On Suffering

The topics of theodicy (literally, “God’s justice”) and eschatology (“discussion of the endtime”) are probably the most severe challenges to religious faith in general and to liberal religion in particular. They challenge religious faith in that theodicy is an attempt to explain the presence, indeed the pervasiveness, of evil in a world created by God. The very language, “an attempt to explain,” highlights the fact that the existence of that evil is a serious problem — a powerful argument against the reality of a loving and powerful God. Liberal faith is particularly challenged because it does not have the comfort, however illusory, of a literally-revealed Truth to rely on. We are forced to stumble in the haze, using a combination of reason, intuition, tradition, and emotion to establish a path through the pain. We know that we must move forward, but we aren’t sure where forward really is.

Our challenge: Evil does exist in the world, and it exists in abundance. It strikes at the great and the obscure, the moral and the vile, the young and the old with arbitrary indifference. The existence of goodness and morality may pose a problem for the atheist’s philosophy; the existence of this immoral/amoral evil is certainly a problem for a believer’s understanding. How could a God worth worshiping possibly abide by, let alone create, so much suffering?
For traditional monotheists (those who construe God as having no less personality than God’s creation), the issue is painful and clear: how could a good God allow all this suffering? But the issue is no less intense for those who construe God using metaphors of an impersonal force: how does that force lead to a triumph of wellbeing over suffering? how does it provide comfort (physical or spiritual) during times of tribulation? Are the outbursts of suffering the consequence of other, more malignant, forces (aka gods)?

Let us, for the sake of clarity, sharpen our distinction. There exist two broad categories of evil — social evil and natural evil. Social evil (the severe disparities of wealth and opportunities between different individuals or between different societies, the holocaust, food shortages, sexism, racism, homophobia) can be attributed to the essential nature of human freedom and free will. Unless people are to be moral automatons, some will clearly exercise the option to make the wrong choices — some people will seek their own interests at the expense of other people, some will lust  for power, for vengeance, for violence. For God to prevent, a priori, those choices is to reduce human beings to moral robots. Social evil is the price we pay for autonomy. (One can still ask why, in an infinite range of possible universes, God had to make one in which those extremes are the only two choices).

So, relatively speaking, social evil need not pose a severe challenge to religious faith. Not so, however, with  natural evil. There is no moral reason why viruses should be able to make peoples’ dying years so miserable, why instant crib death should exist, why some people are unable to walk, or see, or hear. Here there is no issue of moral autonomy at stake — we see only meaninglessness and undeserved suffering. I have no answer to instant crib death. There is a hole in my faith.

The range of attempted responses to this problem are as wide as they are ineffective. “We are punished for our sins” does not help at the funeral of a child. Being “purged now so we can be rewarded later” doesn’t address the question of why a loving God would require suffering at all. That “the universe is structured to permit moral growth” dodges the issue of why that structure isn’t more constantly clear and why it should require innocent agony.

I admit from the outset that I do not have an adequate theological response to natural evil. But I do have a strong sense of what such a response must entail:

The first guideline must be the recognition that evil is real. There are outlooks and faiths which deny or disparage the fact of evil. This is, I believe, callous and self-centered. People perceive pain. Watching a man who is in his last stages of terminal illness and telling him that pain is merely a figment of his sinful imagination, simply the absence or distance of God is cruel and abusive. Such a theology is unworthy of moral people or of a loving God. So Rule Number One is that evil is real and must be dealt with as a reality.

Rule Number Two is that the theology must be one which would be helpful to a person in pain. Far too often, we develop complex theologies which would either reveal their inadequacy or compound the sufferer’s pain were we to dare to use our theologies in front of people who are suffering. Were we to tell a mourner about “mipnei hata’enu galinu (we were exiled because of our sins),” we would be ashamed. Our theology must not be shameful, must not need to be restricted to rabbinical schools and theology seminars. It must bring comfort when comfort is needed and where pain is felt.

The third guideline is that the theology must build upon elements found within the Jewish heritage. Accepting the postulate that religion is not merely an intellectual exercise, particularly at moments of anguish, it is crucial that Jewish symbols, stories, and rituals be re-integrated so as to lend their strength and subconscious resonance to the person in pain.

The path which I believe integrates these three points most productively would be a modern reintegration of Kabbalah.

The notion that somehow God suffers when we do, that God is in need of human mending and able to contribute to human emotional and spiritual empowerment, that Shekhinah is always accessible to human relation — these are the elements from which a new Jewish response to pain might emerge. Such a notion would recognize that pain is an ever-present reality in our world — but a reality which God and humanity can oppose together. It would mobilize the power of sacred story and of community in the battle against meaninglessness and isolation. And it would teach that ultimately we will repair the breach — God, the world, and humanity will one day be whole.


Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson (http://www.bradartson.com) is the Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University where he is Vice President. He is the author of The Bedside Torah: Wisdom, Dreams, & Visions (McGraw Hill) and Jewish Answers to Real-Life Questions (Alef Design).