Why Do Bad Things Happen?

In the World? In my Life?

An exploration of Theodicy
with Dan Medwin for Mishpacha at Or Ami

Theodicy (n) thee-ah-duh-see
/

• A vindication of the divine attributes, especially justice and holiness, in respect to the existence of evil. - Oxford English Dictionary • Theodicy is a branch of theology that studies how the existence of a good or benevolent God is reconciled with the existence of evil. - Wikipedia • In other words, why would a good God let bad things happen? Or if bad things happen, how can God be good?

Theodicy asks:
What is God’s role when bad things happen?
Some Jewish texts suggest that bad things come from God:

• “I form light and create darkness, I make peace and
create woe - I, Adonai, do all these things.” - Isaiah 45:7

• “Good and bad, life and death, poverty and wealth
come from God.”

- Ben Sira*, 11:14

* An apocryphal book, written at the same time as some of the later books of the Bible, often quoted in Talmudic and other Rabbinic writings.

Theodicy
It is a challenging belief that God causes bad things to happen. When we ask this question, however, there are certain assumptions we make. By looking at these assumptions, we can gain a more clear idea of the challenges associated with the question of God’s role in bad things.

Assumptions of Theodicy
Our first assumption is that bad events occur for a reason or have a meaning for happening, and that somehow God played a part. We also assume that God: • Knew about the event • Could have prevented it • Wants good for us So we call God: “Omniscient” or “All-Knowing” “Omnipotent” or “All-Powerful” “Benevolent” or “All-Good”

This leads to the question: If God knew about this bad thing, and could have prevented it, why did it happen?

Assumptions of Theodicy
Benevolent
(All-Good)

Omniscient
(All-Knowing)

If we believe that God is all three of these, we question why God would let something bad happen.

Omnipotent
(All-Powerful)

One way of addressing this question is through asking if perhaps God is only two of these three.

Assumptions of Theodicy
Benevolent
(All-Good)

Omniscient
(All-Knowing)

Perhaps God is not omnipotent and has limited power.
This is the approach taken by Rabbis Mordecai Kaplan and Harold Kushner. This can be understood by comparing God to the human brain and people to the human body. When we have aches and pains, we know they exist and we wish they didn’t, but we have limited power to stop them. However, this raises the question: Why pray to a God who is powerless?

Assumptions of Theodicy
Limited

Benevolent
(All-Good)

Perhaps God doesn’t know everything that is taking place.
This approach likens God to a superhero. God has great power and wishes nothing but good, but cannot be everywhere at once. However, if God is inside us, how can God not know what is happening to us?

Omnipotent
(All-Powerful)

Assumptions of Theodicy
Not Good
Perhaps God does not act in our best interest.
God might let bad things happen for reasons we cannot understand. However, if this is the case, how can we trust or rely upon God?

Omniscient
(All-Knowing)

Omnipotent
(All-Powerful)

Assumptions of Theodicy
Benevolent
(All-Good)

Omniscient
(All-Knowing)

Removing any of these do not seem particularly helpful or desirable.

Omnipotent
(All-Powerful)

As Judaism has grown and developed, more explanations of theodicy have emerged.

Jewish texts can give us a range of understandings for why bad things happen. Some texts may represent concepts that are no longer believed, but are presented to show the growth of Jewish thought. Many texts offer compelling perspectives that may help us think about the issue of theodicy. As you read through these texts, consider the following: • How do these texts explain the reason for bad things? • If something bad happens to me or my family, - What does this say about God, or - How does my understanding of God change? If any text is too difficult, you are welcome to skip it. There are ten texts in total. You do not need to read each one. It is recommended that you read the texts with an adult partner, and discuss the texts and the questions as you go.

Texts:

a
aleph

;b
bet

g

d

h
hay

w
vav

z
zion

j
chet

f
tet

y
yod

gimmel dalet

God causes suffering either as punishment or for our own betterment.

When a person is suffering, he should examine his conduct. If, upon examining it, he finds wrongdoing, let him repent. If, upon, examining his conduct, he finds no wrongdoing, let him attribute his suffering to his neglect of the study of Torah. If he discovers that this could not be the cause of his suffering, let him be certain that his suffering is the chastening* of God’s love. As it is written, ‘Whom God loves, God chastens*; Just as a father chastens* the son whom he loves.’ (Proverbs 3:12) ! ! ! ! ! !
Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 5a

* “Chasten” is used here in the sense of a purifying punishment, or a reprimand for the sake of betterment. “It’s for your own good.”

Texts:

a
aleph

;b
bet

g

d

h
hay

w
vav

z
zion

j
chet

f
tet

y
yod

gimmel dalet

God causes pain, or pain is necessary, for an ultimate good.

The more we believe that God hurts only to heal, the less we can believe that there is any use in the begging for tenderness.... Suppose that what you are up against is a surgeon whose intentions are wholly good. The kinder and more conscientious he is, the more inexorably he will go on cutting. If he yielded to your entreaties, if he had stopped before the operation was complete, all the pain up to that point would be useless. But it is credible that such extremities of torture should be necessary for us. Well, take your choice. The tortures occur. If they are unnecessary, then there is no God or a bad one. If there is a good God, then these tortures are necessary. For no even moderately good Being could possibly inflict or permit them if they weren’t. ! ! ! - C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed
Note: While not actually Jewish, C. S. Lewis eloquently expresses a Jewish view.

Texts:

a
aleph

;b
bet

g

d

h
hay

w
vav

z
zion

j
chet

f
tet

y
yod

gimmel dalet

Challenges in life can be a gifts, if we are able to view them as such.

When a disaster befalls us, we have the option to withdraw or to attempt to transform the experience into a teacher for ourselves, our friends, our families, and our communities. Our personal disaster may not only be our gift, it may sometimes be another’s gift as well. It is our obligation to discover these gifts and give them to others. Debbie Friedman,
composer, liturgist, and performer, “Shattered and Whole” in Lifecycles, Volume 2 Debbie Friedman has composed many melodies and prayers regularly used in Reform Jewish services.

Texts:

a
aleph

;b
bet

g

d

h
hay

w
vav

z
zion

j
chet

f
tet

y
yod

gimmel dalet

Bad things can come from people and/or can be stopped by people.

-When a poor person dies of hunger, it has not happened because God did not to take care of him or her. It has happened because neither you nor I wanted to give that person what he or she needed. -Mother Teresa -Now it is the specific mission of that Jew to free the entrapped holy sparks from the grip of the forces of evil by means of Torah study and prayer. Once the holy sparks are released, evil, having lost its lifegiving core, will cease to exist. -Rabbi Yehuda Aryeh Leib Alter of Ger -If God stopped every human act of evil, we would essentially have no free will. Furthermore, if God always intervened to help or save us, humanity would never learn how to do so on our own. -Dan Medwin

Texts:

a
aleph

;b
bet

g

d

h
hay

w
vav

z
zion

j
chet

f
tet

y
yod

gimmel dalet

The evil impulse in humans can be used for good if we manage it properly.

Rabbi Nachman son of Rabbi Hisda said: God created two yetzers (two impulses) in humanity: the impulse to good and the impulse to evil.! ! ! ! ! ! Talmud, Berachot 61a How can the [human] impulse for evil be considered “very good?” Because the Torah teaches us that were it not for the impulse for evil, a man would not build a house, take a wife, beget children, or engage in commerce. All such activities come, as Solomon noted, “from a man’s rivalry with his neighbor.”! ! ! Talmud, Genesis Rabbah 9:7

Texts:

a
aleph

;b
bet

g

d

h
hay

w
vav

z
zion

j
chet

f
tet

y
yod

gimmel dalet

Human acts of evil are ultimately God’s responsibility because God created us with free will and the capacity for evil.
A Midrash (Rabbinic Story) on Cain & Abel
! (Background: Cain killed his brother, Abel, after God accepted Abel’s sacrifice over Cain’s)

Then God said to him, “Where is Abel, your brother?”
He responded, “I don’t know. Am I my brother’s keeper? You are the one who watches over all humanity, yet you seek him from my hand?” A parable is told: A thief stole some vessels one night and was not caught. In the morning the gatekeeper apprehended him, and asked “Why did you steal the vessels?” He responded, “I’m a thief and I have not abandoned my trade. But you, whose trade is to guard the gate, why did you set your trade aside? And now you ask this of me?!” Thus Cain declared, “I killed him. You created in me the capacity for evil. You watch over all, yet you allowed me to kill him. You’re the one who killed him, you who are called ‘I’. For if you had accepted my sacrifice as you did his, I wouldn’t have been jealous of him.” Immediately God replied to him, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood cries out.” Midrash Tanhuma
Font indicates source: Biblical and Rabbinic/Midrash

Texts:

a
aleph

;b
bet

g

d

h
hay

w
vav

z
zion

j
chet

f
tet

y
yod

gimmel dalet

What we perceive as “bad” is just the reality of the physical world. We accept certain risks for the benefits of the physical world.

-According to Maimonides, natural disasters have no explanation other than that God, by placing us in a physical world, set life within the parameters of the physical. Planets are formed, tectonic plates shift, earthquakes occur, and sometimes innocent people die. To wish it were otherwise is in essence to wish that we were not physical beings at all. Then we would not know pleasure, desire, achievement, freedom, virtue, creativity, vulnerability and love. - Rabbi Jonathan Sacks -Whenever, then, anything in nature seems to us ridiculous, absurd, or evil, it is because we have but a partial knowledge of things and are in the main ignorant of the order and coherence as a whole, and because we want everything to be arranged according to the dictates of our own reason.!! ! ! ! ! ! Baruch Spinoza, A Political Treatise, 2:8, p. 295

Texts:

a
aleph

;b
bet

g

d

h
hay

w
vav

z
zion

j
chet

f
tet

y
yod

gimmel dalet

Evil may be a part of a larger picture that we are unable to see or comprehend.
How great are Your deeds, Adonai, Your thoughts are very deep. The ignorant man does not comprehend them, nor does the fool understand them. When the wicked spring up like grass, and workers of iniquity flourish, It is that they may be destroyed forever… The righteous shall flourish like the palm tree, and grow mighty like a cedar of Lebanon… To declare that Adonai is upright, my Rock in Whom there is no unrighteousness.! Psalm 92:6-8,13,16

If it seems like the evil are succeeding, it is only because you are not looking at the big picture. If a palm tree and grass were planted on the same day, the grass would appear to be the strongest and fastest growing. However, in the long term, the grass will die quickly and the palm will last for more than a generation.!
Harold Kusher, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.” p. 13

Texts:

a
aleph

;b
bet

g

d

h
hay

w
vav

z
zion

j
chet

f
tet

y
yod

gimmel dalet

Sometimes an act or occurrence which seems to be evil or a form of punishment, can actually result in something positive.

A young man, full of energy and curiosity, sets off to explore the woods around his home. Having a great time playing and climbing trees, he thanks God for nature and his ability to appreciate it. Suddenly, the young man falls and breaks his leg. He experiences great pain and tries to understand why, if he was thanking God and enjoying God’s creation, would he be punished in such a way. He struggles to return home, limping the whole way, only to find soldiers at his door looking to draft young men into the king’s army. Because of his broken leg, the man avoids having to join the army and fight in a battle which would surely lead to his death.
from Jewish Folk Tale

Texts:

a
aleph

;b
bet

g

d

h
hay

w
vav

z
zion

j
chet

f
tet

y
yod

gimmel dalet

When something seems bad/wrong, it could have been worse.
An elderly couple lives in a small shack with a lone cow as their only source of food and income. Everyday the old man milks the cow, saves some for the couple, and tries to sell the rest. They barely have enough to live on, but they appreciate their lives and each other. One day a beggar comes to the door asking for food. Even though the elderly couple has so little, they are eager to offer what they can. The beggar is touched by their kindness and promises that God will reward them. That evening, unexpectedly, the cow dies. The elderly man and woman are heartbroken and don’t know how they will go on. They cry out to God, “How could you let our only source of food and income die like this? Are we not good people?” Just then, the beggar returns, only instead of the rags of a beggar, he is wearing a black cloak. He says to the elderly woman, “I must introduce myself again. I am the Angel of Death and I was instructed to come take your husband. Only, when I met you, I was so touched by your kindness that I took the cow instead of your husband.” from Jewish Folk Tale

There are many possible explanations to draw from these texts, such as:

a (aleph): God causes suffering for a purpose,
either as punishment or for our betterment. ;b (bet): God causes pain, or pain is necessary, for an ultimate good. g (gimmel): Challenges in life can be a gift for us and others, if we are able to view them from a different perspective. d (dalet): Bad things can come from people and/or can be stopped by people. h (hay): The evil impulse in people can actually be used for good if we properly manage it. w (vav): Human acts of evil are ultimately God’s responsibility because God created us with free will and the capacity for evil. z (zion): What we perceive as “bad” is just the reality of the physical world. We accept certain risks for the benefits of the physical world. j (chet): Bad things may be a part of a larger picture that we are unable to see or comprehend. f (tet): Sometimes an act or occurrence which seems to be bad or a form of punishment, can actually result in something positive. y (yod): When something seems bad/wrong, it could have been worse. (i.e. it may be better than the alternative)

As we analyze the explanations our tradition has given us, we might find they tend to fit into three different categories:
1. Bad Things come from God 2. Bad Things are people’s responsibility 3. Answers are difficult to find
Consider that some explanations may resonate more than others. Different explanations may be applicable in different situations. And, in any given situation, one or more may be relevant.

1. BAD THINGS COME FROM GOD:
•As a punishment (for deeds in this life) • It is actually something positive:
• It is gift to the righteous (to purify, cleanse, remove sin) • We can learn from the pain (like touching a hot stove) • It is a lesson/process that involves pain (like riding a bike and falling off, or surgery metaphor) • It motivates us to do good (Tikkun Olam - Repairing the World) • God created an imperfect world so we can join in the act of completing it (Messianic age) • Bad things help us to appreciate the good things.

• It is a part of a bigger plan that we don’t understand:
• It may even be good for us in the end (man’s broken leg -> not drafted into army) • It could have been worse (cow dying instead of husband)

2. BAD THINGS ARE PEOPLE’S RESPONSIBILITY
• Sometimes we cause it (not God)
• Through a capacity for evil and Free Will • Through inaction or apathy

• It is our responsibility to try to learn and grow from difficult experiences. “We do not know how to solve the problem of evil, but we are not exempt from dealing with evils.”
- Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man

3. ANSWERS ARE DIFFICULT TO FIND
Some say that God tests us and only gives us what we can handle. To this Rabbi Kushner responds: “If God is testing us, He must know by now that many of us fail the test. If He is only giving us burdens we can bear, I have seen him miscalculate far too often.”
- Rabbi Harold S. Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People

Personal Response and Note:
It is interesting to note that the title of Rabbi Harold Kusher’s famous book on this issue is not called “Why do Bad Things Happen to Good People,” rather “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.” It’s not about finding answers, per se, as much as it is about determining responses. Sometimes the answers we seek and find can help, although often they cannot be heard by anyone who is in agony or pain. Furthermore, we can ultimately never prove any of these answers, and so one of our most powerful responses is simply to be there for the one another, especially for the ones who suffer. In this way, we are sure to bring God into the situation, through the acts of our own hands. Dan Medwin, 12/2007

Crying Out “Why?!”
“Why” need not be construed as soliciting theoretical or empirical information but may be heard as a terrifying cry of distress. “Why” in this instance is equivalent to “woe.” To this outcry the proper response in not a scientific or theological explanation but a compassionate arm around the other’s shoulders. Harold M. Schulweiss,
Evil and the Morality of God

Sometimes we don’t want or need answers, we just need someone to be there, to love us, and to listen to us.
This is one of the most important understandings of theodicy.

Family Activity - Please engage your children in an ageappropriate discussion using the guide below: 1. Consider a difficult situation in your child(ren)’s lives or your family that might be addressed by one of the texts or explanations. 2. Explain this understanding to your child through a story, metaphor, letter, or example.
i.e. show how an understanding of theodicy can help us to understand or cope with difficult events.

3. Remind your child that regardless of the explanation, we cannot know the ultimate reason or cause. Therefore, you will be there for them and you love them no matter what.

TRAVEL JOURNAL
STRUGGLING WITH GOD

Session 7: Travel Journal Theodicy - Why bad things happen
Please write up your family’s answers to these questions and email or give to Sara and Dan

Children questions: - What did you learn from your parents’ letter or story? - Does this help you understand God or bad things differently? Parent(s) questions: - What was difficult about this process? (e.g. Writing the letter/story? Sharing it? Thinking about difficult events in your own life?) Why? For Everyone: Brainstorm some people that you know personally who have had something difficult recently happen in their lives. - How can your family be there for them in their time of need?

End

Dan Medwin, 2007

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