Suffering and Evil: Jewish Solutions

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The concept of reward and punishment is the Torah's explanation for the existence of suffering. The covenant between God and the people of Israel established at Mount Sinai and elaborated in the book of Deuteronomy states that suffering will be visited upon the community of Israel (and possibly individuals) when they abandon the ways of God. In this sense, reward and punishment is not a solution to a problem; it is merely explanatory. Indeed, it creates further problems. If the Torah guarantees rewards to the righteous, why do some righteous people suffer?suffering quiz 

The book of Job is dedicated to this problem. Job's life is invaded by tragedy despite his righteousness. His friends maintain that he must have sinned, but Job affirms his innocence and questions God's justice. Ultimately, God speaks to Job from a whirlwind, rejecting the response of his friends--thus admitting that righteous people can suffer--and also chastising Job. God wonders how Job could question the master of all creation. The book of Job appeals to the mysteries of the universe as a response to the problem of suffering. Humans with finite minds can't possibly understand the ways of God.

This solution (or non-solution) is articulated in rabbinic literature as well. In Avot 4:19, Rabbi Yannai says: "It is not in our powers to explain either the well-being of the wicked or the sufferings of the righteous."

Similarly, contemporary scholar David Hartman notes that rabbinic literature often eschews theological solutions, focusing instead on the human response to suffering. Thus when the 1st-century sage Rabbi Akiva is tortured at the end of his life, he does not wonder why he--a righteous man--suffers so greatly, instead he recognizes it as an opportunity to fulfill the commandment set forth in the Shema prayer: to love God, "with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might."

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