Updated: Jul 30
This year I’ve been teaching a course at Matan on the problem of evil – On the heels of Covid I thought it may speak to people, it may speak to me, it may give me a way of bringing my research to others. I don’t think I anticipated how draining, fulfilling and ultimately relevant it would be. In light of last week’s events many of my ‘students’ have messaged me wanting to know what I think, how what we’ve learnt together might shed light on the entangled sentiments many are feeling. So, for what it’s worth (and it is indeed JUST my humble and VERY limited perspective) here’s what I feel.
One thing I’ve learnt after sifting through so many sources both ancient and contemporary on the problem of evil and suffering is that before ANYTHING else, before we judge, shame, even try to take responsibility; FIRST we have to just FEEL and BE with the victims. Job’s friends are lambasted by God and Job for trying to point the finger at the victim, for trying to solve the cognitive dissonance, the theological puzzle. In arguably the only explicit message in a very enigmatic book, God says to Job ‘your friends must bring a sin offering for the wrong that they uttered with their words’. Words can heal, but more often than not words kill. They kill the person suffering, who in the depth of their pain and loss need us to just sit next to them, to feel their pain, to hear their cries and just to BE. Without anger, without judgement, without shame – something they may already harbour and hence needs no further amplification. One of extant motifs throughout our ancient and modern tradition is the idea of God sharing in our suffering – being with us. Job, the prototypical sufferer, only finds comfort after God comes to him in the whirlwind – a transcendent, distant almost angry God, yet the encounter changes him, heals him, allows him to move on. The encounter, the fact that God can still be encountered, the fact that we are not alone in our grief and pain – that in and of itself is cathartic.
Secondly, theodicy (trying to explain/justify God or Evil – for example we are being punished for our sins, behind our suffering, God has a bigger plan, maybe this is good disguised as evil) may help us to live with the dissonance between the world as it is and the world as it ought to be (or the way we believe God ought to be), but ultimately it doesn’t heal our bleeding soul, it only temporarily fixes our very human desire for logical and theological consistency. Let me explain.
Imagine a child, a sweet, kind, gentle being asked by his father to climb a tree and shoo away the mother bird to bring his father eggs. Both laws we are told explicitly in the Torah are rewarded with long life. This sweet child, wanting to please his father and to piously fulfil the Torah command, falls from the tree and tragically dies. As people come to visit the devastated father they try to make sense of the non-sensical tragedy. One friend quietly says to the other: “Could it be that the child was harbouring sinful thoughts and hence was being punished?” The other responds, “Even if he was surely we know God protects those on their way to do a mitzvah”, The third pipes up, “No it must be that his reward for this great mitzvah will be in the world to come?”. Finally, a fourth friend loudly proclaims “No you’re all wrong – its just a natural way of the world – the ladder was broken and therefore the danger was established; and anywhere that the danger is established one may not rely on a miracle – the father should have checked the ladder and never sent his child up relying on God to protect him”.
Now every single one of these friends thinks he is providing comfort to the grief-stricken father, every single one of these friends believes in the truth of his own conviction. And maybe every single one of these friends’ views may indeed possess an element of truth – metaphysical or otherwise. But we have to ask ourselves how each of these views makes the father feel? How does it aid his recovery, how does it elevate his pain and how does it allow him to grapple with and ultimately transform his suffering.
This story is not my own imaginative scenario, it’s based on a well known Talmudic discussion in Kiddushin. In the end they conclude one should indeed not rely on miracles, and they tell us that it was such a sight that caused the famous apostasy of Elisha Ben Abuya – he could not live with cognitive dissonance and the empirical reality of extreme evil in the world, hence he becomes an atheist, a heretic.
What happened at Meron is utterly tragic, it generates many questions about human responsibility, political sabotage, religious fanaticism. And yes, these are questions that in time must be addressed in a sensitive and careful way through the correct channels. But to me, above all, it addresses the question of how today in the acutely polarised society we live in, should we encounter the suffering of the ‘other’. Of someone not like me, someone I don’t agree with, someone I may believe has caused his own demise, someone I am angry with for past fallibilities, someone I don’t see as holding the same values as me. How do I rise above my initial impulse to blame, shame, point the finger? How do I channel myself towards love and empathy even when it does not come naturally? How do I separate the ‘why’ from the ‘what’? Not ‘why’ did this happen with all the blame and shame, but ‘what’ can we do with all the empathy, responsibility and initiative?
The Gemara tries in the way only an ancient text can, to channel us towards ‘tikkun’, not in the classic theological sense of ‘teshuva’ or ‘theological platitudes’ but rather by asking us to look at the world and try to prevent another case of unnecessary suffering. It is less about WHY there is suffering and more about WHAT cause we may use our suffering towards.
Mourning has stages both for the mourner and for those seeking to comfort him/her. The initial stage requires us to just ‘be’, to comfort through our presence, without platitudes, without reasons, without blame. The next stage is about meaning and it can take weeks, months or years. The mourner will eventually elevate his personal tragedy to some level of meaning and each individual will find what works for them – our tradition has many paths of meaning, each possessing its own value (here I am talking about meaning as a response to the question of ‘towards what’ rather than ‘why’ – meaning a response whose glance is future orientated rather than past orientated, that addresses the question of existence rather than the question of knowledge). But for those looking in from outside, it is not our job to throw vacuous reasoning onto someone else’s tragedy, but instead to look at how we can practically and respectfully take responsibility to ensure there is indeed NO MORE suffering – whether that be to assess fixed dangers and remedy them, whether that be to appropriately and responsibly raise an enquiry into how such a tragedy occurred and bring those responsible to justice – not through social media, but through law and order, whether that be to help those suffering through financial or psychological support or many myriad ways to fix our very broken society.
Today more than ever we understand that suffering is a perennial part of the human situation. Many causes of suffering are unavoidable, but there are many that are avoidable. Our role as humans, Jews and religious people above all is to first and foremost just be there with those in their suffering. And then to engage in the Divine mechanism of Brit – covenant, to search out ways to alleviate suffering from this world and ensure that the avoidable deaths and tragedies are minimised as much as humanly possible.