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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By utilizing tragedy and suffering as a catalyst for active moral renewal, the Judaic tradition prevents political powerlessness from creating feelings of personal impotence and loss of self‑esteem. If events in the larger world are unpredictable, if the nation is subject to the violence and whims of foreign rulers, the rabbinic mind does not fall victim to despair, disillusionment, and escapism, but rather focuses on the personal and the communal as the framework to contain its activist dignity.

The call to repentance--“If a man sees that painful sufferings visit him, let him examine his conduct”--should not, therefore, be seen as a metaphysical justification of evil. Rather, it is advice that encourages the Jew to sustain and give meaning to the covenantal relationship despite the mystery of suffering.

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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.