God Squad Rabbi Marc Gellman

Rabbi Marc Gellman writes about religion for Newsday.

QUESTION: Most of us here in America are lucky enough to finish the day with three good meals under our belts and a solid roof over our heads. What reliable charities can we contribute to that will efficiently help the people in Nepal?

-- F, counting my blessings in California


ANSWER: The death toll from the April 25 7.8-magnitude earthquake near Kathmandu, Nepal, has killed thousands. The final death toll will probably rise to well over 7,600 souls with many thousands more injured and homeless and starving and cold. It all reminds me of the wise words of Alexander Solzhenitsyn: "What seems to us more important, more painful, and more unendurable is really not what is more important, more painful and more unendurable, but merely that which is closer to home. Everything distant which for all its moans and muffled cries, its ruined lives and millions of victims, that does not threaten to come rolling up to our threshold today, we consider endurable and of tolerable dimensions."

Nepal has rolled up to our threshold today, but soon enough it will become a distant place again. We must allow our compassion to narrow that distance now.

However, giving to a charity to help the victims of the earthquake reminds us once again of how hard it is to give away money well. Leaving aside the so-called charities that are really just scams, there are also legitimate charities that intend to do a good job but fail. These real but inefficient charities take far too big a percentage of donations for their expenses. In general, any charity that takes more than 30 percent to 35 percent for overhead is not efficient enough to warrant your support. I actually believe that the percentage should be lower than 30 percent, but that level of charitable excellence is rare.

So how do you know if a charity asking you for money is legit? I consult two sources: Charity Navigator (charitynavigator.org) and Give.org -- the work of the Better Business Bureau Wise Giving Alliance, which uses 20 criteria to evaluate a charity. Please check out both websites for their list of the charities they recommend that are doing good relief work for the suffering people in Nepal. Give now, but give wisely.

Giving is necessary now in order to keep our hearts from hardening, but our faith is also challenged. I have in the past and I will again describe the way Judaism, Christianity and Islam deal with the problem of reconciling the suffering of the innocent and the goodness of God, a problem called theodicy. Considering that the earthquake occurred in Nepal, which is a country made up of mostly Hindus (85 percent) and Buddhists (10 percent), I think that this would be a good time to consider how Hinduism and Buddhism cope with suffering.

For the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam the suffering of the guilty is justice, but the suffering of the innocent is a fundamental -- perhaps the fundamental -- challenge to God's benevolence and omnipotence.

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In the East, Hinduism and Buddhism do not have this problem of reconciling a good God with natural evil because, in different ways, they both believe that this world was not created by a single good and loving and powerful God. In Hinduism there are many gods and in Buddhism there are no gods, so suffering is not a problem for God. Suffering is a problem for us. In the West, the world is the scene of salvation. In the East, the world is the obstacle to salvation. Our attachment to the world makes us suffer, and it is only by achieving Nirvana through Enlightenment (Buddhism) or through achieving release (moksha) from the cycle of death and rebirth in reincarnation (Hinduism) that we can escape the suffering that is the lot of all unenlightened beings. I don't know whether seeking to engage the world or seeking to transcend the world makes suffering easier. I do know that this great mystery has spawned two very different responses and they will continue to offer us help in our darkest moments. That is the triumph of faith in both the East and the West.