, as a nation and as His creations.
Rabbi Shmuel Jablon is the menahel (principal) of Torah Academy, a member of the Rabbinical Council of America’s executive committee and the host of www.rabbijablon.com .