I am winding my way back from Jerusalem after a week of instensive study at the Hartman Institute. This was the 6th and last formal gathering of my cohort of nearly thirty rabbis from all over North America. The Hartman Institute is dedicated to the training of professional and lay leaders through intensive and philosophical study of Jewish texts and ideas. I was invited to be a fellow in the Rabbinic Leadership Program with Reform, Conserivative, Orthodox and Reconstructionist colleagues. The idea is to get all of us in the same room to study and debate the same texts. Each gathering was devoted to a theme, this last one on the light subject of "Theodicy and the Problem of Evil".
The various teachers addressed this question, usually starting with the Book of Job. This book is one of the most troubling books of the Bible and it opens the contemplative reader to the perplexing problem of evil in Jewish tradition. Besides the Book of Job, we focus on some of the most well known texts which deal with this issue in Jewish tradition.
One of the insights to emerge from our study is the multiplicity of approaches to suffering and evil in Judaism. There is no single dominant view about evil. Job presents to us the idea of the inscrutaible God, whose justice cannot be understood by humans. A famous passage in Kiddushin in the Talmud (39b) debates several views including the bibilcal view that suffering is a result of sin. But the same passage brings the story of the good son who honors his father and does a mitzvah of sending off the mother bird while getting eggs and then falls and dies. This 'evil' result contradicts the logic of sin and punishment and leaves us perplexed.
One discovers when one studies this theme in depth the amazing diversity within in Jewish writing on the meaning of suffering and how to approach it. One of the best sessions was with Yoni Garb, a scholar of Jewish mysticism and Hasidism who took us through several kabalistic texts on evil and the meaning of suffering. Here is one of the more striking texts by a contemporary Hasidic writer, Yaakov Meir Schechter:
"When a person sees in himself a bad matter, God forbid, such as ....loss of money or a bad relationship... then he must see the situation as it is, the bitter reality, and accept that it is indeed bitter, and that his sorrow is true and indeed so, and that it is strong enought to be sad about. And he should not fool himself as if the spiritual or material evil is good. No and no! For this thought is a lie, and lies are hated and despicable before God.
In addition, he should not be downcast by the very fact he is sad, like our teacher (Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav) once said to R. Nathan that he shouldn't be sad about not being happy... Actually he should choose truth for being truth. And if the truth is painful, this is because, "one who increases knowledge increases pain," because the fact that he feels pain and sorrow is because of the knowledge he has and if he had more knowledge, he would feel the pain more, because he would recognize the truth more.
Not so if he wishes to transpose the true reality, and call the evil good, and the bitter sweet, and the dark light, and rejoice in that, for he has fled reality and chosen a false joy and flown in the air of imagination. But what is relevant to enjoy in times of trouble is the very fact that he is not as an unfeeling fool, and one can rejoice in being a person of knowledge who honestly feel what happens to one, and sees reality for what it is."
This text struck me with its spiritual courage. We live in a culture that camoflages suffering with entertainment, drugs, and a bewildering array of distractions. It is a culture of denial. When one immerses oneself in the these texts you find anything but. The Jewish tradition does not spoonfeed you with answers and even counsels against the use of theodicy when comforting people in pain.
What is striking and moving is that there is no single view that is pushed forward. It is a multiplicity of reflections for which you can choose among them on how to understand evil in our world and God's relationship to it. This modesty an wisdom is moving and speaks to the Rabbi's awareness of the arrogance of giving a dogmatic answer on a most perplexing problem. I always come away from these study seminars wiser and more appreciative of the tradition I respresent and teach.
Shalom, Rabbi Dov Gartenberg