The Theopolitics of Disaster: Sex, the Sabbath and the Occupation

When a Shiite prayer leader blames earthquakes in Iran on immodestly dressed and promiscuous women, neocons like Michael Ledeen snicker.

When a prominent ultra-orthodox Israeli spiritual and political leader agrees with Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh that the fire destroying Israel’s Carmel Forest is a punishment from God, there’s silence.

Ovadia Yosef, a former Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel, who remains a prominent spiritual and political leader of the Shas party, and Palestinian Prime Minister elect Haniyeh agree that the Deity has been venting His fury by means of  the destructive blaze in Israel, but disagree about why.

The German press agency DPA, via Haaretz, reports that Haniyeh, during emergency prayers for rain held in Gaza on Sunday, stated that “those fires are divine strikes for what they [Israel] did.” According to the Jerusalem Post, Haniyeh told Reuters during a recorded interview: “These are plagues from God” and “Allah is punishing them [the Israelis] from a place they did not expect it.”

After Hamas’s overwhelming electoral victory on January 25, 2006 in the Palestinian parliamentary election, Haniyeh was chosen to be the Palestinian Prime Minister and he was sworn in on March 29, 2006. The U.S. then severed all contact with Hamas-led Palestinian government. Israel has refused to accord any political legitimacy to Hamas.

Rabbi Yosef, on the other hand, blames Israelis’ religious laxity–particularly their failure to properly observe the sabbath–for arousing Divine wrath, according to the Israeli news site Y-Net:

Shas’ spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef implied on Saturday night that the fire raging on Mount Carmel in northern Israel was a punishment from God for religious offenses committed by the area’s residents.

During his weekly sermon, the rabbi read a section from the Babylonian Talmud, which states that “the fire only exists in a place where Shabbat is desecrated.”

“A number of houses were destroyed, entire neighborhoods were lost – all under supervision,” the rabbi said. He recommended that people “study Torah, engage in good deeds, repent, observe Shabbat, and know the entire Halacha, and thanks to this God will apply a full recovery.”

This is not the first time Rabbi Yosef has publicly proffered a theological justification for a major disaster. In September of 2005, Yosef blamed the destructiveness of Hurricane Katrina on the residents of New Orleans and on U.S. President George W. Bush’s pressure on Israel to withdraw from northern Gaza and the West Bank:

Hurricane Katrina is a punishment meted out by God as a result of U.S. President George W. Bush’s support for the Gaza and northern West Bank disengagement… Notably, the rabbi chose to openly declare what many ultra-Orthodox believers have said for a while now, namely that recent naturally disasters in the U.S. are a direct result of American support for the pullout.

In his weekly sermon, the rabbi said: “There was a tsunami and there are terrible natural disasters, because there isn’t enough Torah study… black people reside there (in New Orleans). Blacks will study the Torah? (God said) let’s bring a tsunami and drown them.”

Yet Rabbi Ovadia was not done there, and proceeded to explain in detail why Americans deserved the Hurricane. “Bush was behind the (expulsion of) Gush Katif,” he said. “He encouraged Sharon to expel Gush Katif…we had 15,000 people expelled here, and there 150,000 (were expelled). It was God’s retribution ..God does not short-change anyone.”“He (Bush) perpetrated the expulsion. Now everyone is mad at him…this is his punishment for what he did to Gush Katif, and everyone else who did as he told them, their time will come, too,” the rabbi said.

A similar view of Hurricane Katrina as divine punishment was expressed by American televangelist John Hagee, founder of Christians United for Israel (CUFI), who said in a 1999 sermon, God sent Adolf Hitler to help Jews reach the promised land.” Hagee, however, concurred with Iranian Hojatoleslam Kazim Sadeghi–the Iranian cleric who said earthquakes were Allah’s  punishment for  provocative dress and promiscuity–that God sends natural disasters to punish sexual licentiousness. Hagee told Terry Gross in an interview on WHYY radio on Sept. 18, 2006:

All hurricanes are acts of God, because God controls the heavens. I believe that New Orleans had a level of sin that was offensive to God, and they were recipients of the judgment of God for that.

The newspaper carried the story in our local area, that was not carried nationally, that there was to be a homosexual parade there on the Monday that Katrina came. And the promise of that parade was that it was going to reach a level of sexuality never demonstrated before in any other gay pride parades.

Not long after Hagee’s Hitler/promised land sermon —Yosef asserted that the 6 million Jews who perished in the Holocaust were “reincarnated sinners” who had been killed by the Nazis to  atone for their misdeeds in their past lives.

In a more recent and  much-criticized weekly radio sermon in the summer of 2007, the revered ultra-orthodox sage claimed that Israeli soldiers who “believe and pray” are protected by God, implying that only non-observant soldiers lose their lives:

“Is it any wonder if, heaven forbid, soldiers are killed in a war?” Rabbi Yosef said in the recording of his weekly Saturday night sermon…

“They don’t observe the Sabbath, they don’t observe the Torah, they don’t pray, they don’t put on phylacteries every day. Is it any wonder that they’re killed? It’s no wonder. May the Almighty have mercy on them and bring them back to religion.”

Yosef was once considered dovish — relative to other orthodox and ultra-orthodox Jewish rabbis and politicians — because he expressed the view in the late 1980s and early ’90s that halakha (Jewish religious law) prioritized the principle pikuach nefesh (saving a Jewish life) over that of yeshivat ha-aretz (settling all parts of the land promised by God to the Jews), and that negotiations with Arabs were religiously justifiable in order to preserve Jewish lives. Gerald Steinberg explained:

In a series of scholarly articles and public declarations, Rabbi Yosef stated that the positive commandment to settle the land is overridden by the commandment to avoid unnecessary loss of life. Thus, he declared that “If the heads of the army with the members of the government declare that lives will be endangered unless territories in the Land of Israel are relinquished, and there is the danger of an immediate declaration of war by the neighboring Arab [states],…and if territories are relinquished the danger of war will be removed, and that there are realistic chances of lasting peace, then it appears, according to all the opinions, that it is permissible to relinquish territories of the Land of Israel…[according to the principle of] pikuach nefesh. (In the same article, however, Rabbi Yosef also notes that military officers, government officials, and security experts are divided, and some have concluded that withdrawal from territories could increase the dangers, and that these views should also be considered.)

But in recent years, Yosef and his political party have taken a more hardline stance on territorial compromise, as Peter Beinart recently pointed out in the New York Review of Books:

At one point, Shas—like some of its Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox counterparts—was open to dismantling settlements. In recent years, however, ultra-Orthodox Israelis, anxious to find housing for their large families, have increasingly moved to the West Bank, where thanks to government subsidies it is far cheaper to live. Not coincidentally, their political parties have swung hard against territorial compromise. And they have done so with a virulence that reflects ultra-Orthodox Judaism’s profound hostility to liberal values. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Shas’s immensely powerful spiritual leader, has called Arabs “vipers,” “snakes,” and “ants.” In 2005, after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon proposed dismantling settlements in the Gaza Strip, Yosef urged that “God strike him down.” The official Shas newspaper recently called President Obama “an Islamic extremist.”

Shas has been divided on extending the settlement freeze, with Yosef among those opposed.

Yosef’s reputation for dovishness is challenged in other ways. In a prayer for the Jewish new year this past August, Yosef appealed to the Almighty  for a plague on Palestinians and their leaders (which he subsequently retracted). Two weeks ago, Yosef, who once called Palestinians “snakes despised by God,” opined in a sermon that non-Jews exist only to serve Jews, and that God preserves the lives of non-Jews in the State of Israel in order to protect those of Jews.

Fundamentalist Muslims, Christians and Jews seem to agree that the punitive but righteous hand of God is responsible for catastrophe.

The devil, as always, is in the details.

Marsha B. Cohen

Marsha B. Cohen is an analyst specializing in Israeli-Iranian relations and US foreign policy towards Iran and Israel. Her articles have been published by PBS/Frontline's Tehran Bureau. IPS, Alternet, Payvand and Global Dialogue. She earned her PhD in International Relations from Florida International University, and her BA in Political Philosophy from Hebrew University in Jerusalem.



  1. History shows that societies are led by one or the other of three groups: priests, soldiers, or lawyers (the last being a relatively recent historical phenomenon). Despite my vast stock of lawyer jokes, I’ll take them as top dogs any day. Soldiers come second. As for priests — we should never again allow blind faith to rule our daily lives here on earth. One of the most disturbing aspects of my lifetime is the increasing hold that absurd (not to use a stronger word) belief systems (particularly fundamentalist Christianity and radical Islam) have gained over masses of people. This is a Spenglerian symptom of decline (see O.S. on the “Second Religiousness”).

  2. Let me just add that I don’t at all rule out the possibility of “divine” (for want of a better word) punishment. I believe in Nemesis. What I object to is preachers and self-proclaimed prophets putting themselves in God’s shoes, and insisting that they can read Her divine mind.

  3. I guess that we ought to be glad that our religious leaders agree on something.
    Imagine God on the end of two telephone lines listening at once to two separate sets of instructions from Haniyeh and Yosef. Aany more on religious leaders the line would only lead to greater confusion.

  4. Who will rid us of these meddlesome priests?

    I will gladly contribute money to a flotilla away from Gaza (or a slow boat to China) carrying Haniyeh, Hagee, and Yosef — and all the other theologians who read the palm of God’s outstretched hand.

Comments are closed.