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Reconciling the Existence of God and Human Suffering

(Prepared for the World Religions Conference February 1, 2017)

Human suffering can be very private and personal, communal, national, regional or global. It can be the result of devastating illness or accident, natural disaster, circumstance or human action.

I will focus, for the moment, on the personal. I have two friends, both of whom lost a 25 year old son. One death was expected; the other was not. There is nothing worse than the pain and suffering of one who is grieving a life potential that was cut short, a death at the wrong time. Many of us know such stories. Many of us know worse, of whole populations being targeted and murdered for their religion or their skin colour. Whole populations suffering from earthquakes or droughts or epidemics or displacement due to wars.

What can I, as a religious Jew, do or say to speak to their suffering?

The first thing my conversations with both of my friends reinforced was the value of my simple presence with them in their grief. I didn’t say much during their initial outpouring. I listened very intently, from a place of compassion and of friendship, a witness to their terrible suffering, their loss of their past and their future, both at the same time.

I wondered whether there were some insights, something in the various approaches in Judaism, that might be helpful to my deeply grieving friends. Suffering, after all, is universal.

I also tried to tease apart the questions that they seemed to be asking. How do I make sense of my son’s death? Children are supposed to bury their parents, not vice versa. Is there any sense we can make of this? Why did my son die when he was so young, when he had so much to live for? Would things have turned out differently if I had been a more vigilant mother? How am I going to continue? What do I have left to live for? What is my legacy now? Why did God do this to my son? Why did God do this to me? They asked all the questions – existential, theological, and pastoral.

Judaism has many resources for understanding and responding to human suffering, created by our tradition at times of great national catastrophe. Their primary focus is on suffering of the community rather than on individual suffering.

In Suffering: Why Does God Allow It?[i] Rabbi Neil Gillman goes directly to the heart of my friends’ tragedies in his discussion of the concept of theodicy. How can God’s justice be understood, justified or even vindicated, in the face of random, apparently unjustified suffering? “No other theological problem has proven to be so intractable.”[ii] Different Jewish themes have been prominent in different historical eras, although all views have existed in all eras.

There is the Biblical answer that suffering and misfortune are retribution, punishment for something that the people did wrong. God’s justice remains intact because suffering can be accounted for.[iii] Since/because of the Holocaust, this response has “gone out of vogue” and has lost its cache (for good reason). Even so, this perspective on theodicy remains extant and is often the first response we hear to someone’s suffering (he had a heart attack because he didn’t take care of himself, she got lung cancer because she smoked, etc.).

The Book of Job shattered this Biblical paradigm of Divine retribution by presenting the story of a man who suffered extremely, for no reason that he (or any of his friends) could discern. Although the debate continues to rage and the jury may still be out, I believe that the foundational (and profound) theology of the Book of Job is that human beings are not capable of understanding God and therefore cannot account for God’s behaviour. “Suffering is simply part of God’s complex plan; it has no further explanation.”[iv] Any effort to explain suffering as deserved inevitably leads to a false view either of the character of the sufferer, or of God.

I have sat with the Book of Job a lot. I believe that there is great wisdom in it for those of us who minister to people who are suffering. Although later tradition has distanced itself from one message of the Book of Job about how to live with an apparently capricious God, Jewish law agrees with me and canonized two lessons from the friends’ responses. The positive lesson – to comfort mourners by sitting silently with them for seven days and wait until the sufferer is ready to talk, from which we get the laws of Shiva. The negative lesson – not to respond to a sufferer by questioning their integrity, from which we get some of the laws of wrongful speech.[v] From the positive lesson comes a pastoral care approach – simple presence, not mere silence, but silence filled with presence with occasional encouraging prompting and probing. Presence that is pregnant with space for the sufferer to enter and walk her own healing path.

There is another answer from the Rabbinic era, an eschatological view, that reward or punishment would come in the future, be it in the world to come or through children. This answer reinstated the belief in God’s justice by accepting that our relationship to God is not exhausted by our life experience on earth. Even though we may suffer in this life, God has further opportunity to balance virtue and reward.

This approach most richly portrayed in the Kaddish, the mourner’s prayer, which teaches that we respond to suffering not by explaining but by affirming our conviction that there is an ultimate order of things. In many ways this is an elaboration on the Book of Job that we cannot understand God’s purpose, but we affirm our conviction that chaos will ultimately be vanquished.[vi]

The Medieval era answers with the notion that God required our help to end or at least alleviate suffering. The answers from the early Modern era, and in Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism, is that repentance, prayer and acts of loving kindness alleviate suffering. The U’Netaneh Tokef prayer, translated as “Let us speak of the Awesomeness”, recited during prayer services on the Jewish New Year and the Day of Atonement, exemplifies all three of these perspectives because it offers us ways to respond to our uncertain existence. It speaks very personally and powerfully to me, a pragmatist at bottom. Even though ultimately we cannot understand the existence of suffering in our lives and have no power to affect the forces of life and death in our world, we can control how we respond to suffering. We do that through repentance, through prayer, and through acts of loving kindness. Repentance in the sense of dedicating ourselves to live our life differently; prayer in the sense of developing or deepening our inner life and giving voice to our soul’s song; and acts of loving kindness which take us out of ourselves and help us to repair, to heal the world.[vii]

The answer is that we don’t have to understand suffering or reconcile it with the existence of God. But we do have to respond. This is also one of the teachings of Talmudic concept of yesurun shel ahava[viii], sufferings of love, of God’s love. Understanding this concept has challenged theologians, scholars and philosophers for millenia. What makes something a suffering of or out of love is not how or why we suffer, but how we respond to it. We can only make sense of our suffering if we take the opportunity to develop our inner life and become more spiritually elevated. How we do that is not easy and ultimately individual. But it begins with not rejecting God, with still believing in God, with thanking God not only for the good, but also for the bad.

The Contemporary answer is that God does not direct things. Rather, God is the witness inside us to whose presence we pour our hearts out, and who helps us to understand suffering. A number of different theologians and philosophers have expressed this notion in different ways. It is perhaps exemplified best by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel who taught that God may not be able to prevent suffering, and indeed suffers along with us. But God can share in our suffering and thus give us consolation and strength.[ix]

Although there are a variety of explanations (justifications? rationalizations?) in the Jewish tradition reconciling the existence of God and human suffering, I have come to the conclusion that there is no understanding it. All efforts at understanding are inevitably unsatisfactory. There is only responding to it.

[i] Chapter VIII, Sacred Fragments: Recovering Theology for the Modern Jew, The Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia (1990), pp. 187–213.

[ii] Ibid, p. 188

[iii] Ibid., p. 191

[iv] Ibid., p. 193

[v] Gruber, Mayer I. ‘The Book of Job as Anthropodicy Rather than Theodicy’ and ‘In Halakhah and Liturgy’, in Encyclopaedia Judaica, Second Edition (2007), Volume 11, “Book of Job”, pp. 355-356.

[vi] Ibid., p. 193

[vii] Gruber, Mayer I. ‘The Book of Job as Anthropodicy Rather than Theodicy’ and ‘In Halakhah and Liturgy’, in Encyclopaedia Judaica, Second Edition (2007), Volume 11, “Book of Job”, pp. 355-356.

[viii] Gillman, Op. Cit., pp. 196-197.

[ix] Gillman, Op Cit., pp. 208-209.

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