A Jewish Response to Human Catastrophe

Rabbi Harvey Belovski’s article following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti teaches us how to properly respond to calamities of such proportion.

It is near impossible to find adequate words to describe the scale of human suffering that followed in the wake of the massive earthquake that struck Haiti on January 12th, 2010. With over 200,000 fatalities and more than a million survivors left destitute, the Haitian cataclysm defies our capacity to articulate our feelings of sorrow, helplessness and incomprehension. Yet when a man was found alive in the rubble, four full weeks after the earthquake, web sites around the world (and I’m sure every one of us) were unequivocal about declaring his survival a “miracle.”

Given this universal response to the unexpected discovery of a survivor, I am troubled by the dissonance that it exposes in the attitude of many in the Orthodox world to the tragedy itself. By this I mean that the willingness to describe the man’s extraordinary survival as a “miracle” flies in the face of the noticeable reluctance that some traditionalists exhibit toward contributing to disaster relief funds, and sometimes even with expressing sympathy for the victims. The source of their uneasiness is the assumption that since Haitians are idolaters and practice voodoo, the victims of the earthquake are not only unworthy of our sympathies, but may even have deserved their fate. From this perspective, it is hard to understand why God would produce a miracle to save an idolater. While many are deeply uncomfortable with this attitude, myself included, its prevalence in the religious world is undeniable, as is evident from the fact that indifference, if not explicit condemnation of the victims, is painfully common. And it would be disingenuous not to note that there are sources that appear to support this approach.

Despite this, I identify from the knee-jerk “it’s a miracle” response to the man’s incredible survival that even those who espouse this most conservative position do actually feel compassion for the victims, identify with their pain, and are genuinely elated when survivors are found. Yet I suspect, for whatever reason, many of us are unaware of an alternative traditional Jewish framework within which to contextualize such events. As such, our healthy and, dare I say, “normal” humanitarian response remains buried, stifled by the conviction that it’s not acceptable to think positively about gentiles who inhabit a religious world antithetical to our own. Perhaps for some it is easier (read “lazier”) not to discover the alternative.

A Positive View
And yet, for those who care to seek it, this alternative most certainly exists. At this point, the reader is referred to the masterful “Reflections on the Tsunami” by my late and deeply missed colleague, Dayan Berel Berkovits, z”l (Jewish Action [summer 2005]). Rav Berel approached the subject of the devastating Asian tsunami of 2004, with characteristic sensitivity, using his unique combination of Torah and general scholarship, eloquence and personal experience–his words are unquestionably pertinent to the Haitian tragedy and are required reading on the topic. Rav Berel correctly points out that it is possible that modern idolaters are not considered ovdei avodah zarah by halachah, since they just continue their ancestral practices by rote,1 especially if they have never been provided with an opportunity to learn about the One God. In any case, how does this approach explain the death of large numbers of children Haitians who didn’t practice the local religion and tourists?

Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetzky . . . fostered a positive and compassionate approach toward the victims of the Biafran conflict in the late 1960s.

But beyond even these important observations, there are classic sources that validate the natural, humanitarian response, a number of which focus on a universalistic reading of the word “Adam” in the well-known maxim of Rabbi Akiva: “He used to say, Adam is precious, since he was created in the Divine image.”3 According to Seforno, “Adam” refers to the whole of humanity and the Mishnah describes the special relationship that every human being enjoys with the Divine. His opinion appears in his commentary to the verse: “Now, if you listen well to My voice and you preserve My covenant–you shall be a treasure to Me over all the nations, for the entire world is Mine.”4 Seforno notes that the particular relationship between God and the Jewish people exists “even though the entire human race is more precious to Me than every other lower being, for he [Man] alone among them represents My purpose; as the Sages say: ‘Adam is precious, since he was created in the Divine image.’”5 Any difference between God’s concern for Jews and gentiles is slight at most, as Seforno continues, “and the distinction between you and them is of one degree,6 since anyway the entire world is Mine; the righteous of the nations of the world are precious to Me without a doubt.”7

This approach is supported by a view in the Midrash Shmuel,8 commenting on the original mishnah in Avot. He notes that a few words later the mishnah proclaims that “Israel is precious, since they are called ‘children of the Omnipresent.’”9 Since this phrase clearly refers exclusively to the Jewish people, it follows that “Adam” must include the whole of humanity. And while Midrash Shmuel states that “Adam” refers to “Noachides,” he clearly uses this as a generic term for gentiles, and means to include all human beings, even those who do not observe the Noachide Code. More recently, Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetzky is reliably reported to have validated this reading of the mishnah; indeed, it is said that he actively fostered a positive and compassionate approach towards the victims of the Biafran conflict in the late 1960s.

God Is Good to All
These sources clearly support the simple view of the psalmist that God is good to all and that His mercy extends to all of his creatures,10 which Metzudot David assumes to include every creature in the world: the evil and the good.11 If God’s mercy extends even to the wicked (and, as we have seen, it is far from clear that even idolatrous Haitians can reasonably be described as such), it behooves those of us who aspire to emulate the Divine to be liberal and non-judgemental with our compassion and when allocating our resources.

It is my contention that this alternative approach actually validates the compassion that most of us already feel towards the victims of the recent earthquake in Haiti. Its discovery may even liberate some to follow their natural instincts and support the relief and rebuilding efforts. Yet even if one remains skeptical about the authenticity of this attitude, at the very least one must admit that there is more than a single approach to these complex issues. But when human lives are at stake, and it is obvious that adopting a conservative stance creates a chillul Hashem by confirming the unfortunately prevalent view that Orthodox Judaism is callous and atavistic, who among us dares justify inaction?

Rabbi Harvey Belovski is the rabbi of the Golders Green Synagogue in London, a teaching fellow at London School of Jewish Studies, and a lecturer and relationship counselor. He lives with his wife, Vicki, and their seven children in Golders Green.

1. Chullin 13b.
2. Rav Berel helpfully points out
that according to Rambam (Hilchot
Melachim 10:2), children are not punished
for failing in their universal
Noachide duties.
3. Mishnah, Avot 3:18.
4. Shemot 19:5.
5. Seforno ad loc. Cf., Seforno’s
commentary to the mishnah in Avot,
where he also indicates that the whole
human race enjoys a special relationship
with God.
6. Translation from Sforno on the
Torah (Brooklyn, New York, 1993).
7. Seforno, ibid.
8. Albeit one refuted by Rabbi
Chaim Vital, the author’s teacher; see
continuation of Midrash Shmuel commentary
to the mishnah in Avot.
9. Mishnah, Avot, ibid.
10. Tehillim 145:9.
11. Metzudot David ad loc.

This article was featured in the Fall 2010 issue of Jewish Action.
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