Are we allowed to question God?
In the aftermath of devastating tragedies, readers from Brooklyn, as well as from my community in Maryland and in Virginia, have reached out to ask for a discussion of Divine Justice and what to do when bad things happen to good people. I am re-posting here an article I originally wrote for the High Holidays, with a short introduction.
We want to believe there is order in the world, and that people get what they deserve for their actions, good or bad, but when tragedy strikes our physical world is shaken, and with it our system of faith and beliefs. The self-appointed spokespeople of God then spring to action, and tell anyone who is willing to listen that it is all part of God’s plan and that everything happened for a reason. One of the more common arguments we hear is that we are not allowed to question God, but apparently, those who used this argument have never read the bible, or at least not with proper attention. Here are a couple of examples from Psalms, the book full of praise and statements of total confidence in God and His deliverance:
10:1-2: Why God to You stand afar? Why do You ignore difficult events, as the wicked pursues the weak, and manages to carry out his vicious plan?
13:2: Until when, God, will You forget me? Until when will You hide Your face from me?
22:2-3: God, oh God, why have you forsaken me? Why is redemption unattainable though I scream?
43:2: You are my God, my Fortress, why have you forsaken me? Why do I live in darkness under the yoke of my enemy?
44:9-26: You have abandoned and shamed us… You sold us for little… All this befell us though we have not forgotten You nor have we abandoned the covenant… Wake up, God, why are You asleep? Wake up, don’t abandon us…
And in the darkest chapter of Psalms, 88:
I have cried out to You, God. It is the first thing I do as I wake up. Why have you abandoned my soul? Why do You hide Your face from me? I have suffered under Your hand from youth, I am dying. Your anger swamped me, Your terror paralyzed me, I am surrounded by them, drowning. You have driven away those who love me, my friends, my acquaintances. Darkness!
Thousands of years after King David another poet, David bar Meshulam, demanded a response from God for His lack of action during the crusades: העל אלה תתאפק, רם גאה גאה?
How can You keep restrained [when You see what they did do us], You mighty God?
Other poets joined him, and their desperate cries became part of the Ashkenazi Yom Kippur service:
חסין יה, מקדם על עקדה אחת צעקו לפניך אראלים, ועתה כמה נעקדים, ומדוע לא הרעישו על דמי עוללים? כמה נשחטים… ולא חש להושיע
In antiquity, for one Akedah, the angels pleaded with You, God! And now, that so many have been killed, why did they not raise their voice for the blood of toddlers? So many have been slaughtered… yet You [God], did not care to save us…
There are many more examples in Jewish tradition of devout believers questioning God’s actions, presence, and system of Divine Justice, and they give us a mandate to ask and argue. As explained in the article, what is within our power is to make the best of our quality traits and potential, to be able to help others and to work for the improvement of society at all levels. We should keep in mind that while my mission to make the world a better place cannot guarantee me a better or longer life, it will guarantee that to someone in the distant, or hopefully near, future. No doubt, it is a very long way, but if all humans would think along these lines, we will be able to eliminate most of the suffering in the world.
Wishing no more suffering, and good health for all…
Rabbi Haim Ovadia