Suffering and Evil: Jewish Solutions

If Jews have a special relationship with God, then why is there so much suffering?

Nachmanides, the great 13th-century Jewish scholar, wrote that the problem of evil is “the most difficult matter, which is at the root both of faith and of apostasy, with which scholars of all ages, people and tongues have struggled.” Indeed, the existence of suffering and evil is not just a problem for Jews. A philosophical problem exists for anyone who believes that God is good (benevolent), all-powerful (omnipotent), and all-knowing (omniscient).

This problem was summed up by the English philosopher David Hume: “Is he [God] willing to prevent evil, but unable? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil.”

However, there is an added problem for Jews, because according to the Torah, Jews have a special relationship with God. It is the problem raised by this relationship — more than the philosophical one —that is often discussed in biblical and rabbinic literature.

The covenant at Sinai established a relationship whereby the Israelites agreed to abide by the Torah in exchange for God’s protection. Put differently, if the Israelites abided by the terms of the covenant, they would be rewarded; if they abandoned them, they would be punished. As such, the Torah does not recognize the problem of evil and suffering because, in the words of Richard Rubenstein, “in strict covenant theology there can be no innocent sufferers.” Suffering befalls the Jewish people as a punishment for abandoning their covenantal obligations.

But, logic and experience show that there are innocent sufferers, and thus biblical and rabbinic literature was forced to confront the contradiction between the covenant and reality. If the covenant guarantees rewards for the righteous, why do some righteous people suffer? One might argue that the reward and punishment guaranteed by the covenant only extends to the community of Israel and not to individuals, but this is by no means a universal understanding. Passages like Ezekiel 18:5-10–“But if a man be just, and do that which is lawful and right…he is just and he shall surely live”–for example, seem to guarantee covenantal protection to individuals.

The discourse on suffering and evil changed in the Middle Ages. Medieval Jewish philosophers were bothered by the universal, philosophical problem of evil. This isn’t to say that the problems relating to the covenant didn’t trouble them, but in general issues of reward and punishment were related to the problems raised by God’s omnipotence, omniscience, and benevolence.

The problem of suffering and evil took on an unprecedented role in Jewish thought after the Holocaust–the greatest event of individual and communal suffering in Jewish history. Many traditional rabbinic authorities viewed the Holocaust as just another example of Jewish suffering and interpreted the event using the covenantal model. Given the magnitude of Jewish suffering, however, many Jewish thinkers found this approach unfulfilling at best and perverse at worst.

In the words of Irving Greenberg: “To account for the Holocaust as God’s punishment of Israel for its sins, is to betray and mock the agony of the victims. Now that they have been cruelly tortured and killed, boiled into soap, their hair made into pillows, and their bones into fertilizer, their unknown graves and the very fact of their death denied to them, the theologian would inflict on them the only indignity left: that is, insistence that it was done because of their sins.”

Thus many post-Holocaust theologians consider the Holocaust to be an event that is theologically unique. The suffering and evil associated with it was so great that it cannot be subsumed into the general problem of suffering and evil. The Holocaust demands a reconsideration of the problem and, thus, drastically new solutions.

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