Question:

There seems to be a tendency these days to shy away from describing the suffering of individuals and peoples as Divine punishment for their sins. I see this especially in the literature on the Holocaust—virtually all your articles on the subject speak about how “G‑d works in mysterious ways” and we, finite creatures, using the finite tool of our intellect, cannot presume to understand His “reasons.” At most, one sees references to some cosmic tikkun (“correction”) that is achieved through suffering and tragedy, whose precise workings are beyond our ken.

I wonder: have today’s rabbis and Jewish thinkers changed their perception of G‑d to fit what’s politically correct?

As Have today’s rabbis changed their perception of G‑d to fit what’s politically correct?far as I can see, throughout the Jewish tragedies in history our responses were quite different. The sages tell us that the Second Temple was destroyed because we strayed from G‑d, that Rabbi Akiva’s students died because they were wicked to one another—and the list goes on and on. Why can we say that biblical tragedies were punishments, yet contemporary ones are “the mysterious way of G‑d”?

P.S.: I hope I don’t sound as if I think 6,000,000 Jews deserved to die; I just think this is an issue that should be explained.

Answer:

You’re right, this is an important question—because it brings us face to face with the profound realism of Torah and our concept of a compassionate G‑d.

Let’s start with the archetype of Jewish tragedy, the background for the seminal event of our history, the Exodus. What sin did the Jewish people commit to deserve slavery in Egypt? Even Moses demands of G‑d, “Why have You done evil to this people?” The Midrash describes Moses’ complaint in poignant terms:

“I took the Book of Genesis. I read it. I saw the deeds of the generation of the Deluge, and how they were judged. This was justice. I saw the generation that built the Tower of Babel, and the Sodomites, and how they were judged. This was justice. But this nation, what have they done to be oppressed more than any generation before them?”

When Moses arrived on the scene in Egypt, did he say to the people, “You are being punished for your sins. Repent and you will be redeemed!”? No—first he risked his own life to redeem them by confronting Pharaoh, and risked even more by challenging G‑d; he put up with all their kvetching for forty years and only then, in his last days, finally tells them off. But nowhere do we see him justifying G‑d for their enslavement.

In Certainly G‑d has reasons for all that He does . . . but not necessarily reasons that we can understand or swallowour Yom Kippur prayers we describe the ten great sages who were tortured to death by the Romans nearly 2,000 years ago. The Talmud paints a picture of G‑d revealing to Moses every generation and its teachers. Moses sees the greatness of Rabbi Akiva and his colleagues. Then he sees how Rabbi Akiva screams “Shema Yisrael” as the Romans flay him alive with metal combs. Moses protests, “This is Torah and this is its reward?!”

G‑d’s retort? “Quiet! This is what I have decided.”

Obviously, if there were sins that could explain the punishment, G‑d would not have withheld that explanation from Moses. Certainly G‑d has reasons for all that He does. But not necessarily reasons that we can understand or swallow.

It’s true that we say in our prayers, “Because of our sins we were exiled from our land.” It’s also true that the Torah and the prophets include calamities that come (or are threatened to come) as Divine retribution, and that Maimonides exhorts us that when tragedy strikes we should search our deeds and repents our failings.

But many centuries before political correctness, the sages of Israel insisted that something much deeper than punishment is going on here. Time and again, they reiterate that not everything can be explained under the narrow lens of reward and retribution.

Let’s take a closer look at the examples you cite:

“Rabbi Akiva’s students died because they were wicked to one another.”

The Centuries before political correctness, the sages of Israel insisted that something much deeper than “punishment” is going on here . . .actual words the Talmud uses are lo nahagu kavod zeh lazeh—meaning: “they did not grant one another due honor.” Yes, that could be interpreted as a statement that there was something not right in their behavior. But could we really imagine that 24,000 young men that the Talmud describes as students of Rabbi Akiva would deserve death on such a scale because “they did not grant one another due honor”? A much less problematic reading is that their lack of honor for one another detracted from the power of their Torah study that would otherwise have saved them from the plague.

Similarly the statement, “The Second Temple was destroyed because we strayed from G‑d.” Concerning the First Temple, there were prophets who gave warnings for over a hundred years. Concerning the Second Temple, you can feel the rabbis groping desperately for some explanation when they ask, “The Second Temple, when Jews were keeping mitzvahs and learning Torah, why was it destroyed?” And what do they come up with? Sin’at chinam—unwarranted hatred.

What sort of horrible, unwarranted hatred could have caused such a thing? While there were plenty of ugly things going on at the time, the actual example the Talmud cites seems quite benign. The Talmud tells a story of a party where one individual—who turned out to be a rabidly spiteful rascal—was not permitted into a party, and the sages did not protest. If only such incidents would be of our worst sins today!

It is readily apparent that something much deeper than punishment is going on here. Think about it: Does the punishment fit the crime? What rehabilitative measure is there in scattering a nation over the face of the earth for almost 2,000 years? Has it helped reform us? Punishment, the sages of the Talmud tell us, begins most harshly and then, as it has its effect, becomes lighter as time moves on. If anything, our exile has become harsher and more intense with time. Especially the exile of the soul: it is hard to imagine a generation more spiritually confused and frustrated than ours.

This Most interesting is the Talmudic statement, “The only reason the Jewish people were scattered among the nations was to increase in the number of converts”is what prompted the great Kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria—the “Holy Ari,” who lived five hundred years ago—to teach that the destruction of the Second Temple was not a punishment, but a tikkun. And long before, it was Rabbi Akiva who taught that G‑d Himself wept at the destruction of His Temple and the suffering of His people. Most interesting is the Talmudic statement, “The only reason the Jewish people were scattered among the nations was to increase in the number of converts”—which Rabbi DovBer of Lubavitch (1773–1827) interpreted in a Lurianic sense: In order to gather the sparks of holiness from every part of the world, so that all the world would become a G‑dly place.

Certainly there is justice in the world—a Higher Power that rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked (indeed, this is one of the 13 fundamental principles of Judaism). And there are many instances throughout the era of the judges and the kings where prophets told the Jews clearly, “Because of all your sins, these things have come upon you!” And certainly, it is a good idea to repent when bad things befall you.

But to stand up and pronounce judgment on someone else—and especially to say that I know G‑d’s will and G‑d’s mind, and I know that this happened because of this, or that if you people continue this way such-and-such will, G‑d forbid, befall you—that’s something only a prophet can do. And even then, only as part of an explicit mission from Above.

In fact, the sages tell us, even Isaiah was punished when he said to G‑d, “I live among a people whose lips are impure.” Here the sages describe G‑d’s response:

“Isaiah, you are permitted to say ‘I am a man of impure lips.’ But when you say, ‘I live among a people of impure lips’—that I will not tolerate!”

And so, immediately an angel came with a coal and burnt his lips. G‑d said, “Burn the lips of this person who speaks accusations against My children!”

Concerning The Rebbe regarded the idea of the Holocaust as a Divine punishment an intolerable affront not only to the Jewish people, but to their G‑d . . .the Holocaust, I know that here too there are those who would read this as, G‑d forbid, a punishment. But the Rebbe regarded that an intolerable affront not only to the Jewish people, but to their G‑d. As the Rebbe once put it, “It is impossible that the Holocaust was a punishment for sins. Even the Accusing Angel himself could never find sufficient sins in that generation to justify the extermination of six million holy martyrs with such unspeakable cruelty.”

(I even wonder who has more faith: the heretic who cannot accept the existence of G‑d after the Holocaust, or the believer who attributes such horrors to G‑d’s appetite for punishment. The “heretic” believes that if there is a G‑d, He must be compassionate—and he cannot square the Holocaust with that belief; the “believer,” on the other hand, has lost his faith in compassion . . . The alternative may or may not be heresy, but the “retribution for sins” approach is an unbearable affront to the holy Jewish nation and their G‑d.)

In our individual lives and in our view of history, we have a choice concerning how we wish to relate to G‑d. Big Meanie in the Sky, or Loving Father? We have a choice in how we relate to G‑dWe can see Him as that Big Meanie in the Sky, and interpret accordingly. Or we can see a deep relationship happening between Man and G‑d—something we cannot always fathom, but believe in with unalterable faith.

Torah gives you that freedom. In which world do you want to live?


Sources
Much of what is written above is taken from, based on or inspired by the Rebbe’s talk on Shabbat Parshat Vayechi, 5751.