Thursday, February 02, 2006

Divine Wrath and Earl

Recently, Pat Robertson took some heat for saying that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's stroke was Divine punishment for dividing the land of Israel. (He has since backpedaled from this statement, because hey, business is business). Muslims have also suggested that the stroke was a sign of Divine wrath: Allah's punishment for all the things Sharon has done for the past 50 years or so. Apparently, Allah has a substantial backlog.

I believe that this stroke is a sure sign of the Creator's punishment ... against elderly, obese men who take on one of the most stressful jobs on the world. Let's be realistic about this: Sharon is 77 years old. He himself said that he couldn't wear a bullet-proof vest because "they don't make them in my size." And the fact that he has to consider wearing a bullet-proof vest, at risk from both his own people's hardliners as well as from his country's many enemies, should give you some idea of how stressful his job is! Indeed, it could be considered miraculous that a man in his circumstances lived as long as he did without suffering a stroke. Could it be a sign of Divine approval? Perhaps the Creator sustained him this long so he could make the remarkable sacrifice of the communities in the Gaza Strip in the name of peace? And perhaps the creator struck him down when He did to spare Sharon having to see the overwhelmingly electoral victory of a party dedicated to expelling Sharon's people from the land where he was born?

But Robertson isn't the only one playing the Divine Wrath card these days. And it's not just for fundamentalists any more: New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin said that Hurricane Katrina and the other hurricanes this year were Divine punishment for the war in Iraq. A variety of conservative commentators, on the other hand, say Katrina was Divine punishment for the country's immorality (abortion, homosexuality, Terry Schiavo, take your pick). Me? I think it was Divine punishment for living 10 feet below sea level without adequate levees.

Back in 2003, the Divine wrath card was restricted to religious fundamentalists, which probably explains why no one saw Divine wrath in one of its more obvious manifestations: the lightning bolt that struck actor Jim Cazviel and assistant director Jan Michelini during the filming of The Passion of the Christ. This is, of course, Divine punishment for standing in the middle of an open field on a hill in the middle of a lightning storm and holding up, or being affixed to, the nearest equivalent of a lightning rod.

And then there's Jerry Falwell, citing 9/11 as Divine wrath against homosexuals. The litany of stupidity that the Creator could have been punishing on 9/11 could fill an entire book. In fact, it did fill an entire book: it's called the Report of the 9/11 Commission. Let's just take my favorite example: punishment for the government failing to act on reports that foreigners were paying cash to learn how to fly a commercial airliner, but didn't want to know how to land it. I don't think the Creator approves much of that level of stupidity.

But those who have read the biblical book of Job know that Divine rewards and punishments aren't as easily discerned as some would like to believe. In the book of Job, a man suffers numerous personal setbacks, not because of anything he has done wrong, but only to see if he will maintain his faith when the Creator doesn't give him everything he wants. His friends and neighbors are quick to judge him, quick to conclude that his setbacks are a sign of Divine disfavor, but they are all wrong.

But why are rewards and punishments not obvious? Wouldn't the world be a better place if good deeds were always promptly and appropriately rewarded, while bad deeds were equally punished?

The traditional Jewish answer to this dilemma is free will: if the Creator smacked you down every time you did something wrong, you wouldn't have much choice in the matter, would you?

Consider the one of my favorite TV shows, My Name Is Earl. For those who haven't seen it: Earl is a petty criminal who learns about a simplified version of karma (a Hindu/Buddhist concept): if you do good things, then good things will happen to you; if you do bad things, it will come back to haunt you. He sets out to make right every wrong he has ever done, not because he wants to do good, but because his life is miserable and he thinks this will make it better. And in Earl's world, the rewards and punishments are very clear: he wins a $100,000 lottery that he doesn't deserve, and he promptly gets hit by a car and loses the lottery ticket. He cleans up a parking lot to make up for his past wrong of being a litterbug, and while cleaning he finds that $100,000 ticket.

It's very entertaining, but it is quite clear that Earl has no free will. His choices do not arise from his own moral center, from his own sense of right and wrong. Rather his choices are compelled by his awareness of immediate reward and punishment. He chooses not to steal because he knows that he will get no benefit from what he steals.

Traditional Judaism teaches that this is not what the Creator wants from us. He wants us to behave in a certain way not because of desire for reward or fear of punishment, but because it is the right thing to do.

4 comments:

rsfpfrxts said...

The Library Of Wheat Is Burning
A big library is burning, but nobody cares about fighting the fire - what is happening? Every cultivated plant has its hot spot of genetic variety, usually in the area where it was first cultivated. It is a genetic library where new sorts can be taken from, if a problem occurs: Your crop is endangered by a new pest or a plant disease? The genetic hot spot of your plant will provide a sort that is immune against it. You can cross-breed it with your old lines and breed plants with the good qualities of both. If the hot spot is destroyed, nobody will ever get the information back. Even the most advanced geneticists can just take a gene from one living being to put it into another, but they cannot build new ones. The hot spot of wheat is in Iraq, where it was first cultivated some milleniums ago. Now it is in danger! The American authorities in Iraq have given so-called Orders that cannot be changed by Iraqi Parliament (even after the retreat of American troops) and have thus a higher rank than a constitution. Order 81 says that Iraqi farmers are not allowed to take seeds for the next year from their crop but must always buy new seeds from big enterprises; critics say that parts of it were written by Monsanto and just signed by the authorities. As many farmers in Iraq have little seeds left after the last years of hardship, the authorities help them with seeds, but they buy the wheat from big enterprises and most of it is genetically manipulated. This way, Iraq is forced to replace its traditional farming with hundreds of local sorts by a form of farming dominated by big enterprises and genetically manipulated plants that are unwanted in most Western countries. I think that this policy can only be changed if many American voters tell the politicians that they are concerned.
As I saw on this blog concerns about the consequences of excesses in the war on terror, I hope that maybe you can do something about it.

Tony Minich said...

My Jewish brother,

I would like to thank you for blogging this incident. I fully agree with you on the Pat Robertson remarks on Ariel Sharon. Rev. Robertson tends to run off at his mouth without contemplating the consequences. He is one of those people that, at times, makes me ashamed to be a gentile.

Keep up the good work in your blog and educating everyone with the wisdom that you have been blessed with.

Terri said...

I am a Christian, and I agree with your post.

It is a sad, sad thing when mere mortals claim to know the mind of
G-d, apart from what is revealed to us in the scriptures.

I also agree with Tony Minich. There are careless statements made by some who claim to be disciples of Jesus Christ that make me want to crawl out of my skin in embarassment and shame.

Not all gentiles think or feel as Pat Robertson and his ilk, and certainly not true followers of Jesus.

I pray for blessings on and for the peace of Israel.

Thank you for educating me in all things Jewish!

Terri

Zipcard2 said...

Our creator sometimes gives man too much credit sad to say.