Why do bad things happen to good people? If God is so powerful, why doesn’t God prevent misfortune? The question of suffering and evil is unique among theological and philosophical problems because it confronts us almost daily and because Jewish history is replete with individual and communal tragedy. Jewish thinkers have always been bothered by the existence of suffering and evil, but in modern times, as a result of the Holocaust, it has taken on a central role in the thought of almost all contemporary Jewish theologians.
For Jews, the problem of suffering is twofold: there is a universal problem and a particular problem. The universal problem is a philosophical one; it is not just a problem for Jews, but for anyone who conceives of God in a certain way. If God knows everything, then God knows about all evil. If God is all-powerful, then God can prevent all evil. If God is perfectly good, then God should prevent all evil. And yet, evil exists. How can this be true?
Historically, Jewish thinkers did not articulate the problem of evil in this way until the Middle Ages. Earlier Jewish literature conceives of God as powerful, good, and knowledgeable, but not necessarily perfectly so. It was the particular problem of suffering and evil–a problem resulting from the unique relationship between God and the Jews–that occupied early Jewish literature.
According to the Torah, the covenant at Sinai, in which the Israelites agreed to abide by the commandments, established that the Jews would be rewarded if they followed God’s ways. And yet, suffering often seems to be meted out randomly. Righteous people suffer and wicked people prosper. How can this be reconciled with the covenantal relationship between God and the Jews? The problem of justifying God, despite the existence of evil is known as theodicy.
There are several types of solutions to the problem of suffering and evil. The biblical book of Job suggests that it is fruitless for humans to try and figure out why God causes some righteous people to suffer. While this approach may subvert the concept of reward and punishment, many rabbinic figures, as well as medieval philosophers and mystics, retained this concept by turning to eschatology; that is, they believed that reward and punishment is meted out in the afterlife, or–for those medieval mystics who believed in reincarnation–in a future lifetime.
Other traditional solutions include the idea that suffering is in some way beneficial (and thus isn’t really bad), and the suffering servant model of the biblical prophet Isaiah, which suggests that the Jewish people suffer in order to redeem the wicked of humanity. Many post-Holocaust theologians have developed responses to the unique problems raised by the suffering of the Jews during the Shoah. From “God is hiding” to “God is dead,” these thinkers have placed modern analyses of God and evil at the center of their thought.