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.”

Typical of the various, sometimes contradictory, views on the subject is the talmudic passage (Berakhot 5b) in which the problem of suffering is discussed and in which ideas are dismissed without any definite conclusion being reached. In the passage the second‑century teacher, Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai, remarks that three precious gifts were given by God to Israel and they were only given through sufferings. The three precious gifts are: the Torah, the land of Israel, and the World to Come.

Rabbinic Tales of Suffering

There is here a constant weaving of ideas around the question of suffering in terms of reward and punishment. Three narratives are recorded, in each of which a rabbi who suffers is asked by a colleague whether his sufferings are dear to him. In each instance the rabbi replies that he desires neither them not their reward, whereupon the colleague miraculously restores him to good health by giving him his hand to raise him from the bed of sickness.

Another narrative concerns the third-century teacher, Rav Huna, who has 400 flasks of wine which have turned sour, involving him in severe financial loss. When the scholars visit Rav Huna, they urge him to look into his deeds, that is, they hint that he has been guilty of some dishonesty in connection with an employee of his engaged in the manufacture of wine. Rav Huna eventually admits that he has been guilty in the matter and no sooner does he agree to compensate his employee than the sour wine becomes sweet again.

All this is in no way a theological exposition of the problem of suffering. There is obviously a legendary element in all these narratives and there is even a touch of humor. In another version of the same story, the Talmud says that Rav Huna’s wine did not miraculously revert to its former sweet state; the miracle was that while the wine remained sour, the price of vinegar shot up so that it was equal to the price of the wine!

“Sufferings of Love”

In this passage the striking idea is introduced that there can be “sufferings of love.” This section reads:

“If a man sees that sufferings have come upon him, let him scrutinize his deeds, as it is said: ‘Let us search and try our ways, and return unto the Lord’ [Lamentations 3: 40]. If he did scrutinize his deeds without finding [any sin for which he would deserve to suffer] let him attribute it [the suffering] to the sin of neglect of the Torah [i.e. there may be no sin of commission for which he deserves to be punished, but there may be, nevertheless, this serious sin of omission], as it is said: ‘Happy is the man whom Thou chastenest, and teachest out of Thy Torah’ [Psalms 94: 12; i.e. God chastises a man so that he should return to the study of the Torah]. If he did attribute his sufferings to his neglect of the Torah without finding [that he has been indolent in study of the Torah], it then becomes known that they are sufferings of love, as it is said: ‘For whom the Lord loveth He correcteth’ [Proverbs 3: 12].”

Thus “sufferings of love” are neither for sins of commission nor of omission, but are due solely to God’s love and are not penal. The passage contains a further discussion as to how to know when sufferings are penal and when they are “sufferings of love.”

Rashi (1040-1105), obviously puzzled by the whole concept of  “sufferings of love,” comments: “The Holy One, blessed be He, chastises him in this world, though he is guiltless of any sin, for the purpose of increasing his reward in the World to Come to a degree greater than his merits would otherwise have deserved.”

Maimonides, in his Guide of the Perplexed (3. 17), refers to this talmudic passage in which the Rabbis speak of “sufferings of love” and remarks that according to this opinion, sometimes misfortunes befall an individual not because of his having sinned before, but in order for his reward to be the greater.

Maimonides considers this to be a minority opinion, one which, in his view, is hard to reconcile with God’s justice. Maimonides contrasts this with the other Rabbinic sayings: “There is no death without sin, and no sufferings without transgression” (Shabbat 55a) and: “A man is measured with the measure he himself uses” (Mishnah Sotah 1: 7). This latter saying, continues Maimonides, occurring as it does in the Mishnah, enjoys special authority.

Throughout the literature of Jewish piety, the idea is found of accepting suffering in love and faith in God. The Mekhilta [a midrash on the book of Exodus] to the verse: “Ye shall not make with Me gods of silver and gods of gold” (Exodus 20: 23) comments: “Do not behave towards Me as heathens behave to their gods. When happiness come to them, they sing praises to their gods, but when retribution comes upon them they curse their gods. If I bring happiness upon you give thanks, and when I bring sufferings give thanks also.”

On the same lines the Mishnah (Berakhot 9: 5) states: “A man is duty‑bound to utter a benediction for the bad even as he utters one for the good.” The benediction on receiving good tidings is: “Blessed is He, the good and the doer of good.” On receiving bad tidings the benediction is: “Blessed is He, the true judge.” The Talmud (Berakhot 60b) observes that the benediction over the bad should be recited with the same joyfulness as that over the good.

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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.