9/11 Plus Ten: A Nagging Question That Won't Go Away

Ten years after 9/11, one question won't go away. "Where was G-d?" was not the issue I struggled with, no more than in myriad other confrontations with evil and with suffering. The existence of evil is a problem that all people who take G-d seriously wrestle with all the time. For me, the question was, "Do people who claim to believe in Him really worship the same G-d?" Ten years later, I still struggle with it.

After the shock, the pain, the numbness all subsided in the days after the attack, two ideas wouldn't go away. One was an intense feeling of pride in being an American. For all the pitfalls of a society too secular, too trivial, and too materialistic, it looked so much better when contrasted with the emerging alternative path for civilization or lack thereof. Much of what I disdained about contemporary American culture became much more acceptable when I placed it under the rubric of "human freedom." Freedom, with all the excess it could lead to, was clearly better than mind-controlled barbarism.

The second idea became a constant burden. Public religious figures knew that many, many people would be beating down their doors, asking them for The Meaning of the events that had just changed the face of Western civilization. What could we, still struggling to make some sense of them, have to offer our students and interlocutors?

I did what made the best sense. I punted. Just after the planes took to the air again, I ran into one of the most respected figures in the Orthodox Jewish world. "Rebbe - my teacher," I said to him. "Lots of people were clamoring for some sort of Torah insight on the attack. What do you have to say?"

"What do you see as the key problem that people in our community are agonizing over?" Like many master pedagogues, he pushed me to do more of the heavy intellectual lifting.

I said, "I think that it is the blackening of the name of G-d. Many skeptics see all religious enthusiasm as cut from the same cloth. Here we see people who enthusiastically gave their lives for G-d, but in a manner that makes Satan look good. I fear that all good, decent belief will suffer from such a potent example of religious devotion being so ugly."

I had touched a raw nerve. Ordinarily the very model of easy-going affability, he tensed. "They did not do this for G-d!"

What did he mean by that? Every one of the terrorists would have sworn on a stack of Korans that he acted for G-d alone. (There was no time to query him on that; he headed into his response to my question, which will have to await a future column.)

I believe that he meant the following: The source of all good is G-d. Sometimes we access it directly, when we turn to Him and learn from His words. Sometimes we access it without relating it to Him at all. Even those who profess not to believe in Him, really touch Him, as it were, draw from Him when they act according to His Nature. A devout atheist who spends an afternoon selflessly helping the homeless is experiencing G-d, even if his mind insists on framing it in a different manner. This idea has more than adequate basis in Jewish thought. (My experience is that Christian friends, in particular, embrace this kind of thinking. They see any act of goodness as a reflection of the availability of G-d's love, whether the actor understands this or not.)

A corollary of this is that when people are engaged in activity that is antithetical to G-d's nature, they are not experiencing G-d, not connected with Him, not responding to Him—no matter what they say. What we are doing may have no relationship, theologically, with what we think or say we are doing.

How far do we go with this disconnect between statement and reality? What if a person constantly extols the great wisdom of G-d, but insists that one of His key teachings is that the interior angles of a triangle add up to 240 degrees? Does she still believe in a wise G-d?

If a person declares his belief in the One G-d Who created Heaven and Earth, but then adds that he believes that G-d is a frozen green doughnut, does he still believe in what the rest of us call G-d? I think not. The two parts of his statement amount to an oxymoronic belief.

What about other incompatibilities? What if you maintain that G-d is absolutely good, but in the same breath argue that He loves evil? Doesn't that assertion put you so far out of the box, that you can't be said to believe in the same G-d worshipped by traditional Jews and Christians?

Let's make the question still more difficult. What if you maintain that G-d is omniscient, perfect, an absolute Unity, and completely good—but you perform, command, and applaud the most barbaric and despicable activities in the name of that same G-d. Not as the exception, but as a rule. Aren't G-d's commandments a refraction of what He is? If He commands people to love death, to blow up busses and trains at rush-hour, to fly planes into buildings, and to pack ball-bearings into the suicide bombing kits of young terrorists to inflict maximum pain and damage, can He really be the same G-d that the rest of us know?

Many of us want to believe that what separates us—strong religious belief—can also become the glue to bind us together. We point to a common Abrahamic tradition. There is no question that this thinking is true, for hundreds of millions of people. I am more troubled than ever, though, that the people whom we want the most to reach with this thinking are simply not going to respond to it—ever.

Because when push comes to shove, perhaps they really don't believe in the same G-d. This was frightening ten years ago, and is still frightening today.

9/9/2011 4:00:00 AM
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  • Yitzchok Adlerstein
    About Yitzchok Adlerstein
    Yitzchok Adlerstein is an Orthodox rabbi who directs interfaith affairs for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and chairs Jewish Law at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. He is hopelessly addicted to the serious study of Torah texts.