Justifying the existence of a powerful, compassionate God in the face of evil and suffering has vexed and perplexed Jewish thinkers from time immemorial.
“Shall the Judge of all the earth not do justice?” says Abraham to God, after he has told him of his plan to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah and its inhabitants.
“Why does the way of the wicked prosper?” questions the prophet Jeremiah. An entire book of the Bible – Job – is devoted to the subject of good and evil and the suffering of the righteous.
In Thinking about Good and Evil - Jewish Views from Antiquity to Modernity, Rabbi Wayne Allen, co-chair of the Rabbinics Department of the Anne and Max Tanenbaum Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto, spends almost 400 pages summarizing the Jewish views on theodicy – the defense of God’s goodness and omnipotence in view of the existence of evil.
The word theodicy, he explains, was coined by 17th-century philosopher Wilhelm Gottfried Leibnitz, who combined the Greek words for God (theo) and righteous (dike). In the book’s introduction, Allen posits the theological problem posed by the existence of evil:
1. God is all-powerful (omnipotent).
2. God is all-knowing (omniscient).
3. God is perfectly good (omnibenevolent).
4. Evil exists.
If God is omnipotent, then He can prevent the existence of evil. If God is omniscient, God would know about the evil in the world and how to prevent it. And, if God is omnibenevolent, then He would want to prevent evil from existing. Therefore, if evil exists, God is either unaware of it and is not omniscient; or He is aware of it but cannot prevent it, and is not omnipotent, or He is aware of it and does not want to prevent it and must not be omnibenevolent. “In its attempt to harmonize all four statements, theodicy is the defense of God in the face of the existence of evil,” explains Allen.
The book begins with an analysis of the subject in the Bible and Apocrypha. Rabbi Allen discusses the story of Creation and the meaning of good and evil, Abraham’s dialogue with God on behalf of the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah, and continues with a summary of the topic in other books of the Bible. He then surveys the rabbinic approaches to good and evil as expressed by the Talmud and Midrash. This section features no fewer than 13 different approaches to theodicy. For example, one well-known point of view expressed in the Talmud suggests that all injustices will be remedied in the afterlife, when the righteous who suffered will receive their reward, and the wicked who prospered will be punished. Yet another suggests that the suffering that the righteous endure is a test of character. By enduring undeserved suffering, the righteous man is better for it.
The author next takes a deep dive into medieval philosophy, discussing the approaches of well-known thinkers such as Maimonides, Albo, Gersonides, and others, before proceeding to Kabbalah, the hassidic masters, and modern thinkers. A special chapter is dedicated to the subject of the Holocaust and how it relates to good and evil. Each chapter concludes with a summary of the approaches covered in the specific section. At the book’s conclusion, the author concludes with two summaries – one, entitled “Thirty-Five Jewish Answers to Why there is Evil in the World,” and a second, “Twenty-Two Reasons Why You Are Suffering.”
In his survey of modern thinkers, Rabbi Allen analyzes When Bad Things happen to Good People, the well-known book written in 1981 by Rabbi Harold Kushner, who was confronted with the issue of theodicy after the death of his child from a rare genetic disease. Kushner recounted the various theories given by earlier authorities and ultimately concluded there is a good and loving God, but one of limited powers. Rabbi Allen’s discussion of the hassidic masters’ approach to good and evil, while not offering a persuasive answer to the problem, injects some amount of humanity and kindness into the equation with their empathy to the suffering experienced by others. He quotes Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sassov (1745-1807), who, when he saw someone’s suffering, shared it so that it almost became his own.
“Once,” writes Allen, “when someone expressed his astonishment at this capacity to share in another’s troubles, the rabbis is reputed to have responded, ‘What do you mean share? It is my own sorrow.’”
In the book’s final chapter, “The Special Problem of the Shoah,” the author discusses Judaism’s response to the tragedy of the Holocaust, dividing them into the responses of what he calls “theological traditionalists,” those who uphold the traditional view of God as powerful; the radical “revisionists,” who suggest that the fact that the Holocaust occurred must prove that God is dead; and the “deflectors,” who shift the focus from God to discussions about humanity and the Jewish people specifically.
The result is a comprehensive book, but one that collapses of its own weight when read straight through from start to finish. While many unusual words are sprinkled throughout the text – words such as merism, prolegomenon, sequacious, diachronic, ambit, and synecdoche – to name a few, I believe that the author could have communicated his thoughts more cogently by using simpler and more direct language.
Allen offers a critique of each theory that he presents and ultimately dismisses most of them, pointing out their inconsistencies and weak points. While one appreciates the author’s honesty and open-mindedness, it is akin to reading a cookbook whose editor presents a series of recipes but then criticizes and dismisses each one as incorrect or flawed. If every theory about theodicy is wrong or unsupportable, why bother reading the book?
Ultimately, it seems, if one accepts the existence of God, assuming that He is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent, the only response can be that expressed by Rabbi Yannai in Ethics of the Fathers (4:15): “We cannot account for the tranquility or the afflictions of the righteous.”
Some questions are simply unanswerable.