Forever questioning

Turning To Spirituality Series

Jewish Family Education with Candace R. Kwiatek, The Dayton Jewish Observer

Shootings in a rural Texas church. Cyberbullying suicides as young as age 12. Neighborhood preteen molests preschoolers. California fires destroy homes and businesses. Hiking family plummets from cliff. Just why is it that bad things happen to good people?

The attempt to answer this classic question is known as theodicy, literally “justifying God.”

Tackled by theologians and philosophers across the millennia, it begins with the premise that God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and good.

The problem is that evil and suffering exist, but God seems unable or unwilling to prevent it. So what are we to conclude?

The straightforward response to suffering is that bad things happen to people because they have done something bad. God punishes wrongdoing to instigate change. Illness or misfortune should therefore motivate the sufferer to examine his or her life to identify the cause and rectify it. Central to ancient pagan cultures, this perspective is also an early biblical view that persists even today.

“Known as middah k’neged middah — meaning measure corresponding to measure — this principle is like Jewish karma,” explains Tablet writer Rebecca Klempner.

She tells her own story of Jewish karma that happened after publishing a highly critical and very public review of another author’s work.

Candace R. Kwiatek
Candace R. Kwiatek

Although she regretted her unkind words, she delayed in rescinding them. Almost immediately, a bizarre accident caused her writing hand to be severely burned.

She remembers thinking at the time, “At least the scar would remind me to use my right hand to build people up…to be a writer who uses her words to build instead of to destroy.”

A counterintuitive response suggests that bad things happen to good people precisely because they are good people.

In this view, suffering is God’s way of challenging those with deep spiritual quality to discover the greatness within.

The biblical Joseph, sold into slavery, is an illustration of this principle. Like roasting a pepper to release the hidden inner sweetness, through suffering it is possible to find greater meaning and happiness in life and also become a light to others.

Our suffering is part of a bigger picture, a Divine plan that we can’t see, another argument goes. The Israelites’ slavery in Egypt was only part of an ongoing saga. Some have argued the Babylonian Exile was necessary for the development of rabbinic Judaism, and the Holocaust set the stage for the modern state of Israel.

Infertility may lead a couple to adopt, providing a caring home for a needy child like Steve Jobs. Physical disability can spur the development of extraordinary character, as it did for Helen Keller.

Rabbi Harold Kushner, perhaps the most famous modern Jewish theologian on theodicy, takes a completely different approach.

The author of the book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Kushner argues that suffering isn’t punishment for our misbehavior, nor is it part of some greater Divine plan.

“God does not cause our misfortunes,” he writes. “Some are caused by bad luck, some are caused by bad people, and some are simply an inevitable consequence of our being human and being mortal, living in a world of inflexible natural laws.”

Instead of asking, “Why did this happen,” we would do better to ask, “Now that this has happened to me, what am I going to do about it?”

Kushner’s advice echoes that of Holocaust survivor and author Viktor Frankl in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning: “You cannot control what happens to you in life, but you can always control what you will feel and do about what happens to you.”

Another modern response is to reject the Divine premise altogether.

“Physicists or biologists never ask why suffering exists,” observes theologian Jeffrey Small, “because pain, suffering and even evil are absolute requirements for life as we know it.”

Think genetic mutation, natural selection, disease, natural catastrophes, and human choice: each causes suffering in some way.

Small adds, “The problem of evil and suffering is only a problem when we view God as a supernatural Zeus-like being…God does not permit anything other than the creative state of being.”

The atheist also ignores the premise and doesn’t connect suffering and evil to God at all. Rabbi Stephen Baars explains that, in the atheist’s view, violence, failure, and suffering (as well as success) are all random and without reason. Results both good and bad have nothing to do with effort. It’s just bad luck that bad things happen.

The most powerful Jewish answer to theodicy is offered by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, retired chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, in the form of a story.

A survivor of Auschwitz, the Klausenberger Rebbe, was once asked if he had any questions for God.

“Yes,” he responded, “but I’d rather be down here with the questions than up there with the answers.”

Sacks explains, “If we found an argument to satisfy us as to why there is evil, we’d be at peace with bad things happening to good people.”

Instead, we only have the questions, so we fight against the bad things.

“That is why you will find Jews disproportionately represented among doctors fighting disease, economists fighting poverty, teachers fighting ignorance, and lawyers fighting injustice,” Sacks writes. “We refuse to answer the question.”


Literature to share

Extreme Measures: Finding a Better Path to the End of Life by Jessica Zitter, M.D. American medicine can do amazing things to prolong life, but should it always do so? Or should its focus be on enhancing life at the end of life? Through her casual storytelling style filled with medical anecdotes and patient stories, critical care physician Jessica Zitter reveals her personal reflections on what patient-centered caregiving truly means. She doesn’t offer a one-size-fits-all prescription, but explores how patients, families, and physicians can work together to fashion more personal, meaningful, and humane scenarios even when approaching life’s end. Very highly recommended.

Like No Other by Una LaMarche. Ever-popular are star-crossed lover tales, from Romeo and Juliet to West Side Story to the Twilight series. Like No Other is an edgy 21st-century teen version featuring African-American Jaxon and Chasidic Devorah who portray two very different worlds living side by side in New York. Racial tensions, religious tradition (sensitively portrayed), historical events, family and community and more come to life through this memorable story highlighted by credible characters and realistic settings.

To read the complete January 2018 Dayton Jewish Observer, click here.

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