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    The parents of Aberfan & the problem of suffering

    The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple originally appeared on the ABC Religion and Ethics website on 18 September, 2020.

    Aerial shot showing the extent of the devastation in the Aberfan disaster

    In 1966 I was living in England and was minister of the Hampstead Synagogue in north-west London. On 21 October that year, the population of the United Kingdom was shaken by the Aberfan disaster. 144 people, including 116 children, died when a colliery collapsed on a mountain slope above the South Wales village.

    A magazine called Pointer, published by the Jewish Liberal movement, printed in its winter issue a feature headed, “Can religion comfort the parents of Aberfan?”

    They asked this question of seven clergy: an Anglican, a Catholic, a Presbyterian, a Methodist, an Orthodox and two Liberal rabbis. I was the Orthodox rabbi.

    I will tell you how I answered later — though I must say that after all these years, were I to be asked that question now, I might say things a bit differently.

    In the time that has elapsed since 1966, the world has seen a procession of catastrophes. The most recent horror is the COVID-19 pandemic, which has claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.

    Of course, the years and centuries leading up to Aberfan were regularly punctuated by tragedies, culminating in the Holocaust with its millions of victims.

    One might say that, frightening though the numbers are, the theological problem remains the same whether there were six million victims or six. The problem has two interwoven forms: Why do bad things happen to good people? What share of blame attaches to God?

    The Bible describes the ten plagues that befell the ancient Egyptians. The plagues that have subsequently come upon human beings have claimed entire nations, ethnicities, religions, and populations, far outstripping those who died in Egypt.

    The plagues run the gamut. Victimisation, violence, and villainy, dehumanisation, demons, and disasters — the alphabet hasn’t sufficient letters to delineate them all.

    There are two main categories of evil occurrences: “natural” calamities, often called in English legal language “acts of God”; and eruptions of moral evil, in which the old law of “Thou shalt not…” is met with “Why not?”

    The first category includes earthquakes and disease, and while we tend to blame them on God they nevertheless have a moral dimension — not just the theological question of how and why God is involved, but whether man could have done more to foresee the problems and develop better means of counteracting and eliminating some of their horror.

    The Book of Job regards some calamities as the Adversary making mischief — as Arnold Toynbee calls it, cosmic jokes.

    But the human mind is revolted at the notion that the coronavirus is merely a cosmic joke. It is affronted at the thought that God could apparently condone such undeserved suffering.

    As much as you can argue that this is not necessarily God Himself who is directly attacking us, in the end the evil has to trace back to the Creator. In the end, the phrase “act of God” has to move out of legalese and become a real issue.

    So many questions — and so few answers. Why did God not make a perfect world that has no defects? Why does God not step in and take control of the Creation before people get hurt? Why does God not frustrate the incipient enemy before the curses overwhelm the blessings?

    These are some of the oldest and hardest questions of all, and this is why I have heard people say, “I believe in God, but I cannot love Him!”

    One approach is to say that God has no obligation to create a perfect world, but in creating humanity He has provided a means of mending the torn fabric.

    A second approach is to say that history has to take the long view and, in the end, things will probably improve. Some of the worst curses have already gone or have been reduced, though there are still countless global ills for humanity to address.

    Back to Aberfan. This is what I said in 1966:

    The greatest comfort perhaps is silent sympathy. Simeon ben Elazar said, “Do not comfort your fellow in the hour when his dead lies before him.”

    What then can religion offer? Hallowed ways to lead the bereaved through his intense grief. Encouragement to keep his faith in God despite everything. Firm belief in the immortality of the soul. Assurance that life is worth living even though its measure may not be in our hands.

    What would I add if it were 2020 when I was writing?

    I would mount a challenge.

    To God: “Can’t You cry with us and admit a share in the guilt?”

    To man: “Less nonsense, more work for the world!”

    #coronavirus #corona #covid-19 #covid19

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