Three Ladies, Three Lattes: ‘Tikkun’ or torture?

A letter writer asks if suffering part of God's plan?

Left to right: Danit Shemesh, Tzippi Shaked and Pamela Peled (photo credit: Courtesy)
Left to right: Danit Shemesh, Tzippi Shaked and Pamela Peled
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Recently I sat on a plane next to a very religious, spiritual woman who told me her life story. Sexually abused for a prolonged period from age 13 by a married cousin 20 years older than her, she grew up and got married... three times. All her husbands were religious. No. 1 beat and kicked her until she finally escaped with her three kids; No. 2 abandoned her, leaving her with debts and two more children; No. 3 is still around, providing challenges, together with another baby.
This woman believes with perfect faith that her suffering is part of God’s plan, and that this hashgaha pratit – personal intervention – is for a purpose. Her abuse was part of her tikkun – soul correction – from sins committed in previous incarnations; through pain she is learning to be “a better person.” So, no retribution for the abuser; in fact, she is grateful he helped teach her how to forgive. The experience, she added, may even purify her soul. Is this Judaism?
– Utterly perplexed on a plane
Pam Peled:
Whew. This is too big for me; I consulted Rabbi Yosef Liebovitz, who’s had his share of challenges. Quoting Job, he explained that man cannot understand suffering, and is entitled to rail against it. Friends of the hapless Job suggest tribulations are retribution for sins; God admonishes them. Strange and mysterious are the ways of the Lord; man shouldn’t even go there.
Job is recompensed with more family and wealth; God turns out to be munificent after all. Real life is not so simple. When my husband was dying, way too young, after cancer had already hit us hard, I wanted to scream when anyone said the decree was min hashamayim – from above. Why would I believe in a God that keeps killing my family? Yet I understand – oh how well I understand! – that unshakable faith is fabulously comforting. It’s a win-win situation for God: Good things happen thanks to Him, bad things are more complicated but you can trust His plan.
It’ll be okay eventually, you say, even if it means waiting for the next world. Shakespeare’s Edgar, burdened by sorrow, cries out that as “flies to wanton boys so are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport.” The randomness of those lines from King Lear resonates with me, although I sometimes wish I had deeper faith in an unfathomable reason for the fact that something inevitably hits the fan. But thanking God for being raped and beaten? That religion is not for me.
Danit Shemesh:
What are you really asking? Are you asking if Judaism promotes suffering or provides perverted solace? When you ask if “this is Judaism,” are you asking why it never stopped human cruelty or victimization? Are you assuming Judaism betrays the good and supports the bad? If we accept Judaism as a means to reaching our highest potential, likened to God’s “characteristics,” we realize that like all tools, it can be misused and fall victim to human error.
Tikkun is a big word about concepts beyond our scope, reaching towards reincarnation and heaven’s reckoning. If tikkun is a coping mechanism for this tragic figure, why query what gives her solace? It is cut from a spiritual belief system that is intimate and personal.
I would like to relate to how Judaism speaks to suffering: It is another piece of information that comes to relay a message to us. Like pain relays danger signals to the body or red lights to the mechanic, so suffering relays crucial information to the spirit. It is a compass, warning us when we have chosen the wrong path. Ignoring the information brings consequences. Hashem (God) will not cut corners; we must get it right.
Diaspora and redemption have always interfaced. Eschew evil and do good is a guiding paradigm telling us to do, and to be, the best we can. Joy is a sign that we have, for the moment, reached our better selves. Pain signals we must work harder to do so.
Tzippi Sha-ked:
What travails and hardships, tears and distortion – hardly Judaism! Strange how some people believe they are God’s personal secretary and know why bad things happen – why fires destroy forests, tsunamis swallow people, earthquakes are divine agents weeding out evil. It’s arrogance and a travesty against God to say with certainty why events unfold. Novelist Anne Lamott claims that the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty; Judaism would agree.
If it mollifies the airplane passenger to believe her life choices purified her soul, so be it. Why remove her psychological security blanket? But to think we understand God’s mind is dangerous. It’s dangerous for people in pain to derive erroneous beliefs about Judaism; if you suffer abuse, don’t attribute your challenges to divine sanctioning.
Inaction, in Judaism, is a form of evil. We must fight oppression, disease and bad relationships. Go to a doctor, get a marriage counselor and never, ever, rely on a miracle. Individuals must do their utmost to better their situation – this is the Jewish belief and imperative! I counter Shakespeare’s Edgar with God’s words to Job: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?’
My esteemed neighbor, Rachelle Sprecher Fraenkel (mother of terror victim Naftali), says: “Remember, we work for Hashem; Hashem does not work for us.” We’re accountable to God; we must leave Hashem’s accounts to Hashem. Our job is to do right by God, not to ascribe to Him causative rationale for situations of our own making, or otherwise.
Comments and questions: