September 14, 2005
by Andrew Silow-Carroll
Avi Shafran's "far be it from me to understand the ways of God" essay on the hurricane:
Although the destruction wrought by Katrina affected a broad swath of the Gulf Coast, the city with which the hurricane has become inextricably coupled is New Orleans. Might the venue of the recent tragedy hold some meaning for us?
What occurs, at least to me, is that the "Big Easy" received its nickname from the lifestyle it exemplified, one of leisure and (in the word's most literal sense) carelessness. The city is probably best known -- or was, at least, until now -- for the unbridled partying and debauchery that yearly characterized its annual Mardi Gras celebrations.
I cannot and do not claim to know "why" the hurricane took the terrible toll it did; but our inability to understand should not preclude us -- those of us who believe in a G-d Who wants us to reflect on, and grow from, events around us -- from trying to respond to the wind-driven wake-up call by asking a "what": What can I do spiritually as a result? And one message we might well choose to perceive is the need to recognize how belittling to meaningful life is the contemporary culture of recreation and entertainment.
Forget the implied theodicy -- that's another discussion. It's the concept of "bitul" that fascinates -- the self-assurance shared by certain people (clergy, poets, English professors, abstract impressionists)that the work they are doing is vital and crucial, while the things other folks busy themselves with are superficial and recreational. Would an anthroplogist see any qualitiative difference between a man who spends his days reading and discussing ancient Near Eastern texts, and a jazz trumpeter who spends his waking hours jamming and swapping licks and inspiration? Would a brain scan be able to see any difference in neurological activity between the mental strain -- and, let's face it, pleasure -- being experienced by the two men? (And let's not pretend there isn't pleasure or "entertainment" to be derived from a shiur.)
I can understand a pediatrician, paramedic, or political activist who is disdainful of how other people waste their time on "entertainment." At least they can easily justify their endeavors as having a demonstrable impact on bettering humankind -- or at least affecting it on one way or the other. But if we didn't say so ourselves, would anyone consider 15-hour days bent over a Gemara "useful" or "meaningful"?
As for the notion that the "venue of the recent tragedy [might] hold some meaning for us," it should be noted that the image of New Orleans as a city of leisure and carelessness is a concoction of its entrepreneurs, playwrights, and tourism officials. You could just as easily call it a city of industriousness (its port complex was the world’s busiest); of cultural invention (jazz is its gift to the world); and culinary triumphs. But most people there probably just call it home, and, given its poverty, I doubt many of the folks you saw huddled in the Superdome spent a lot of time lazing about and letting the good times roll.
Rabbi Shafran asks:
Could we not all benefit from critically confronting that fact, from recognizing the toll such reductionism takes on the deepest meaning of our lives? Could we not benefit, in other words, from pointing our fingers at ourselves, the consumers of the crudeness?
Sure we could, but why drag God and the hurricane into it? Enemies of crudeness could find plenty to dislike about New Orleans whether it was flooded ornot. Why does its destruction make those questions any more urgent? If I see a crack addict on the corner, I'm inclined to ponder the choices I've made and luck I enjoyed that prevented me from becoming him. My exercise in self-scrutiny wouldn't change if he was to be suddenly killed by a falling air-conditioning unit, which could happen to anybody, high or straight. Unless I thought there was a message in his death...a sort of gravity-driven wake-up call, from, you know, the Big Guy.
I think there's something decadent and reductionary in asking how any of us might benefit "spiritually" from the hurricane, when the real scrutiny and hard questions should be applied to the unfathomable human errors that compounded this tragedy. If God really wants us to "to reflect on, and grow from," events like the hurricane, I suggest that His first lesson would be, "This isn't about you, or how you feel about New Orleans. Write a check, open your homes, and make your leaders accountable for the mistakes they made."
To his credit, Rabbi Shafran says this at the beginning of the essay. I would have stopped there.