By Simon Eder
This is not a question of course that will be addressed on the news or asked during a press briefing. However, as we have seen the daily death toll rise, the loss of lives before their time, the often tragic disruption to everyday life, as people across the globe struggle with the effects of the virus, we may well ask where is God in all this?
The context might be new, but the problem of divine justice has echoed throughout history. Indeed, it arose on the very day that God failed to intervene when Abel was being murdered by Cain. It occupied the greatest ancestors of our tradition as Abraham, Moses and Jeremiah each spoke out when they thought they witnessed injustice. It is of course also central to the Book of Job. It is also a topic that Rabbi Jacobs has addressed in a number of places. In the opening to his Chapter on The Existence of Evil in his book Faith – he puts the formulation of the problem in the following way:
‘’Theistic faith generally involves belief in an all-good and all-powerful God….If He exists He is either not all-good and can, therefore tolerate evil; or He is not all-powerful and, therefore, must tolerate evil.’’(1)
The context might be new, but the problem of divine justice has echoed throughout history.
The predicament in which Job finds himself – an upright man, exceedingly pious, who loses his wealth, his family and is then stuck with a debilitating disease is paradigmatic for all innocent life that suffers. Job’s friends, who are meant to offer comfort, throughout the book adopt the sort of pietistic approach that they see as befitting God’s side as they accuse him of sin. Job’s commitment to truth is unwavering however and his refusal to prevaricate is so stark that he even challenges God.(2) He simply cannot understand what wrong he has done and so levels the charge of injustice at the Lord as he says: “The earth is handed over to the wicked; He (God) covers the eyes of the judges.”(3)
In response to Job’s revolutionary pretensions and in defence of divine honour the Talmud suggests that: “Job’s mouth should be stuffed with dirt’’(4) And yet, in spite of Job’s harsh challenges to divine justice it is Job who is in fact vindicated in the end. In an important line the poet has the Lord rebuke Job’s friends for failing to ‘’speak about me in honesty as did my servant Job.’’(5) It might not be a categorisation with which He can agree but nonetheless He does welcome the truth that Job speaks.
Job therefore reminds us that the Jewish way of faith in the face of suffering is not acceptance but protest. The way that Job spoke truth to power is certainly a novel theological notion and one that we may well emulate in this time too.
Not all Powerful?
If Job questioned God’s goodness, there are others who have challenged His omnipotence. The great 20th Century theologian, Abraham Joshua Heshel through his careful reading of the prophetic tradition, expounded on the daring concept that, as a consequence of divine pathos God needs man. According to Heschel, God is in need of man’s compassion which acts as a balm for the pain and suffering in our world.(6)
It is not only in Heschel’s reading of the prophetic tradition from where he derives his notion of divine pathos but also in his reading of the rabbinic tradition too. Rabbi Akiva for example speaks of the participation of God in the suffering of his people as identification – “As it were the affiliations of the nation inflict wounds on God.’’(7)
On this reading when we ask where is God in the pandemic? We may answer that He is in the hands of those neighbourhoods who have come together to help each other or the countless brave acts of compassion carried out by key workers who we honour with our clapping each week.
Attributing to God concepts including good or evil, impotence or a sense of being all powerful cannot have real meaning in any human sense for God is beyond man’s reach.
None of the biblical authors questioned the very existence of God, some challenged the ability of finite man to possibly know the ways of the Infinite. Isaiah for example exclaims: ‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than yours, and my thoughts than your thoughts.’(8)
It is Maimonides, the great 12th Century Jewish Philosopher who expounds much further upon the thread that God lies beyond’s man’s grasp. In his Guide of the Perplexed he explores the limitations of language to convey the truth about what God is. He says for example:
‘’None but Himself can apprehend what He is, and the apprehension of Him consists in the ability to attain the ultimate term in apprehending Him. Thus all the philosophers say: We are dazzled by His beauty, and he is hidden from us because of the intensity with which He becomes manifest, just as the sun is hidden from eyes too weak to apprehend it.”(9)
What is illustrated here, Maimonides’ notion of the Via Negativa, is that any positive assertion about the nature of God is impossible. Attributing to God concepts including good or evil, impotence or a sense of being all powerful cannot have real meaning in any human sense for God is beyond man’s reach.
Perhaps the virus has challenged man’s unquestioning dominance that this approach can lead us to, has urged us on a more humble path before the Almighty and a recognition that we are certainly not masters of the cosmos, in other words a recognition in Hamlet’s line to Horatio – ‘There are more things in heaven and earth….than are dreamt of in your philosophy’.
Divine Silence and Free Will
Divine silence in the face of human suffering is perhaps one of the greatest challenges to faith. The tradition however does not ignore this concern. In an extraordinary midrash commenting on whether God will remain silent and let the people suffer following the desolation of Jerusalem God replies:
‘’Fury is not in Me (Isaiah 27:4) as if to say, ‘I cannot do anything for you, the Attribute of Justice makes Me stay mute’…..Therefore it says ‘’For You silence is praise.’’ meaning: All people give You praise because You could remain silent.’’(10)
Suffering in the Rabbinic imagination therefore has been used as a means to spur a deeper connection to Torah and mitzvot and the opportunity for Teshuvah.
What we see here is perhaps an early example of an argument for the importance of free will built into the very fabric of the created world. The Almighty is therefore to be lauded for His lack of intervention. Were He to do so our ‘’ethical autonomy would shatter into miraculous make-believe, so even God becomes a helpless bystander as events unfold and the silent tears fall.’’(11)
In a yet more daring play on words the school of Ishmael contemplating the destruction of the Temple and the triumph of Rome took the verse from the Song at the Sea (Ex 15:11) ‘’Who is like you, Eternal One among the Gods (ba-elim)’’ and by adding one letter re-read it as ‘’Who is like you, Eternal One among the dumb (ba-ilmim)’’(12)
As we today confront our own doubts what these radical readings from the past show is that we are certainly not alone in our doubting.
Anthropological not theological focus
Much of the emphasis within the tradition concerning the problem of suffering has been placed as David Hartman has stressed not so much on the theological as the anthropological implications. The questions that come to mind in the face of suffering are therefore less about explaining the logic of God’s omnipotence but rather, as in ‘’other personal relationships…the measures of continuity, stability and predictability that can enable a relationship with God to survive all shocks.’’(13) Suffering in the Rabbinic imagination therefore has been used as a means to spur a deeper connection to Torah and mitzvot and the opportunity for Teshuvah. The Talmud for example states that ‘’If a man sees that painful sufferings visit him, let him examine his conduct. For it is said: ‘’let us search and probe our ways and return to the Lord’’(Lam 3:40)’’(14). Unlike many passages which do suggest a more simplistic notion of reward for obedience and punishment for disobedience the language here is more subtle. This is also no metaphysical justification for evil but rather advice and encouragement to sustain and give meaning to the covenantal relationship despite the mystery of suffering.
What is certainly remarkable is that the tradition challenges itself at every turn. Indeed we have seen that our own doubts are mirrored in the minds of the giants that have come before us. Judaism has of course resisted any systematic theology. What we have are a series of paradigms, perhaps even inconsistent with each other out of which we too are invited to construct our own faith journey. What possibly all approaches have in common are the emphasis placed on activist dignity. We must never fall victim to despair, escapism or disillusionment. Our focus should be on moral renewal over philosophical speculation. The Jewish question is then not so much where is God in the pandemic but where are we?
- Rabbi Dr Louis Jacobs, Faith, Basic Books Inc, 1968, p. 113
- Speaking Truth to Power, Professor Edward Greenstein, article on thetorah.com
- Job 9:24
- Bava Batra 16b
- Job 42:7
- A J Heschel, A Passion for Truth, Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1973, p.298
- A J Heschel, Heavenly Torah as Refracted Through The Generations, Continuum, 2005 p.106
- Isaiah 55:8-9
- Moses Maimonides trans S Pines, Guide Of The Perplexed, University of Chicago Press, 1963, p.139
- The Midrash on Psalms, trans W G Braude, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1959, p.530
- Rabbi Mark Solomons, European Judaism: A Journal For The New Europe vol 46, No.2 Autumn 2013), p.96
- Gittin 56b
- Rabbi David Hartman, Suffering in Contemporary Jewish Religious Thought edited Arthur A. Cohen and Paul Mendes-Flohr, The Free Press, 1987 p.941
- Berachot 5a
Simon Eder is Editorial Director of Jewish Quest. He writes regularly for the site and has written for the Judaism column of the Jewish Chronicle. He is a founder of the Jewish Community in Dubai and due to feature in a documentary later this year.