Clergy of all faiths will be asked many theological questions concerning the Katrina disaster. It is no wonder that the biblical texts give us guidance in this area. The Bible states, “The mysteries belong to God.” (Deut 29:28) and “God is in heaven and you are on the earth. Therefore let your words be few” (Eccl 5:1).
There is no doubt that for the authors of the Bible, disasters such as Katrina were both startling and beyond the power of understanding of mere mortals. The greatest Jewish philosopher of the 20th century, Rabbi Abraham Heschel, referred to this phenomenon as “radical mystery or radical amazement.” Some things we just cannot understand.
Nevertheless, there are some who will want to see some sort of divine retribution or the hand of God in this tragedy. Jewish tradition will reject such an assertion. There is no way that one can justify the tragic deaths of so many thousands of people, especially young children. There is no way that a theological definition can be given as to why so many children were made into orphans by this disaster. From our perspective, it is absolute idolatry to say God did this, because only God can know and we are left with the mystery.
Therefore, from my perspective, there are two questions before us.
First, let us not ask why God allowed these things to happen, but why we were not better prepared for them?
From a Jewish perspective, justice is a fundamental core value. Justice in this case would mean examining carefully what the role of government was in this disaster. Hurricanes will occur, but can their effects be mitigated and their damage prevented?
It is clear now that the government ignored countless warnings about the danger of the levees. A Corps of Engineers request for $76 million last year was cut to $10.6 million. A proposal in The Scientific American in 2001 outlined a plan of new dams and locks which would have permanently solved the problem in New Orleans. The plan, which would have cost $14 billion dollars and had some support on the state level, went nowhere with the federal government.
The Department of Homeland Security and FEMA are inherently flawed. Too many of the heads of these organizations are political appointees. After three and a half years of existence, the Department of Homeland Security has shown itself to be incredibly inept.
The willingness to ignore the poverty in New Orleans by government officials is indeed appalling. In Jewish tradition, one may be a Democrat or a Republican, but one who ignores the plight of the poor is not as good a Jew as he or she should be.
The slowness of the governmental response is equally appalling. If instead of Jefferson Parish, this destruction had occurred in Orange County or Beverly Hills, one can bet that the response would have been massive and immediate. Vacations would have been suspended immediately. Golf games and fundraisers by those in government would have been immediately cancelled in favor of on-the-ground command and control. I am not sure that race played a factor here, but I am not so willing to discount the cries of my friends in the African-American community who say that race was a factor. I do feel that poverty seems to have been a real factor in the slowness of the response.
There is much evidence which suggests that the rise of the temperature of the Gulf of Mexico by two degrees this summer increased the intensity of the hurricane. It is now time for those in government to stop this ridiculous debate about whether or not global warming exists and to begin to create a strategy for protecting the earth.
Politically, those who made such decisions, especially those on the federal level, should be held accountable to what appears to be more than $50 billion worth of damage and for what by some estimates will be more than 10,000 deaths. At the very least, a special committee of Congress or a special committee similar to the 9/11 Commission should be convened immediately. I would even be in favor of reconvening the 9/11 Commission for this purpose.
The second question that we need to ask ourselves is now that this terrible tragedy has occurred, what we can do to comfort the bereaved and alleviate the pain of those who survived. Here, the word “responsibility” becomes very important. Responsibility literally means responding according to our ability.
Responsibility also means giving generously to charitable organizations that are engaged in disaster relief. While the government has been inept, reports indicate that non-governmental organizations have worked diligently to relieve the suffering. As a Jew and as a human being, I have been very proud of the work done by the non-governmental charities in reaching out to those whose lives have been so damaged.
Almost 3,000 years ago, the prophet Elijah stood up to a corrupt government and was forced to flee to the desert. Standing at the mouth of a cave near Mount Sinai, Elijah feels that God passed by him. Specifically, the text says: “There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind—an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake—fire; but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire—a soft murmuring sound (or a still small voice.)”
The soft murmuring sound or still small voice of God is to be found in the heart of every American who has given generously to hurricane relief. It is to be found in the work of the countless volunteers who have put a hold on their lives to help others. It is to be found in the commitment of the soldiers of our armed forces and law enforcement who are fighting this tragedy not with guns of destruction, but with words and deeds of compassion. The soft murmuring sound or still small voice of God is to be found in those who heal the injured and bring comfort to the bereaved.
From this tragedy, let us increase our appreciation of the value of life. Let us understand that we or those that we love can be swept away from life as we know it tomorrow. Today is the day therefore to tell our friends and our family just how much we love them. Today is the time that we should pick up the phone and call that person, a family member to whom we haven’t spoken in a long time.
Finally, now is the time to renew our faith in the importance of the good deeds of kindness that we do. If Hurricane Katrina’s winds and rains caused massive waves of destruction, let our acts of goodness can cause massive waves of construction. Waves of goodness will always overcome waves of destruction. Our acts of love can have cosmic significance if we will allow ourselves to believe that when we love one another, we indeed repair the world
Rabbi Fred Guttman is rabbi at Temple Emanuel in Greensboro, N.C.