Is God in the Tsunami? -By Rabbi Hyim Shafner

March 23, 2011

…After the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake… -I Kings 19:11

“Where is God now? Where is He?…He is hanging here on this gallows” -Night by Eli Wiesel

“The cruelty and the killing raise the question whether even those who believe after such an event dare to talk about God who loves and cares without making a mockery of those who suffered.” -Rabbi Irving Greenberg

The Japanese, I am told, living on one of the most active tectonic faults, feel always that the “big one” can come tomorrow.   I guess all humans, if we are not completely jaded, wait for the big one, though perhaps not actively. Indeed humans have a unique ability to ignore the tragic realities and statistics predicting the disasters that may come. But we all have some deep sense, when we are honest, that life is as transient as things get. Beyond helping the Japanese people by sending funds and supplies, how do we assimilate the tragedy?



Perhaps we can not.  Only survivors of tragic events can know what it is to be they; for us to make assumptions about such tragedy would be audacious.   So what can we, 10,000 miles from the epicenter think, say, and reflect upon, other than crying for fellow humans, made in God’s image who are suffering so much?  For us as religious people and religious leaders, how do we understand the ago old question which asks “Where is the merciful God we talk about and pray to, now?”



In the face of tragedy, unfortunately, religious leaders seems to make the news when they take either of two extreme positions.  That God brought about a tragedy to punish us, -Rabbis, Priests and Imams all were quoted after the floods in New Orleans and the Tsunami in Thailand as saying that God brought about these modern day floods for the same reason as those in the Bible, to punish humans for their sins.



But, as the biblical book of Job instructs, we must not suggest reasons for, or try to make sense of, the suffering of others.  Though we want to make sense of our world and the seeming injustice of it, if we do we make a mockery of humans and God.  In the end God seems to rebuke Job’s friends who suggest reasons for his torment with the words, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the world?”



The other extreme was heard also, that tragedy of such proportion should lead us to question the existence of God, as if the death of one child is less horrific and more explainable.   So what are religionists who believe in a merciful God on one hand and read a Bible of reward and punishment on the other, to say about calamity of such huge proportion?



In Judaism there is expansive writing about such questions.  In ancient times in the Talmud and in more recent years a vast Holocaust literature and theology has tried to grapple with modern day tragedies of biblical proportion in which often the righteous suffer and the wicked are spared



One helpful idea, much discussed in modern holocaust literature, is the idea of God’s hiddenness.   That while believing in an infinite God, this does not mean that God is always present, -God’s face as it were, can be hidden from us.  The Bible, following a list of curses and punishments that will befall the Jews if they do not obey the Torah, states, “…and I will hide my face from you on that day.”  To be hidden does not mean to be gone, nor does it mean to be understood, but it does mean that the promise of Divine presence and possibility still exists.


Recently Jewish people all over the world celebrated the holiday of Purim.  On this day 2500 years ago a wicked man attempted to genocide all the Jews and almost succeeded, if not for a courageous queen named Esther.   Esther’s name, the Talmud tells us, is hinted at in the Hebrew bible in the words “vaani hister astir panai bayom hahoo”, “And I will hide my face from you on that day (Deut. 31:18)” Esther=Hister-meaning “to hide.”



The very name Esther, the queen who saves the Jewish people, also refers to God’s hiddenness, and indeed in the entire book of Esther God’s name is not mentioned even once.  And so the scroll of Esther offers the hope that though we live in a world of tragedy, pain, suffering, and injustice, perhaps it is not a world in which God is absent or dead, but hidden.



In the words of the great 20th century Rabbi, Joseph Solovetchik in his profound book, Lonley Man of Faith: “Who is He who trails me steadily, uninvited and unwanted, like an everlasting shadow, and vanishes into the recesses of transcendence the very instant I turn around to confront this numinous, awesome and mysterious ‘He’?”



Though God is indeed hidden in our world, even more so at this moment, perhaps it is up to us to reveal the Divine through our actions and response.

A Way To Faith – Rabbi Barry Gelman

March 21, 2011

This is the sermon I delivered this past Shabbat (Erev Purim) in my Shul in Houston. Although Purim has passed, I think that the message of the sermon is still reevennt and I hope that it can offer a way to faith for those who struggle with faith while facing difficult circumstances.

A Way To Faith

I am finding it particularly difficult to get into the Purim spirit this year. Like many of you, my thoughts this week have been consumed by the reports and the images of the brutal murder by Palestinian terrorists of the 5 members of the Fogel family in Itamar, Israel as well as by the death of 10’s of thousands of people brought on by the earthquake and Tsunamis that rocked and flooded Japan.

If I may relate my personal state of mind, each of these tragedies has affected me differently. The Japan tragedy is a terrible human tragedy, not to be considered as 10’s of thousands, but as mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers – families – just like ours – shattered – never to be the same. That tragedy, savagely created by nature, forces us to confront difficult questions about God and the natural order.

The brutal murders in Itamar conjures up different challenges. That was not just a murder of a family – it was the murder of our family. Here, for most of us, we are talking about 2 or 3 degrees of separation. Of course, this type of despicable deed raises questions, not about faith in God, but about faith in humanity.

I am reminded of the words of Rabbi Yehuda Amital in an interview he gave to Yad Vashem where he commented on having faith after the Holocaust. In referencing a conversation with  Abba Kovner a leader of the Vilna Ghetto revolt, and a kibbutz leader and poet in Israel, Rabbi Amital recalls: “Once we were both participants in a TV panel about the meaning of the Holocaust. He asked me, “Did you have problems with your faith?” I answered him, “I had problems? Your problems are even more serious. I believed in God; now, I don’t understand His ways. But you believed in man; now, do you continue to believe in man, after what you saw in the Holocaust? Truly, we both have a problem.”

I would like to suggest a way into Purim in light of the recent events. I believe that this approach is important not just for this year, but that it also offers a way to faith that may be helpful.

I will start with a basic question on Purim.

Why do we not recite Hallel on Purim? This question is asked in the Talmud in tractate Megilla and 3 answers are given. For our purposes, I wish to focus on the third answer. According to the Gemara, we do not say Hallel on Purim because even after the great salvation and military victory, we are still “servants of Achashveirosh.”

What the Talmud is trying to get across here is that Purim does not reflect a total victory or salvation. Despite the fact that we declare “Layehudim Hayta Ora…”, there was still much leftover darkness once all the dust settled.

If that is the case, then we must ask ourselves another question. Why celebrate? What is the purpose of celebration if the same sword that dangled over our necks before the Purim saga unfolded, continues to dangle there.

Here the words of Rabbi Zadok HaKoheinm of Lublin are helpful.

Say’s Rav Tzadok[2] – Pesach represents total salvation – we left Egypt and we went and received the Torah. Pesach represents leaving the darkness of exile.

Purim on the other hand, with the left over danger and darkness, represents the ability to cope with remaining in the darkness. That too is a gift from God.[3]

This will be my approach to Purim this year. The murders in Itamar especially, remind us that there are still great challenges and that there is great hatred among our enemies. The murders remind us that even with the establishment of the State of Israel, there is still much darkness to overcome.

But I will also recall this Purim that the Fogel family in Itamar and all those suffering in Japan, have the ability to cope with the darkness and to build new lives on the ruins.

I will also remember that despite the human evil displayed in Itamar and in the Palestinian street as they celebrated the murders, that there are many many good people in our world.

There are 50 or so firefighters who are facing certain death as they try to contain the fires and radiation leaks at the Japanese nuclear power plants.

I will remember the amazing story of Rami Levy, owner of a chain of supermarkets in Israel. If you have not heard the story, it is worth hearing.

According to a number of Israeli news outlets, Rami Levy has gone to the Fogel’s house every day of the Shiva and fills up their refrigerator and cupboard with food.

Someone at the house noticed and expressed their appreciation to him for doing this. He responded that they will be seeing him for a while as he plans to supply them with food and supplies every week until the youngest orphan turn 18.

Who among us does not live with some darkness?

Who among us has not woken up in the morning wondering how to go on living?

This is part of life, but, yet, somehow we manage to cope – and sometimes even thrive under difficult conditions.

That ability, that great power is worth celebrating for it too is a gift from God.

“Even a Holiday that does not merit Hallel, remains worthy of celebration. It behooves us to remember this, because instances of complete salvation are few and far between. We must take joy and show gratitude for the ability to make it through the difficult times, even when our problems do not depart entirely.”[4]

I conclude with a teffilla

Acheinu Kol Beit Yisrael…

As for our brothers of the whole house of Israel who are in distress or captivity, on sea or land, may the All-Present have compassion on them and lead them from distress to relief, fro darkness to light, and from oppression to freedom, now, swiftly and soon – and let us say: Amen

[2] Divrei Soferim 32

[3] Cited in Fresh Fruit and Vintage Wine – Yitzchak Blau, pg. 41

[4] Ibid

The Pope’s Exoneration of the Jews: A Step Back from Real Interfaith Encounter -By Rabbi Hyim Shafner

March 14, 2011

I was deeply offended by the Pope’s recent book quote in which he freed the Jews from responsibility for the killing of Jesus (I know it’s just a restatement of Nostra Aetate but that was before I was born).   Here is why -consider the following scenario to which, to me, it felt akin:

Suppose in 2011 a white president of the United States wrote that African Americans, after his examination of their biology and history, are not less than human than whites, as many in our country once thought.   Why would that offend me?  Firstly, it’s anachronistic and just not relevant to our world today, secondly, it would seems to imply that had the white slave owners been correct slavery would have been justified, and thirdly, the President is not a biologist and so instead of being considered science or history it would smack of a political agenda.  The only thing such a white President could do that would not seem absurd would be to apologize for the past and shed tears for all that might have been and was destroyed though bigotry and hatred.

I believe that if the goal is better interfaith relations, (which almost all Jewish leaders lauded the pope for in light of this statement last week), then this will not get us any farther on that path.  Real interfaith work requires that we each see the other fully as they are, not as we would like to see them.  Only when we put ourselves in the shoes of those whom we have hated and see the world through their eyes can we learn from them.   Tolerance is easy, especially if the other is a bit whitewashed, but tolerance is not deep or interesting.   Really understanding the other through their own eyes is the first step toward being able to understand them and the world as they see it, only then can true learning from each other begin.

When I was a Rabbi at Washington University, all the clergy would meet together each month.   Evangelicals, Catholics, Protestants, and I would sit and discuss students and religious life on campus.  One year we decided to spend some time learning from each other about our individual theological worldviews.  Much of the time the conversation was prevented from becoming truly deep, as we walked on eggshells careful not to offend the other since we valued our friendship and collegiality.   At a certain point though I realized that we would never really respect each other, understand each other, and learn from each other, if we were not willing to truly encounter the other fully.

At the next meeting, I said the following to the most fundamentalist Christian pastor among us, a young man I really did like and respect as a person and colleague:  “Scott, unless we can really express who we are with each other, until you can tell me you think I am going to hell and until I can tell you I think you worship a Jewish heretic, we will never be able to truly break though the armor that protects us from seeing the world through each other’s eyes, and never really learn from each other’s theology.”

It was eye opening.   Only then were we able to really lay out what we believed, only then were we able to really present how we see the world and why it is so important to us.  Why we would be willing to die for it.  Only then did we really learn from each other’s vision of the world, religion and God.

If the pope were looking through Jewish eyes he would realize it does not matter to Jews who killed Jesus, and to even talk about it in light of the rivers of Jewish blood that have been spilt over two millennia in its name, is absurd and profoundly offensive.  May it be that we all learn to look through each other’s eyes, to garner from each other’s world views and understandings of the Divine, to come closer spiritually to the Infinite One and to each other.

The King Hearings: Building Relationships Through Honesty, by Rabbi Asher Lopatin

March 10, 2011

Representative Peter King of New York is conducting hearings on “Muslim Radicalization in America”.  While I wish the name for these hearings would have been something like, “Muslims Americans Speak Out Against Extremism and for Moderate Islam”, I think these hearings are important and will lead to good things.  I hope they expose Americans to Muslims who care about the United States and want to fight terrorism and extremism, and I hope they allow the Muslim community to take some responsibility for the acts of terror that were done on their behalf.

As an Orthodox Jew, I take responsibility for immoral things done on behalf of Judaism and Torah, and I sign petitions against those acts and statements – I am vocal and active in opposing them.  Rav Ahron Soloveichik said that Orthodox Jews had to accept some culpability for the actions of Yigal Amir who assassinated Prime Minister Rabin.  I am grateful that some . Muslims are holding preachers in mosques accountable, and I am thrilled that an early speaker in these hearings was Rep. Keith Ellison who told the story of  a Muslim-American police cadet and hero – an American hero –  who died trying to save lives in the World Trade Towers on 9/11.

Yes, Muslims are singled out because Islam – a popular and influential type of Islam – was used to justify killing American lives at the World Trade Center bombing in 1993, then again, tragically, in Yemen in 2006 with the attack on the USS Cole, then  on  9/11, then at Fort Hood, etc.  There is a pattern here, and there is a pattern of denial as well, most notably in the promotions and retention of the Fort Hood murderer, Major Hasan.  It is sad that Islam is singled out, but it is singled out not by Mr. King, but by all these acts of terror carried out in the name of Islam, inspired by Islam and perpetrated by Muslims – granted, radical Muslims.

Nevertheless, these hearings should not be seen as an opportunity for Islamobashing.  Rather, they should be an opportunity for good people from all religions and backgrounds, Muslim and otherwise, to come together and figure out how to keep our country safe.  From Rep. Ellison we learn how committed so many American Muslims are to this country, and from Rep. King I hope we learn of Muslims who are committed to taking responsibility to fight extremism that is a sad and dangerous reality in Islam today.  Yes, Jews, Christians and even Hindus all have their extremists, but our war is now focused, and must be focused, on extremist Islam, and my hope and prayer is that the Muslim community will have the opportunity to demonstrate how committed they are to that war.

Rabbi Asher Lopatin


When You Least Expect Him

March 1, 2011

Encountering God in an airport terminal

Last Saturday night, I had to catch a red-eye to the east coast, to attend a conference that was beginning on Sunday.  I had the pleasure of driving Ruthie to the airport as well, who was heading for the same flight and the same conference. We parked, took the shuttle van to the terminal, and started walking toward the gate. As we were approaching the security check, Ruthie suddenly realized that she was without her jacket, which meant that she was also without her phone and her wallet. “Oh no! I left my jacket in your car!” This was bad.

 But bad soon became worse. As we were debating whether or not we had enough time to get back to the parking lot and still catch the flight, I realized that her jacket was not in my car. I had a distinct mental image of Ruthie placing her jacket on the luggage rack in the shuttle van. Now what?

I pulled out my own phone and frantically began to search for a phone number for the parking lot, wondering how, even if I reached someone there, we’d ever get this jacket back before the flight – or at all. As I was dialing, we saw a figure running toward us through the terminal, holding a jacket aloft in his outstretched hand. Wow. We barely had time to thank him, before he had to run back to his now unattended van.

Moments later, as we waited on the security line, Ruthie and I had a chance to reflect on the strange phenomenon that we often encounter God when we least expect Him. So often, when we are actively searching for Him, we come up empty. And then, out of nowhere, there He is. In one human being’s concern for another, in an act of selfless kindness for a stranger.  An act of generosity, inspired by an awareness and appreciation of the One whose kindness extends to all.   

And then, a moment later, God slips back out of view. Leaving behind His hope that we are newly reminded that He is in fact, always here.