I was traipsing along the internet and found a post by Batya not-so-subtly suggesting that Ted Kennedy's (and Ariel Sharon's) illnesses were divine punishment. She asks,
Does G-d punish non-Jews in the same way as Jews?
I can only speak for myself, but this question exemplifies all the reasons I find theodicy utterly disgusting as well as personally infuriating. (To be fair to Batya, her post was by far one of the less obscene examples floating around.)
This was my reply to Batya:
Given that our politics and religious beliefs are so different, I'm not surprised that I disagree with your take on this.
However, the fact that my mother recently "celebrated" her 5th year of surviving a brain tumor gives me an intimate perspective on this sort of thing.
I have always rejected theodicy, while recognizing that this places me at odds with many people who need to attribute all suffering to God to make the world make sense, who need to make God a punisher as well as a healer. I understand that, but I cannot accept it. I could not accept it before. I certainly cannot after spending long evenings with my mother in the hospital, helping her in the years after her recovery, when she had forgotten the most rudimentary basics of her life, such as her times tables, or how to read.
My mother was never religious, and still seems confused or uncomfortable when she sees me doing things like baking challah, making kiddush, or hosting a seder. Repeatedly, however, the one question she does seem interested is, "Do you think I am being punished?" "Do you think I did something to deserve this?"
And as always, my answer is no. Just as there was no sin that justified the Holocaust, there was no crime that my mother committed that would have justified being cursed with a growth the size of an orange squeezing against her brain, nothing she could have done to deserve a series of seizures and internal bleeding that wiped out her ability to multi-task, engage in rapid memory recall, or any of the other activities she formerly excelled at. The fact that deep down, she thinks that maybe, just maybe, she considers her permanent disability something she earned makes me both furious and sick.
Keeping this in mind, while there are plenty of groups and politicians I find distasteful, I cannot support people imagining themselves in the role of God, trying to sort out why this punishment is appropriate for this person, or that group.
I do not consider myself a religious person. But I call this blasphemy. Just as I would if the "target" of the theodicy were someone I intensely disagreed with, such as Ronald Reagan or Mordechai Eliyahu. I do not believe that THEIR medical problems are divine retribution anymore than Sharon's, Kennedy's, or my mother's were. Furthermore, I find it hypocritical that some people are so quick to guess at what Sharon or Kennedy are being punished for while they seem a lot less eager to theorize what past "sins" might have landed the esteemed Rav in the hospital.
I believe that anyone who has lived with or cared for someone with a brain tumor, Alzheimer's, cancer, heart disease, or a myriad of other illnesses would be hard-pressed to find a theology that neatly lines up these heart-breaking episodes with a convenient or appropriate "sin." And frankly, I feel that any God who visits such punishments on average Joe schmoes (or even morally questionable politicians) while allowing some of the greatest murderers of our age to die in their sleep (Stalin and Pol Pot) or take their own lives (Hitler) is not worth believing in.