General Topics



In reference to my post “Am I A Believer?”, several readers have told me that the most troubling issue is less belief, but more what actually happens, or is allowed to happen, on earth. To make matters worse it is religion that is often the cause of much of our suffering. Of course we must separate religion and what humans do with it from God. We can’t blame God for everything.

A principle of all Western religions is “Benevolence”, that God cares and is involved in human life, rewards the good and punishes the bad. But from the way we look at things, most of us just don’t see it working that way.

When Abraham is arguing over the men of Sodom he asks, “Will not the Judge of the earth be just?” The problem is that according to all human criteria of justice, life does not appear to be. Shall we say that God allowed millions of innocent children to die in Auschwitz because some crime or failure that we Jews or others committed? The Bible itself says, “Sons do not die for fathers, nor fathers for sons.” And although you might want to quote “visiting the sins of the fathers on the sons” in the Ten Commandments, that really means that consequences of actions go on impacting those who come after us; it is not a statement about punishing anyone.

This problem has always troubled the rabbis. They deal with it in various ways: God rewards and punishes in the next world not in this; we humans see things through limited and selfish perspectives; we are expecting God to be like a human being; we are being tested; bad things happen because of other factors outside of ourselves. Anything, including reincarnation, is offered to answer the unanswerable. I personally do find any of these answers satisfying, regardless of whether they may or may not be the case. The fact is that for some people there is no satisfactory explanation. True believers might not need an explanation, for others even an explanation cannot take away the pain.

I have always admired the honesty of those who avoided glib answers and simply said that either they did not know or couldn’t explain. My favorite on this issue is Rabbi Yannai, who says in Avot.4.15, “We simply cannot explain why good people suffer and bad people prosper.”

Nevertheless, we still wonder why bad things happen, even if we can explain why. We seem to need answers. We still buy book after book in our desperate search for finality and closure. We know about bacteria, about viruses, about bodies that pick up diseases, and we also know we need bacteria to live. Even when we know “why” someone dies we are still hurt, we still feel loss and suffer and we ask “why”. But “why” does not mean “why”, it means “How can I cope?” Wanting to find meaning really means, “take away my pain.”

The fact is that people are different and they cope differently, in all types of situations. Some people handle crises by accepting, passively. Some respond actively and dynamically and use pain and setbacks to spur themselves on to greater things. Others can only deal with things through anger–anger at themselves, at others, and at God. It’s like love. Don’t you know of loving relationships based on tension and constant bickering? Yet do we also not know of love based on calm and ease? Who is to say there is only one paradigm? And so it is with dealing with pain and loss. Some go out and shop till they drop. Others withdraw into their shells.

The rabbis often used the concept of Yissurin, which one can translate as “suffering” and it literally means “discipline”. The Talmud talks about two kinds. Those which are deserved and corrective and those which are imposed on people for no apparent reason and are euphemistically called “the Yissurin of Love”. A person can suffer because of forces completely beyond his control and, indeed, beyond the normal workings of this world. The Book of Job is a document that deals with this issue. The idea is that God is at least showing an interest in someone, if only to test them. The testing is a sort of “act of love”. Of course, that is no answer that satisfies the rational human mind. Neither is it logical that suffering is good. That’s not a Jewish response. But suffering can be useful. It can get us to think, to appreciate, to understand.

It is true that we do and can bring bad things upon ourselves–“Do as you would be done by!” Two Temples were destroyed because we disregarded both the Torah and the prophets. The Talmud also seems to distinguish between national failure and consequences and what happens to individuals. On the other hand there are lovely stories of Rabbi Akiva or Nachum Ish Gamzu dealing with bad things in a positive way. When something goes wrong, instead of despair, they say, “It is all for the best.” “Fate” may appear initially to go against a person, but often we only see a short term effect and fail to see a broader plan. And yet there are events that simply cannot be explained away this way. The possibility of being run over by a drunken driver is beyond our capacity to take precautions and one can hardly argue that a painful death would be “for the best”.

Here’s an excerpt from the Talmud (Avodah Zarah 54b):

Our Rabbis taught: Philosophers asked the elders in Rome, ‘If your God has no desire for idolatry, why does He not abolish it?’ They replied, ‘If it was something of which the world has no need that was worshipped, He would abolish it; but people worship the sun, moon, stars and planets; should He destroy the Universe on account of fools! The world pursues its natural course. Or suppose a man stole a measure of wheat and went and sowed it in the ground; it is right that it should not grow, but the world pursues its natural course. Or suppose a man has intercourse with his neighbor’s wife; it is right that she should not conceive, but the world pursues its natural course and as for fools who act wrongly, they will have deal with the consequences.”

So this is the world we live in. God creates the system but then leaves it to go its own way. But that conflicts with the idea of Divine Intervention. As with the ideas of Resurrection, Messianism, and Life after Death, we are left with concepts that we do not understand and which seem to fly in the face of everything we experience in this world. Is blind obedience the only way? But blind obedience means not asking questions and the Torah constantly requires us to ask!

Once again we are left unable to find an explanation of “why” to satisfy our logic. But we need, nevertheless, to find an answer to the question of “what”. What are we supposed to do now? By all means, rage at your Maker, accuse the Almighty. That, indeed, is an old and ancient tradition of ours. It is at least engagement. It is therapeutic, and the aim of therapy is to aid recovery and allow one to go forward. I suggest that the whole issue is one that forces us to grapple with life, raw as it is, and to try to find ways of coping.

Life, in fact, is less a matter of finding answers, rather of finding ways. By all means ask “why” and see what answers one gets. But in the end even if there is no answer that satisfies, life must march on and we with it.

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