Why Does Genocide Happen?

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by R. Gil Student

Genocide, the targeted killing of a people, is not a modern invention. Many have tried to kill the Jews, the biblical Haman being perhaps the most famous ancient example. Other nations have also faced genocide, some even suffering from extinction. We live in a time of great hypocrisy, when people who explicitly intend to destroy all the Jews falsely claim that they are victims of genocide. Putting that aside, we can ask: Why does genocide happen?

I. Genocide and Sin

Rambam (Moreh Nevukhim 1:54) explains many tragedies as resulting from divine punishment of sin:

God’s actions towards mankind also include great calamities, which overtake certain individuals and destroy them, or some universal event annihilating whole tribes and even entire regions, destroying generation after generation, and sparing nothing whatsoever. Hence there occur inundations, earthquakes, destructive storms, military expeditions of one nation against another for the sake of destroying it with the sword and blotting out its memory, and many other evils of the same kind…. God performs acts similar to those which, when performed by us, originate in certain dispositions, in jealousy, desire for retaliation, revenge, or anger: [when God performs them,] they are in accordance with the guilt of those who are to be punished…

Rambam says that God uses natural disasters, such as earthquakes and terrible storms, as instruments of punishment for sins. The suffering and death that these events cause are punishment for individual or communal sin. This does not mean that every specific individual deserves his suffering or death. Rather, that the community deserves it in total and each individual is punished as a member of this community. Even righteous people die as part of an unrighteous community. Rambam includes genocide in his list of divine punishments, “military expeditions of one nation against another for the sake of destroying it with the sword and blotting out its memory.”

Understandably, this is difficult to read. We will shortly soften and revise this explanation. But first we should note that blaming the victim does not exonerate the perpetrator. Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Teshuvah 6:3) asks why the Egyptians were punished for enslaving the Jews when God had decreed the slavery (Gen. 15:13). People are punished for their bad choices, whether individually or as a group. They are not punished for actions they are forced to undertake when those actions are decreed by God. Rambam explains that the decree did not specify who would enslave the Jews. Each Egyptian made his own to choice to do bad. In other words, the justification of the evil (in this case, enslavement decreed by God) does not exonerate the perpetrators. Even Ramban (Gen. 15:4) who disagrees regarding the Egyptians because there was a prophecy about the enslavement would not disagree in general. Even when the victim bears some blame, the perpetrator is not justified in his actions and suffers punishment for his own guilt.

From what we have seen so far, Rambam seems to say that every victim of a genocide or a natural disaster is suffering punishment for his sins. Everyone sins. We see in the Torah that the punishment for sin includes terrible suffering (e.g. Lev. 26, Deut. 28). Sometimes God punishes us in this world and sometimes in the next. War and disaster are tools of God’s punishment in this world, freeing their victims from punishment in the next. That is what Rambam seems to be saying from a quick read of the passage above. However, elsewhere he says something else which forces us to read more closely.

II. Genocide and Nature

Later in Moreh Nevukhim (1:72), Rambam writes:

The same force that originates all things, and causes them to exist for a certain time, namely, the combination of the elements which are moved and penetrated by the forces of the heavenly spheres, that same cause becomes throughout the world a source of calamities, such as torrents, harmful rains, snowstorms, hail, tempestuous winds, thunder, lightning, and the putrefaction of the air, or other terrible catastrophes by which a place or many places or an entire country may be laid waste, such as landslips, earthquakes, hurricanes and floods issuing forth from the seas and from the depths.

Here Rambam says that natural disasters are, quite literally, natural. They are not tools of divine punishment but merely the ways of the world. People who suffer and die due to natural disasters are not necessarily guilty of any sin. They are just human beings living in a dangerous world. Are natural disasters punishments or merely nature at work? While Rambam does not include genocide in this list because it is not natural, the answer to the contradiction about natural disasters may apply to genocide, as well.

Perhaps we can explain based on a later discussion of earthquakes. The Talmud Yerushalmi (Berakhos 9:2) attributes earthquakes to a variety of spiritual causes. R. Nehorai says they happen because people fail to separate terumos and ma’asros, the portions of produce that must be given to Kohanim and Levi’im. R. Acha says that they are due to homosexual activity. Other rabbis say that they are due to machlokes, disunity. Another view is that earthquakes come when God sees theaters and circuses operating peacefully while the Temple in Jerusalem lies in ruins. Rav Shmuel Yaffe Ashkenazi (16th cen., Turkey; Yefeh Mareh, Berakhos 9:14) asks how we can understand this in light of scientific explanations of earthquakes. We know that earthquakes are natural events. How can they also be instruments of divine punishment? Additionally, according to R. Nehorai, why are there earthquakes in times when there is no biblical obligation to separate terumos and ma’aseros?

III. God and Nature

Rav Ashkenazi distinguishes between nature and divine intervention. God created the world and designed the course of nature. Within this creation, earthquakes will happen for natural reasons. However, God also intervenes in nature to reward and punish people. Some earthquakes are natural while others are the result of divine intervention. This can also explain the apparent contradiction within Moreh Nevukhim. Rambam never says that natural disasters and genocide are only tools of divine punishment. Perhaps generally they are part of nature, due to the ways of the world and choices made by other people. And sometimes, God causes unnatural disasters in order to punish people in this world.

If so, how do we interpret the events we see in the world and sometimes we experience ourselves? If a tragedy can be a punishment or a natural occurrence, what do we gain from this explanation? The assumption underlying these questions is that knowledge must be useful in order to be valuable. Maybe the value in this explanation is a somewhat greater understanding of the workings of the world. At the very least, we should see tragedy as a prompt for introspection and evaluation. What are people doing wrong that might have caused the tragedy? Without assigning blame, we look for meaning in the suffering, for improvements we can implement in the wake of tragedy, for an opening to reach out to God. At the same time, we also note what we did wrong on the natural level and how we can prepare better to avoid disasters that occur naturally.

If genocidal attacks may be a divine punishment or a natural event caused by evil choices, we must prepare for both. We must improve our religious stations to free us from divine punishment. We must also enhance our military defenses and take actions that will prevent such attacks in the future. Rambam’s double message teaches us that we must operate on two levels — the natural and the supernatural. In that way, we improve our places in both this world and the next.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student currently is serving his third term on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and also serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazineand the Board of OU Press. He has published four English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

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