Its hard to look past the prurience of the Big Easy

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Even as much of New Orleans was still submerged, dead bodies floated on the putrid city-turned-lake, and live ones waved for aid from rooftops, the accusations flew fast and furious.

The loss of life and property during the Gulf Coast destruction was the fault of …President Bush…Louisiana officials…city planners…those who established a city where disaster was inevitable…those who chose to live there… racism…the Department of Homeland Security …the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Choose your villain or combination of rogues and point fingers accordingly.

As it happens, there is a Jewish concept, too, of finger pointing at times of catastrophe. But it is of a decidedly different sort. Jewish tradition counsels Jews to point their fingers at themselves.

Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast just before the arrival of the Jewish month of Elul, when religious Jews begin a period of particularly intense soul-searching that reaches its crescendo a month later, on the “Days of Judgment,” Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

It might seem a bit proud, but the belief that God mandated a special mission for the Jewish people carries with it a responsibility not only to strive to live exemplary lives in service to the divine but also to see world events as messages. While Judaism considers all of humanity to possess potential holiness and while its prophetic tradition foretells the eventual movement of all of the world’s inhabitants to service of God, it also casts the Jews as chosen. And so Jewishly-conscious Jews have always sought to plumb larger events for more personal meaning.

That was why the Chafetz Chaim, the renowned early 20th century Polish Jewish scholar, who was 85 years old in 1923, reacted to the news of that year’s Kanto earthquake in Japan by undertaking a partial fast and insisting that the news should spur all Jews to repentance. Similarly, after last year’s Asian tsunami, a revered contemporary Jewish sage in Israel, Rabbi Aharon Leib Steinman, was reported to have remarked: “Everyone sits in his own home and feels good. ‘Where I am everything is fine, it’s over there that people are dying.’ We have to learn [from such tragedies] the extent of what sin causes, and it is up to us to analyze and learn … [so that we will] repent.”

The death and misery Hurricane Katrina brought touched every American, and every civilized human being worldwide. The ruin it caused should spur us to do whatever we can to help the displaced and the needy. Countless individuals in fact reacted with determination and generosity. And many groups, including Agudath Israel, established funds to channel assistance. And if there were preventable delays in assessing or addressing the situation, they need to be identified and rectified for any future challenges that may arrive.

In addition, though, to being an opportunity for helping others and fixing systems, Katrina should also be a spur, especially for Jews, to individual introspection.

Although the destruction wrought by Katrina affected a broad swath of the Gulf Coast, the city with which the hurricane has become inextricably coupled is New Orleans. Might the venue of the recent tragedy hold some meaning for us?

What occurs, at least to me, is that the “Big Easy” received its nickname from the lifestyle it exemplified, one of leisure and (in the word’s most literal sense) carelessness. The city is probably best known — or was, at least, until now — for the unbridled partying and debauchery that yearly characterized its annual Mardi Gras celebrations.

I cannot and do not claim to know “why” the hurricane took the terrible toll it did; but our inability to understand should not preclude us — those of us who believe in a God who wants us to reflect on and grow from events around us — from trying to respond to the wind-driven wake-up call by asking “what”: What can I do spiritually as a result?

And one message we might well choose to perceive is the need to recognize how belittling to meaningful life is the contemporary culture of recreation and entertainment.

There is no need to go into the crass detail of what passes for pastime in our age. Even those of us who do not own televisions or frequent movie theaters cannot escape the artifacts of our culture’s decadence; they are ubiquitous. The objectification of human beings, their debasement as mere animals and their reduction to skin and flesh saturate the visual arts and popular music, and have bled into other realms as well. Could we not all benefit from critically confronting that fact, from recognizing the toll such reductionism takes on the deepest meaning of our lives? Could we not benefit, in other words, from pointing our fingers at ourselves, the consumers of the crudeness?

There can be little doubt that we could. And that doing so would be — at least from a traditional Jewish perspective — a most fitting reaction to the maelstrom we have witnessed of late.

Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.

Katrina's aftermath

Rabbi Avi Shafran
Rabbi Avi Shafran

Rabbi Avi Shafran serves as director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America, a national Orthodox Jewish organization