250 years ago a giant earthquake hit the city of Lisbon in Portugal. Buildings were falling, and the people clustered on the docks. They watched with fascination as the water drained from the harbor, revealing lost cargo and old shipwrecks. Minutes later, the water returned in a giant tsunami that killed 100,000 people.
This left a deep impression on people of that era. It prompted many to ask fundamental questions about God's role in the physical world. Philosophers asked how God could do such a thing. Others looked for scientific explanations for natural phenomena.
Now is a good time to revisit these questions, for three reasons:
There were various religious responses to the tsunami. Some saw the disaster as a time to question belief in God, as illustrated by the Archbishop of Canterbury, who wrote the following in an OpEd article in the British newspaper The Telegraph:
Faced with the paralysing magnitude of a disaster like this, we naturally feel more deeply outraged – and also more deeply helpless.
The question: "How can you believe in a God who permits suffering on this scale?" is therefore very much around at the moment, and it would be surprising if it weren't – indeed, it would be wrong if it weren't.
Others saw the tsunami as a form of divine punishment, though there was little agreement as to what was being punished. Some Muslim leaders explained the large number of Muslim casualties as punishment for failure to pray regularly. Others focused on specific sins, as illustrated in this quote from a leading Saudi cleric:
We know that at these resorts, which unfortunately exist in Islamic and other countries in South Asia, and especially at Christmas, fornication and sexual perversion of all kinds are rampant. The fact that it happened at this particular time is a sign from Allah. It happened at Christmas, when fornicators and corrupt people from all over the world come to commit fornication and sexual perversion.
Although two prominent rabbis also linked the tsunami to human failings (here and here), the general response in our community was well summed up by Rabbi Wesley Gardenswartz, who, at the Shabbat services following the tsunami, said "all were innocents".
There are many aspects of the High Holiday liturgy that are relevant to our understanding of tsunamis. On Rosh Hashanah we read the Malchuyot, Zichronot and Shofarot parts of the Musaf prayer, which stress the omniscience and omnipotence of God. On Yom Kippur we read the book of Yona, which describes the threatened destruction of the city of Nineveh, a calamity that was averted when the people of Nineveh repented. Although one may imagine that God was bluffing about Nineveh, the bible makes it clear by the destruction of Sdom that God does do earthquakes.
The views voiced by the Archbishop of Canterbury don't fit well with the liturgy. The views of the Muslim leaders don't quite fit either: the martyrology section of the Yom Kippur liturgy tells of Jewish leaders during the Roman occupation being tortured because of their devotion to Torah. From the martyrology text one certainly gets the impression that "all were innocents".
So how can we reconcile the notion that "all were innocents" with the accounts in the bible that God does do earthquakes?
We have some advantages over the people of 1755 in approaching these questions. Then, few people had any life experience with being omniscient and omnipotent. Today, many of us do. We know what it is like to create a world and have it live according to our directives. Indeed, when I mentioned these thoughts to our 12 year old son, he barely looked up from the computer monitor, said "Yeah, like Lego Loco", a simulation game in which you create various trains and can click on a character and move him to a different location and a different fate. To the characters in the simulation, the child at the other end of the mouse would seem omniscient and omnipotent. Yet, as anyone who has played these simulation games knows, things go wrong.
Those of us who write computer programs have an even better sense of what it is like to be omniscient and omnipotent. We write every single line of the computer code. We can monitor the value of any particular variable and we can change any variable at will. Yet, still, things go wrong.
Those of us who do neural network programming or use genetic algorithms have an even greater sense of how some systems that we design can be very difficult to control and go off in unpredictable directions.
This gives us familiarity and empathy with the problems of divine leadership in ways not available to the people of 1755. We can look at the biblical flood and see it as the beginning of version 2.0. We've all had the experience of ripping up version 1.0 and re-doing the whole thing. Although scrapping version 1.0 is an expression of our power, it is also an expression of the fact that there were many bugs, bugs we needed to fix.
Since 1755 we've also learned a lot about earthquakes. We've learned that the surface of the earth is a hard crust on top of a fluid layer. The layer is fluid because it is warm, and it is warm because of nuclear fission, a radioactive decay that is one of the sources of heat that keep the earth warm. Living on an unstable crust is part of the price we pay for keeping warm. Although the bible makes it clear that God can trigger earthquakes and can decide not to trigger earthquakes, one shouldn't assume that God can necessarily prevent all earthquakes.
This limitation may seem counterintuitive. An analogy to our understanding of neurological tics can make this more concrete. In Tourette syndrome, people have tics such as grimaces or movements of a limb. They can trigger the tics at will and typically they can suppress the tics at will by paying a lot of attention to doing so. However, the tics tend to bubble up and occur frequently.
It may seem odd to imagine God not paying enough attention, but this is a familiar theme in the liturgy and the bible. For example, the Zichronot section of the liturgy quotes the following from Exodus:
It happened during that long period of time that the king of Egypt died and the Israelites groaned because of the slave labor. They cried out, and their desperate cry because of their slave labor went up to God. And God heard their groaning, and he remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. God saw the Israelites, and God understood.
The biblical image of God is of omniscience and omnipotence, but limited attention. It may seem mysterious to imagine how one can be omniscient and omnipotent but suffer from a limitation, but the 1932 Nobel Prize in Physics was given for the demonstration of such a limitation in the physical world. Scientists can determine the position of a particle with full accuracy. Scientists can determine the velocity of a particle with full accuracy. But they can't do so simultaneously - although they can determine both position and velocity simultaneously, they can't do so with full accuracy. This limitation is known as the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.
Perhaps there is a similar Divine Limitation Principle, with a God who is omniscient and omnipotent but has a limitation of attention.
It is not necessary to agree with the Muslim leaders who suggested that the tsunami was God's will. It is not necessary to agree with the doubts about God raised by the Archbishop of Canterbury. One can adopt the middle ground of seeing God as omniscient and omnipotent but constrained by a limitation of attention.
This model has clear implications for the High Holidays. If God has limited attention, we need a "desperate cry" to be heard, a phenomenon we know as prayer. If God has limited attention, we need to handle most things without divine intervention. This emphasizes the importance of interpersonal repentance and good deeds. Good deeds mean not only charity following a tsunami, but also building a warning system to detect the next tsunami and educating people that if the ocean suddenly recedes, this may be fascinating but it is also a sign to head for the hills.
The liturgy makes these points well. The section of the High Holiday Musaf prayer with "who shall live, who shall die" and "who by fire and who by water" is followed immediately by the words "penitence, prayer and good deeds can annul the severity of the decree".
As a summary of what we are doing here on the High Holidays, this line does pretty well in telling us how to live with a God who is omniscient and omnipotent but has limited attention.
Copyright © 2005 Michael Segal MD PhD. Dr. Segal does research on the molecular mechanism of ADHD and Asperger syndrome. This talk was given during the 5766 Yom Kippur services at Temple Emanuel in Massachusetts. It is part of the Segal leadership series.