Suffering and Evil: Jewish Solutions

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However, there were rabbinic figures that sought to retain reward and punishment as an explanation for suffering.  These rabbis suggested that reward and punishment is meted out judiciously--but in the World to Come, rather than in this world. Thus when we see a righteous person suffer, it is not a problem; he or she will be rewarded in the next life. Similarly, in the Middle Ages, some kabbalists introduced the notion of reincarnation, suggesting that one may suffer for sins committed in a previous life.

jewish responses to sufferingIndeed, in the Middle Ages mystics and philosophers gave much attention to the problem of suffering and evil. Medieval thinkers tried to reconcile four claims: God is perfectly good; God is all-powerful; God is all-knowing; evil is real. As Byron Sherwin has pointed out, most medieval solutions to this problem denied or modified one of these claims.

Maimonides, for example, denied that evil was real. According to him, evils are "privations," that is the lack of good. Things that appear to be evil are results of privations of human knowledge and virtue. This philosophical solution gets a benevolent God off the hook, but will probably do little to comfort a sufferer. Saadiah Gaon also gave a version of this response, claiming that God causes us to suffer for our own good; what we perceive as evil is actually beneficial.

Solving the problem of suffering and evil is the focus of much post-Holocaust theology. Some theologians have presented altered versions of previous solutions. Thus Eliezer Berkovits stresses the role of human free will, and Ignaz Maybaum offers the paradigm of the suffering servant--the idea presented in Isaiah 53 that the Jewish people suffer vicariously for the wickedness of others. (Interestingly, Jewish tradition has often tried to distance itself from this passage because of its importance to Christians, who believe it to be a prophetic allusion to Jesus.)

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