Murder in Israel

God, where are you? – an open letter

October 22, 2015 18:02
Hurva Synagogue, Jerusalem

Hurva Synagogue, Jerusalem. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Lord of the Universe! It has again become extremely difficult to live with You. In the last few weeks, some of Your most faithful devotees were murdered in cold blood in your holy country – some in a drive-by shooting, before their children’s very eyes. Others were stabbed to death while on their way to the Western Wall. And during the last few days more innocent people, including children, have been killed.

You didn’t stop any of the butchers but allowed them to savagely snuff out the lives of these people, while You stood by without lifting a finger. Some of the victims were on their way to praise Your greatness, at the place where the Temple once stood. Not so long ago several people were killed with guns, knives and hatchets while conversing with You in a synagogue.

I AM undecided about going to synagogue these days. And then I wonder whether we should perhaps all go to this holy place and declare before the Holy Ark that we will cease to sing Your praises.

When I did enter the synagogue, I found myself perplexed. People continued to speak to You, as if nothing had happened. I looked at myself only to find that I was no better. Only when I left this holy place did it hit me. Have we all become indifferent? What has happened to us? But then I thought, isn’t it wonderful that the worshipers are still prepared to come and speak to You, instead of throwing in the towel and deciding there is no longer any point in praising You? Doesn’t it show tremendous faith, in spite of it all? Suddenly, however, I wondered: Do we worshipers realize that we are addressing and praising the very God who just stood by while these murders took place and remained passive, as if paralyzed? Is this the same God we praise every day? Or do we actually believe in two gods – one whom we worship and one who looks the other way during these massacres? Perhaps we are simply hiding behind our prayers of praise, trying to escape the reality that You are a God who not only allows these atrocities but also causes earthquakes and diseases that kill hundreds of thousands of people.

And then I heard the most unusual eulogies given by family members of the victims, who spoke with such love about You, with enormous strength of belief in You. I stood in awe. What do they know that I don’t? One of the great tragedies is that there will be few heads of Jewish high schools and yeshivot who will discuss these matters with their students.

They never speak about You, only about Your Halacha. They tell their students to continue learning Talmud and be silent. But as a teacher, I know that these questions are on the minds of many of the best students.

I know You may be wondering why I ask this question now. Haven’t we been asking it since the dawn of history – from the killing of Abel by Cain until and beyond the Holocaust? Did we not always have this problem? Sure, on an academic level You are right. But academic issues are a poor representation of our lives. When man is in existential pain, an old problem comes alive in ways that are far more than just a question. It becomes insufferable because it completely overtakes the human being.

At that moment, the world as we know it comes to an end and, just for an infinite second, turns into Auschwitz for some of us.

I know I will never fathom You. You are “a circle whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere.” You see everything sub specie aeternitatis (from the aspect of eternity). I know that I am far removed from the reality of Your essential existence. Trying to comprehend You is like trying to understand a three-dimensional reality with the help of a flat surface. I realize that there is a huge expanse beyond the shore of my reason.

I see Your fingerprints everywhere and hear a constant metaphysical murmur from the “other side,” which I know nothing about. It attempts to penetrate my thinking but is unable to get through and stops halfway, in order not to crush my skull. I am fully aware that I continue to convert Your realities into my opinions, thereby rendering myself guilty of transforming Your sublimity into silly clichés.

YOU ARE more than existing. Existence is Your minimum capacity. If You were merely to exist, I would probably not believe in You. But you are more than infinite, truer than real. I am aware that I borrow words, phrases and philosophical language from the general sphere of our limited human experience, and that will not do. Faith is mostly starved of language.

There is really nothing that we know. We don’t know who You are and why You created the world. We are completely ignorant about why You need us to exist. You are not a Who, What or even When. The world around us, including baby universes, black holes and millions of stars, just alludes to one mysterium magnum (great mystery). How, then, do we dare challenge You regarding, murders, earthquakes, tsunamis and human tragedies? “I know nothing,” said Socrates, “except the fact of my ignorance.”

I have often thought about becoming an atheist. But it won’t work. After all, I am not as much a believer as he is. Believing that the universe and our existence are just an accident is beyond my capacity. I am too much of a skeptic, a realist.

I also realize that Your miracles far outdo Your tragedies, and that I continue to live by Your ever- constant mercy. I am aware that I live in two realms simultaneously: one that overwhelms me with the ineffable feeling that there is majestic spiritual scenery, which makes it clear that You are there; the other where I see chaos and everything is random.

We are all suspended between these two realms and find ourselves in utter confusion and solemn terror. And then, as often happens, comes the thunderbolt in which a flash of the unknown hits us, and Your being is revealed.

WE JEWS are the greatest miracle. We have outlived all our enemies – the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans and many others. After exhausting themselves trying to destroy us, they vanished in a puff of smoke, and we are still here against all odds. Not even the Holocaust succeeded in wiping us out. The State of Israel is an ongoing miracle in a region that has gone completely mad. How, then, can I deny Your existence? I know that it is more than surprising that we don’t experience waves of terrorism on a daily basis. Many are prevented by our soldiers. But I also know that very often it is mazal (good fortune) and has nothing to do with our military intelligence. And I suspect that You are behind this. I shall never forget that one of my own children and her family were miraculously saved from a terrorist attack in the Old City several years ago.

Perhaps I should live by emuna peshuta, an ingrained, deep-seated but simple belief in You, which is indestructible. Perhaps this belief is much more real, since it is prior and independent of human knowledge and experience. I will give it a try, but it is difficult.

I know some of my readers will accuse me of heresy: How does one dare to ask these questions about God? But You and I know that this accusation is as un-Jewish as it can be. While I am surely not a prophet, I know that I walk in the footsteps of those much greater than I. Habakkuk, Job and King David are my examples.

And was it not Jeremiah, the great prophet, who declared: You will win, O Lord, if I make a claim against You. Yet I shall present charges against You.

Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why are the workers of treachery at ease? You have planted them, and they have taken root. They spread, they even bear fruit. You are ever present in their mouths.... (Jeremiah 12:1-2).

How privileged I feel to be a Jew and encouraged to ask such questions! So I repeat the question asked by my forefather Abraham, the first Jew, after You told him of Your intention to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. He asked, “Shall the Judge of all the earth not act justly?” (Genesis 18:25). This, God, is the great human question. True, man is only a reed – the weakest entity in nature – but he is a feeling reed.

Forgive me, then, for having asked these questions, but I had to give voice to them. After all, “men are but children of a larger growth.” But I shall not forget what a great teacher of mine once said: He who has ever gone through a radical insight cannot be witness to God’s nonexistence without laying perjury upon his soul.

In humility and awe. 

The writer is the dean of the David Cardozo Academy in Jerusalem, the author of many books, and an international lecturer. This article originally appeared on September 22, 2010, on the writer’s website:

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