A variety of leading Ultra-Orthodox rabbis are speaking out regarding the political unrest which is spreading and deepening throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Their conclusion? It’s God signaling the coming of the Messiah and punishing the region for Israeli “contempt” for traditional Judaism as these rabbis define it.
According to Rabbi Aharon Leib Steinman, the leader of the ultra-Orthodox Lithuanian sector in Bnei Brak, “Recently it appears that there is a powerful effort to destroy and agitate the world of the Torah, through various attempts to prosecute kollels (centers of advanced rabbinic studies) and yeshiva students.” “When you try to agitate the world of the Torah, God agitates the world, Steinman said.”
Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, a religious leader who is believed to have mystical powers, offered a different explanation. “It is evident that many unnatural things are happening,” he said. “People have come to me and said that it’s ‘Gog and Magog’ (Armageddon). We cannot know. But it’s probable that any unrest that God creates shows that the Messiah is coming.”
Ultimately though, this story is not just about a couple of rabbis. It’s about how different people understand what it means to live a life of faith and in an ongoing relationship to a power greater than them.
The issue here is not whether these rabbis are correct. After all who could know? We can certainly note however that their view that all global events are driven by what Jews do to other Jews is pretty narrow, and that what they are preaching is a dangerous version of an approach found in every religious tradition on the planet – seeing God and world events as always confirming that which they already believe.
Why is that dangerous? Because that approach, used by any tradition, whether to defend a so-called conservative position or one thought of as progressive, reduces God a rubber stamp which assures the one wielding it of their eternal correctness. In a radical reversal of the Genesis tradition, such believers seem to think that God is created in our image, not the other way around.
So if it is easy to see how these rabbis, their Christian counter-parts who can be easily found on American TV, and their Muslim counter-parts who can be found on TV’s throughout the Muslim world, are all so problematic in their assertions of absolute certainty about what it is that God wants and means, why are they as popular as they are? What is the spiritual question to which all such arbiters of the mind of God are responding?
I think the question is whether or not one deems surprise to be a religious category or not. Is God simply a confirmer of what is already known, or something more? Do we experience spiritual insight as always confirming, or could it be, at least occasionally, destabilizing? Is certainty about God’s will an expression of belief or a signal of its weakness?
These are not simply questions for other folks, but for each of us. How we answer them is likely to tell us where we stand on what we really believe it means to live a life of faith.