When Israel’s most prominent Sephardic rabbi described Hurricane Katrina as America’s punishment for supporting Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza — and condemned its mainly black victims for failing to study Torah — many Jewish leaders here were appalled.
But in Israel, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s view linking the worst natural disaster in American history to U.S. support for the Gaza withdrawal is not unique among rabbis.
Rabbi Joseph Gerlitzky, the leader of the Lubavitch chasidic sect’s center in central Tel-Aviv, among others, gave a sermon from his pulpit soon after the hurricane voicing the same theme. A popular radio rabbi echoed him. And a noted Jerusalem kabbalist reportedly also made similar comments.
The leader of the largest Orthodox group in America, the Orthodox Union, specifically criticized Rabbi Yosef’s comments in a widely distributed e-mail.
“I do not think that any living human being, however superior his halachic expertise, can know God’s reasons for natural calamities,” wrote OU executive vice president Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, referring to Rabbi Yosef’s acknowledged authority on matters of religious law. “That God’s ways are often inscrutable is a basic and universally accepted component of our belief system.”
But the head of the OU’s rabbinic group was far more circumspect.
“There are many views regarding God’s ways and the problems of good and evil in the world,” said Rabbi Basil Herring, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America.
The council put out a statement expressing its own view that, “mortal man is not privy to the ways of the Immortal One, and we do not always understand why sadness and tragedy are part of human life.”
When asked directly about the statements by the Israeli rabbis, Rabbi Herring said, “Others may have different views. We would not seek to criticize or judge them.”
Rabbi Avi Shafran, spokesman for Agudath Israel of America, the largest haredi group in the U.S., preferred not to comment on the record when asked his reaction to the Israeli rabbis’ statements.
Rabbi Shafran instead pointed to an article he had written recently expressing his own views as Aguda’s spokesman. In his piece, Rabbi Shafran suggested that the sinfulness of New Orleans residents, rather than the Gaza withdrawal, might explain the destruction and death Katrina visited on their city in particular.
“What occurs, at least to me, is that the ‘Big Easy’ received its nickname from the lifestyle it exemplified, one of leisure and (in its most literal sense) carelessness,” he wrote, reflecting on the significance of the tragedy’s main venue. “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.”
At the same time, he wrote, in times of catastrophe, “Jewish tradition counsels Jews to point their fingers at themselves.” God, he said, “casts the Jews as chosen” with “a responsibility not only to strive to live exemplary lives in service to the divine but also to see world events as messages.”
Despite the statements of Rabbi Gerlitzky, the Tel Aviv Lubavitch leader, Zalman Shmotkin, a spokesman for Lubavitch World Headquarters in Brooklyn, said of the Israeli’s’ comments, “Clearly no one can claim to know how or why God does what he does.”
It was in his weekly sermon last week that Rabbi Yosef, the most prominent of the Israeli rabbis involved, described the hurricane as “God’s retribution.”
“[President] Bush was behind Gush Katif,” he explained, citing one of the Gaza settlements from which Jews were forced out. “He perpetrated the expulsion. Now everyone is mad at him. This is his punishment for what he did to Gush Katif.”
As for the New Orleans residents who were forced to flee their homes or, worse, who were unable to, or who lost their lives, Rabbi Yosef said, “There was a tsunami, and there are terrible natural disasters because there isn’t enough Torah study … “Hundreds of thousands remained homeless. Tens of thousands have been killed. All of this because they have no God.”
Rabbi Gerlitzky, the Tel-Aviv Lubavitch leader, sermonized on the topic from his pulpit on the Sabbath of Sept. 3. He told the World Net Daily Web site soon after, “We don’t have prophets who can tell us exactly what are God’s ways, but when we see something so enormous as Katrina, I would say Bush and [Secretary of State Condoleezza] Rice need to make an accounting of their actions, because something was done wrong by America in a big way. There are many obvious connections between the storm and the Gaza evacuation, which come right on top of each other. No one has permission to take one inch of the Land of Israel from the Jewish people.”
In an interview with The Jewish Week, Rabbi Gerlitzky stood by his quotes but stressed he spoke to the press as an official of the Rabbinic Congress for Peace, an anti-disengagement group, not as a representative of Lubavitch.
Rabbi Lazar Brody, a popular rabbi with his own radio program in Israel, wrote on his blog even before Katrina hit New Orleans:
“Authorities in Louisiana have ordered hundreds of thousands of people to flee from their homes. … The Talmud teaches ... ‘a turn for a turn.’ My heart tells me there’s a link between the forced expulsion of 8,500 people [from Gaza] and the nearly 850,000 people who are forced to flee their homes in Louisiana. … Hashem [God] isn’t wasting much time in showing his wrath … I humbly believe the unfortunate people of Louisiana can blame Mr. Bush and Ms. Rice for their misfortune. … He who creates exiles in the Holy Land will have a hundred-fold exiles in his own land.”
And Jerusalem kabbalist Rabbi David Batzri, a prominent student of the venerated kabbalist elder, Rabbi Yitzhak Kedourie, echoed the thought. “Divine retribution is meted out according to the principle of ‘measure for measure,’” he told World Net Daily. “Just as the Jews were forced out of their homes as a result of U.S. pressure on Israel, so, too, are Americans being forced out of their homes.”
Israeli rabbis were not alone in their prophetic instinct, of course. A number of Evangelical Christian leaders also linked Katrina’s destruction to U.S. support for the disengagement. And many more linked it to what they decried as New Orleans’ decadence — albeit in much stronger terms than Rabbi Shafran.
At the same time, some Muslim leaders attributed the catastrophe to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born terrorist leader who claims responsibility for scores of bombings in Iraq, made the point in a tape released on an Islamist Web site. And in South Philadelphia on Aug. 31, Black Muslim minister Louis Farrakhan opined that Katrina was divine punishment for the violence the U.S. had inflicted on Iraq.
Among the Jewish groups to condemn the remarks by Rabbi Yosef were the Anti-Defamation League and the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center. But the refusal of some Orthodox groups to criticize Rabbi Yosef’s comments may be linked to his stature.
A former chief rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Yosef is, for Sephardic Jews, without peer among living rabbis as an authority on Orthodox religious law.
“A disavowal of a great man’s comments is essentially a disavowal of the man,” said one Orthodox communal official, explaining their dilemma.
But Rabbi Alan Brill, a professor of Jewish philosophy at Yeshiva University, said the issue is wider than that. The rhetoric linking world events to biblical prophecy has “become a big part of the Orthodox community,” he said, just as it has for Evangelical Christianity.
During the last 15 years, Rabbi Brill explained, a variety of factors have made biblical prophecy and world events a major theme of Orthodox discourse, especially among religious leaders. The Chabad Lubavitch movement’s messianic worldview, inspired by its late leader, is one key factor, he said; the separate messianism of the Gush Emunim settlers’ movement in Israel is another.
For Orthodox Jews in America, said Brill, this all takes place within the broader culture’s increasing fixation on messianic end time themes centered on Israel. He cited Rev. Tim LaHaye’s best-selling “Left Behind” book series as but one example.
“We’re watching an increasing application of biblical prophecy to world events as part of people’s daily rhetoric,” he said. “That rhetoric has become a strong plurality in both the Orthodox and Christian Evangelical community — not the belief, necessarily; the rhetoric, which is used even if followers don’t exactly believe it. No one will say it’s nonsense anymore.”