The images transmitted from half a world away thrust suffering into our eyes on a scale that might have seemed like the stuff of Hollywood horror films.
More than 150,000 people swallowed by the sea, many of their broken bodies spit back onto land like so much detritus, the bodies of children stacked up awaiting identification, mothers able to hold on to only two children while their others were washed away.
The magnitude of the anguish has forced many to ask the eternal and fundamental theological question: “Where was God?”
In every faith community, clergy has been trying to respond.
Rabbi Harold Kushner, a Conservative rabbi best known for his book “When Bad Things Happen to Good People,” says God was not in the tsunami but is visible in the outpouring of assistance.
“God is moral, and nature is amoral and blind,” he said. “Nature is an equal-opportunity assassin. Nature is one of God’s creatures, but nature is not God.
“When God created the natural world, he withheld one quality he gave to only human beings: the ability to know good and bad. Earthquakes, tigers, speeding bullets don’t know that.”
Those who insist that God is responsible do so because “they want to know who to be angry at,” Rabbi Kushner said.
That unfairly focuses on God’s power, he said.
“In the rabbinic and medieval periods, when people lived under emperors who had total power, you had to believe that God was at least as powerful,” Rabbi Kushner said.
But “in today’s world, why would we consider power to be a more admirable quality than love and justice? When we say ‘God caused the tsunami, God had his reasons for the malignancy,’ if we insist God could stop these things, we are emphasizing God’s power and compromising God’s goodness. And God is only goodness,” he said.
At Central Synagogue, a Reform congregation on Manhattan’s East Side, congregants have been coming to Rabbi Sarah Reines more with questions about how they can act than with theological concerns.
“They’re looking to channel their efforts through their Jewish community,” the rabbi said. “That says to me that their impulse to perform acts of goodness is directly tied up with their identity as Jews, which for me as a rabbi is very heartening.”
A congregant offered to match every dollar raised for aid by the synagogue’s 460 Hebrew school students. On Monday, the students brought in $1,600, which with the matching offer makes $3,200 raised on the first day of the effort.
Perhaps the great lesson of the disaster, said Rabbi Avi Weiss of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, a Modern Orthodox synagogue, is humility.
“Why this happened is a metaphysical, existential question for which we really have no answers,” he said. “Maybe God has answers; I’m sure he does, but I don’t. Offering pat answers has some serious problems. It’s a bit arrogant. If anything, the tsunami makes us recognize how limited we are.”
Partnering with a Buddhist temple on Staten Island, Hebrew Institute members on Sunday filled a truck with medicines and canned foods for the tsunami survivors.
“It is a modest response, but everybody has it within their power to do their share,” Rabbi Weiss said. “It’s inspired by God above and by that part of God in us. It’s my leap of faith, my belief in a good God.”
Counseling members of the Conservative movement-affiliated Congregation Habonim, in the Lincoln Center area, about the theological implications of the tsunami, Rabbi Joanna Samuels asks the congregants what their idea of God was before the tragedy.
“If they say that ‘God is good and God is just,’ I think, ‘yes, that’s true,’ but that’s not actually our tradition’s whole picture of God,” she said.
“The Torah describes God as ‘a man of war,’ ” said Rabbi Samuels. “We have to acknowledge that God is everything and every moment.”
But, she acknowledged, “It’s easier for me to make sense of how God works in the life of an individual than how God works in this bigger way.”
The only question that we can really try and answer, she said, is “what is God demanding of me in this moment?”
“I think that’s the response to the tsunami — what is this moment demanding of the Jewish people and of humanity? In a place that feels devoid of God’s presence, how can we be the agents of making God manifest?” Rabbi Samuels asked. “That doesn’t explain why there was a huge underwater earthquake, but it does give us the ability to do what God enables us to do, which is to act in God’s image.
“You may feel that is nothing, but actually, to have the power to make God’s presence manifest, that is everything.”