In my own right: ‘God’s policemen’

Those of us who eschew a random universe know that, when all is said and done, we cannot know the reason.

Fire in Carmel forest 311 (photo credit: Channel 10 News)
Fire in Carmel forest 311
(photo credit: Channel 10 News)
Back in 1986, prior to giving birth, I was ordered to spend time resting, under supervision, in Jerusalem’s old Misgav Ladach hospital. There were three of us moms-to-be in a small room and an immediate intimacy developed, as it does among people thrown together at momentous periods in their lives. We chatted comfortably, like sisters.
Suddenly, tragedy surfaced. One of my roommates, a policewoman, returned from an ultrasound examination with the news that the twins she had been expecting for several months had simply, and for some as yet unexplained reason, died. It was too late for a termination; she would have to go through the birth process. She bore the agonizing blow with a fortitude one could only respect and admire.
But my second roommate’s mind was on other things; and the reason I recall the incident so vividly after all these years is what she said when we found ourselves alone.
“I know why she lost those babies,” she told me with calm conviction. “It was because she didn’t go to the mikve.”
‘GOD’S policemen” was my father’s term for those who claim with absolute certainty to know the Almighty’s ways; why tragedy strikes this one, or calamity that one. And they are generally not shy about disseminating this information.
Like the then cabinet minister and rabbi from the Shas Party who asserted in 1985 that the schoolchildren who died when a train and a school bus collided near Moshav Habonim were killed because of Sabbath desecration in Petah Tikva, which was where the children came from.
Or those spiritual leaders who implied that Israel’s worst aviation disaster – when two helicopters collided in the air near the Lebanese border in 1997, killing 73 soldiers – was in some measure a punishment for our sins.
Or the rabbi who declared in May 2001 that the “licentious” mixed dancing at Jerusalem’s Versailles banquet hall was what prompted divine punishment: collapse of the dance floor during a wedding, killing 23 people and injuring many others. (The chief rabbis later condemned his statement.)
Or, indeed, those who link the deaths of the Six Million in the Shoah to sins of commission or omission by other Jews.
“He died for our sins” is a well-known doctrine, but surely not a Jewish one.
THIS week, God’s policemen were out and about again.
Na’ava Boker, the widow of Asst.-Cmdr. Lior Boker, who headed operations for the Northern District, filed a police complaint against Hadera Rabbi Rafael Bublil for allegedly stating in a letter to his followers that Boker had died as divine punishment for “his blood libel” (“Widow of policeman killed in Carmel fire accuses Hadera rabbi of incitement,” The Jerusalem Post, February 21).
It appears the rabbi was referring to an investigation led by Boker which found that yeshiva students had set fire to a synagogue in order to get Hadera’s secular residents blamed for it.
Was the rabbi implying that these students, if guilty of the arson, were above the law? Or suggesting that committing a crime for which others would be blamed was ethical behavior?
“Refer the rabbi to Pirkei Avot, to the Ethics of the Fathers,” a colleague urged. “In Chapter 2, Rabbi Hanina urges us to ‘pray for the welfare of the government’ – authority and law – ‘since but for fear of it, men would swallow each other alive.’”
Jewish tradition holds the saving of life as a supreme value. It therefore seems hard, on any level, to accept that this heroic police officer should have been struck down – punished – by a divine hand precisely at the moment when he was racing into an inferno to save others.
THE concept of hashgacha pratit, or divine providence, has been central to Jewish life throughout the ages. It holds that everything occurs for a reason ordained by heaven, and that there is no such thing as coincidence. God is the weaver of a giant tapestry of which we humans see only the back, the knots and the snarls, and our duty is to follow His commandments, thus maintaining our connection to Him. As long as we do this, He will protect us.
This may be so; or it may not. We may fervently hope or believe in this “bargain” between God and man, but we can’t know for sure if it exists.
It is also understandable that people feel the need to reconcile their belief in God with the suffering and tragedy that is an inescapable part of the human condition – the Orthodox one included. Seeing a pattern in our relationship to God, where if we play our part, then He will play His, is vital, and comforting, to many. They want to follow the right order of things – in the Jewish case, Halacha. And they want to be assured that those who conduct their lives according to Jewish law will be looked after – even as they can’t help seeing that bad things do happen to good people, and the wicked often do seem to prosper.
For some, it may be largely or even exclusively the fear of punishment that leads them to obey the commandments. And they have a ready-made explanation for human suffering: Those whom disaster has struck simply broke the rules.
BUT we know it isn’t that simple.
Here’s Pirkei Avot again, Rabbi Judah the Prince, in Chapter 2: “Be as scrupulous about a light precept as about a weighty one, for you do not know the reward allotted for each precept.”
From which one may understand that our human scale of reward and punishment is not the divine one.
My self-righteous hospital roommate all those years ago couldn’t know what, if anything, would happen to a woman who shuns the ritual bath. Nor can any rabbi, however pious, judge the penalty for indulging in mixed dancing, transgressing the Sabbath, or any other human action.
To trumpet that they can, from the rooftops – or their modern equivalent, the media – is itself a serious transgression.
IS what Rabbi Bublil said about the reason for Asst.-Cmdr. Boker’s death important? Why not dismiss it as just another foolish pronouncement from a public figure who should know better?
It is important, because many intellectually sophisticated people in modern Western society, including Israel, are – in different ways, and perhaps without even being aware of it – searching for a meaning to life; for God, if you will. Pronouncements such as this rabbi’s will only cause them to recoil in disgust. And those among them who hold that religion is primitive and medieval, an anachronism, will only be confirmed in that conviction.
THERE is no prophecy today, so we cannot know what God wants. But if we look back to the prophet Micah (6:8), we get a pretty good idea:
“It hath been told thee, O man, what is good and what the Lord doth require of thee; only to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God.”
Surely doing justly implies not rushing to judge and condemn others; and loving mercy includes not hurting anyone terribly – as Lior Boker’s already grieving widow was hurt by the rabbi’s unwise words.
And surely walking humbly with thy God involves shaking off the arrogance that leads to proclamations about the nature and ultimately unknowable intent of the Divine.
Silence is a fence around wisdom – Rabbi Akiva
ISRAELIS, a friend commented after reading this column, don’t know how to keep quiet. They always need to be saying something.
There is truth in that. And yet some things can be confronted only with silence.
Why did that policewoman in the hospital lose her twins? Why were Lior Boker and all those precious others consumed by the Carmel inferno? Why did 73 soldiers have to die over Sha’ar Yashuv, and 23 wedding guests lose their lives in Jerusalem? Why did six million of our people perish in the Holocaust? Some will answer, variously: Randomness, sheer bad luck, or other human beings exercising their free will to do evil.
Those of us who eschew a random universe know that, when all is said and done, we cannot know the reason. We understand that there are some things beyond our understanding.
That is, after all, the essence of faith.