The accepted name for the entire subject comprising the problem of evil and its attempted resolution is theodicy, from the Greek θεός, “God,” and δίκη, “justice.”9 The word is a technical shorthand used several ways. Theodicy is a shorthand for the problem of evil in the face of God. It is also a shorthand for a formulation of a resolution of the problem of evil. A common definition of the word theodicy is “a defense of (the justice and righteousness of) God in the face of evil.”
Some maintain, however, that it is ludicrous, if not sacrilegious, to defend God. Whether it is or not, we will in any event be using the following definition:
Theodicy: reconciling God and religion in the face of evil.
There are implicit major and minor themes in the theodicy dilemma, namely:
1. If God is omnipotent, omniscient, and all-merciful, why does (gross) evil befall the innocent, e.g., infants?
2. If God is all-merciful and omnipotent, why does evil exist at all?
Answers to the first element of the dilemma will lead us to follow up and inquire as to the ultimate purposes of man; answers to the second element of the dilemma will lead us into inquiries regarding the origins of the cosmos.
Many people, from venerable scholars to schoolboys, compartmentalize the problem of evil. That is, they recognize that aspects of evil present a theological problem, and, having recognized that, move on to other matters.
However, theodicy, as hitherto approached and explicated, remains for many, if not most, a weak link in the chain of a religious approach to life. Writings and discourses on theodicy by the Jews, Greeks, Christians, and Eastern religions have graced our planet for thousands of years.10 Theodicy is a problem not for all religions, but rather in particular for monotheistic religions proclaiming a God who is all-powerful and all-good. This clearly encompasses the major Western religions.
The goal of theodicy has generally been a modest one, namely, that of defending the validity of an existing faith. We suspect, however, that unraveling the knot of the theodicy problem will force the resolution of related theological issues and will yield a more dynamic and coherent theology.
Theodicy has been treated by many as somewhat independent of other philosophical issues, and consequently some formulators of theodicies have been justly reproached for operating in a vacuum. At the same time, most theologians would maintain that the formulation of a theodicy must conform to the commonly accepted religious philosophy. However, the problem is of such magnitude that we may have to modify some of our basic philosophical assumption.11
Theodicy actually does not pose the same problem to all, even for those who share a common religious tradition. Different thinkers have different thresholds at which the issue of evil becomes a serious philosophical problem. In all probability, an individual reared during the Black Death in Europe would have had a different threshold than one reared in the 1980s in Europe. Camus said: “I continue to struggle against this universe in which children suffer and die.”12 Doestoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov protested: “There is no justification for the tear of even a single suffering child.”13
The gamut of Jewish responses includes the grossly sardonic. The writer Elie Wiesel tells the story of a small group of Jews who were gathered to pray in a little synagogue in Nazi-occupied Europe. Suddenly, as the service proceeded, a pious Jew who was slightly mad—for all pious Jews were by then slightly mad—burst in through the door. He listened silently for a moment as the prayers ascended, then slowly said: “Shh, Jews! Do not pray so loud! God will hear you. Then He will know that there are still some Jews left alive in Europe.”14
This story combines two theodicy themes: a non-Jewish theodicy of a God turned evil, and a fundamentalist Jewish theodicy of God punishing all Israel for sundry transgressions.
The task of theodicy may include defining and hypothesizing on the origins of evil, goodness, and God, as well as the purpose of man. Divine omnipotence, omniscience, and omnibenevolence must be defined. Approaching the problem precisely as it has been tackled for several millennia is unlikely to yield a sudden flash of brilliant insight. Reorientation is necessary. Yet we must first proceed with certain basics.
10.03 Nadir and Refinement
There are those who argue—and we are sympathetic with the thrust of their argument—that the Holocaust represents a new extreme in evil, by dint of its intensity, magnitude, organized structure, and overwhelmingly diabolical nature. There are others who argue that the Holocaust was essentially just another atrocity, albeit on a larger scale, in a long line of ignominious atrocities perpetrated against the Jew and mankind.
Regardless of which of these two general lines of reasoning is employed, no one can argue that our generation has not come face-to-face with gross abomination and evil. Our generation has counted the corpses of the tortured and brutalized; we may encounter survivors of Hell on a personal basis. We do not operate in the abstract. As a consequence, we exercise inherent rights of observation, analysis, and, if necessary, refinement of Jewish philosophical doctrine. With all due respect to the claims of abstract intellectual and historical analysis, the qualitative and emotional differences yielded by the present- day encounter with evil must lead us to scrutinize theological doctrine in our own light. Doctrine is always cogent in the abstract, but only attains validity when it succeeds in the face of harsh reality. And if philosophical doctrine cannot handle challenge, including the challenge of experience, reformulation within the bounds of dogma may be in order.
The Holy One, blessed be He, rejoices in the dialectics of Torah. Read not here “dialectics” (pilpul) but “creative interpretation” (hiddush).
In the post-Holocaust environment, in particular,16 there is a growing body of respected thinking which welcomes aggressive inquiry and legitimate reformulation/refinement of Jewish thought.17
To avoid Auschwitz, or to act as though it had never occurred, would be blasphemous. Yet how [can we] face it and be faithful to its victims? No precedent exists either within Jewish history or outside it. Even when a Jewish religious thinker barely begins to face Auschwitz, he perceives the possibility of a desperate choice between the faith of a millennial Jewish past, which has so far persisted through every trial, and faithfulness to the victims of the present. But at the edge of this abyss there must be a great pause, a lengthy silence, and an endurance.
The fact that one contends with the common theological formulations does not mean that one is contending with God. To put matters in further perspective, it should be noted that Jewish tradition gives wide berth to aggressive inquiry.19 Occasionally God reveals His approval of those who contend with Him directly, as He did in the case of Job. He rejects the well-meaning defenders of His “justice” toward Job in the words which He addresses to Eliphaz the Temanite:
My wrath is kindled against thee, and against thy two friends: for ye have not spoken of Me the thing that is right, As my servant Job hath...
The Holocaust shakes modern man’s confidence and many of his basic assumptions. While it may be philosophically true, and even possibly provable, that the death of one innocent is as great a philosophical problem as the death of several million innocents, it is the latter which unnerves the mass of humanity. It is the latter which opens the gates for a communal introspection and theological reassessment.21 For it is when the foundations of the entire community are still shaking, as opposed to the foundations of the immediate circle of a singular innocent victim, that the philosophical wisdom of the community is energized to creativity.22
Many theodicies, including many Jewish ones, are so philosophically subtle or inscrutable that they are explicable only by suggesting that the perplexed inquirer study the entire body of works of the formulator and his sources, if not the bulk of the collected works of the Masorah (corpus of Jewish canon, explication, and authentic tradition). A theodicy, however, must be understandable and acceptable to most people in order to be effective. It is not sufficient for a theodicy to be simply emotionally intriguing to a few ivory-tower theologians. Abstruse profundities should not play key roles for a “people of the book,” which prides itself on its intellectual primacy. As man is a key protagonist in religion, the philosophy of man’s interaction with God should be within reach of man.23
Although several thousand years of traditional explication, redaction, exegesis, amplification, and chiddush (new insight) may give the impression that Judaism is generally averse to loose ends, this is not the reality in the case of theodicy. But consigning theodicy to the netherworld of the inscrutable, insolvable, or intractable is not only inconsistent with the thrust of Jewish tradition; it is damaging to the vitality of the religious community.24
Many theologians and rabbinic leaders, particularly from the more modern wings of Orthodoxy, have openly taken the position that no previously formulated theodicy is truly fully satisfying. Needless to say, the ramifications of this situation do not end at that point. They include disheartenment, lukewarm religious commitment, and abandonment of faith.25
This is a problem for both the believer and the nonbeliever. In the mind of the latter it stands as a major obstacle to a religious commitment, while for the former it sets up an ongoing internal tension to constantly challenge and cast doubt upon the validity of his faith.26
If we were to place the impressive weight of evidence testifying to the existence of God in one scale, it would be outweighed for many by one hydra-headed fact,
the existential tragedy of suffering, the burden of human misery, from which none are free. For untold sensitive men and women,
the frail bark of faith has crashed on the hard rock of the persistence of evil in a world allegedly created by a good God.
One may choose a secular or perhaps agnostic approach to life, or one may choose a religious approach to life. But if one chooses a religious approach and wishes to distinguish oneself from the unsophisticated, a unified religious philosophy is in order. The philosophy chosen may turn out to be flawed or totally wrong, but at least its formulators and adherents perceive it to be unified.
Formulations of a unified theodicy/theology were wanting even before the Holocaust; the Holocaust merely dealt these formulations a further blow.28
Judaism requires both leaps of faith and a leap of the will. A major leap of faith is required to accept the complete Masorah as bona fide and correct; the leap of will is the acceptance of the yoke of Jewish law and canon. The problem posed by theodicy is the wrench it throws in the works for religious man of reason, who has previously taken these leaps of faith and will.29
In talmudic explication, as in Euclidean geometry, a line of reasoning or theorem which is not defensible from any and all challenges is unacceptable. A line of reasoning which meets ninety-nine challenges but not the one hundredth is a fatally flawed hypothesis.
In similar terms, a theological formulation must and should be able to handle all challenges satisfactorily to be truly viable! Judaism is a comprehensive system demanding internal logic and consistency. Internal contradiction is not brooked. Common and consistent threads link its voluminous texts. What is true on page 4 of Text A must be true on page 4000 of Text B. And, nagging at this elegant and finely tuned system, which has been scrutinzed and refined over the millennia, is the gaping problem of theodicy. Many have stabbed at solutions, but the challenge remains.
20.00 THEODICY IN FOCUS
It would seem that to resolve the dilemma of theodicy, one or more of the traditional attributes of God—all-wisdom, all-power, all-benevolence—needs to be deleted or seriously curtailed. Traditional theologies of all faiths have been aware of the potential danger of reducing God’s attributes, and have attempted to protect the status of the deity.
In arguments used by traditional theologians, what man calls evil sometimes turns out to be good in God’s eyes; suffering, pain, and death are the consequences of man’s erring belief or behavior, and are therefore seen as just punishments, or as part of a grander scheme for the ultimate cosmic good. Invariably and inevitably, the Divine image is sustained, and it is man who is diminished. God’s omniscience, omnipotence, and benevolence can seemingly be held inviolate only at the expense of man’s impotence, malevolence, or limited intellect. For this reason, traditional justifications of God’s ways tend to read like cases of conflicting interests.30
Theology and theodicy are about perfection and absolutes:
• Is God perfectly good?
• Is God perfectly powerful?
• Is God perfectly omniscient?
• Is God perfectly benevolent?
• Is God perfect?
• Is God not by definition perfect?
• If yes, why gross evil?31
The question then focuses on man’s limits. It focuses on the limits of man’s abilities of comprehension vis-à-vis the Divine and the Divine interaction with man.32
Century after century most theodicies have either limited aspects of God’s power, limited man’s claim to virtue, or limited man’s ability to comprehend God’s virtue. None of these options is truly satisfying to religious man of reason who wishes to maintain God’s power, man’s virtue, and man’s ability to comprehend.33
During World War II, the pious men of a makeshift little synagogue in the Lodz Ghetto spent a whole day fasting, praying, reciting psalms, and then, having opened the holy ark, convoked a solemn Din Torah (Torah tribunal) and forbade God to punish his people any further.34
The pious in the Lodz Ghetto tale refuse to limit concepts of God’s power; they refuse to deny man’s virtue; and they refuse to deny man’s ability to comprehend. Rather, they will stand with their concepts of God and man intact, and they will invoke God to stay God’s hand. While at first glance their action seems bizarre, the theological bases of this action are well grounded in Jewish tradition. In essence, in their profound faith and confidence in God and man, they invoke the logic of theodicy back on itself.35
Whether or not the Holocaust represented a new level or intensity of evil, we are challenged, as were previous post-catastrophe Jewish communities, to reexamine our assumptions and perspectives in light of the realities our generation has witnessed.” We must ask the quintessential question afresh: Can some semblance of rationality be applied to our religious commitment in light of the horrors we have seen?37
We have come to know things so unheard of and so staggering that the question of whether such things are in any way reconcilable with the idea of a good God
has become burningly topical. It is no longer a problem for experts in theological seminars, but a universal religious nightmare.
Jobian boils have reappeared in our times more massively spread than before. It is now the comforters, not Job,
who feel con-strained to place their hands upon their mouths in disbelief.
How is a life with God still possible in a time in which there is an Auschwitz? The estrangement has become too cruel, the hiddenness too deep.
One can still “believe” in a God who allowed those things to happen, but how can one still speak to Him? Can one still hear His word?
Dare we recommend to the survivors of Auschwitz, the Job of the gas chambers: “Call on him, for He is kind, for His mercy endureth forever”?40
Authentic tales of glorious and heroic Jewish resistance, and saintly, superhuman action and sacrifice in the face of the Nazi monster, do not constitute a theodicy. To posit God’s here-and-now presence at Auschwitz simply aggravates the philosophical problem further.41
There were really two Jobs at Auschwitz: the one who belatedly accepted the advice of Job’s wife and turned his back on God, and the other who kept his faith to the end,
who affirmed it at the very doors of the gas chambers, who was able to walk to his death defiantly singing his “Ani Maamin—I Believe.”
If there were those whose faith was broken in the death camp, there were others who never wavered. Those who rejected did so in authentic rebellion;
those who affirmed and testified to the very end did so in authentic faith.
The victims, who were stripped of everything of which they could possibly be stripped, found themselves in the hammer-lock of gross evil incarnate, in an environment itself stripped to its rawest core. In this crucible environment, in numbers disproportionate to the greater Jewish population, the victims usually chose definitively to take their stand on one of two sides of the religious issue—i.e., they turned either to a complete religious dedication or to religious rejection. Yet experience teaches us that conclusions reached in such an environment are to be taken very seriously.
Jewish theology, as developed through that time, was simply insufficiently powerful, or at the least insufficiently articulated and communicated, to hold the allegiance of many sincere devotees. The fault is neither with Judaism nor with the hallowed victims; it probably lies with the development and explication of the theology.
In response to the classic challenges of theodicy regarding the Holocaust, in particular, a traditionalist might counter by challenging the validity of the questioner’s scale of magnitude, and by inquiring as to the questioner’s suggested remedy. How many deaths by atrocity is too many? Three million? Three hundred thousand? Thirty thousand? Three thousand? Three hundred? Thirty? Three? One? What would the theologically troubled have prescribed for the Holocaust—ten plagues, a bolt of lightning, a column of Divine fire?
These responses are only of limited utility and far from an answer. But we must ourselves consider the question—why indeed even one death by atrocity? Why indeed one tear?
With regard to the specific challenges to his query, the theodicist might counter the counter as follows: Man can emotionally accept a limited level of risk and pain as a price to be paid for freedom, but a point comes where the price in pain outweighs the communal and individual needs of freedom. What price freedom? (Regarding proposed mechanics of Divine intervention, the theodicist might counter that God, working in mysterious ways, had a plethora of mundane options to curtail the horror.)
20.03 Observations: The Sliding Scale
It might very well be the case that if there were no cases of evil perpetrated by man against man (“moral evil”), we would focus on suffering caused by nature (“natural evil”); and if there were no suffering apparently caused by natural forces except for old-age mortality, we might focus on why some persons live longer than others; and if all people lived to exactly the current actuarily expected age, we might ask why man does not live longer or forever; and if man lived forever, we could then focus on the reverse side of the theodicy question; namely, why goodness is distributed unequally and inequitably.
Solzhenitsyn, in his Gulag Archipelago, posits that man always seeks the next higher level of freedom. The prisoner in solitary confinement seeks not liberation from prison or a free life of leisure; he seeks and yearns for removal from solitary to non-solitary confinement, the next higher level of freedom.
Psychiatrist and former concentration camp inmate Victor Frankl, in his book From Death Camp to Existentialism, notes that the human psyche manages to absorb itself with the greatest problem facing it, irrespective of the objective seriousness of the problem.
Therefore, while we may demand an explanation for gross atrocity as the salient problem in theodicy, the removal of the existence of gross atrocity, while mitigating the problem, would not in itself remove the general, wider problem of evil.
Theodicy is actually a hierarchical problem ranging from a defense of God in the face of gross mass atrocity, through a defense of God in the face of the tear of a single child. Yet the fact that the removal of the existence of the severer forms of evil would only lead us to address lesser forms of evil does not free us philosophically from addressing the question first with regard to the grossest forms of evil apparent to us.43
Of all the philosophical challenges to theistic faith, none is more serious than that posed by evil. For theistic faith posits God to be omnipotent and omni-good. If God is omnipotent, God can prevent gratuitous evil. But gratuitous evil exists. Therefore God seemingly cannot be both omnipotent and all-benevolent. The removal of either one of these components, however, would be a fatal blow to traditional Jewish or Christian monotheism.
The challenges can be articulated in one short paragraph. Yet even the preliminaries to an answer require considerable development. This situation, not uncommon in philosophical issues, has the effect of giving the problem higher standing. In the thirteenth century Thomas Aquinas listed evil as one of the two chief intellectual obstacles to Christian faith, the other being man’s ability to explain the world without reference to a Creator.44
20.04 Formally Stated
More formally, the problem of evil can be reduced to an apparent contradiction within three propositions:
1. God is omnipotent/omniscient.
2. God is all-benevolent.
3. Gratuitous evil exists.
The truth of any two of the propositions renders the third seemingly impossible. To paraphrase Schulweis, when confronted with cool logic and remorseless evil, we are tempted to sacrifice elements of at least one of the first two classic propositions.
Invariably, the attempted exculpation of God defends a major aspect of perfection at the expense of another. Each type of theodicy is compelled to divest itself
of some vital part of mono-theistic belief in order to protect what it considers to be the more valued ideal. It is around that excluded aspect that the arguments
and counterarguments of theodicy are centered.
20.05 Defining Parameters
We will devote considerable attention to a particular area of omnipotence—“omniscience in the here-and-now,” an area not overly cultivated in theological formulations.
We posit that religious man, approaching the question of suffering, must first ask: Is omnipotent/omniscient God always watching in the here-and-now? If the answer is essentially “yes, always,” as most theologians affirm, one is tempted either to sacrifice elements of omnipotence or to put an infinite value on man’s freedom in a universe reigned over by a very stoic Divine. If not, one can do mental gymnastics from now until doomsday, but will encounter insurmountable logical obstacles that make it impossible to come up with an inclusive, satisfying answer.
If the answer to our initial question is “not always,” then there is some room for maneuver. However, the “not always” must be theologically justified and grounded. The “not always” must be reconciled with traditional religious concepts of omnipotence, omniscience, Providence, omnipresence, reward and punishment, and the biblical God clearly watching and interfacing with man in the here-and-now. The whys and wherefores of the “not always” must naturally be fully explicated and buttressed.
In general, those positing “not always” are challenged by folk wisdom, and those positing “always” are challenged by logic and emotion. Those positing “not always” must explain away numerous scriptural citations of an all-powerful (and, consequently, all-watching) God, and those positing “always” must also explain away various scriptural citations of Hester Panim ( `Hiding of the Divine Face’)—elaborated upon below.
Is the whole question of a theodicy appropriate? Immanuel Kant pointed out that if it is arrogant to defend God, it is even more arrogant to assail Him.46 Yet the Jew in particular, and religious man of reason in general, has always grappled with cosmic whys and wherefores. It is in part this grappling for authenticity which distinguishes religious man of reason from religious fanatic man, (moved by intense uncritical devotion) who is untroubled by reason.
30.00 THEODICY IN THE JEWISH TRADITION
For purposes of discussion, we divide traditional Jewish responses into seven major groupings. Many of these theodicies appear in related form in non-Jewish traditions.
I. Finite man cannot comprehend infinite God’s ways.
II. Man is punished for his sins, failings.
III. Hester Panim (God’s Hiding of the Face).
IV. Other mainstream traditional responses
V. Man is free.
VI. Kabbalistic responses.
VII. There currently is no answer.
Group I. Finite man cannot comprehend infinite God’s ways.
The underlying implicit theme of this group is that the universe is somehow better with apparent evil in it.47
Finite man cannot understand infinite God.48
God’s ways are inscrutable.49
God has His ultimate purposes known to Him. Man must have faith in God’s justice.50
God’s ways will be made understandable to us in the next world.51
Group II. Man is punished for his sins, failings.
The iniquities of the fathers are visited upon the sons (“vertical responsibility”).52
Man is punished in this world to increase his reward in the world-to-come.
There is no suffering without sin.53
All men are imperfect and sin in some way.54
Suffering is due to evil deeds or neglect of Torah study.55
Group III. Hester Panim
Hester Panim—hiding of the Divine face—a temporary abandonment of the world, a suspension of God’s active surveil-lance.56
This concept is almost never applied as a general response to theodicy, but rather as a response to a particular catastrophic series of events. Major attention is devoted to this theme later on.
Group IV A. Other mainstream traditional responses regarding the suffering of the tzaddik (“saintly” individual) in particular.
When permission is given to the angel of destruction, he makes no difference between righteous and wicked.57
The righteous man should have acted more forcefully in promoting righteousness or interceding for his people.
The tzaddik is held to a much higher standard.58
A tzaddik’s suffering is atonement for all the people.
The righteous will get their reward in the world-to-come.59
There are some merits for which God rewards in this world, and there are merits for which God bestows reward in the world-to-come.60
The tzaddik is “gathered in” prior to the appearance of great evil.61
Group IV. B. Other mainstream traditional responses regarding man in general
In recompense for his suffering, man will receive his reward in the world-to-come; man suffers in this world to purify him and clear his slate for the world to come; sins are forgiven through suffering.62
The individual is punished along with the rest of the community for communal sin (“horizontal responsibility”).63
The sin of Adam brought suffering upon the world.
The concept of yissurin shel ahavah—tribulations of love64—
to purify man, to ennoble man, to chasten man;65
to raise man to a higher level;66
to test man;67
through suffering comes redemption;68
to increase man’s reward in the world-to-come.69
To provoke man to reflect on his inadequacies and propel man to develop his potentiality.70
The process of Divine justice takes time and man must have patience.
Man is responsible for sin and suffering, not God.
Suffering is a discipline, warning men against sin. Suffering keeps man from committing the sin of “hubris.”
Suffering lessens the physical pride and selfish nature of the individual.71
Divine Providence is linked to piety and intellectual attainment, the absence of either leaving man vulnerable to evil.
Nature is morally neutral. Hashgachah (Providence) does not apply to acts of nature.
Group V. Freedom of man
Implied in this group, there are Self-willed constraints on God’s intervention to protect man’s freedom.
Man’s freedom must be protected, even at the expense of suffering.
Suffering is an indispensable spur to human aspiration and achievement. (This is similar to the [Christian] Irenaean theodicy and kabbalistic nahama dikissufa, a concept to be discussed below.)
Suffering pushes man over the brink to rise up against oppression, to demand freedom.72
Group VI. Kabbalistic responses
The complex kabbalistic response to evil incorporates the following concepts in combination: tsimtsum; “breaking of the vessels”; “dualities.”73
Group VII. There currently is no answer
There is no answer. However, the lack of an answer is held not to be a fatal flaw in the overall theology.74
We have no answer currently, but the answer will be clarified in the Messianic Era.75
The very fact that well over twenty major theodicies appear in various forms throughout Jewish literature reflects great dissatisfaction with any one existing theodicy. Our purpose, however, is not to critique all theodicies that have been previously suggested. We simply state that we personally do not find any given theodicy or combination of theodicies anywhere near fully satisfying—intellectually or emotionally. This is sufficient reason for us to search further.
Given its long history, one is unlikely to unearth the obvious, perfectly satisfying theodicy. Rather, the goal is to find or formulate a more satisfying theodicy. An examination of the seven groups of responses follows.
Group I. Finite man cannot comprehend infinite God’s ways:76 EXPLICATION
The classic biblical support cited by the proponents of this theodicy comes from the final chapter of Job. The Divine voice addresses Job:
Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? Declare if thou hast the understanding.
One possible interpretation is that “man’s suffering represents an infinitesimally small part of the cosmos. When the world is viewed from a perspective broader than man’s, the evil in it is not enough to call God’s rule into question.”77 The sentiment is echoed by the third-century sage Yannai: “It is not in our power to understand the suffering of the righteous or the well-being of the wicked.”78
Thus in Job, a book which Maimonides79 describes as a parable conceived for the purpose of articulating various theodicies,80 we find, among other theodicies, one attributed to God and seeming to deliver a message of ultimate unfathomability. Job seems to accept this answer only because of its unmediated Divine origin and the implied promise of ultimate good.81 Were it not for the Divine revelation out of the whirlwind, Job would continue to insist on the justness of his cause.82
It is unclear whether it is Job’s fate in particular which is unfathomable, or whether it is Job in particular who has no right to question his fate.83 Our study will later posit that when religious man finds himself in a vortex of suffering, it is not the appropriate time to commence moral protestations. In contrast, when man demands justice for others, as in the case of Abraham vis-à-vis the inhabitants of Sodom, moral protestations are most in order. Our study will also offer an alternative explanation for the Jobian finale—one which falls within the realm of “intelligibility,” as opposed to “unfathomability.”
Proponents of Group I theodicies, in any event, might cite the Jobian finale in support of their theses, as well as the events (exclusive of the finale) of the Akedat Yitzchak (Binding of Isaac) (Genesis 22:1-10). However, the theodicy of “unfathomability” of the Jobian finale has been on the defensive through most of the Book of Job. It is, moreover, a theodicy which remains isolated from any rational structure, and is strongly contradicted by an impressive array of scriptural texts, prophets, and authoritative rabbinic theologians. (see below)
Group I. Finite man cannot comprehend infinite God’s ways: CHALLENGE
The classic and possibly most commonly accepted theodicy is the finite/infinite defense. Finite man cannot be expected to understand the ways of infinite God. A closely related defense is the “inscrutability of God” formulation, which implies that almost by definition man cannot understand God. Despite their widespread acceptance, both assertions require scrutiny.
These theodicies are open to the charge that the moral character of God’s actions is compromised in order to preserve God’s ultimately unfathomable benevolence. “The moral con-notation of goodness is supplanted by amoral metaphysical or amoral personalistic meanings.”84
All the ingenuity spent on the solution of the problem of the theodicy will not convince us that evil is not real, that undeserved
suffering is so only in appearance, that life does not abound in irrationality and meaningless destruction.85
We may grant that in sum total God’s ways are infinite, mysterious, beyond the full scope of the finite mind, or inscrutable. However, that still does not mean that in God’s interaction with man, comprehensibility is not in order, if indeed not implicit in a convenantal relationship.86 Serious religious thought, from Abraham onwards, has never been quite satisfied with the “inscrutability” defense of any form of worship, be it idol worship or child sacrificing, in any classic religious doctrine. For those who adopt the “finite/infinite” defense take legitimate attributes of God—infinitude and inscrutability—and then take the most dangerous step of extending them into overriding grand philosophies. One would like to think that there is a firm distinction between serious religious philosophy and fanaticism.
Thus, while there is an important place in religious doctrine for the “finite/infinite” argument, in major areas of Divine-human relationship the defense is far from sufficient as a basis for serious religious commitment. For if the doctrine’s major argument is “inscrutability,” a point arrives rather early where, although doctrinal validity may indeed exist, adherence to the Covenant cannot be mandated except on moral—as opposed to intellectual—grounds. Certainly, except for areas specifically delineated as pure ritual, Judaism, of all religions, should very carefully explore alternative approaches before yielding to the “inscrutability’ defense in any area of religious doctrine, let alone regarding the fundamental interaction between God and man.
One may legitimately take the position that finite man cannot comprehend all the ways of infinite God. However, it is difficult for man to enter into a lifetime commitment to a religious system in which the incomprehensibility factor is paramount. The system adopted by one who is committed to uvahem nehege yomam valayla (“and thou shalt study them day and night”) must have a fairly solid theological underpinning. Religious man had best, to the absolute limits of human possibility, try to discern the comprehensible aspects in man’s relation to his deity.
One is advised to accept the existence of evil in God’s universe on the basis of a leap of faith, if the existing theodicies are found wanting. Yet leaps of faith are not easily introduced by Judaism. And leaps of faith, by definition, require faith in the leap. Judaism requires leaps of faith when not emotionally or intellectually infeasible. (see discussion below)
Halakhic man—the Jew committed to God’s law in this world—is not an emotional acrobat. He is averse to emotional acrobatics. And in a leap of faith emotion is crucial. Thus a leap of faith regarding the seemingly intractable dilemma of God and evil may be appropriate for some religions, but is quite inappropriate for Halakhic man.
Jewish doctrine is more prudent than most in its approach to leaps of faith, miracles, and prophets. It manifests a general wariness towards extending the supernatural into the mundane. The God of Israel is not seeking the fealty of the starry-eyed who are prepared to charge up the hill on a nod from the local guru. While Judaism is permeated by the transcendent, it is still a religion of carefully delineated law, carefully grounded in Divine texts.
It is a theology which seeks system and order wherever appropriate. It is averse to loose ends. Judaism has confidence that all doctrine is ultimately reconcilable; that all doctrine must be reconciled. And, notwithstanding the fact that all challenges are vigorously and meticulously parried, it is tacitly understood that the weak spots in its articulated philosophical structure must ultimately be resolved. If one cannot give an emotionally or intellectually coherent, satisfying answer to an eighteen-year-old, one has either failed somewhere or is erring somewhere.
Hayim Greenberg, in his article “In Dust and Ashes” (1940), stirringly presents the “finite/infinite defense.” He asserts that if a “man of faith” cannot accept injustice and suffering, then he simply does not believe. He concludes: “ . one who cannot praise God even as he sits in dust and ashes and has no explanation for his suffering, nor any sign from above—such a person is in the final analysis, not a believer.”
We differ from Greenberg’s line of reasoning. The witnessing of tragedy may lead to a questioning of one’s commitment. The issue is not necessarily a lack of sincerity, however, but the failure on the part of the religious establishment to reconcile man’s suffering with his inner yearning for genuine faith.
Greenberg maintains: “Religious thought must once and for all renounce rationalist interpretation and justification of the ways of God. There exists no science of God and no way of studying His ways. Religious man must learn from Job to believe without understanding, to trust without explanations.”87 Greenberg posits two types of man: (1) rationalist man, and (2) religious man.
Greenberg, however, seems not to differentiate between religious man and fanatic man. He seems to disregard halachic man, whose religious expression and philosophy is couched in the language of reason. Judaism treads very cautiously before demanding blind faith in any area.
Finite man may not be able to comprehend the infinite, but finite man can discern a logical assault on his senses. An internal logical dilemma is constructed by those positing a neo-Stoic Divine presiding over a world plagued by evil. Jewish law sanctifies life and is averse to the termination of the life of the suffering. Yet simultaneously, some mainstream elements in Orthodox theology postulate an omnipotent, all-benevolent God watching a million Jewish infants and five million adults being shot, starved, gassed, or burnt to death.88
Nachmanides (Ramban) addresses the adequacy of Group I (“finite/infinite defense”) theodicies in his The Gate of Reward:
You may ask us the following question: Since there is a hidden element in [Divine] judgment. why then do you trouble us to learn the previously explained arguments [theodicies] ? Why can we not thrust everything upon the belief [in the unfathomable], which we must ultimately rely on...? This is an argument of fools who despise wisdom.89
While Nachmanides does not reject the broader concept of the unfathomability of the Divine, he argues that chiyuv talmud Torah (“the obligation to study Torah”) requires us to seek to fathom those aspects of God’s governance of the world which are attainable to the intellect.90
A theology should be clear as to (1) which of its components require leaps of faith, (2) which of its components flow from reason, and (3) which of its components flow from generally accepted fact.
Regarding those components which require leaps of faith, theologians must be cautious. For whereas these can be stacked ever higher and higher, and “true believers” may be asked to take yet another leap, the theological balancing act appears increasingly more and more tenuous to the disinterested observer. The more tenuous a theological structure, the greater reliance a theological system will have to place on an emotional constituency, and the more likely it is to lose layer after layer of its more intellectual wing. In extreme cases a theological system can find itself bereft of “men of reason.”
Just as there are thresholds of pain, there are “leap of faith” thresholds. These are highly personal and individual. Judaism, in particular, has always been hard on theological systems requiring great numbers of presuppositions.