Medieval Jewish Responses to Suffering & Evil

The philosophers and mystics of the Middle Ages suggested an array of solutions to the problem of suffering.

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The great classic of the Kabbalah, the Zohar, gives credit to the view that evil originates in leftovers (k’lipot) of earlier worlds that God destroyed. Alternatively, it suggests that evil was contained, in potentia, in the Tree of Knowledge (of Good and Evil), but was suppressed by the Tree of Life, to which the Tree of Knowledge was bound. When Adam “cut the shoots,” separating one tree from the other, he activated the evil the tree had contained.

The Contribution of Lurianic Kabbalah

Perhaps the most enduring contribution of Kabbalah to the Jewish understandings of evil is that of Isaac Luria (sixteenth century). According to the interpretation of Gershom Scholem, Luria’s views, contained in his highly original cosmology, are a response to the great tragedy of the prior generation, the expulsion of the Jewish community from the Iberian peninsula. Struggling to understand why they had suffered so, Jews found unparalleled comfort in the interpretation that Luria promulgated.

According to Luria, in order to create the world, God—the ein‑sof (“the limitless one”)—had to contract into himself, leaving space for creation. In this space remained sparks of the divine light, preserved in spe­cial vessels. This light contained concentrated “shells” of stern divine judgment that, when the vessels were shattered (due to a flaw in the plan of creation), were scattered through­out creation. This, in the system of Lurianic Kabbalah, is the root of all evil. The system’s popularity lay not only in its explanation of the suffering of Israel but also in its recipe for redemption: Redemption required that the vessels be repaired, and the tools of repara­tion were the mitzvot of the Torah performed even by common Jews.

Liturgical and Poetic Responses to National Suffering

The most extreme persecutions of these centuries provoked profoundly ambivalent responses, or so the evidence of contempo­rary liturgical compositions suggests. On the one hand, Jewish poets returned again and again to the notion that suffering is punishment for sin. In one of the most exemplary (and best known) of these poems, the “Eileh ezkera” (composed shortly after the first cru­sade in the late eleventh century), the author justifies the Roman torture and execution of ten talmudic rabbis as punishment for the sin of Joseph’s brothers who had “kidnapped” him and sold him into slavery. Of course, for the author and his readers, this is not history but theodicy; it explains their own suffering as well as that of their rabbinic ancestors. It is appropriate, therefore, that in liturgical per­formance, the reciter ends each stanza by declaring, “We have sinned…forgive us.”

On the other hand, this and many similar compositions from the same broad period exhibit a considerable degree of horror and even anger, some complaining against the God who is “mute” or who “hides his face.” This is a God who bids his children slaughter their own children on the altar, even as Abraham prepared to do to Isaac so long before. Still, the act of sacrifice—whether of Isaac or of their own sons and daughters—is justified as “sanctification of God’s name.” It is an act both meritorious and cleansing.

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Dr. David Kraemer

Dr. David Kraemer is Professor of Talmud and Rabbinics at the Jewish Theological Seminary. He is a Senior CLAL Associate at the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.