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    “Acts of God” — is it all just a cosmic joke?

    The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple originally appeared on the ABC Religion and Ethics website on 10 January, 2023.

    COVID-19 has shaken the whole world. In some places it seems to have diminished, but the memory of the pain and suffering will probably never completely recede. No one is certain what brought on the pandemic. We wonder whether to blame God, or is that too easy and conventional? However, if we don’t blame God, is there anyone else we can accuse?

    Disasters seem to come in two forms: “natural” and “moral”. Moral disasters — for example, the Holocaust — are exceedingly hard to cope with, but we know that they are the horrible result of humans using their free will to wreak harm. Such tragedies can rightly be ascribed to the evil side of human nature. In that sense, however, it is hard to consider that the novel coronavirus is caused by human beings. About whether humans in Wuhan or anywhere else bear a share of responsibility, the jury is still out.

    “Natural” disasters include the three Fs — flood, fire, and famine — as well as tsunamis, earthquakes, and pandemics, which seem to be caused by fault lines in the structure of the universe. We tend to call the three Fs “acts of God”. Our problem is how to take this strange phrase, how to handle its theology, and whether to say the tragedies were caused by God in some direct or residual sense. It is a form of the “God of the gaps”, suggesting that everything which is hard to explain can be attributed to God.

    In some way, of course, absolutely everything that happens is — in the final analysis — traceable to God. This means that somehow or other, God initiates all that transpires, both evil and good. But it is doubtful whether it is semantically logical to speak in these terms. It is preferable to set limits to the phrase, restricting “acts of God” to events and experiences of a certain type. As my legal friend Andrew Samuel says, we should not be in a hurry to apply the term to anything outside the legal sphere — in particular, the law of contract. In a day-to-day legal context, the term must be restricted to events of such an extraordinary nature that they could not have been foreseen, anticipated, or provided against.

    The phrase “act of God” is an idiom, not to be taken literally. It cannot be applied across the board. It cannot be understood as saying that God is to blame for highly uncommon events. But if we cannot directly blame God, can we still say He bears some responsibility? If not, it seems we are trapped in a battle between two forces — maybe a struggle between light and darkness — when sometimes one force wins, sometimes the other, leaving us, as Arnold Toynbee put it, victims of a cosmic joke.

    This seems to imply that God has been defeated and pushed out of the cosmos. Maybe He has lost patience with His Creation and has decided to withdraw from history and abandon all concern for the world, which contradicts the traditional religious doctrine that He is in charge and the world is not ownerless — in Hebrew, hefker.

    Biblical thinking (see, for instance, Isaiah 45:7) is adamant that God initiates both good and evil. Even what we perceive as evil has a place in His plan. Everything is described in the Book of Genesis as “good” or “very good” — which is to say, stable and firm, part of the pattern of a functioning universe.

    What, then, can we say about the pandemic? The following are some of the theories, followed by possible answers:

    That God is punishing us for our sins? This is too harsh. Ancient humans attributed suffering to sin, but this is too simplistic and cannot be applied to every tragedy.

    That the Creator has lost patience with His Creation? But the Bible records His promise not to destroy the world (Genesis 8–12).

    That God has no control over the disaster and lets things run wild? Impossible. Surely He wants the best for His world. Surely He is powerful enough to preserve His Creation. Surely the Hebrew sages are right that God is Shaddai, the One who knows when to say Dai — “enough!”

    That humans are at least partly responsible because they didn’t care enough for the created world? True, humans should and could have worked harder on the universe, but why insult humans by absolving God of blame?

    That we cannot explain the evil but can alleviate the pain? This gives us something to do in time of trouble, but the real problem remains.

    That God shares our pain? Harold Kushner says that in times of calamity, God sits in mourning with us. Sometimes God has to confess, “I too am grieving.”

    That it’s not a perfect world? We have no right to expect Him to have created a perfect world, but when the Bible says that whatever God made was good, nothing is said about even the minor defects.

    That there is more good than evil in the cosmos? True, we should count our blessings, but can we let God entirely off the hook?

    That there exists more evil than good? Doubtful, since we see goodness of many kinds though we cannot compute their proportion of reality.

    That we have to keep believing, praying, and hoping for redemptive answers? True, but the Psalmist is right to ask, “How long, O Lord, how long?”

    One day we will come closer to an answer and find out whether pandemics are natural or moral disasters. In the meantime, we must battle the problem with vaccines and other medical means, and try to limit the pandemic’s economic fall-out. In the meantime, God must assure us — in the words of Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev — that our suffering is for His sake.

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