Sunday, July 01, 2007

Are You There, G-d?

Last night was a typical Saturday night for me -- I ate Indian food and watched a Holocaust documentary. This one, though, actually made me cry in a few instances. Not that crying while watching a film about genocide is surprising, but I've seen so many by this point, and I've read so much about the Holocaust, that I often think I am in some ways desensitized to the individual pain, though I remain passionate about speaking out against the atrocity.

Last Days is about Hitler's massacre of the Hungarian Jews in 1944, in the last days of WWII. But while the documentary itself is incredibly moving and tastefully done (it won an Oscar in 1998 for best documentary), what I was most struck by was the place of G-d in the documentary. Everything always comes back to G-d, and questions of G-d. One man, for example, a Greek Jew who had been a member of the Sonderkommando in Auschwitz, asks, "Why did G-d spare me?" I suppose, though, that the better question is: "What kind of god would allow this to happen?" And yet, the atrocity itself seems to answer the question: "There is no god." The irony, of course, (though maybe "irony" is the wrong word) is that he was not spared. G-d did not spare him. He lived, physically, but he was not spared emotionally or psychologically. I imagine that living through such a horrific experience (remember that the Sonderkommando saw the worst of the worst in Auschwitz, and that very few survived to tell the tale) is tantamount to dying countless physical deaths. There is no "life" after Auschwitz.

It is in this context that I thought of something a friend said to me the other day. For various reasons, this person has spent time in different countries, some of which are countries where people don't vacation or travel to for fun because of the terrible things that transpire there on a daily basis. At any rate, witnessing firsthand what we might call the inhumanity of man against man has shaped my friend's view of G-d, which is that there is no G-d.

But of course it is "true" in that it makes perfect sense. Our beliefs in G-d have everything to do with two things: our own experience of the world (which has largely to do with where we live and to what class we belong), and our own desires. I grew up in an Evangelical community (lately I've been saying that I'm a recovering Evangelical, though the truth is that I am fully recovered, thank G-d, with no chance of relapse) where the prevailing mindset was that G-d is good all the time, that if we ask, we will receive, that G-d loves, protects, and watches over us. We are selfish; our view of G-d reflects little more than what we want him to be for us personally.

And so we populate the heavens with the golems of our own narcissistic impulses . . .

But this god exists only for the people who inhabit a culture of mega-churches and economic abundance. Sometimes I still want this god to exist; I want him to be real -- at least "real" in this particular way. But that is not possible anymore, especially when this is a view of G-d that cannot be perceived by most people around the world. One Hungarian survivor from the film -- actually was a member of Congress from California -- said it best: We "cannot find a place for a higher authority in this nightmare." And that is just the nightmare of the Holocaust, not the nightmare of living in a post-Holocaust world full of daily nightmares.

So now I'm going to be depressed all week, no doubt. No more Holocaust films for the next week.


apasserby said...

If god does exist, why assume he doesn't allow bad things to happen? If nothing "bad" ever happened, how would I know that things currently happening were "good"? How am I supposed to "be nice" if I don't know what it means to be otherwise. If people have free will, as most christians believe, then we have the will to do these "bad things" and G-d doesn't get involved. On the other hand if G-d does get involved, what of free will? Yadda yadda yadda, religion in full of contradictions of course, but it's more an exercise of the mind than some objective truth of the world.
Considering no-one has ever defined G-d, I don't think we can even talk about or make any suggestions either which way. When we say there isn't a "GOD", what is it that we're saying doesn't exist? If we're simply saying that there isn't a divinve creator, then what's a "Creator", what does it mean to creat, and what is divine? Did these things even exist before man had them in his mind? Create can mean, "cause to become", maybe god is an explosion.

DSW said...

The basic notion of your post is an interesting question, and one I have struggled with a great deal in my lifetime but especially over the past two years.

In the month following my brother Zach's murder I read Rabbi Kushner's "When Bad Things Happen to Good People" and it left me feeling extremely unsatisfied. Basically, Kushner contends that all things "bad" in our world can be attributed to randomness because G-d is too preoccupied to be concerned with the day-to-day of our mundane existences. That is, G-d is all-knowing, just not all-powerful and/or all-loving.

About six months after I read "WBTHtGP" I found a critique of Kushner by Rabbi Yitzchok Kirzner and Kirner contends that all suffering has purpose and while I don't fully accept that explanation he did write something I found compelling. Kirzner attests, "Judging G-d is a dangerous game, for it means employing the standards of our finite intelligence to judge His infinite intelligence." This statement is something I can agree with.

I believe (and I seriously doubt I'm the first to believe this) that G-d is all-loving, all-knowing, and all-powerful BUT he gave humankind free-will. And if G-d chooses not to interfere in our earthly affairs then so be it. That's not to say we shouldn't question Him, or be angry at Him, but will we get any satisfaction from such actions?

G-d has placed the outcome of the world in our hands, that is the very essence of Tikkun Olam - the repair of the world, the belief that the Messiah will come when we no longer need him.

Perhaps then, Rabbi Kirzner was right - not in the sense that all death and/or suffering has a purpose but to ASCRIBE it a purpose. The danger with this line of reasoning is of course martyrdom and it has been my experience that there is little place for martyrdom in Tikkun Olam.

Anonymous said...

If there is a G-d, I think it is fair to assume that he/she knows far more about how everything works than what is within our limited grasp as humans. I think it is fair to question. Fair to raise critical issues. I am not sure it is fair to conclude that if we cannot as humans understand everything... if we cannot understand how suffering and G-d can co-exist.. that an all-knowing all powerful G-d must not exist. That makes us G-d-like. The issues you have raised are no doubt serious and important issues. Nothing in this is meant to suggest that you have no right to question G-d's existence... but to conclude??? That is another story.

Monica said...

apasserby --

Well, first of all, Christians are not the only ones who believe humans have free will. But I think you are right to question what it is that does not exist when we say that G-d does not exist. I, myself, have moved very far away from the notion of G-d that I was raised with -- the notion of an all-powerful G-d who loves and protects people and who answers prayer. Don't get me wrong -- I still think that, somehow, there is something to prayer. But I can't buy into the notion of a loving G-d who intervenes on our behalf when there are tragedies such as the Holocaust. I mean, what of the people who cried out to G-d then, as they were being shoved into gas chambers and ovens? We in America have a very unique and privileged notion/understanding of G-d that is derived precisely from the luxuries we (though when I say "we" I am not taking into account people who are poor, homeless, etc in the US) have. I suppose I am of the mindset that G-d does exist, but I'm not sure what exactly that means. I tend to believe that G-d does NOT have the power or ability to intervene -- perhaps this is the only way I can believe in G-d and not lose faith completely. In this regard, I kind of like your last line: "maybe god is an explosion."

apasserby said...

Absolutely, you'll have to forgive my narrowmindedness on the free will notion being attached to christians (I like to pick on em').
Somewhere there's a saying that goes something like, "If a man who can't count finds a 4 leaf clover, is he lucky?". Now of course one can argue or suggest they place no such fortunes upon this sort of event, but the idea can no less be applied accross the board. So is a man lucky? Is he saved? Will he reach the pearly gates? Will he reincarnate into greater fortunes? Will he reach nirvana? The saying suggests from one perspective that, well, it's really a matter of perspective.
Now I know nothing beyond common knoledge when it come to the holocaust, however I seem to recall reading a something on the subject years ago. This was an individual who spent time in a concentration camp and recalled his experience there. One thing stays in my mind to this day which was the observation by this individual on being able to tell when someone was about to, or soon to die. His point seemed to be that, even though everyone was suffering under the same conditions, some would wake in the morning with a smile and a greet, offer up what they had and lived. Others fell mentally victim to the circumstance and died inside. So ultimately one who was saved counted himself so, while others counted themselves doomed to death. Perhaps that is free will, and perhaps G-d is simply, hope, which gives a man desire to live.