First Summa Reviews

embedded Kabbalah matrix



The Jewish World of Books


Attempting a solution to

the riddle of god and evil


GOD AND EVIL: A UNIFIED THEODICY / THEOLOGY / PHILOSOPHY, by David Birnbaum, 1989. Ktav. 266 pages, $20


The issue of “theodicy,” the theological attempt to justify the existence of evil in a world created by a good God, has plagued humanity from time immemorial. Greco-Roman paganism attempted to solve this problem by positing separate gods of good and evil. In the early centuries of our era, Gnostic Christians tried to distinguish two gods even in the Torah’s creation stories. Eastern religions and Zoroastrianism also adopted such dualistic solutions.

Judaism could not and did not seek solutions to this problem that would compromise its monotheistic stance. For this reason, with every tragedy in Jewish history—and there were many indeed—our people were faced with the philosophical challenge of explaining the existence of evil in the world. Jewish philosophers and mystics responded with many solutions, but none answered the cries of suffering, both personal and communal. This awesome problem, and the solutions posed by David Birnbaum’s predecessors, constitute the subject of his new and extremely significant volume, God and Evil. Written in the form of a philosophical treatise, but readable even by those unschooled in the technical jargon of philosophy, this book grapples forthrightly and originally with the problem. Though the book speaks of a Jewish perspective, it addresses non-Jews as well, provided they are willing to hear the contribution of our heritage to the discussion and solution of this problem. And while is not a book about the Holocaust, it is a must for those dealing with the theological issues raised by the Nazi slaughter of six million Jews.

Unsatisfactory Theories

Birnbaum surveys previous theories and points out why they are unsatisfying. He begins with the Jobian theory that man cannot comprehend the acts of supernal God, to which he objects – because it compromises God’s moral character and creates obstacles to religious commitment. He proceeds to the notion that man is simply being punished for his sins, which he cannot accept since it involves pointing to the sins of another, not an acceptable practice in Judaism, and because it presumes a fundamentalistic view of biblical theology.

Comments about David Birnbaum can be found on page 23


Next, he examines the idea that God has temporarily hidden his face from the world, then the Kabbalistic (mystical) responses, and finally those of other religious traditions, in each case explaining why these explanations for evil do not satisfy man or are philosophically inconsistent. However, the notion that God has hidden his face and Kabbalistic notions are not disputed extensively, since these approaches ultimately will serve as underpinnings for the “unified formulation” of Birnbaum’s theodicy.

After setting down some basic assumptions for any Jewish theological inquiry, Birnbaum presents his theodicy in a neat set of principles. He sees the purpose of humans in this world as being the quest for fulfillment of potential. This potential can only be attained if humans have freedom. This freedom, along with privacy, responsibility and “self-hood,” can only be achieved by God’s contracting his consciousness in relation to the extent of humanity’s ascent in knowledge. The more the divine consciousness contracts to make room for humanity’s freedom to quest for the fulfillment of its potential, the more humanity must confront the evil of this world.

Philosophy and Kabbalah

In many ways, this argument is a wedding of two old acquaintances: Jewish philosophy and the Kabbalah of Isaac Luria (1534-72). The definition of the problem and the manner in which it is analyzed here is in the philosophic mode. From Kabbalah comes the notion of a dynamic (rather than a static) relationship between man and God. It is humanity’s need for a life of growth, of searching for God, which is to be met by God’s contraction. Yet a person’s spiritual life reflects that of the divine, the core of which, in Birnbaum’s view, is “holy potential.”

In this is a lesson for every Jew: the ladder of self-improvement and perfection is one for which one pays a heavy price—the existence of evil and tragedy. If we fail to ascend this ladder, we make the sacrifice but do not reap the fruits of our labor.

This book is to be contrasted with Harold Kushner’s When Bad Things Happen To Good People, which seeks to explain aspects of evil in this world as being beyond the power of God. Birnbaum sees everything within the realm of beneficent God, who, as it were, “moves over” to make room for humanity’s quest for potential.

Although this is a subtle point, it can also be said that Birnbaum’s God surrenders a bit less to this self-limitation than does the deity of Lurianic Kabbalah, in which evil acquires somewhat more of an independent character in this world.


As Birnbaum sets out his own careful solution to the problem, the reader becomes increasingly aware of the way in which the book has been constructed. First, the author spells out his solution in a brief summary. Then he gives a complete outline of everything that is to come, in the form of philosophic formulations, each proceeding logically from the one before. Only after setting out the overall argument of the book does Birnbaum present his detailed arguments. These are constantly buttressed by extensive quotations from predecessors, names well respected in Jewish philosophy and theology.

Ties to Tradition

This style, while in a way repetitive, is what makes the book work. Without it few readers could follow the line of reasoning. The quotations serve an additional function. To be worthwhile, a work of modern Jewish thought must say something new. Yet Judaism is loath to accept ideas that come from the outside, except when filtered through the prism of tradition. Accordingly, a work must always show that its ideas, no matter how novel or daring, are implicit in its predecessors.

The divine consciousness contracts to make room for humanity's quest for fulfillment of potential.

This caution helps to create continuity in Jewish thought. But, for an author, meeting this requirement presents a challenge. Birnbaum has chosen to meet it by harnessing the words of others to argue that his original ideas lie deeply embedded in the tradition, and, therefore, that his unified formulation of a new Jewish theodicy draws its legitimacy from earlier thinkers.

Reading this book is a challenge, even though it is well organized and clearly written. Birnbaum is persuasive, but the reader is still not able to rest. One is constantly forced to rethink the issues raised, and to ask if the argument is convincing.

But perhaps the biggest challenge facing anyone who takes this book in hand is that when one tries to move from theoretical acceptance to philosophical argument to the realities of evil, tragedy and even the Holocaust, one is left wondering if philosophical inquiry, or even arguments rooted in tradition, can satisfy us on an experiential level. Put in other words, the question is not which theodicy is best, but whether any theodicy can satisfy. Yet Birnbaum comes as close as possible to solving the dilemma of evil in a world created by a just God.

JEWISH WORLD- DECEMBER 22, 1989         21


The Jewish World of Books

Birnbaum: A question that

cannot be avoided


By MARLENE R. SCHIFFMAN “To me, the problem of evil always loomed large as a major problem for the entire structure of Judaism,” writes David Birnbaum, explaining the interest that led him to write God and Evil: A Unified Theodicy/Theology/Philosophy.

“Over the years I observed one speaker after another stumbling over the topic. There seemed to be a very significant interest in the question and a great deal of difficulty in getting a handle on the problem. There was no one book which systematically laid out the problem or thoroughly surveyed the existing responses and which was accessible to both the educated layman and the academic.”

Birnbaum’s book, his first, has been well received by rabbis, philosophy teachers and the general public. Danny Levine of J. Levine Company, a leading distributor of Jewish books and Judaica, said his company has been promoting it as its book of the year. “From all the works of Judaica that have come out recently,” said Levine, “I see this book as the most challenging and rewarding. It is written on a high level but presents the material in a fascinating manner. The issues God and Evil deals with are troubling but are dealt with head on. “ Birnbaum, a Great Neck resident, worked on this book for five years. His first step was to assemble all attempts at solving the problem of theodicy—the question of why there is evil in a world created by a just God—in Jewish and general theological and philosophical literature. From there, he struggled to define the issues and to formulate a systematic approach of his own.

Two Books in One

God and Evil is really two books in one. Part one is a comprehensive overview of the problem and a review of historical responses. It takes into account answers offered in classical sources and by theologians and philosophers from ancient times to the present. The point stressed in this part of the book is the inadequacy of these previous solutions.

Part two presents Birnbaum’s formulation. It attempts to meet the creative challenge of addressing the fundamental and terrifying theological question of our times. Where was God at Auschwitz?

We interviewed Birnbaum from Jerusalem, where issues of Jewish theology and history are somehow brought into sharper focus. I asked him what brought him to undertake this project. “There is just no way to get around addressing the question,” he responded. “The unmitigated, unrelenting and methodical horror and mass murder forces a communal theological introspection, however painful. That is what the work attempts, with due deference to Jewish philosophical tradition and classic doctrine.”

David Birnbaum: "It became increasingly clear to me in the early '80s that the issue [of God and Evil] was generally side-stepped."Birnbaum is well aware of how ambitious a project he has attempted. “Frankly, I would have preferred that some noted rabbinic authority had written the work, but it became increasingly clear to me in the early ’80 that the issue was generally side-stepped.

By definition almost, the main current of any religion is resistant to philosophical overhaul. That is why the Jewish medieval philosophers, for instance, initially encountered such violent resistance but their era was later recognized as the golden age of Jewish thought. But Judaism, historically and almost by definition, also places a high value on powerful theological ideas—that was the essence of its genesis—and that was what inspired the calculated gamble in writing this work.”

Rabbi Walter S. Wurzburger, professor of philosophy at Yeshiva University and editor of Tradition Magazine, wrote that Birnbaum’s “bold attempt to formulate an ingenious theory has paid off admirably. Although written from a Jewish perspective, the argument has been praised as a cogent, intellectual approach to a serious issue in all Western philosophical thought.”

Non-Jewish Reception The book has also been well received by non-Jewish scholars. Professor Gerard A. Vanderhaar, professor of religion and chairman of the humanities department at Christian Brothers College in Memphis, wrote, “I found God and Evil to be a challenging new hypothesis to explain the paradox of the co-existence of an infinitely good, infinitely powerful God and the pervasive creature-caused suffering in God’s universe.”

“The hypothesis was particularly compelling because it was addressed head-on the monstrous evil of the Holocaust, the greatest atrocity in the history of the human race.”


Within the framework of the classic world view that David Birnbaum shares with great Western thinkers of the past, his proposed solution to the problem of God and Evil is admirable. He sees God creating a world full of human potential, all of which in God’s general providence works for the good. Then, as human beings live, grow, expand, develop, increase in knowledge and power, God’s particular providence withdraws from real-time involvement. While human goodness grows, human evil also grows. All this is in the interest of expanding human potential for personal, intellectual and spiritual growth, and the prime condition necessary for it—human freedom.

Faith After the Holocaust

God and Evil posits an answer to the dilemma of faith after the collective experience of the Holocaust or after a single tragedy in an individual’s life. Interviewed in Jerusalem, Rabbi Benjamin Blech, professor of Talmud at Yeshiva University and rabbi of Young Israel of Oceanside, compared Birnbaum’s hypothesis to that of Harold Kushner in his book When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Blech explained that the legitimacy of the problem is theologically the same if it involves one child or six million martyrs.

According to Kushner, Blech said, God must have no part of injustice, so God must not have caused it. God would like to help but can’t because His omnipotence is limited. If so, there must be a power outside of God which created the evil. This solution creates more problems than it answers, Blech states, since, according to Jewish belief, there can be no superior power other than God. Birnbaum’s formulation gives the all powerful God the choice to allow certain universal forces to operate. He can manifest his powers or pull back according to his will.

Blech also notes the dissatisfaction with the solution posed by some theologians that God died in the ovens of Auschwitz. Such a theory assumes that there were no such tragic events of the past preceding Auschwitz and also minimizes the individual tragedy. Thus, according to Blech, Birnbaum has provided the intellectual tools to deal with this difficulty.

Rabbi William E. Kaufman of Temple Beth El in Fall River, Mass. and a visiting professor of philosophy at Rhode Island College, has written about the practical value of Birnbaum’s book. “As a rabbi, the question I am most frequently asked is: How could God allow a Holocaust? Birnbaum’s book helps us flesh out the responses and shows that it is intellectually possible to preserve God’s omnipotence and all mercifulness.”



JEWISH WORLD- DECEMBER 22, 1989         23

21st century Kabbalah
Unified Theodicy / Theology / Philosophy
the Summa Metaphysica embedded Kabbalah matrix

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