Brussels is a gruesome reminder of how hard it is to be alive today. Paris, Istanbul, Brussels – evil stalks in more places than ever before, not just in the Middle East but in Europe, the Americas, even Africa and Australia. Whether the attackers are organized or “lone wolves,” they cause immense destruction and devastation, and are ready to lose their own lives in the process.
It’s no comfort to say that history has always been full of terrible experiences, with Jews often the targets of violence and villainy, degradation and destruction, persecution and pogroms, disasters, demons and demagogues. Nor is it helpful to say that hateful deeds are the product of one’s circumstances or even one’s ideology. Everybody has problems and perplexities, but who says that lashing out at others is the only or best way of responding? The horrors of evil have two categories: “natural” events (“acts of God”), and human evil. The first group includes earthquakes and illness. Though we conveniently blame them on God they have an earthly moral dimension – not just how and why God is involved, but whether man could have done more to improve and repair the world, and eliminate or at least lessen the tragedies.
The Book of Job blames the Adversary for the “natural events” which range from earthquakes and tsunamis to disease and illness. In most biblical thinking, the Adversary (“the Satan”) is not God’s enemy but in some sense one of His agents. So it affronts us that God apparently condones the events which cause such suffering. In the end every evil traces back to Him. Why didn’t He make a world without defects? Why doesn’t He control Creation more tightly? Why doesn’t He make the universe safe for its inhabitants? The anguish gets worse when we consider man’s inhumanity toward man. Again we’re affronted. How can God appear to be a mere spectator? How can He allow Cain to kill Abel? How can He watch wickedness to flourish, apparently unchecked? How can He sit by and see millions of innocent people killed, maimed, uprooted, bereaved and bereft? Why doesn’t He trip up the people who target their fellow creatures? Doesn’t He have the power? The will? No-one has the final answer. One view about both categories of horror is that God has no obligation to create a perfect universe, but by creating man He provides a means of mending the torn fabric.
A second approach: history has to take the long view; in the end things will improve, despite the global evils of the past century.
In the meantime countless human lives will be maimed or lost.
Not that the Christian idea of inherited sinfulness beginning with Adam is necessarily valid, but it makes it easier for people to say, “Blame God!” A British rabbi, Solomon Levy, tried to counter the notion of Original Sin by “a parallelism of opposites,” with a thesis of Original Virtue which says that man is born with an instinct to do good.
However, Levy probably overstates the case, even though Maimonides thinks the doing of good is man’s real nature.
Eliezer Berkovits and other thinkers aver that in a world that has free will, God cannot prevent people making the choice for evil.
If there weren’t two options, good and evil, free will would be impossible. Logic, therefore, requires man to be able to cast a vote for evil, however tragic the consequences.
In the Jewish version of this theory, the vote for evil is neither inevitable nor inexorable.
Man is capable of deciding to heed the Torah, to choose its ethics, bypass the evil inclination, and follow the path of righteousness and compassion. The ability to choose the good instead of the evil is the glory of being human.
Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik warns that waxing philosophical, making the problem a mere abstract intellectual exercise in formulating theories of evil, is highly interesting and mentally challenging, but does not relieve the pain of real human beings.
That’s why my Holocaust survivor colleague Cantor Isidor Gluck said, “At home we used to say, ‘If God lived in my village I’d break all his windows.’” We have to distinguish between explanations and responses. Until we find the explanations we have to respond and try to handle the suffering. We can’t leave it all to God. We dream of Him stretching out His hand to scoop us up from the inferno. But if that does not always happen, He can help us to rise above the suffering, robbing the evil of its power.
There are countless studies of how people behave. Which is more natural, to do good or to do evil? The Righteous Among the Nations generally wave aside the idea that they were heroes. They tend to say, “I didn’t do anything special. I was just doing what was the right thing to do. I was doing what was natural.”
When I ask which is more natural, horror or heroism, I think of Michael Zylberberg, one of my congregants in the Hampstead Synagogue in London in the 1960s. Early in the war he was the headmaster of a school in the Warsaw Ghetto. He and his wife spent most of the war posing as Polish gentiles, constantly risking being unmasked. In a Polish house he hid the Yiddish notes of his experiences. After the war he was secretary of the Council of Jewish Communities in Poland and then headed YIVO in London.
In the 1960s when the house in Poland was being renovated, his notes came to light.
They were published in English under the title A Warsaw Diary. The author knew what biblical verse he wanted as a prelude to his book and asked me for an English translation.
I suggested, “Had your law not been my delight, I would have died in my affliction” (Psalm 119:92).
I never asked Zylberberg for his opinion about the “horror or heroism” issue, but I should have. The world has cheapened human life so greatly that destructiveness no longer leaves us aghast, and there seems to be less goodness than ghoulishness in the way people act. But there is still such a thing as goodness and altruism, whatever its mathematical ratio in actual deeds, and those with moral courage should never minimize their mitzvot.
No-one dare diminish the extent of the negative forces in history, but neither should we be fixated on the so-called lachrymose conception of history which sees only trauma and tragedy. True, in times of horror there is too much moral neutrality, more than enough evidence of what Hannah Arendt called the banality of evil, but that is never the whole story. There is also counter- testimony, often unrecognized because negatives have more media appeal. There are acts of horror but also acts of heroism. Samuel Pisar warns us that “man is capable of the worst as he is capable of the best.” Turning his words around, man is capable of the best as he is capable of the worst.
In the Holocaust, Denmark stood beside its Jews. Despite Vatican ambivalence, many Jews were sheltered by Christians. In dark times there were and are glimmerings of courageous light. It’s a beginning.
The Midrash warns us that it will take time, maybe a long time. In midrashic parlance, we are like a person who comes to a crossroads and finds the way blocked by a massive rock. There is no way to go ahead, not even a way to go around the obstacle. Petrified, the man can sit and weep. But that’s not what he does. He begins to chip away at the rock, and little by little, after immense effort, he succeeds in creating a narrow passage to enable him to squeeze through.
The moral is that overcoming evil is not going to happen miraculously. Nor is it ever going to be easy. The Midrash says, “As long as the righteous live, they struggle with the evil inclination. Only when they die are they at rest.” The struggle is lifelong, it’s as long as history. But in the end we will prevail.
This week my granddaughter is getting married in Jerusalem. Soon a grandson will have a bar mitzva in Australia (I am actually teaching him via Skype). These are examples of how to chip away at the rock – defying the evil-doers by acts of love and creativity that build a peaceful future.
Terrible things were done in Brussels a few days ago. The perpetrators cynically, callously, cruelly built up the threatening rock. Those who tended to the victims bravely chipped away at it. So do all those who believe and exemplify what the biblical prophets say, that every human being has the right “to sit under their vine or fig-tree with none to make them afraid” (Micah 4:4).