Our efforts to reconcile the existence of suffering with our belief in a God Who is both omnipotent and benevolent must proceed simultaneously on two planes: one of intellectual understanding and the other of trust. From the outset, we must realize that definitive answers as to why one person suffers in a particular way are closed to us.
We can and will, however, identify reasons why God allows suffering. Before doing so, however, we will first examine an alternative approach that has recently gained a great deal of prominence. Analyzing the faults of that approach will help clarify a coherent Jewish response to the problem.
The opposite approach might be termed that of randomness. According to this view, not everything that takes place in the world has a purpose or comes from God. Efforts to reconcile the existence of evil and suffering in the world with God's justice are a waste of time because they proceed from the false premise that everything that takes place in the world comes from God and has a purpose.
Harold Kushner, a Conservative rabbi, followed precisely such an approach in his best-selling book When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Few "Jewish" books in recent decades have had a greater impact, and Kushner is regularly cited, in both the Jewish and non-Jewish media, as an expert on suffering and a variety of other ethical issues.
Kushner came to the topic of suffering through a terrible tragedy in his family: He and his wife lost a young son to a particularly perverse degenerative disease ― premature aging syndrome. He has thus paid a heavy price for the right to talk about suffering. Though we shall be very critical of Kushner's conclusions, nothing we say should be seen as a personal criticism of him, or an attempt to in any way diminish the awful suffering he had to bear. It would be contemptible to pass judgment on another's experience of a tragedy of such magnitude.
If we are critical of Kushner's ideas, it is only because he has offered his views to the public as a consolation to those in pain and as an authentic Jewish response to the problem of suffering. As we shall see, they are neither.
While Kushner is in some sense a believer in God, his own faith was severely tested by the prolonged agony that he and his wife endured. He felt the need to construct a theory that would reconcile his tragedy with Judaism's belief in God's benevolence.
In Kushner's view, God cannot quite control the world He created.
He concluded that to maintain his belief in God he must reject either God's benevolence or His omnipotence. He chose the latter course. God, in Kushner's view, created the world and provides the foundation of moral principle. But He cannot quite control the world He created. He hopes for our good and He sympathizes, as it were, with us in our pain, but He is powerless to do anything about it.
As to why a God Who had the power to create the entire universe in the first place would create one that He is powerless to control, Kushner basically shrugs his shoulders and contents himself with noting that the world is relatively good for most people most of the time. We might designate this theory as "randomness plus God."
Unable to understand why a good God would allow individuals to suffer, Kushner ends by neatly defining the question away. He cannot even conceive of the possibility of any understanding, and so concludes that we have no answers because there are no answers. Much of what happens is nothing more than random chance. Pain and tragedy are a necessary consequence of a world over which God does not exercise complete control.
The first thing that must be noted about this view is that it provides no solace whatsoever. Mrs. Kushner herself is on record as saying that she derived no comfort from her husband's theories. And that is not accidental. What good is it to know that God shares my pain if at the same time I am told that pain is utterly without meaning and purpose? Even if I cannot know the exact meaning of my personal suffering, I can still have faith that there is some purpose to that suffering. Kushner, however, denies the possibility of meaning, and with it any possibility of comfort.
There is no comparison between pain that is without purpose and meaning, and that which is purposeful. Childbirth is one of the most intensely painful experiences. Yet women willingly endure the agony of childbirth because they know that the end result is a child. A woman may not understand why pain must be the price for giving birth, but since it is, she accepts it.
The Jewish view of suffering, as we will learn later, is that it is part of a process of self-development ― in effect a process of birth of the self. Though we would never choose intense suffering for ourselves, faith that it is part of a growth process can take away, if not the pain, at least some of its sting. Knowledge that the suffering has purpose and is leading somewhere offers me the strength to weather the crisis.
But if that suffering has no meaning, I am left all alone, a helpless victim of blind fate or randomness. Hearing that God feels my pain and laments my bad luck does not alleviate my sense of victimhood. Indeed, being told that my particular suffering somehow eluded God's notice until it was too late only exacerbates that sense of victimhood.
Compare the case of two laborers who both have their wages taken away. One has the money deducted from his paycheck and deposited in a pension fund. The other is mugged on the street. Both have lost their hard-earned money, but their reactions will be very different. For one the loss is only temporary; he is building for his future. The other, however, is bereft. He is a victim and nothing more. He cannot conceive of his mugging as leading to some future good.
If God Himself can find no rhyme or reason for my suffering, if there is no gain from my pain, how am I supposed to feel about it? How can I grow by viewing myself as the victim of chance? Far more than God's sympathy, I seek His assurance that whatever is happening to me is designed to lead somewhere and that I have not simply been abandoned to blind fate.
Kushner does argue that even if our suffering is random, it can be a means of personal growth and a means of deepening our sensitivities. But this is little solace. If God Himself judges the gain from our suffering not to be worth the price, how are we expected to feel?
What value are we supposed to attach to our life if at any moment it can be cut off for no reason whatsoever?
Kushner's vision saps our emotional strength at times of suffering. But its effects go beyond just those instances of personal suffering and affect the entire sense of our place in the cosmos. What value are we supposed to attach to our life if at any moment it can be cut off for no reason whatsoever? Without an answer to that question, Kushner's theory remains an emotional nightmare.
In the end, Kushner's vision fails to even achieve his original purpose: preserving God's benevolence. If God cannot prevent suffering, then neither can He direct Creation to bring about good. If He is not responsible for the bad, neither can He be credited with the good. If so, God's benevolence, which is central to both Jewish thought and that of Harold Kushner, is irretrievably lost.
Now, of course, because an idea is discomfiting and provides no comfort does not make it untrue. But Kushner's book not only fails to provide any comfort, it also is profoundly un-Jewish. Each of his main arguments runs counter to the traditional Jewish approach to the subject. They reflect accepted modern views far more closely than they do anything written in classical Jewish sources.
Morning and evening, Jews proclaim God's unity in the Shema. The Shema, with its assertion of God's absolute unity, constitutes the basic affirmation of Jewish faith. The Jewish belief in God's unity stands in stark contrast to paganism, based on a pantheon of competing gods, each with its own sphere of influence.
Kushner's view of the world is closer to Persian Manicheanism, in which the forces of Good and Evil are in constant struggle, than it is to traditional Judaism. He arrays a benevolent God, on one side, against the forces of randomness on the other. At best, his God is nothing more than a superman.
Kushner's God is a sovereign with very limited powers. Kushner has basically projected human limitation upon God. We have limits, so God has limits. Sometimes we are too busy to attend to all the details in our life, and God, too, sometimes loses track of the details.
All classical Jewish sources reject precisely such anthropomorphic projections of our human failings and limitations to God. The Jewish God is transcendental, completely different from us. We are physical beings, and as such subject to limitations. God is not a physical entity and knows no limitations. Maimonides describes the qualitative chasm between us and God:
"God is not physical and there is absolutely no comparison between Him and any of His creations. His existence is not like their existence; His life is not like that of any living being; His wisdom is not like the wisdom of the wisest of men. The difference between Him and His creations is not merely quantitative, but absolute..."
Any similarity between Maimonides' God and Kushner's is purely coincidental. The God of Maimonides is the Creator and Source of all being ― the uncreated One Who must exist, has always existed and will always exist. Since He necessitates all being, He can possess neither lack nor limitation.
Kushner effectively severs the connection between God and the world and thereby empties physical existence of all meaning.
Kushner's God, by contrast, is nothing more than an intellectual construct designed to save its author's belief in God's benevolence. His God is but a bit player in the heavenly hierarchy, playing a limited role in our existence, like the deities of Greek mythology. By arguing that much of what happens is beyond God's control, Kushner effectively severs the connection between God and the world and thereby empties physical existence of all meaning. The events of our lives, as portrayed by Kushner, have no relationship to God.
Removing God, in this fashion, from an active role in the world and our lives is a complete distortion of all Jewish thought and living. Our faith as Jews does not end with an affirmation of belief in God's existence. God does not sit, as it were, in isolation in His heaven. Faith, for us, means that we are aware of the Divine Presence in every aspect of our world.
We are required, writes Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato in The Way of God, to both "believe and know" that there is a God. This statement is hard to understand. If I know that there is a God, then belief is extraneous. The explanation is that knowing does not refer to empirical knowledge. Rather "knowing" refers to a process of relating our faith in God to everything we do. Knowing that there is a God means that our faith in Him must become inseparable from who we are and how we view the world.
Attaining this level is the work of a lifetime. Most of us are far from reaching it. We walk through life as if in a fog. Our faith remains theoretical at best. When we think about God, we forget the world. And when we think about the world, we forget God. No integration of God into our world takes place.
Occasionally, however, events intrude with such force that we are compelled to deal with our faith in the context of what is taking place in our lives. Suffering is one such event. It challenges us to confront the ultimate questions of who we are and what is the significance of our lives. Suffering is a painful invitation to deepen our faith and make it a real part of our lives.
But that can only be done if we first recognize the physical world as God's creation and as an ongoing expression of His Will, which exists only as a medium for us to relate to God. By denying God's control over the events of our lives, however, Kushner denies meaning to those events and any possibility of using them to deepen our relationship with God.
In the face of acute suffering, he would strengthen the chasm between God and the world, and thus ensures that God remains irrelevant to our lives ― an intellectual concept to be retrieved intermittently. He thus denies us any possibility of solace through a deepened relationship with God.
Having seen why a philosophy of randomness undermines rather than strengthens our faith in moments of crisis, let us now examine the traditional Jewish view, which is the very antithesis of Kushner's: the belief that everything that happens in the world has a purpose.
An excerpt from "Making Sense of Suffering: A Jewish Approach" by Rabbi Yitzchok Kirzner (ArtScroll).