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The Jewish response to natural disasters

Does God cause earthquakes? What is the Jewish response to natural disasters?

Following the devastaton in Haiti, Baltimore Jewish Times executive editor Phil Jacobs puts the questions to local rabbis – and finds some common themes among the different branches of Judaism.

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Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, executive vice president emeritus of the Orthodox Union and former spiritual leader of Baltimore's Congregation Shomrei Emunah, advises Jews to set aside the question of whether or why God allows earthquakes to in favor of what God requires in response. The answer, he says: "see, feel, act."

Rabbi Elissa Sachs-Kohen of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, a Reform synagogue, tells Jacobs she doesn't think that God "does things like earthquakes and plagues and illnesses."

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"I don't believe that if we prayed hard enough, there would not have been an earthquake," she says. "But I do believe that through learning our Jewish tradition, we learn of responsibility for one another. Those who have skills that are useful should be employing those skills in a helpful way."

Rabbi Steve Schwartz of Beth El Congregation in Pikesville, a Conservative synagogue, says supernatural explanations for natural disasters are unnecessary.

"The rules and laws of physics are set up, and the world moves along, and God is not intervening in history on a regular basis and deciding that such-and-such a person should be saved or such-and-such a person should be punished," he says. "We know why earthquakes happen. Plates shift—it's not a big mystery."Schwartz, too, speaks of the "Jewish response."

"So many people are going to respond, 'What do they need my $10 for?' Or, 'My $10 won't make a difference.' The Jewish response is, absolutely not. You don't go there. You assume that you are the only who can take care of it. Never assume your little actions won't take care of it. Our traditions teach us that the smallest contributions are a big deal."

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