How Would You Answer an Acquaintance’s “Why Bad Things Happen?” Questions?

By Charnie

This is the text of an email I received before Chanukah, shortly before I’d be leaving the office Erev Shabbos. For some reason, I didn’t feel it could be put off till the following week, so I rushed out an answer. This morning I received a response. The emails follow, and I sure hope I’ve handled this properly. What we say to another Yid can have a lasting impression. I’ve never met this woman (at least in adulthood), as we “met” several years ago via a Jewish genealogy discussion group, discovered we grew up in the same neighborhood, have mutual friends, went to the same schools, etc. I knew she wasn’t frum, but I shared my understanding of the topics.

How would you have handled it?

From: —–
To: Charnie@…….
Subject: Sadly…
Date: Fri., Dec. 15, 2006 12:45 PM

…I do not think that Israel will survive into the century; in fact, I’m wondering if it will last another decade. I have spent a great deal of time considering this and I suspect there’s no hope. Clearly, we’re the sacrificial lamb to oil.

On the other hand, I do think that the Jewish people will survive, at least a “spark” of us. Perhaps this is our curse, to wander continuously through time and place.

As for the Satmars and the other anti-Zionists… well, they are unspeakable. I’ve heard Rabbis who’ve said that the Shoah happened because a single Jew ate a single piece of pork. Do you really think that G-d would punish millions for that?

All of these questions make me doubt the existence of G-d. Surely a loving G-d would not have permitted these things to have happened over the millennia, and to continue to happen.

Here is my response:

From: Charie@———-
To: ——
Sent: Fri, 15 Dec 2006 1:16 PM
Subject: Re: Sadly…
Dear —-,

You’ve appropriately used “sadly” as a subject line. None of the points you bring up could in any way induce one to smile.
However, I strongly disagree with you on all points. Israel will survive, as it always has, because we have the best “general” possible, the hand of G-d. Although throughout the millennium the land of Israel has been occupied by others, Jews have always resided there. And as we light the first Chanukah light tonight, we can recall that the Greeks who sought to take us away from our Judaism are no longer in existence. Neither are the Egyptians who enslaved us – the people of modern day Egypt are Arabs, not the advanced culture of biblical times. Nor are the Romans around, they who destroyed the Beis Hamikdash (second Temple) in Jerusalem. And the same is true of each and every people who have ever tried to destroy the Jewish people. In fact, that is why it is believed that the oldest nations on earth are the Jews and the Chinese, because the latter have never sought to do any harm to us. In our own times, Germany is not now what it was 60 years ago. And the same will be true of Iran, which is not the nation of Persia in which Esther and Mordechai defeated Haman from killing all the Jews because Mordechai refused to bow down to him (this being the story of Purim).

Insofar as where was G-d during the Holocaust… that is one of the most frequently asked questions, with just cause. However, the Holocaust did not prove to be the end of us, instead, we have rebounded to heights that no one could have imagined even 50 years ago. Today, more people then ever have Jewish educations. The land of Israel is thriving. This is a very involved subject, one that can be barely touched upon in an email. My husband is very good at explaining these philosophical issues, and if you’d care to join us any Saturday for lunch (the only time I’m up to having guests), please feel free to let me know a few days before, and we’d be delighted to have you as our guest! In the meantime, I’ve attached a few links you might find interesting which touch upon these subjects:

Before I became aware of what being Jewish really meant, I was obsessed with the Holocaust as being the “main event” in Jewish history – one in which my father’s family perished. However, we are not a people of death, we are a people of life. Only through understanding Judaism can we come to accept that it is beyond our comprehension to understand everything that happens. Imagine a first grader sitting in a college level mathematics class. Could they understand what’s going on? Of course not, we wouldn’t question that. As little children we frequently didn’t understand (or agree) with everything our parents said to do or not do. But as we matured, we could grasp the logic of their intent. We are like those same children in our relationship to G-d.

Wishing you a Happy Chanukah!

Here is her response back:

From: —–
To: Charnie@…….
Sent: : Sun, Dec. 17, 2006 12:28 AM
Subject: Re: more Sadly

Dear Charnie,
Let me start by saying that I thought that you were very sweet to take so much time, to make such an effort to respond to my letter. It is clear that you’ve given my letter quite a bit of thought and gone to great lengths to address my points and to try to assist my understanding.

I did not state, however, that I do not expect the Jewish people to survive into the future, because I do think that we’ll survive, at least some “spark” of us, and I said that explicitly in my letter.

I also think, however, that it is our curse to wander, never having a homeland. And, yes, “sadly,” I do not expect the State of Israel to survive; I’ll be surprised if it lasts another decade. Again, yes, I do realize that earlier civilizations that had attempted to vanquish us as a people have long since been obliterated so, perhaps, this was their punishment. Yet we Jews seem doomed to wander, looking for a place to put down roots.

At the same time, I think that you’re being a bit patronizing, however well-intended you are, by assuming that I am ignorant of all things Jewish. Certainly, I know what Purim is; I attended the Jewish Center’s Hebrew school from Sunday school in kindergarten straight through the high school. Anyway, I think that it is safe to assume that most Jews, especially New York Jews, know the highlights of the Jewish year.

I do disagree with your statement that the land of Israel is thriving.

And I have read, at times, the explications of the learned rabbinim, as to the Shoah and other horrific slaughters. Sorry, I just don’t buy them. To me, these scholarly tracts smack of sophistry and rationalization.

Unlike you, I never saw the Shoah as the be-all and end-all of apocalyptic events regarding the Jews. I view the Shoah as a part of a continuum that goes back to Moses and Esther, continues through the Romans at the time of the early Christians, and on to the auto-da-fe, the pogroms, right through to today’s Muslim hatred. The world, in general, always has hated the Jews; the Jews, in response, have spent millennia seeking safe havens. Mankind, in general, always has had evil among us but this is the first time in history that one evil person can have the power to destroy millions of human beings with a single press of a button that unleashes a nuclear bomb. This is the first moment when evil and technology meet and I am afraid that this union is apocalyptic indeed.

Still, I will say again that I think that you are very sweet to care this much, and to make such an effort on my behalf.

Happy Hanukkah to you and your family.


12 comments on “How Would You Answer an Acquaintance’s “Why Bad Things Happen?” Questions?

  1. Charnie, I think you did a fantastic job dealing with a difficult subject. The question of why G-d allows evil to exist is as old as humanity. In particular, it is incredibly difficult for us as Jews to understand why our loving beneficent Deity allowed so many of us to be killed in such horrific ways.

    Miracles happened for the Jewish people even within the darkest days of the Holocaust. Hitler’s top general, Erwin Rommel, boasted that he would exterminate the Jews of the Old Yishuv (Eretz Yisroel before the establishment of modern-day Medinat Israel) in “one afternoon.” Rommel was incredibly successful in his North African campaign and the Jews of the Old Yishuv knew that he meant it. They proclaimed three days of fasting and prayer, knowing their lives were at stake. The Germans were unexpectedly defeated at the battle of El Alamein. A number of coincidences led to the Allied victory, which was one of the great turning points of the war. Churchill stated: “Before El Alamein, we never had a victory; after El Alamein, we never had a defeat.” The Jews of the Old Yishuv (then numbering about 600,000) were saved. There is a book (sorry that I’ve forgotten the exact title) which discusses some of the miracles of the Holocaust.

    In addition, the survival of modern-day Israel has been filled with miracles too. Nobody thought that Israel would survive the Yom Kippur War in 1973. The Egyptians and Syrians attacked without warning, the Israelis were woefully unprepared and over-confident, the Bar-Lev Line crumpled, and it looked in the beginning weeks of war that Israel would be destroyed. President Nixon then made the astonishing decision to rush critical military supplies immediately to Israel, over the State Dept’s objections.

    Don’t forget that the Holocaust was not the only era of death and destruction for the Jewish people, yet we survived them all due to G-d’s Eternal Kindness. You can read at Tisha B’Av time about the terrible slaughter at the time of the Churban Bayis Sheini, or about the Gezeros Tach ve Tat, the massacre of Jews by Cossack hordes in 1648-1649. If you look weekly at the “Today in Jewish History” column in papers such as the Jewish Press and the Yated Neeman, almost every day in the Jewish calendar is the sad commemoration of some killing of Jews somewhere at some time. Yet we’ve survived more than 33 centuries of enemies who have wanted to exterminate us. Remember what we say each year at the Pesach Seder: “In every generation, someone rises up to destroy us, but You save us from their hands.”

  2. The survival of the Jewish people and the state of Israel is under the direct control of Hashem. If things are happening in a certain way, it is not up to us to interpret and pass judgement on their inevitable outcome.
    Hashem has His reasons and we can only have the bitachon and emunah to accept that there is a Higher Power directing.

    Being Jewish requires a great deal of emunah. One cannot look at bad times with despair and think that the end is near. As we have all seen everyday, miracles happen beyond our mind’s capacity to expect or conceive ever would happen.

    My simple answer would be that putting a microsope to a moment of confusion and a time of disunity that we are now living in is not really seeing the entire picture.

    I encourage this person to look for the miracles in life on a daily basis and to not overanalyze what happens be it good or bad.

    I think that this belief is what has sustained the Jewish people throughout our history.

  3. Theodicy is a hashkafic dilemna of immense proportions that bothered none other than Moshe Rabbeinu. The Talmud in Brachos records two traditions among the Tanaim as to whether Moshe Rabbeinu received an answer. Yet, if one reads the Chumash very closely in Parshas Ki Sisah and the Mfarshim there, I think that one key issue in times when evil prevails is not RL “where is G-d”, but rather where was man and what is his or her obligation in reaction to evil.

    One can isolate these responses as either demanding introspection for where we went wrong as a people or requiring us to act affirmatively to prevent it from happening in the future. RYBS summarized this dichotomy quite well in Kol Dodi Dofek.

    FWIW, I wonder sometimes about the concept of Chasidei Umos Haolam which is translated as “righteous gentiles”. The phrase connotes righteous individuals, not nations per se. Although as RMF noted, the US is a Malchus Shel Chesed, one should remember that the presence of major political and economic leaders who were openly anti Semitic as well as FDR’s reluctance to antagonize these groups pre Pearl Harbor or even bomb the railways to the death camps during the war were not exactly acts of lovingkindness.

  4. I think you did an excellent job at responding to this topic that is hard for anybody. To be honest, for me, the Holocaust has instilled more emunah/bitichon because He could of easily forgot about us and we could of been just another nation in the world left in history books. However, he promised He’d never forget us :) B”H

  5. You are to be commended for your patience in responding to such a difficult question which has plagued even Moshe! I would just add to everything that was said, the issue of Free Choice. Man has the choice to do good or evil. Hitler like Pharoah chose to do evil. G-d told Avraham that his people would be slaves etc. but no one put a gun to Pharoah’s head. Hitler may be part of G-d’s plan, but it was his choice to do evil. Some people were saved by righteous gentiles who showed great courage in defying the Nazis.

  6. If we are going to learn anything from this exchange is remembering what it feels like when someone talks AT you as opposed TO you.

    When we present our case to those who inquire it behooves us to avoid the same pitfalls which IMO plagued Charnie’s pen pal’s screed.

  7. Charnie–
    I agree with others that from the look of things, this woman wasn’t very open to hearing what you had to say. That said, two things I would have mentioned in response to her:

    1) The situation in Israel is not nearly as desperate as it always looks from abroad. Personally, even after living here for years, I panicked reading the papers while travelling abroad, because everything on CNN, etc, painted a picture of a country on the verge of collapse. Living here, I see much cause for hope. Ironically, many Israelis picture American Jewry as dying out due to assimilation. I’m sure that Jews living in America see a different picture.

    2) “Wander[ing] continuously through time and space” isn’t necessarily a curse when you compare it (as you tried to) with what happened to everyone else. We are one of the few cultures to survive the millenia, which given our history is an incredible miracle. A look at horrific times in history gives the impression that Hashem was not there (which is actually kind of close to what I’ve heard about “hester panim”–it’s supposed to look like Hashem wasn’t there), but a broader look at the millenia showed a people who, while we didn’t merit to stay in our homeland, survived the centuries and had a major impact on the world.

    I don’t think you were being patronizing, but I do think the phrases “(this being the story of Purim)” and “Before I became aware of what being Jewish really meant” would have best avoided. Based on my experience, non-Orthodox Jews tend to be really sensitive to anything that looks like patronizing/ delegitimising. What sounds innocent to you can sound offensive to them (and yeah, they would probably find my last two sentences patronizing as well).

    Ultimately, I don’t think it’s possible to understand how Hashem could let his people (or any people) suffer without fully accepting the premise of spiritual realms and an afterlife. If this life is everything, then the suffering is all there was, if there’s more than what we see, then suffering may not really be suffering at all. This is very hard to accept even for the religious, and those who don’t believe in olam haba will probably never agree.

    In response to her second email, I would mention that:
    -Suffering in this world is supposed to upset us, and we as Jews have to work to make it better. Our job in this life isn’t to come to a philosophical understanding of pain, it’s to prevent pain.
    -Many of the learned Rabbis who wrote about the holocause were themselves holocaust survivors. To call their attempts to understand events which had caused them untold suffering and pain “sophistry” and “rationalization” is in her own words patronizing, and in my opinion downright cruel. She may not agree with the conclusions they drew, but she should at least respect them as honest people trying to confront and learn from their horrifying experiences. Honestly, does she think that the millions of religious survivors are just all stupider than herself, and were fooled by “sophistry” which only she is clever enough to see through? (OK, I wouldn’t tell her the last part, her comments just touched a nerve).

  8. Thanks for the feedback. Actually, I wasn’t thinking of this as a “kiruv opportunity” per se, although in truth, everything we do is one – we are literally walking/talking kiruv opportunities. I’m not even too sure that this woman knew/knows I’m frum, since our mutual background, other than being from a very Jewish neighborhood, has nothing to do with Yiddishkeit. But you’re probably right on the money about her being closed to any answers, whether from me or those who are much more learned, such as Rebbeim.
    And since this is a cyber-pen pal, who knows to whom my reply could have been forwarded. I’m sure the sender would never guess that she’s now the subject of this blog!

  9. Jacob,
    Could be that she has had previous experiences whith frum people being patronizing, as is common.

  10. Charnie,

    Your initial reply was finely crafted and well thought out. Nice work.

    Of course it was puzzling why this individual decided to present questions that have confounded our experts and authorities to someone she barely knew even as acquaintance.

    Her reply IMO implied an answer: She’s really not interested in searching for the answers that in her mind have already been concluded.

    It was extremely unfair and even nasty to accuse you of patronizing her. The two of you barely know each other and she expects you to have a thorough understanding of her level of education?

    Furthermore, I get the impression that she didn’t even CONSIDER any of the ideas you presented. You were talking to a CyberWall.

    The remark “And I have read, at times, the explications of the learned rabbinim, as to the Shoah and other horrific slaughters. Sorry, I just don’t buy them. To me, these scholarly tracts smack of sophistry and rationalization.”

    Well I don’t buy into the idea that your pen pal made any serious attempt to understand the “explications”.

    You’re right on the mark in saying that our words make deep impressions. However IMO we have to choose our Kiruv challenges carefully. It’s an unfortunate fact of life that in every crowd there is always going to be someone who’s motivated to get the upper hand.

    In the case of Kiruv, the one who is the recipient of outreach efforts could view themselves as “worthy” and seek empowerment through often unreasonable demands and is not interested in a courteous exchange of ideas but is rather looking for their own personal forum and for a smug sense of satisfaction at “stumping the experts”.

    Your attempts were highly laudable but we often need to think on how, when and where to invest our limited resources.

    The above is meant more to be food for thought on the potential caveats of Kiruv than advice on whether or not to continue correspondence with this individual. If my impression is mistaken and you beleive you actually got somewhere (and if your threshold of patience is greater than mine) then of course (but also perhaps with good advice from authoritative sources) consider a continuation.

  11. Charnie,
    You did a great job on a moment’s thought, which is always difficult.

    A few thougts: Her point about “Israel” and the “Jewish People” being different is, of course entirely accurate. There is no component of Yiddishkeut that can obligate us to beleive the the State of Israel will not be destroyed, chas v’shalom. I think that the large majority of Orthodox Jews would agree that we believe that the estabishment of the state was clear “Yad Hashem in a positive sense”, even if many of us don’t hold from the idea that the state is the begining of the geula. As such, we beleive that Hashem will have rachmanus on the Jews living there and maintain the yishuv of EY.

    I would have made clear to her that in any large group there are some wackos. And folks that believe the Holocaust happened because one Jew ate pork certainly qualify for that title. That is definatley not the approach of Satmar or even Neturei Karta. On the other hand, I would not shy away from pointing out that the idea of consequences for our actuions is from the most basic ideas of Judaism. How to apply that takes a lot of thought and sensitivity.

    Hatzlacha raba.

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