Why are there pandemics and other natural disasters that cause so much suffering? Why do children sometimes die of agonizing bone cancer? Why is there evil in the world? These are not rhetorical questions. The existence of suffering and evil has long troubled traditional religious believers. The theological attempt to answer such questions is called theodicy—a justification for the existence of evil in a world created and ruled by a loving, all-knowing and all-powerful God.
There are many Jewish theodicies ranging from evil being a necessary consequence of free will, without which human moral action would be meaningless, to a mystical notion that all that exists, including evil, contains a divine spark and is therefore in some sense ultimately part of the good.
When Rabbi Johnathan Sacks, the erudite former Chief Rabbi of the UK was asked why bad things happen to good people, he answered that God doesn't want us to know the answer to this mystery, because if we did, we would accept the evil and not oppose it.
A great challenge to believers is the suffering of children. In 1981 Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote the book When Bad Things Happen to Good People as a response to losing his 14-year-old son to a rare genetic disease. In the book, Rabbi Kushner concludes that there are random events over which God has no control, making God in effect not all-powerful. He sees God's role not in causing or preventing tragedies but rather in providing us with community and strength to have moral responses to the tragedies.
A curious midrash (ancient rabbinic commentary on the Bible) teaches that the sages once captured the evil inclination and locked it away in the belief that they would thus make the world free of evil. But for three days, they found that no one would get up to go to work, couples were not making love, and chickens were not laying eggs. They were forced to let the evil inclination go free so that life could go on. The implication is clearly that some darker side of the human condition is integral to the creative process.
There are those who see suffering of all kinds, including natural disasters, as a sign of divine displeasure. This view offends modern sensibilities, but the Biblical Book of Job effectively dispenses with the notion that suffering is always a retribution for moral failing. Job, who is entirely righteous, suffers horrendous pain at the hands of a God who comes off as an almost malevolent force. Rather than accepting pious explanations for his suffering—he must have done something to deserve it—Job protests his innocence.
For many Jewish thinkers, the Holocaust called in to question all attempts to reconcile the existence of evil with an all-knowing, loving God. The French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas called such attempts a blasphemy. Rather than finding ways to explain how God could permit great evil, the proper response, hearkening back to Job, is to protest.
There is a story, confirmed by Holocaust survivor Eli Wiesel, that a group of rabbis in Auschwitz put God on trial for all that had befallen the Jewish people and found him guilty. After the trial the rabbis said the morning prayers.
But a fundamental characteristic of Judaism—all currents of Judaism—is that actions are more important than beliefs. A midrash on the Book of Jeremiah has God saying, “If only they had forsaken me and kept my Torah.” Whatever we believe about evil and suffering in the world, we are committed as Jews to doing all in our power to alleviate the suffering and overcome the evil.
Alan Rutkowski is connected with the Victoria Society for Humanistic Judaism and a founding member the Victoria Jewish dialogue group, If Not Now, When? He has contributed articles to the online edition of the American Journal, Jewish Currents.
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* This article was published in the print edition of the Times Colonist on Saturday, January 9th 2021