Friday, September 2, 2011

Irene and Theodicy - Jewish answers to difficult questions

(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Shabbat morning, September 3, 2011.)

This week, I saw a few videos of my hometown, Williamstown, Massachusetts, and of other Western New England locations - Connecticut and Vermont, places that I think of as being my greater homeland, the “old country.” They were taken during and after Tropical Storm Irene had blown through, dumping buckets of rain on the region, far more than fell here. One of them was particularly striking: it showed the soccer fields where I had practiced and played as a 10-year-old boy, completely flooded as a nearby river, really not more than a glorified stream, had risen 10 feet or more over its banks. Another showed one of the iconic covered bridges of Vermont, in a town called Bartonsville, being swept away in a flood as onlookers cursed in disbelief.

I was also shocked to learn yesterday that there are 273 newly-homeless people in Williamstown, because a retirement-age mobile home park was flooded.

In the past two weeks, we have experienced an earthquake and a hurricane. There was a time, not too long ago I think, when we thought of those kinds of natural disasters as happening elsewhere, far away. As my family and I sat in the basement on Sunday morning with candles, flashlights, toddler toys, and a guitar, I thought, “Well, how on earth am I supposed to explain this?” Not to the children, mind you - they were having fun. But to us. To the people who would see the storm damage on television, would hear the rising body count, and say, “Rabbi, what do we make of all this?”

And I wanted to avoid it. In fact, I had about ¾ of a sermon on an unrelated topic written by Thursday morning. And then I saw those videos, and I tossed it out and started over. We’ll talk about building relationships another time.

Rather, I think that this is as good a day as any to take on the question, even if only briefly, of why there are hurricanes to begin with. Or, writ large, why does God allow such destruction? Why is there evil in the world at all, human or otherwise?

The problem of theodicy, that is, answering the question of why God allows suffering, is an ancient one. Here is the problem in a nutshell:

1. We believe God to be all-good.
2. We believe God to be all-powerful
3. There is evil in this world.

It is not possible for all of these statements to be true.
If God is all-good and all-powerful, then how can there be evil?
If God is all-good and there is evil, then how can God be all-powerful?
If God is all-powerful and there is evil, then how can God be all-good?

So you see the problem. We’re going to look now at a few sources from various periods in Jewish history to examine how we have handled this problem. And, I am afraid to say, there is not a completely satisfying answer in the lot.

Job, Chapter 38 - Job, a righteous man who has lost everything, asks God why. God answers Job from a whirlwind:

Who dares speak darkly words with no sense?
Where were you when I founded the earth?
Speak if you have any wisdom:
Who set its measurements, if you know, laid out the building lot, stretching the plumb line?
Where was the ground where He sank its foundations?
Who was setting the cornerstone
when the morning stars were all singing, when the gods were all shouting, triumphant?
Have you beheld the earth’s expanses?
Tell me, if you know everything!--
Where is the path to where light dwells, and darkness, where does it belong?
Can you conduct them to their regions, or even imagine their homeward paths?
You must know, you were born long ago! So many years you have counted!


God is saying, how dare you? Who are you to question the way that I conduct myself. You weren’t there when I created the world, and your perspective of the way things work is insignificantly small compared to mine. In other words, humans cannot understand God’s choices, in matters of life and death or otherwise.

Not very satisfying, right?

Babylonian Talmud, Massekhet Berakhot 7a
אמר לפניו רבש"ע מפני מה יש צדיק וטוב לו ויש צדיק ורע לו יש רשע וטוב לו ויש רשע ורע לו
Moses said before Him: Lord of the Universe, why is it that some righteous men prosper and others are in adversity, some wicked men prosper and others are in adversity?

(The Talmud then provides three “answers.”)
אמר לו משה צדיק וטוב לו צדיק בן צדיק צדיק ורע לו צדיק בן רשע
He replied to him: Moses, the righteous man who prospers is the righteous man the son of a righteous man; the righteous man who is in adversity is a righteous man the son of a wicked man.

רשע וטוב לו רשע בן צדיק רשע ורע לו רשע בן רשע:
The wicked man who prospers is a wicked man son of a righteous man; the wicked man who is in adversity is a wicked man son of a wicked man.

אלא הכי קא"ל צדיק וטוב לו צדיק גמור צדיק ורע לו צדיק שאינו גמור
The Lord said thus to Moses: A righteous man who prospers is a perfectly righteous man; the righteous man in adversity is not a perfectly righteous man.

רשע וטוב לו רשע שאינו גמור רשע ורע לו רשע גמור
The wicked man who prospers is not a perfectly wicked man; the wicked man who is in adversity is a perfectly wicked man.

ופליגא דר' מאיר דא"ר מאיר שתים נתנו לו ואחת לא נתנו לו
Now this is in opposition to the saying of R. Meir. For R. Meir said: only two [requests] were granted to him, and one was not granted to him.

שנא' (שמות לג) וחנתי את אשר אחון אע"פ שאינו הגון ורחמתי את אשר ארחם אע"פ שאינו הגון
For it is said (Exodus 33:19): And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, although he may not deserve it, And I will show mercy on whom I will show mercy, although he may not deserve it.

The Talmud answers the question with three possible answers:
1. That your parents’ actions may dictate your fortune (the Talmud goes on to disagree with this, specifically because it says in the Torah that children are not held responsible for their parents' actions).
2. That you must be completely righteous in order for only good things to happen to you all the time.
3. That God doles out verdicts according to God’s whim.

Rabbi Harold S. Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Schocken, 1981, pp. 44-45.

Innocent people do suffer misfortunes in this life. Things happen to them far worse than they deserve -- they lose their jobs, they get sick, their children suffer or make them suffer. But when it happens, it does not represent God punishing them for something they did wrong. The misfortunes do not come from God at all.

… [I]f we can bring ourselves to acknowledge that there are some things that God does not control, many good things become possible.

We will be able to turn to God for things He can do to help us, instead of holding on to unrealistic expectations of Him which will never come about...

We can maintain our own self-respect and sense of goodness without having to feel that God has judged us and condemned us. We can be angry at what has happened to us, without feeling that we are angry at God. More than that, we can recognize our anger at life’s unfairness, our instinctive compassion at seeing people suffer, as coming from God who teaches us to be angry at injustice and to feel compassion for the afflicted. Instead of feeling that we are opposed to God, we can feel that our indignation is God’s anger at unfairness working through us, that when we cry out, we are still on God’s side, and He is still on ours.


Rabbi Kushner’s God is a limited God. That is, God is indeed NOT all-powerful. Some of the things that happen in this world simply cannot be attributed to God.

Rabbi Mordecai M. Kaplan, Basic Values in Jewish Religion, Reconstructionist Press, 1957, pp. 100-101.

The question why evil exists is one to which the human mind should never expect to find an answer. It seems to be a necessary condition of life which we accept as part of existence. For, as human beings, we can never really know why anything exists. But if the existence of evil is part of the mystery of the world that baffles human understanding, the existence of the good is no less a part of that mystery. We know, as a matter of experience, with a knowledge as positive as any data supplied by the senses, that there are matters that give us deep and immediate satisfaction, that there are times when we feel in the depth of our being that it is good to be alive. There is goodness in the world that flows in on us sometimes, when we least expect it. This, too, is part of the mystery of life and this, too, is real. By focusing on this reality, this possibility of experiencing salvation, we transcend those doubts that are born of human suffering.

This does not mean that we lose sight of the evil in the world. It merely means that we do not permit it to represent for us the essential and ineradicable nature of reality, in whole or in part.


Rabbi Kaplan admits that there is simply no good answer to the problem of theodicy. But his approach is also to affirm that even though we cannot understand the reasoning behind either bad or good things that happen, that we should emphasize the good, because it is through focusing on this that we are open to personal salvation, which he describes as removing obstacles to our own personal fulfillment.


There really are no good answers to this question, and this is hardly reassuring, especially considering that hurricane season has just begun, and a new storm is working up in the Gulf of Mexico. Given that, which approach do you like the best, and why?


  1. For " . . .all of these statements to be true."
    our understanding of God, His will, command and Law must be in error. Fate continues to make all faith look like a fantasy!

  2. Hence the need for modern ways to understand God; Kushner and Kaplan both take different approaches.

    Check out Martin Buber's "I and Thou" or Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel's "God in Search of Man." We are not limited to Job's understanding of God, or even that of the rabbis of the Talmud.