Flames surround a house in Malibu, where the Woolsey Fire led to the evacuation of thousands of homes, Nov. 2018. (Photo/JTA-David McNew-Getty Images)
Flames surround a house in Malibu, where the Woolsey Fire led to the evacuation of thousands of homes, Nov. 2018. (Photo/JTA-David McNew-Getty Images)

The uncertain theology of tragedy and disaster

I sit by a window overlooking San Francisco’s Glen Canyon. The visibility is limited. However, unlike the limited visibility three days earlier, caused by the toxic smoke from the Northern California fires, today’s reduced visual is brought by blessed rainfall and fog. The hum of the dishwasher cleaning Thanksgiving dishes and the patter of rain on the treetops generate memories.

Years ago I visited Santa Barbara, where a fire had recently devastated much of the area. I sat in a circle with others and we introduced ourselves. One woman, who spoke of her experience of the fire, finished with, “…and God brought the fire to the edge of our property and extended His Grace to save our house.”

“Wait a minute,” a voice came from the other side of the circle, “are you saying that God singled out our house for destruction?”

I also remember the words of a woman who was widowed when her husband, a fire captain, was lost on 9/11. Years later, she stood before a crowd at a memorial for the 9/11 victims and said, with a strong Brooklyn accent, “Ya lose ya faith in God, but ya get a whole new kind of religion… a whole new God.”

The theology that follows tragedy is one of initiation. It destroys one worldview and, if carefully tended, delivers another. A catastrophe is likely to shatter the Deutoronomical faith that claims that reward and punishment are linked to merit or entitlement. Therefore, when bad things happen, one of the first instincts is to look for meaning and ask, “What have I done to deserve such a fate?”

Rebbe Nachman says that we must learn to live on the narrow bridge without fear. Religious fundamentalism conceives of that bridge as a concrete structure. As long as we put our faith in the bridge and follow its rules, we will be safe for the crossing. This closes eyes to the mystery of causality and substitutes fear for faith while attempting life’s journey from one edge of the canyon to another. Furthermore, it allows us to pretend that our behavior has no consequences. We can throw our garbage off the bridge into the waters below and our toxins into the air above and not worry that eventually the pollution will come back to smother us. God will protect us, as long as we believe.

However, as we cling ever more tightly to our certainty, the bridge begins to crumble, because its infrastructure was built on thought and not on deeds. Faith is shattered and so is the life of the believer.

Are you saying that God singled out our house for destruction?

Mature spirituality sees the bridge as a suspension bridge swinging over the great unknown that is the canyon below. We venture out with caution, vulnerability and wonder, crossing the fragile bridge with eyes open, propelled by curiosity and awe. We commit to responsible care for the bridge, for those who share the passage with us and for the air above and the water below. We understand that the Shema’s oneness links us with all beings and unites us in a democratic culture of mutual care.

Mature spirituality does not deny our vulnerability. It recognizes the limits of our human perception that is restricted to five or maybe six senses, when there may be many more channels of discernment outside of human capability or understanding. Therefore, it does not presume to comprehend the unfolding of the universe and finds peace with the ability to live with the unknown. Like the holiday of Sukkot, in which we live in fragile structures, while celebrating zman simchateinu (time of our joy), mature spirituality can handle paradox. It embraces what Carl Jung called “the tension of opposites,” to eschew binaries and hold all experience in one open heart.

I tell my students, who are studying to be rabbis, cantors and chaplains, that I may be the only professor whose goal is to have them say at the end of the course, “I don’t know.” When a student approaches me before ordination and says, “I just don’t think I know enough to be a rabbi,” my response is, “I wouldn’t sign your teudah/ordination certificate if you thought you did.”

Biblical texts seek to make meaning. The destruction of the city of Sodom is called an act of God in response to the sinfulness of Sodom’s citizens. The flood that devastated much of the ancient Middle East is blamed on the corruption of the generation of Noah.

The prologue to the Book of Job, however, touches on capricious fate. While initially ascribing Job’s suffering to a wager between God and Satan, toward the end of the book, God disputes Job’s so-called friends, who insisted that Job was punished for his own transgressions. God says that only Job, who dared to rage at the injustice of his travails, “told the truth about Me,” handing the baton to those who would fight for justice and reject simplistic formulas of reward and punishment.

Post-Biblical Jewish texts encourage us to ask questions. We learn to search — not for the right answer but rather for the questions that unlock the text, so that we can weave our lives into it as we search for “the question for which your life is the answer,” according to my teacher, Rabbi Jonathan Omer-Man.

When we live in the questions and not the answers, we are energized by curiosity as we hazard our journey, as companions for each other, as we cross the narrow bridge. We are delivered onto a realm of higher spirituality where we embrace the God of Evolving Mystery to seek shalom, knowing that shalom is not a static state but an ever-changing and inclusive balance that needs our consistent care and tending.

Rabbi Anne Brener
Rabbi Anne Brener

Rabbi Anne Brener, LCSW, is a professor of ritual and spiritual development at the Academy for Jewish Religion in Los Angeles. She is also a psychotherapist and the author of “Mourning & Mitzvah.”