The Theology of Sandy
Recently a very fine rabbi, of chassidishe inclination, disappointed me by ridiculing the idea that last week's weather disaster in the US was due to the human-caused environmental problem of climate change. He further insisted that one cannot attribute it to teva, the natural order. He argued that it is an act of God, not an act of man, and we have to look for the divine cause. He suggested, tentatively, that it was because of Atlantic City, the target of the storm, being a den of gambling. He added that just as the mabul happened because of interbreeding, so too similar natural events happen due to breaches in arayos, such legislating same-sex marriages.
A thought that struck me was, hey, if you're making wild guesses as to the metaphysical cause, why not pin the blame closer to home, as per a real cheshbon hanefesh? You could observe that the original mabul happened because of chamas, violence, and note that water puts out fires. Then you can observe that the hardest-hit Jewish community last week was the Five Towns, and you can note that people there fawn over chassidishe rebbes, including paying one million dollars for the honor of hosting the Skvere Rebbe. Now, Skvere achieved notoriety for the case of the dissident who was set on fire by the Rebbe's assistant, for which no responsibility or appropriate action was taken by Skver. So the hurricane was to punish the violence and symbolically "put out the fire"! Bingo!
Of course, that's ludicrous and offensive; I have good friends in the Five Towns who suffered terrible damage to their homes, and who don't support Skvere. But nor do they gamble in Atlantic City.
So now for the serious discussion. I don't think (as far as I can gather) that there is any basis for attributing Sandy entirely to climate change caused by man. However, the idea that it was exacerbated by changes to the environment caused by man seems entirely plausible. Furthermore, from a religious Jewish perspective, it seems perfectly reasonable and appropriate to draw such a conclusion (if there is adequate scientific basis).
This is clearly the case from the rationalist Jewish perspective. Terrible events can occur as a result of teva, and as a result of people not making the correct hishtadlus. After all, Rambam, in his Letter to Marseilles, says that the Destruction of Jerusalem happened as a result of people involving themselves in silly superstitions instead of working at proper military planning and defense of the land:
This is why our kingdom was lost and our Temple was destroyed and why we were brought to this; for our fathers sinned and are no more because they found many books dealing with these themes of the star gazers, these things being the root of idolatry, as we have made clear in Laws Concerning Idolatry. They erred and were drawn after them, imagining them to be glorious science and to be of great utility. They did not busy themselves with the art of war or with the conquest of lands, but imagined that those studies would help them. Therefore the prophets called them “fools and dolts” (Jer. 4:22).
But even without adopting the rationalist approach, normative Jewish thought clearly sees it as entirely plausible that disasters can occur due to environmental harm caused by man, and no other metaphysical cause need be sought.
Let's start with a simple mitzvah of the Torah (that I will be fortunate enough to perform, with a berachah, in the next few weeks): That of making a fence around a roof that people walk upon. Even mystics, who claim that the reasons for mitzvos are metaphysical and unknowable, would have to concede that there is a clear and obvious reason for this mitzvah. And if someone were to fail to fulfill it, and were to fall from their roof and come to harm, one would obviously not need to look for the metaphysical reason as to why it happened ("ah, it's because he spoke during davenning!").
As I noted in a post of a few years ago, "Safety is Also a Mitzvah," the tragic collapse of the Versailles wedding hall in Jerusalem, built using the notorious "pal-kal" construction method, need not be attributed to mixed dancing or anything like that. There was no need to divine any cause other than the obvious: It is dangerously irresponsible to look for quick-and-easy shortcuts in something as serious as constructing tall buildings. And responsibility in such matters as construction is also a Torah obligation, be it the mitzvah of maakeh or that of venishmartem es nafshosechem.
The Midrash notes that man's power and resultant responsibilities extend beyond his direct construction, to the environment around him:
“Look at the work of God, for who can rectify that which he has damaged” (Ecclesiastes 7:13) – At the time when God created Adam, He took him around the trees of the Garden of Eden, and He said to him, “Look at My works, how beautiful and praiseworthy they are! Everything that I created, I created for you; take care that you do not damage and destroy My world, for if you damage it, there is no one to repair it afterwards!” (Midrash Koheles Rabbah 7:1)
Here we see that, from Chazal's perspective, it is certainly possible that man can cause great harm to the world. Furthermore, man is enjoined not to do so, and warned that if he does not listen, he will suffer the consequences.
It is thus perfectly appropriate, from a Torah perspective, to say that man failed in his obligations to the environment, and suffered great harm as a result. Is that actually what happened with Sandy? I have no idea. But it's at least as reasonable as attributing it to gambling in Atlantic City.