Friday, May 12, 2023

When Bad Things Happen to Good People


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The Blessings of Peace the Curses of War, James Gillray, 2 January 1795

Rabbi Harold Kushner passed away two weeks ago. When he was a young congregational rabbi, tragedy struck his family. His 3-year-old son Aaron was diagnosed with progeria syndrome, a disease that leads to premature aging. This diagnosis condemned Aaron to an early death, and he passed away in 1977 at age 14.


In his grief, Kushner wrestled with the question of how God lets the righteous suffer. For generations, theologians and philosophers have searched for what is called theodicy, a vindication of divine justice in this world. Four years after Aaron’s death, Kushner published his own response to this question; the book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, became an international bestseller. Kushner went on to become an author and lecturer whose wisdom touched millions of people around the world.


Kushner’s response to this question was heterodox. He argued that God actually didn’t have the power to prevent catastrophes. As a result, Kushner had to reinterpret many Jewish concepts, including prayer, which he explained as an exercise in virtue, an act of self-transformation. Because of this, his writings were roundly criticized in Orthodox circles.


Whether or not one agrees with Kushner’s views, his book was popular precisely because it dealt with a question that arises frequently but is rarely discussed. For this reason alone, Rabbi Harold Kushner is owed a debt of gratitude.


Suffering is a traumatic topic, and the difficulties it raises are often repressed. Many who have profound faith worry that asking questions might erode their faith, or even worse, think the questions themselves are a betrayal of faith. But this question is an existential one; even atheists will find it profoundly disturbing to live in a world where evil can brazenly take place, with innocents dying by the thousands because of the whims of a depraved madman. The escapism of Hollywood, where the good guy always triumphs, is popular because it is instinctive; we are born expecting justice. Sadly, life isn’t like that.


In the Babylonian Talmud, there is an acceptance of the reality of senseless suffering. In one passage, it relates how Elisha Ben Avuyah, a colleague of Rabbi Akiva, lost his faith during the horrific Roman persecutions of his time. He saw his colleagues, great saints, murdered. The Talmud (Kiddushin 39b) says: What caused Elisha (to leave the faith)? …he saw the tongue of Ḥutzpit the interpreter dragged along by a pig. Elisha said: Shall a mouth that produced pearls of wisdom now lap up dirt? Elisha Ben Avuyah loses his faith because he cannot understand how God could let bad things happen to good people.


Two generations later, Elisha Ben Abuya's grandson, Rabbi Yaakov, offers an explanation to this question: There is no reward in this world for good deeds. Justice is only possible in the world to come. There, the righteous will be rewarded and the wicked will be punished. It is only in the afterlife that the soul can receive its just desserts.


Parshat Bechukotai (Leviticus Chapter 26) offers a dramatically different view of this topic: in it, reward and punishment are meted out, right here, in this world. If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments, blessings will follow; there will be abundant rain and produce, and there will be peace and tranquility in the land. if you reject My laws and spurn My rules you will be cursed; and there will be famine, war, and disease.


Many commentaries, including Ibn Ezra, Rambam, and Abrabanel, are troubled by the fact that the Torah focuses solely on earthly rewards and completely ignores the afterlife. But, there is a second aspect of the question; as Rabbi Shmuel Eidels, the Maharsha, wonders, how does Rabbi Yaakov, who rejects the possibility of earthly rewards, understand our Torah reading?


But the black-and-white approach of this Torah reading is attractive to those who want to find a sin for every calamity. Even today, it is not uncommon for Rabbis to make confident proclamations after every disaster, and to declare with certainty which sin caused it.


These finger-pointing explanations are not only deeply flawed, they are also deeply insensitive. The Talmud (Baba Metzia 58b) says that anyone who tells a grieving person that their suffering is due to their own sins has violated the Biblical prohibition of verbal abuse.


Early on in my own rabbinical career, I invited a scholar-in-residence who had written a book about why bad things happen to good people; it was intended as a response to Kushner's book. At the Shabbat luncheon, the scholar-in-residence stood up to make her presentation. After presenting some of her ideas, one of the members of the synagogue, a Holocaust survivor, got up and made a comment. She responded quickly to him and continued to speak. But then he continued to offer one comment after the other, each one with more and more emotion, until it became a full-blown outburst. He shouted: How can you tell me that the people in the Holocaust deserved to die? How can you say that about my parents?


At the time, I felt bad for the scholar in residence, who had her presentation ruined. As I got older, I realize that it was the Holocaust survivor who I should have felt bad for. He had to listen to someone tell him that his family members who were murdered deserved their fate.


Some contemporary theologians offer a more realistic defense of God’s justice, which is called soul-making theodicy; it is best articulated by John Hick in his classic work, Evil and the God of Love. The premise is that humanity only achieves greatness in a world that contains evil and confusion, because then it chooses to do so on its own. Free will can only arise when there are no clear consequences to one's actions; religious doubt is part of the design. Hick explains:


….this world must be a place of soul-making. And its value is to be judged, not primarily by the quantity of pleasure and pain occurring in it at any particular moment, but by its fitness for its primary purpose, the purpose of soul-making.


Without evil there is no free will. And without free will, human beings will fail to flourish. Suffering, tragedy, and evil are necessary for the greater good, because they allow humanity to independently choose goodness.


Similar ideas are offered by Jewish philosophers. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch notes that the Hebrew word for a trial of faith, nisayon, is the same as the Hebrew word for raising up (nissa,) because a test builds one’s character; the bitterness of suffering is itself the silver lining that carries untold blessings. And Hick's soul-making theodicy also bears an uncanny resemblance to the Kabbalistic concept of "the bread of shame," one which was popularized by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto.


Despite its realism, even soul-making theodicy is unsatisfactory, because any explanation one can offer will seem meaningless to those who suffer. Abstract justifications for evil can’t alleviate their anguish, and they remain tortured by the fact that God had inflicted such agony on them.


Kushner himself said it best. During an interview in 2012, he was asked to imagine what might have been had his son not gotten sick. (He actually had commented on this at the end of his book as well.) Kushner rephrased the question:


Would I have rather had a normal child, and ended up being a mediocre rabbi who never had a book published in his life?.... Yes, I would go for that in a moment.


Theodicy is fated to always fall short, and perhaps is best not to attempt it at all. From the outset, the entire project of defending God’s goodness is suspect. God does not need a defense attorney; He can make the case for himself. And God continues to do so in every sunrise, every leaf, and every breath we take.


More importantly, one can love God while questioning God at the very same time. Because it is cited so frequently, the story of Abraham at the Akeidah has become our model of faith; here is the courageous hero, never flinching, never losing faith, despite enormous emotional turmoil.


But the Bible offers a second model of faith, one which is very different than Abraham: Job. He asks bitter, difficult questions of God; and it is those questions themselves that connect Job to God. Job reminds us that whether we embrace God or wrestle with God, we continue to maintain an intimate relationship with God. Even if we cannot answer our questions for God, that is not a lack of faith; this is why in Pirkei Avot (4:15) we are told: We do not have the ability to explain the success of the wicked or the suffering of the righteous. There simply is no answer to the question of why bad things happen to good people.


But we must go beyond asking questions. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik offers a very different view of a Jewish response to suffering. He says the question itself, Why do bad things happen to good people?”, implies that if we find an answer, we should passively accept our fate and assume that God did everything for the best. Rabbi Soloveitchik points out that on the contrary, Judaism actually refuses to make peace with death and tragedy. When someone dies, Jewish law requires that their relatives mourn bitterly and tear their clothes. Judaism demands that one should be enraged by tragedy.


Instead, the real question that has to be asked is: How do I respond to tragedy? Our obligation in the face of a catastrophe is to act: to comfort and aid those who have suffered, and to use human creativity to prevent future catastrophes. The only Jewish response to tragedy is to restore human dignity and rebuild the world.


How then does one read the curses and blessings in Parshat Bechukotai? Perhaps as a challenge, a reminder that the world we yearn for, in which the wicked are punished and the righteous rewarded, is far from reality. We continue to dream of a perfect world; but dreams alone are not enough. We must go into battle against evil, and do as much good as possible. And with every act of kindness, we start to turn that dream into reality.

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