Stop Justifying the Deaths of the Meron 45
My daughter called me before the Sabbath in terrible pain. Beyond trying to process the deaths of religious Jews at Mount Meron on Lag B’Omer, she was in an argument on a chat group with a woman who said that the deaths had a reason. It turns out, this woman prophesied, that God sent these 45 men to their deaths in order to teach the rest of us Jews a lesson. God hates the current state of Jewish disunity, of divisions within the community, the political polarization of the State of Israel. So he sent this tragedy as a wake-up call to the rest of us Jews. I should mention that the woman in question — religious herself — wrote all this while the bodies had not even been buried.
That was only the beginning. Over the next few days I would witness countless media columnists who understood the deaths of 45 Haredim in other meaningful ways. Some said, in essence, that the Haredim had it coming, as they so often flaunt the police and the rules. Left unsaid was that they were parents, husbands, and children of many people who loved them.
It is true that Mount Meron was a turning point in Israeli history. But not because of how many people died. Rather, what made it a turning point was that it was the first time where I actually witnessed the Jewish community trivializing the deaths of fellow Jews with all kinds of blabber and the most insensitive nonsense.
Imagine if someone had written of the martyred Israeli athletes in Munich, “Truly, a terrible tragedy. But what did they expect returning to Germany just 25 years after the Holocaust?”
Let’s at least agree that any columnist writing such things would probably have experienced the most severe censure. But telling 45 ultra-orthodox Jews that they should have known better than to go to a massive outdoor religious gathering somehow became acceptable
What happened in Meron is an unmitigated tragedy. There is no reason and no justification for their deaths. There is no good that came from their deaths. No lesson for the collective Jewish people. No celestial or cosmic redemption to be earned from their loss. They should be alive. We mourn, along with their families, and the entire House of Israel.
The fact that there should have been greater police oversight? The fact that the Haredim need more civic rules by which their gatherings should be governed? There will be time for all of those investigations and ruminations. They are, of course, necessary and essential. But not now. Not during the Shiva. Let the families grieve without our insensitive commentary.
Eleven years ago I visited Haiti with my daughter Mushki just days after the earthquake that decimated the island and killed tens of thousands of people. We brought food and supplies with a Christian relief organization. I witnessed suffering beyond human imagination. The stench of death was quite literally all around us.
When I returned, I discussed, in a public speech, the question of why a good God allows the innocent to suffer. I was amazed when an observant Jew approached me to say that the people of Haiti were not innocent, immersed as they are in idol worship.
“Surely you don’t mean to say they deserved to die?” I asked. His response: The people of Haiti as a whole were being punished. A similar sentiment had been voiced at the time by the Rev. Pat Robertson.
I have always been puzzled as to why many religious people enjoy portraying God as executioner-in-chief and are always finding reasons to justify human suffering.
The appropriate response to death is always life. And the Jewish response to suffering is to demand that God put an end to it. The very name “Israel” translates as, “He who wrestles with God.” We argue with God over the loss of every innocent human life. We never justify suffering.
I would argue that suffering has no purpose, no redeeming qualities, and any attempts to infuse it with rich significance are deeply immoral.
Of course, suffering can lead ultimately to a positive outcome. The rich man who had contempt for the poor and suddenly goes bankrupt can become more empathetic when he himself struggles. The arrogant executive who treats his subordinates poorly can soften when he is told that he, God forbid, has a challenging health issue.
But does it have to come about this way? Is suffering the only way to learn goodness?
Jewish values maintain that there is no good that comes from suffering that could not have come through more blessed means.
Yes, the Holocaust helped lead directly to the creation of the State of Israel. But there are plenty of nations that came into existence without being preceded by gas chambers.
Here is another way that Jewish values are so strongly distinguished from other value systems. Many religions believe that suffering is redemptive. In Christianity, the suffering servant, the crucified Christ, brings atonement for the sins of humankind through his own torment. Suffering is therefore extolled in the New Testament. Paul even made suffering an obligation, encouraging the fledgling Christians to “share in suffering like a good soldier of Christ Jesus.”
But Judaism ultimately rejects the suffering-is-redemptive narrative. Suffering isn’t a blessing, it’s a curse.
Jews are obligated to alleviate all human misery. Suffering leaves you bitter rather than blessed, scarred rather than humble. Few endure suffering without serious and lasting trauma.
Speak to Holocaust survivors and ask them what they gathered from their suffering, aside from loneliness, heartbreak, and outrage. To be sure, they also learned the value of life and the sublime quality of human companionship. But these lessons, this depth, could easily have been learned through life-affirming experiences that do not leave all of one’s relatives as ash.
I believe that my parents’ divorce drove me to a deeper appreciation of family and a greater embrace of religion. Yet I know people who have led completely privileged lives and have far deeper philosophies of life and are even more devoted to their religion than me. And they have the advantage of not being bitter, cynical, or pessimistic the way children of divorce can sometimes be because of the pain of early childhood.
Whatever good that we as individuals, or the world in general, receive from suffering can also be brought about in a painless, joyful manner. And it behooves people of faith especially to once and for all cease justifying the death of innocents. The Meron 45 are sorely missed. May their memory be an unmitigated blessing.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is the international best-selling author of more than 20 books.