Each week on our planet, many people and animals suffer. But this week, suffering is on the minds of my students, as we read about the tragic deaths of three kidnapped Israeli teens, and the fierce military retaliation in Gaza by Israel’s Defence Forces.
Some voices in the ongoing conflict claim to fight in the name of God. Why does God allow so much suffering to be inflicted in the Divine name? If God is the director of the universe, is God not powerful enough to stop violence? So much suffering exists; are we wrong to believe or even hope that God is good? As people of faith, should we not condemn acts that lead to suffering?
Today in class, we discussed these classic questions of theodicy – a philosophical term derived from the classical Greek words theos (God) and dike (justice). Theodicy is an attempt to wrap one’s mind around the questions.
But the mind doesn’t wrap well around these questions.
Sometimes the attempt at theodicy begins by posing a logical problem. Here are three propositions, two postulated by our faith tradition, and one supported by life experience: “God is all-powerful.” “God is all-good.” “Suffering exists.” Since all three can’t be true at the same time, which one should we let go of?
Perhaps God is not all-powerful. Perhaps God does not, or cannot, prevent us from harming one another.
Biblical narratives suggest that God, understood by analogy to a human leader, has chosen not to be the only acting power on the planet. Biblical characters beginning with Adam, Eve, Cain, and Abel were created to have free will. Sometimes they use it badly, as Cain did when he killed his brother in a jealous rage.
The Bible’s creation story begins with chaos onto which God imposes order; but some chaotic elements seem not to be tamed. Lurianic Kabbalah makes this point differently. Creation began when God, understood as pure energy, emanated into newly formed vessels. But the vessels could not hold the intense energy. They shattered, scattering sparks of energy; these random sparks, not incorporated into creation’s order, are chaotic elements, causing what we perceive as evil.
Perhaps God is not all-good. Perhaps God intended a world where intentional harm is possible.
Judaism understands itself as a monotheistic religion, accessing one God through many experiential interfaces. When God is experienced as creator, God is responsible for everything that exists, good or bad. As the prophet Isaiah says, “I form light and create darkness; make peace, and create evil” (Isaiah 45:6-7).
Perhaps suffering, as we normally understand it, does not exist. Perhaps suffering is a stage in the process towards a greater good.
Suffering is communication from God, say some Biblical sources. It is a rebuke, meant to return us to the path of right living. When we stray from important Divine commandments, Leviticus teaches, our society decays in seven horrible stages, ending in war, famine, disease, uncontrollable anxiety, and desolation. At that point, we have nothing left but to turn to God and, when we do return to right spiritual living, the blessings will be restored.
Suffering is temporary, our prophets assure us. We make suffering worse when we fail to see the big picture. Prophetic eschatology (study of the mythical end times) teaches that peace, justice, and abundance lie in the world’s collective future. Talmudic sources speak of each individual’s final judgment, at which time ethical living will finally be fairly rewarded.
Do any of these classical answers help you wrap your mind around tragedy, conflict, war or suffering?
Yesterday, I would have said, “No! Theodicy fails to provide answers or comfort.”
Today, I think differently.
Today, this exercise in theodicy helps me clarify my thoughts and feelings. God is not all-powerful; power lies in our hands as well. Thus, I don’t really care if God is all-good; but I do want people to be better than we are. I want us to read the messages in suffering, particularly the ones that say, “enough!” I want us to take a leap of faith into the challenging work of creating peace, justice, and abundance.
Written from the ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal Smicha Study Week.
Image: by Nevit Dilman, wikimedia commons