Tuesday, May 1, 2007

When bad things happen to good people

Posted By on 05.01.07 at 06:58 AM

Like all blogs, "Sightings" from the University of Chicago's Martin Marty Center has its up days and its down days. And its surprising days. The other day Jerome Eric Copulsky, who teaches Judaic Studies at Virginia Tech, found it appropriate to recall a famous Jewish tale, the moral of which will be familiar to Christians and Muslims acquainted with the book of Job:

"There is a well-known story in the Talmud, that great compendium of Jewish law and lore, which describes an encounter between Moses and God on Mount Sinai. When Moses ascended the mountain to receive the Torah, he found God adorning the letters of the book with crowns. Confused, the prophet asked God why he was adding these seemingly meaningless designs. God answered that many generations later a great Sage named Akiba ben Joseph would expound 'heaps and heaps of laws' from these jots and tittles, and allowed Moses to appear in Rabbi Akiba's classroom and experience the genius of his teaching. But when Moses asked about Akiba's reward, he was shown the brutal aftermath of Akiba's eventual martyrdom, the rabbi's flesh weighed out at the market-stalls. 'Lord of the Universe,' cried Moses, 'such Torah, and such a reward!' He replied, 'Be silent, for this is the way I have determined it.'"

Copulsky writes that religious communities seek to build a meaningful world. Reaction #1: gee, it would be nice if their deity would help out. Reaction #2: isn't he unintentionally making the best possible case for atheism? That is, if such a being did, against all probability, exist, it would be unworthy of a polite how-are-you, much less of worship. (Religion prof and believer Christopher Heard at Higgaion has a similar thought.)

But on third thought, why even argue? What substantive intellectual or emotional difference is there between the atheist who says, "It's what happened, deal with it," and the believer who says, "It's what God determined, deal with it"? Either way there's no explanation -- and no comfort.

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