The Anthropological Implications of Suffering

The rabbis of the talmudic era were more interested in the human response to suffering than in finding theological justifications for its existence.

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Reprinted with permission of The Gale Group from Contemporary Jewish Religious Thought, edited by Arthur A. Cohen and Paul Mendes-Flohr, published by Charles Scribner’s Sons.

In examining how the rabbis [of the talmudic era] sought to handle this problem [i.e. the existence of evil and suffering], we may say that their approach belongs more to what we would now call religious anthropology than to philosophical theology. This distinction is of basic importance. To the philosopher or theologian concerned with the problem of theodicy, the existence of morally indifferent causes of suffering appears to be incompatible with the existence of an all‑powerful and benevolent God. Such an individual is faced with the problem of reconciling what seems to be this incompatibility of facts and beliefs. How is it logically possible to claim that God is the just Lord of history in view of the senseless evil manifest in the world?suffering quiz 

Changing the Focus from God’s Responsibility to Humanity’s Response

The problem of suffering appears in a different light, however, when the focus is more on its anthropological than its theological implications. The questions then become: How do we respond to events that can call into question our whole identity as God’s covenantal community? Can we allow ourselves to embrace a personal God knowing that chaos can at any moment invade our reality and arbitrarily nullify all our efforts and expectations? Do we have the strength to open ourselves to a personal God in a world filled with unpredictable suffering? When her child dies, the question a mother faces is less how to explain the logic of God’s omnipotence than whether she has the strength and emotional energy to love again.

From the anthropological perspective on the problem of suffering, therefore, the prime concern is not so much to defend the notions of divine justice and power. It is, rather, as in other personal relationships, to determine what measure of continuity, stability, and predictability can enable the relationship with God to survive all shocks.

How the rabbis confronted the problem can be shown by examining some texts, of which the first contains a discussion by the sages of two conflicting descriptions of divine providence.

Different Expectations in the Human-Divine Relationship

“He who performs one mitzvah good is done to him, his days are prolonged, and he inherits the land. But he who does not perform one mitzvah good is not done to him, his days are not prolonged, and he does not inherit the land.” (Mishnah Kiddushin 1:10)

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Rabbi David Hartman

Rabbi David Hartman is the founder of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. He also served as a professor of Jewish thought at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a visiting professor at the Universities of California at Berkeley and Los Angeles.