Jewish Journal

Understanding and Responding to Evil

An Interview with Rabbi Harold Schulweis.

by Elliot Fein

Posted on Sep. 5, 2002 at 8:00 pm

The subject of evil is something that has entered my mind often this past year. Since Sept. 11, and also from the ongoing news

coverage from Israel, I have had many questions and have engaged in frequent discussions about this subject.

Rabbi Harold Schulweis is a theologian and scholar who has thought very profoundly about the subject of evil. He is a spiritual leader whose influence goes well beyond the walls of his synagogue, Congregation Valley Beth Shalom in Encino. When he earned a Ph.D. in theology from the Pacific School of Religion, the title of Schulweis's dissertation, which later became a published book, was "Evil and the Morality of God."

I recently drove up to his office to see if Schulweis could help me in my struggle. I was not disappointed.

The following is some of what he shared.

Elliot Fein: Encino is located right next to Northridge. You lived through the Northridge Earthquake. Where was God in this event?

Harold Schulweis: We do not give enough attention to a question like this. Unfortunately, theology and philosophy are considered to be extraneous to Judaism and to everyday life, something that is of interest to only intellectuals, rabbis and other clergy. It is important for everyone to develop a theology or philosophy on life that is honest, something that one can actually believe.

If I want to find out what caused the earthquake, I will go to the physicist, not the theologian. In explaining the event, he will not use terms like sin and punishment but rather cause and consequences. His explanation is not a judgment. If a lion and a lamb meet, the lion will eat the lamb. That is just the way lions are. It is not a judgment on the lamb. The lamb has not sinned, nor has the lion transgressed.

There are two complementary conceptions of God in the Hebrew Bible that are reflected in the two most commonly used Hebrew names for God: Elohim and Adonai.

Elohim is the God who creates nature. This is the name for God that is used almost exclusively in the first chapter of Genesis. This is the God that creates everything: lions and lambs, anthrax and Cipro. Nature is metaphysically "good," as God observes in the first chapter in the book of Genesis, but nature is morally neutral.

In response to nature, when bad things happen, people (often based on religious teachings in which they were raised) ask misleading questions. Where is God? How could God allow this to happen? Why doesn't God intervene? These questions imply that the lamb, the one who suffers, deserves punishment. If I have a heart attack, if my child gets cancer, there must be a divine reason. This leaves people with guilt and anger. This encourages people's masochism and God's sadism.

To accept this reality is necessary but not sufficient. That is why I can not believe only in Elohim. That is why I have to balance the Elohim aspect of God with a complementary concept: Adonai.

Adonai is a response of human beings to nature. Adonai is the God of moral principle. What do you do in an imperfect world? Humans are blessed with capacities of freedom, intellect, and moral sensibilities. A person, by him or herself, will not find a cure for cancer, but one can do something in response to cancer. One can seek to ensure that research is done, that autopsies are permitted, that transplants are encouraged. Our response to the amoral aspect of nature, our attempt to make an imperfect world not perfect but a better more righteous place gives meaning to life. It is what it means to live in the image of God.

When Jews pray, they always use both names of the Divine, Adonai and Elohim. A fully mature religious person must acknowledge the world of facts, the world of reality, the world that is. That is why Elohim is used. At the same time, it is critical for a person to assert what ought to be, what is normative. That is why Adonai is used. The central affirmation of faith in Judaism is the "Shema." This prayer includes both names for the divine. The line of this prayer ends with the Hebrew word echad. This word means one. Two complementary concepts, Elohim and Adonai, that are part of Divine oneness.

One can ask where was God in the earthquake? A much better question is where am I? What have I done, in response to an act of nature, to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to shelter the homeless, to support those who suffer? What am I doing to live a life in the image of Adonai?

EF: Where was God on Sept. 11?

HS: Terrorists are part of the amoral energy and freedom that is given to every human being. That energy and freedom, though, is also given to the defenders of justice and freedom, to people that try to prevent evil. Our response to people who perform evil is the same, in theory, as our response to a natural disaster.... I do not mean to oversimplify the situation, but if we are going to live in this world, it is our responsibility to somehow figure out ways of educating people who hate not to hate.

EF: How do you explain the events of Sept. 11 to children?

HS: I think children understand Sept. 11. Children are more mature and better able to handle an event like Sept. 11 than are parents who want to protect them. It was a big mistake when parents [after] Sept. 11 did not send their children to school. What helped children was being with other kids, being in their community. We had an assembly at our synagogue, we sang together, we prayed together. We had a question-and-answer session on what happened. We gave very direct simple but honest answers to their questions. We talked about people who hate. We talked about envy. We talked about how we need to protect ourselves living in the world. The discussion was not very different from what it would have been like with adults.

When a child loses a loved one, he or she expresses one concern. Who is going to care for me? Grandpa has just died. Are my mom and my dad going to die too? It is important for parents to acknowledge death as death. We do not need to talk about grandpa going on a long trip. This only causes anxiety in the child. We do not need to talk about grandpa going to sleep forever. This causes insomnia. We need to re-assure the child in an honest way that they are secure and will be taken care of. A parent needs to say that I am healthy, I am taking care of myself and I plan on being with you for a long, long time.

When parents ask me what do I say to my child, I always answer their question with a question. What do you yourself believe? It is difficult, if not impossible, to teach what one does not believe.

In the modern world, we have witnessed unprecedented levels of human evil. In addition to striving to live a life in the image of Adonai, how do you maintain a positive outlook on life?

There is a story in the Talmud. After the destruction of Temple in Jerusalem, there was a group of ascetics who said we are no longer going to drink wine because there was a wine libation in the sacrificial cult of the Temple. A rabbi responded to them. If that is the case, then you should not drink water because water was used in Temple ceremonies. You should not eat bread because bread was also used.

Not to mourn is impossible, but to mourn excessively is harmful. Therefore, there must be a sense of balance and proportion on how we mourn, on how we live our lives. I gain a balance and sense of proportion in what I believe and how I live my life from Judaism. I gain this balance and sense of proportion from having a religious outlook on life. Science is wonderful. Its benefits to our lives are tremendous. It answers many questions but I can't live only in a world of science. Judaism balances my outlook on life. It helps me to maintain a positive outlook.

EF: The subject of evil was the theme topic at a recent weekend retreat for members of your synagogue. What questions did you raise in discussions at this retreat? What points did you emphasize in answering these questions?

HS: My talk on this weekend retreat was more of a confession than a lecture. I shared a problem that I am struggling with. An adolescent child in our congregation died in a car accident. The other driver was drunk. I tried to comfort the father. I put my arm on his shoulder. He knocked it off. He says "God is cruel and you as a rabbi just apologize for a cruel God." His wife tells me to not take it personally but I do. More than psychology is needed. The father is calling out for a realistic and moral theology.

How do we as a congregation respond to this man? Part of the answer I know is being there for him and his family, making sure that people are at the funeral and visitors are at his home listening and doing what ever is necessary. Part of the answer is getting him in a communal environment where the joys of life are celebrated. But there is more to it. We explored in our discussion what else we, as synagogue, can do in a situation like this to help this man and strive to live in the image of Adonai.

EF: In fighting its war on terrorism, the United States is forming alliances with many countries that are not exactly friends with Israel. What are your concerns, as an American and as a Jew about our country's foreign policy and about the present political predicament in which the United States finds itself today?

HS: One has to be alert. One also has to have empathy. The strategy right now makes sense. Politics is not logic. The world is not a clean place. Not every ally is going to be a democracy like Britain or Canada. There is definitely concern about our country forming alliances with corrupt and unstable governments but there is a Machiavelian strategy to what is happening.

Israel, in its own war on terrorism, has had to play this game. At one time, it was revealed that Israel actually backed Hezbollah against other Palestinians factions. I am confident that Israel will never be betrayed by the United States.

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