Where was God on October 7? A different perspective

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The horrific October 7 massacre undoubtedly surpasses the savagery of any other wave of terrorism Israel has ever seen. In the face of barbarity, we are called to challenge prevailing conventions, to abandon simplistic arguments, and to move toward more complex ideas that may light the path for some of us.

Photo by: Timon Studler

The horrific October 7 massacre undoubtedly surpasses the savagery of any other wave of terrorism Israel has ever seen. For a number of days, we experienced what European Jews felt in the ghettos at the hands of murderous Nazis. Like then, a heart-wrenching question continues to haunt many of us: "Where was God?", "Why did He stand silent and complicit at Be'eri or Re'im?" Can we genuinely continue to declare in our daily prayers that "[You are] Goodness, for your mercy has no limit. You are Mercy, for your open-kindness has no end" when the southern villages of Israel were empty of mercy and compassion? I wish to lay out a few possible answers and faith-centered explanations. Finally, I will offer a different perspective among these explanations.

The first approach is one in which every phrase starts with same word: "Because". Those subscribing to this thesis typically search for a sin to justify a calamity. To this day, some claim to have discovered God's true intentions and identified the sins that brought about the great tragedies of the Jewish people in modern times—for example, that the Holocaust was a punishment for Zionism, or even anti-Zionism. Some insist that the terrible attack that we suffered just months ago is the inevitable outcome of desecrating Shabbat and indulging in sexual promiscuity. In one media report, an interviewee went as far as arguing that "On Simchat Torah, God was not present wherever He wasn't welcome." In other words, this individual is convinced that the secular residents of the kibbutzim are the only ones at fault for their own sufferings.

The greatest flaw in this an approach is not only that it can easily be defied by factual observations, for example: "Then, what about the religious residents of Sderot or Ofakim who were killed?", or "What about the Meron crowd crush?"; but rather, the deeper problem is that it constitutes no less than a moral travesty. The unfathomable scope and violence of the October 7th massacre is such that no transgression can account for such a heinous punishment. Whoever claims there is sin that can justify the vicious murder of women, infants, and the elderly in the Gaza Envelope is to be accused of worshiping a God of malice. Such a position would certainly be tantamount to the worst imaginable "Chilul Hashem" (the desecration of God's name).

This implication, however, is not even the worst aspect of the above contention. Self-righteous individuals looking for sins to decry seldom point a damning finger at themselves. Instead, they excel at underscoring how other groups – to which they themselves never belong – have gone astray and hardly ever carry out any form of soul-searching. This is an inappropriate effort to exploit the horrible tragedy of others in an attempt to prove them wrong.

The second approach is one where the word "sake" plays a central role. Followers of this school of thought are not searching for a sin to elicit punishment, but for a purpose that the tragedy is meant to fill. Inspired by ancient texts affirming that everything happens for a reason, these individuals attempt to address the great catastrophes of our lifetime in a similar vein, suggesting, for instance, a direct link between the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel—a divine plan to facilitate the creation of the Jewish national home out of the ashes of concentration camps. Likewise, while some argue that the objective of the Simchat Torah massacre was to usher the Jewish people into a new era of spiritual renaissance – as well as reveal inner depths of our identity – others believe God wanted to restore national cohesiveness following the contentious judicial reforms that tore our society over the last year. The aim here is not to degrade others, but to find comfort in our overall positive, albeit slow, progression toward ultimate salvation.

Despite the robust theoretical foundations underpinning this view in regard to certain episodes of Jewish history, it becomes dangerous when we apply it to unspeakable atrocities. There is no greater purpose, however important it may seem, that can justify the horrors experienced by the residents of the western Negev. Here too, whoever claims that God sanctioned this magnitude of suffering and death in the pursuit of a noble purpose, is essentially ascribing immorality to Him. What is more, proponents of this view, much like their "sin-finder" counterparts, try to identify purposes that will confirm the validity of their lifestyle and negate that of their ideological rivals. In short, it's only another way to take advantage of a tragic event.

At any rate, both Jewish sources and modern texts provide a third answer, one in which the dominant word is "silence". In this case, the main argument is that we cannot explain or understand everything, and man must humbly accept his inability to grasp the full extent of reality's mysteries and resort to stillness. It is precisely this inability to make sense of our chaotic existence – so rife with monstrosities and devastation –that can ultimately assuage our religious consciences. It allows us to acknowledge that we neither can, nor should we have an obligation to, understand.

This approach seeks to free us from the need to search for answers, of trying to give religious legitimacy to our inability rationalize everything. It enables us to concede and "leave those questions be." Nonetheless, this line of thought does not ultimately satiate our appetite, as people of faith, to find meaning. It is only effective insofar as it somewhat alleviates our feelings of impotence. It can only satisfy the souls of those willing to accept what cannot be understood, but those avid to find answers will never find comfort in accepting a world of endless question marks.

Therefore, I'd like to propose a fourth type of answer – one that stands in stark contrast to the previous three. In the face of barbarity, we are called to challenge prevailing conventions, to abandon simplistic arguments, and to move toward more complex ideas that may light the path for some of us.

As we may recall, our initial question was: "Where was God on October 7?", however, a more poignant question would be: "Where was Man?" The ability to believe in human's good nature—in its rationality and moral judgment –collapsed in the face of demons who invaded from Gaza. How can we still uphold our view of humans as higher beings when fellow members of our species indulge in a depravity that overshadows that of nature's most ferocious predators? How can we cling to this belief after they indiscriminately raped, murdered, beheaded, burned, and abducted women and babies? Not only our political and military conceptions fell apart – humanism itself was shaken to its core.

Following the ethical crisis of October 7th, we might endorse one of two equally bleak attitudes. We can choose to sink into an utter sense of despair and abandon all humanistic optimism, caving in to the notion that modernity and progress achieve nothing but the amplification of the forces of destruction that lie deep within the human race. Those who decide to tread in this direction, might soon follow in the steps of Stefan Zweig who, after witnessing the brutality into which his "spiritual homeland of Europe" had descended, decided to end his life.

The only other, diametrically opposed alternative is to accept the inescapable reality of monstrous human beings while exonerating ourselves from any ethical boundaries. Those who embrace it might soon realize how, without noticing it, they may slowly adopt the standards imposed by the terrorist organizations themselves. We are currently in the midst of the most just war, aiming to destroy Hamas, both politically and physically. Nevertheless, as we focus on eradicating the evil state that they established in Gaza, we must likewise make sure that we don't fashion ourselves in their likeness. We must constantly keep in mind the Tolkenian warning against wearing the ring forged by Sauron for too long, lest we pervert our own souls.

At this critical juncture, it becomes imperative to reaffirm our faith in the God who was – and still is – present at Be'eri, Re'im, Sderot, and Ofakim. Our plea is not only to be saved from external threats but also to prevent the erosion of our own humanity. This God is not a distant observer; rather, He resides within our hearts, shielding us from internal malevolence. In the face of tragedy, God remains our steadfast companion, both now and in the future. Despite the darkness and brutality witnessed on that fateful day, He serves as our anchor, ensuring that we persist in upholding ethical values, optimism, and justice. In times of despair, religious faith serves a profound purpose – to rescue us from hopelessness regarding humanity and the state of morality. This conviction is ultimately what instills in us a feeling of certainty in our lofty ideals, which are currently under such an egregious attack. However virtuous our fierce campaign against Hamas may be, it is paramount that we continue to pursue it with moral integrity. This entails recognizing the inherent value of every human being, created in the image of God, and thereby committing ourselves to championing justice and dignity. That is the true meaning of our daily prayers – we thank the Almighty for filling our hearts with compassion and assert the conviction that, indeed, "His mercy has no limit….His open-kindness has no end.


This article was published in the Times of Israel