Why do bad things happen to good people? Or why do bad things happen to me? Dr. Aryeh Dean Cohen paraphrased these questions at an April 5 interfaith dialogue on theodicy or how to reconcile a benevolent God with evil.
The roundtable dialogue, "Jewish and Christian Perspective on Theodicy: How Could God Let Something Like This Happen and What Can We Do About It?" was sponsored by the Board of Rabbis of Southern California and the Fuller Theological Seminary, a nondenominational Christian seminary in Pasadena, and was the second interfaith discussion on a series of topics.
"We have so much to learn from our Jewish friends, who give us permission to lament and engage in arguments with God," said Dr. Richard Mouw, president of Fuller.
Before Passover and Easter, rabbis and pastors listened to varying perspectives on how the two religions confront all the disasters occurring in the world.
"Can God's justice be defended and should one even try to do so?" asked James T. Butler, associate professor of the Old Testament at Fuller. He said that it's important to question, rather than accept things on blind faith or counsel others that it is God's will.
"If we convey the fact that faith is strongest when unquestioned, we contribute to the spiritual infantilization of our neighbors," he said. "We teach them to settle for the God we have, rather than God they read about.... Instead of discouraging those who suffer, we can be their voice."
Cohen agreed: "Sometimes the only thing you can do is listen." He said that at other times, "the only thing you can do is scream and yell and curse."
But really, he added the question is not "why did God do this, but why did we do this?" When it comes to natural disasters like New Orleans or human atrocities like genocide, we can't really answer the question of where God is. But "where am I is a question we have an answer to."
Egalitarian but Spiritual
They say "two Jews, three shuls," so why not one more alternative community?
That's why a group of 20-somethings started PicoEgal, an egalitarian minyan where men and women, participating as equals, conduct an entire, uncut Shabbat and holiday service that incorporates singing and spirituality.
"The basic idea is to have a community with a davening in accordance with halacha that also has spiritual singing," said one of the founders, Abe Friedman, a first-year student at the University of Judaism.
Modeled after New York's Hadar congregation, which attracts some 300 people each week, PicoEgal is one of a number of recently established minyans here and around the world that don't affiliate with a particular movement and don't have a synagogue building. For now, the two dozen or so "members" of PicoEgal meet at apartments in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood on the first and third Saturday mornings of each month, but they are looking for a more permanent space to rent. However, unlike other religious communities that are looking for a permanent home -- like Ikar, for example -- PicoEgal has no plans to become a full-time congregation.
"We're not a one-stop shop for everyone," Friedman said. "We didn't want this to be an entire community, so much as a davening community [that adds to] what was already available."
In that same vein, PicoEgal is also starting a multidenominational Beit Midrash study program, beginning with a Torah portion class each Tuesday in May, taught by Orthodox, Conservative and Reform teachers.
"While there are many opportunities for Jewish learning in the area, there is a lack of learning opportunities across the denominations. We wanted to try and provide a neutral forum for Torah learning outside any establishment," Friedman said.
Just One Candle...
First it was Shabbat; now it's candles.... What's next? Kosher?
Ten years ago, Shabbat Across America began its campaign to get as many Jews as possible to celebrate Shabbat for at least one weekend a year. This May, a new organization is promoting "FridayLight," a campaign encouraging 1 million women to light Shabbat candles -- that's 2 million candles!
"By lighting up each and every Friday night, you will not only bask in a personal moment of inner peace but also connect to a larger community of women everywhere who together hold the power to foster global peace," reads the Web site (www.fridaylight.org), which features a pale redhead in a Oriental robe holding a fat, yellow candle -- definitely not a traditional Shabbat candle for sure.
"With the flicker of a million flames each and every Friday night, we can bring light to some of the darkest places on earth and usher in peace throughout the world," it adds.
The New Four Questions
Why is law important in the Jewish faith? Why isn't the bible enough? Why does the practice of Judaism seem to be different from what is written in the Torah? How can Jewish law relate to modern issues?
These and other modern-day questions about religion will be addressed in "From Sinai to Cyberspace," a course from the Jewish Learning Institute, a Chabad adult education program presented at Chabad locations in 150 cities around the world. Each course, taught by Chabad rabbis, provides a textbook and is supplemented by audio-visual presentations. The courses also are available online.
"From Sinai To Cyberspace" examines the interplay of the written and oral traditions and how they impacted the development of Jewish law, creating a vibrant and flexible system faithful to its roots.
The course begins in early May at Los Angeles at Chabad Centers throughout Southern California, including Los Feliz, Studio City, Burbank, Sherman Oaks, Northridge and Pasadena.
For more information on PicoEgal, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information on the Chabad course and locations, visit www.myjli.com/courses.php.