Suffering: Why Does God Allow It?

Woman_love_questionThis week, I happen to be teaching a course to rabbinic students called Losing God, Finding God: Jewish Responses to Suffering.

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

  1. I remember taking that class with you years ago. It still informs my thinking.

    The final paragraph of this post really speaks to me. Thank you for writing it.

  2. Reb Laura, it would be more fitting to let us bury and mourn our dead boys who were kidnapped and brutally slaughtered just for being Jews, before making some sort of moral equivalence with the IDF’s attempt to both stop the indiscriminate rocket attacks from Gaza (remember we left Gaza Jew-free in 2005?) and to undermine the Hamas which is an organization devoted to terror and murder.
    I suggest you take a look at the funeral orations spoken today. Not one of the bereaved parents expressed hatred for the barbarians who shot their children in cold blood. They concentrated on the blessings that their beautiful kids brought them. Contrast that with the glee expressed on the Palestinian street.

    1. Thanks, Elizabeth. There’s no intent to harm here, or to fail in empathy for the families’ pain or graciousness; just to report on the discussion in our philosophy class.

  3. Last paragraph aside, it seems to me that any discussion in which good is an aspect, will not further peace in the world. Similarly, acting better. Are these not words that have no absolute but reflect the speakers values, judgements? I do not intend to play semantics here, but I posit the use of “serve”. Does an act serve, oneself or another? I never phoned home when I was young because I needed to express my autonomy. I am older now, express my autonomy different, and if the opportunity was to present itself, would call my mother far more often. Am I acting better, now?

    1. Thanks. Zelik? The first part of your comment is much like Spinoza’s observation at the end of the Ethics: people naively think that good is whatever is good for them, and that God conducts the world in accordance with that good. The second part, I’m not sure I understand if you want to use the word “serve” or not.

  4. ” God is not all-powerful; power lies in our hands as well.” Yes, my answer also. But the important thing is that you _must_ give up one of the three initial postulates. I think, without that, all you can do is fudge.

    Richard Dawkins uses the example of a particular kind of wasp, that finds a caterpillar, stings it methodically until it’s paralyzed, and then lays its eggs in the still-living caterpillar. His position is that an “all-good God” would never permit such a thing, but it’s what you’d expect in a competitive, evolutionary world.

    And there’s this, that I found in an old Reconstructionist siddur:

    . . . God is that aspect of reality which elicits from us the best that is in us,
    . . . and enables us to bear the worst that can befall us.
    . . . — Mordechai Kaplan

    _That_ God’s power is severely limited — but He _is_ good.

    Thanks —

    . Charles

    1. Charles, thanks for these reflections. Have you read Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek? Chapter One raises the question of brutality alongside of beauty in “nature,” i.e., the nonhuman world. Beautifully written and haunting book.

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