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Drash, Divine Justice or Divine Responsibility

Drash by Bill Galston, January 2015
Divine Justice or Divine Responsibility

Introduction: the origin of these reflections

In 1991, on the anniversary of Kristallnacht, the late philosopher and theologian Emil Fackenheim told a dramatic story:

"Just fifty-three years ago today, I was grabbed by the Gestapo and together with about twenty or twenty-five others, put into a cell.  There we sat, our future unknown.  After a while an older man asked me, 'Fackenheim, you have studied Judaism, we haven't. You tell is what Judaism is now,'  I had nothing to say because I was not going to say that we are being punished for our sins or that we're all responsible for each other, and some of us responsible for the sins of others.  I wasn't even going to say this has a meaning in the mind of God that is unknown to us.  Other such things I would have found obscene and an insult to those harmless people."

I'm with Fackenheim.  Let me explain.

There's a certain kind of religious thinking that I find unacceptable: God is both just and responsible for everything that happens in the world.  You can't believe both at the same time without being driven to moral absurdities such as:

  • The Holocaust must have been punishment for the sins of its victims.
  • Natural disasters are God's punishment.

Such sentiments are not confined to the past; after the murder of the rabbis on Har Nof, I ran across remarks to the same effect.

Obviously there are people who are comfortable squaring the circle in this way.  I think it's a denial of morality and common sense.  Bad things happen to people who don't deserve them in any way.  Period.  We have to choose between divine justice and divine responsibility for the course of the world.

How is this possible? 

A parable -

A man brought his son into the business he had built.  After some time, the father told the son that he was going away on a trip and was leaving the business in his hands. 

How long will you be gone, asked the son?  I'm not sure, replied the father.

Will I be able to communicate with you while you're gone?  Probably not, said the father?

How will I know what to do?  Well, said the father, you know that operating manual I gave you.  Sure, said the son.  I've been studying it.  But I have to tell you, father, I keep on running into problems it doesn't tell me how to solve.

I know, the father said, but if you think hard, you can figure it out for yourself.

But what if I get it wrong and make a mistake?, wailed the son.

At that the father smiled and said, I'm going to tell you something.  When I was just beginning, I made so many mistakes that I had to close the business and start all over again. 

But father, father, you've been a constant presence in my life.  How will I get along without out you?  Son, I've given you everything I can, and now it's up to you to use it well.

How is this possible?  An explanation - 

Judaism is an historical religion.  Certain things happen at particular times and then end.

  • Once the Torah was given, we were forbidden to add to or subtract from it.
  • Prophecy once occurred, but now the gates of prophecy are shut.
  • Talmud is closed; we study it and write commentaries but do not change the underlying text.

My suggestion is simple: we should extend this principle to cover other aspects of our tradition, such as God's direct presence and-especially-God's intervention in the natural order, otherwise known as miracles.

I'm hardly first to think along these lines.  Richard Elliott Friedman, a professor of Hebrew literature, published important book, The Disappearance of God: A Divine Mystery, an interpretation of the Tanakh based on Deut. 32:20: "I will hide My countenance from them, and see how they fare in the end."  Friedman documents a steady decline over time in textual mentions of God and in stories of divine presence and agency in human life.

Although God disappears, we are left with what I call the residue of God.  What is that residue?

  • Freedom
  • Reason
  • An order of nature that reason can comprehend
  • A realm of law that directs the use of our freedom

Each of these elements of God's residue is firmly rooted in our tradition. Consider the following texts:


God foreknows only the possibilities open to a man in his freedom, not the particular decisions he will make.

Levi ben Gershon (Gersonides)

Everything is in the hands of heaven save the fear of heaven.

R. Chanina (BT Megilla 25a)

God is mighty for He shackles His omnipotence and becomes powerless so that history may be possible.

Eliezer Berkovits


He who believes in a thing that is contrary to all logic abuses the finest gift God gave him.

        Moses ibn Ezra

Reason is the angel that mediates between God and man.

        Abraham ibn Ezra

The Holy One looked in the Torah as He created the world.

        R. Hoshiya (Genesis Rabba 1:1)

The natural order

The elders in Rome were asked, "If [your God] has no desire for idolatry, why does He not abolish it?"  They replied: "If it were something of which the world had no need that was worshiped, He would abolish it.  But people worship the sun, moon, stars, and planets.  Should he destroy the world on account of fools?  The world pursues its normal course; and as for the fools who act wrongly, they will have to render an account.  Another illustration: suppose a man stole a measure of wheat and went and sowed it in the ground.  It is right that it should not grow.  But the world pursues its normal course; and as for the fools who act wrongly, they will have to render an account.  Another illustration: suppose a man has intercourse with his neighbor's wife.  It is right that she should not conceive.  But the world pursues its normal course; and as for the fools who act wrongly, they will have to render an account."  This is similar to what Rabbi Simeon ben Lakish said: "the Holy One, blessed be He, declared, 'Not enough that the wicked put My coinage to vulgar use, but they trouble Me and compel me to set My seal thereon!'"

       BT Avodah Zarah 54b

The moral law

Our tradition understands that our untutored, intuitive grasp of right and wrong precedes the giving of the Law. 

  • In the story of Eden, human consciousness and the sense of right and wrong emerge together.  No one told Cain that it was wrong to kill Abel. Nevertheless, Cain knows.
  • Abraham: "Shall not the Judge of all the earth do justly?"  No one told him that it is unjust to treat the innocent in the same way as the guilt, but he knows.

The early Jewish philosopher Saadya Gaon said that "Sin is not sinful because God forbade it, but God forbade it because it is sinful."  What's right is intrinsically right, and wrong intrinsically wrong.  That's why we have the capacity to distinguish the one from the other without having to be told.

Neither do we need philosophy or theology to tell us that although we have the moral capacity to tell right from wrong, we also have the ability to ignore that knowledge.  That's why our tradition talks about the yetzer ha-ra with such confidence, as a matter of common sense. Which it is.


This bring me back to where I began: Why do bad things happen to good people, anyway?  There are two reasons:

  • There is a natural world whose laws have nothing to do with justice and injustice.  That's why good people die of cancer.  That's why tsunamis and floods sweep away innocent children.
  • There are bad people who do bad things to good people.  And all too often there are decent people who allow those bad people to act badly.

I might even suggest that inaction in the face of evil is a greater wrong than evil itself, because those who stand aside are almost always stronger-at least potentially-than the evil-doers. 

Inaction in the face of evil may reflect cowardice-or even worse, indifference.  In any event, it's not God's fault; it's ours.