Biblical and Rabbinic Responses to Suffering

Early Jewish writers were more concerned with the randomness of suffering than with its actual existence.

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Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

The biblical authors and the talmudic Rabbis, unlike the later Jewish philosophers, do not consider the general problem of evil in the universe, of why the benevolent Creator should have brought evil into being. The earlier writers seem to have accepted the existence of evil as a “given,” seeing this, in so far as they gave any thought to it, as belonging, like questions on the true nature of God, to an area which is beyond the capacity of the human mind to grasp. Their difficulty was not with the problem of evil per se but rather with the apparently random way in which sufferings are visited on creatures.

Why Suffering Appears to Occur Arbitrarily

In a talmudic passage (Berakhot 7a), Moses is said to have asked God why one righteous man enjoys prosperity while another righteous man is afflicted with adversity; why one wicked man enjoys prosperity and another wicked man is afflicted with adversity. If all righteous men suffered and all wicked men were prosperous, some kind of pattern might have emerged, perhaps on the lines that the righteous suffer for their sins here on earth while the wicked are rewarded here on earth so as to be punished by being deprived of bliss in the Hereafter.

This notion of divine reward and retribution as accounting for suffering is found frequently in the talmudic literature but, in the passage quoted, it is implied that such solutions fall short of the truth because of the sheer arbitrariness evident in the way afflictions and prosperity are apportioned.

The book of Job is directed explicitly to the rejection of the idea that suffering can be easily explained on the grounds of reward and punishment. Job is a good man and yet he suffers greatly and he cannot accept the “comforts” of his friends that his sufferings are the result of his sins. He cannot believe that any sins he may have committed are commensurate with the torment inflicted on him. Similarly, in Ethics of the Fathers (4:19) Rabbi Yannai says: “It is not in our power to explain either the well‑being of the wicked or the sufferings of the righteous.”

How Does Rabbinic Literature Approach Suffering?

That some of the Rabbis believed that the problem of suffering does not bear discussion at all can be seen from the talmudic legend (Menahot 29b) in which God transports Moses through time to witness Rabbi Akiba teaching the Torah. Moses asks God to show him what Akiba’s fate will be and God shows him Akiba being tortured to death for teaching the Torah and his flesh sold by weight. Moses is moved to cry out: “Sovereign of the universe, such Torah and such a reward!” to which God replies: “Be silent, for such is My decree.”

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.