Friday, December 24, 2010

Parsha Shemot: How Do We Explain Evil Commited by Man?

Theodicy, or the defense of G-d’s goodness and omnipotence in the face of evil, is unquestionably one of the biggest challenges to religion. If G-d is all-loving and all-powerful, how can He permit man to commit evil acts? Although that question is disturbing for anyone who has been raised in Western society, this question is all the more perturbing for a Jew, especially when one considers the existence of anti-Semitism. A vast majority of Jews believe in a personal G-d. In addition to a personal G-d, many Jews believe that they are “G-d’s chosen people” and were given the Torah as a gift. If the people Israel were to be considered G-d’s first born son (Exodus 4:22), why would G-d not protect the Jewish people from the persecution and violence caused by Jew hatred?

During the first incidence of anti-Semitism, which was the Egyptian enslavement of the Hebrew slaves, Moses asked the very same question (Exodus 5:22):

 וַיָּשָׁב מֹשֶׁה אֶל-יְהוָה, וַיֹּאמַר:  אֲדֹנָי, לָמָה הֲרֵעֹתָה לָעָם הַזֶּה--לָמָּה זֶּה, שְׁלַחְתָּנִי.

Moses is not only establishing the Jewish imperative to struggle with G-d, and thus question G-d. As Rabbenu Hananel ben Hushiel points out in his commentary of Exodus 5:22, Moses was also asking why the innocent (i.e., the Israelites) were suffering while the wicked (i.e., the Egyptians) were prospering. A more modern-day example of this question would undeniably have to be the Holocaust. Mothers thrown into ovens, babies used for target practice, and human beings treated worse than cattle.  It shocks the human psyche as to how man can be so depraved and cruel.

It doesn’t matter whether we analyze the suffering of a Jew or non-Jew. Since we are all created in His Image, we are all sentient beings, and thus all capable of suffering. However, I do choose Jewish examples for two reasons. The first is that we are analyzing Torah, and the second is that anti-Semitism is the deepest, longest-lasting, most universal hatred out there. If any group of people knows about suffering evil at the hands of man, it would be the Jews.

How do we deal with this internal angst? The Book of Job best illustrates this issue, and thus gives us the framework for dealing with theodicy:

A) G-d is all-loving

B) G-d is all-knowing and all-powerful

C) Job, or whomever is in question, is blameless

Since man causes others to suffer, these assumptions have to be questioned. Here are some possibilities as to explain the incongruity:

1) “The L-rd works in mysterious ways.” This is the conclusion that is reached at the end of the Book of Job, as well as Pirke Avot 4:19. I have two main issues with this line of thinking. The first is that it is a cop-out. When this answer is typically given by theists, you can see how uncomfortable the question makes them, and how they don’t want to question G-d. My second issue, and the much more disturbing one, is that the Torah is supposed be a blueprint as to how one should live their life. It teaches about love, righteousness, justice, and proper behavior. Abraham held G-d to this standard when questioning why G-d was going to destroy Sodom.  Moses questions G-d in this week’s Torah portion, as well as many other places.  If G-d is using a different standard, then G-d is not properly teaching us truth when presenting lessons in the Torah.  If G-d is not truly teaching us about love and righteousness, there would be no point to religion or proper behavior.  We would not have the ability to assert anything about religion, which would make religion a pointless theoretical exercise.

2) G-d is evil. That certainly is a theoretical possibility. It certainly is inconsistent with Jewish thought. But what is evil? Evil is depriving an individual of something. Whether it is taking money, self-esteem, or a life, one commits evil because of a personal deficiency. Since G-d’s infinite nature makes him One [and complete], thereby being perfect, G-d has no reason to take anything from anybody. Therefore, G-d is not evil.

3) G-d is not all-knowing or all-powerful. Again, we have to address the nature of G-d. G-d is infinite. Since G-d is infinite, He created space and time. Since G-d does not exist in either realm, He is also omnipresent. Omnipresence means cognizance of what’s going on, which leads to omniscience. As for omnipotence, I have a slightly different view on that which has no bearing on this conversation. However, if one is to claim that G-d is powerless to help, then why bother asking the question in the first place?  It G-d is not all knowing or all-powerful, then there would be no expectations [of G-d], and the question would thus be superfluous.  Evil wouldn’t exist—only the relativistic view of “one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist.”

4) G-d’s justice is in full gear. This view is best summarized in “They got what they deserved.” Rav Huna (Talmud, Berachot 5a) certainly thought that if an individual were suffering, they would need to examine their conduct to explain their suffering. With the infanticide that happened during the Book of Exodus and the Holocaust, that is certainly a difficult view to maintain with a straight face.

5) "No pain, no gain." This is comes from the theocentric viewpoint that if G-d gave us life, which is supposed to have meaning, then pain and suffering should also have meaning.  As David Baum points out in the previously hyperlinked article, G-d provides you with everything you need, and there is no suffering that you cannot handle.  This means that G-d is the direct cause of that which happens in your life, something that one would classify as "tough love."  This argument has its flaws, and it would naturally depend on to what extent you think G-d involves Himself.  If you think that G-d is the direct cause of everything, He then becomes the direct cause of evil.  If you think that G-d involves Himself sometimes, an observer would have to conclude that He is capricious since the execution of justice and love are inconsistently applied.  Why would He help you with your math quiz, but not help the terminally ill cancer patient who has been an overall force of good in this world? 

6) The free will argument.  Considering the predominant viewpoint of a personal G-d in Judaism, this argument is only brought up by Jewish arch-rationalists such as Maimonides, Spinoza, and Abraham ben Izra.  In Jewish thought, free will has always been at odds with a personal G-d.  If I had to choose between a personal G-d and G-d giving us the ever-important gift of free will, I would take free will any day.  Here's why free will is so important to Judaism.  If we have no free will (i.e., everything is pre-determined by G-d or we acted merely out of instinct and compulsion), it would be, as Rabbi Telushkin puts it, as non-sensible for G-d to give us the Torah and tell us how to behave as it would be to have a law commanding people to run a four-minute mile, which would be unfair for [just about] everybody.  Unlike Christianity, Judaism puts so much emphasis on man's actions, and believes that we can overcome our tendencies to commit evil (Genesis 4:7).  Without free will, there would be no point to Torah.  There would be no reason to repent.  In short, there would be no reason to Judaism.

In terms of explaining why man can commit so much evil, the free will argument is the best argument out there.  In order for free will to exist in its true form, that means allowing man to do whatever he wants.  That means if we have the right to choose the ultimate good, then we also have the right to choose the ultimate evil.  Without evil, we cannot know what good is.  Freedom is a double-edged sword.  In order for the ultimate good to exist, the ultimate evil would need the ability to exist, as well.

Let's take the Cain and Abel story, an example of where an individual's free will wiped out a fourth of humanity.  Cain ultimately killed Abel.  If G-d were to intervene [and had indeed intervened], He would a lot of explaining to do since He had explained to Cain earlier that he had free will to overcome his desire to kill Abel (ibid).

If G-d does indeed value giving mankind with free will, which R. Sforno explains is what it means to be "created in His image," more so than He does by sheltering humans from pain, then we have to accept the real possibility that G-d is indeed impersonal.  This doesn't necessarily mean that G-d is indifferent to our pain.  Like a parent, G-d is disappointed when His children make the wrong choice.  But like a good parent, G-d would rather have the child learn "the hard way" so that the child can ultimately stand on their two feet.  For a parent, watching a child grow up to be a self-sufficient, morally sound individual is what the parent wants.  Coddling the child for his entire life won't help the child grow.

Free will and the ability to grow and progress.  These are the ultimate gifts that G-d endowed human beings with at humanity's inception.  The potential that the gift has can go either way.  May we use the gift of free will to actualize the ultimate good!

שבת שלום!


  1. I have a problem with some of your problems. 1. "Mysterious Ways". Ultimately, G-d is Infinite. We are not. If G-d's ways seem "mysterious" then it is because we do not have the capacity to understand the mind of the Infinite Being. So we could not rely on His actions which are unfathomable in their infinite-ness as a source of inspiration on how to behave. We must therefore rely on how he tells us to act.

    2. "G-d is evil". You have spoken about G-d's Oneness in other posts, so I actually found this idea odd. IF G-d is One, he is not both Good and Evil, Loving and Hating, Kind and Harsh. These are all descriptions that indicate multiplicity of person(ality). G-d can't be only kind because that would imply that G-d lacks harshness and vis versa. And He has no lacking. G-d can't be evil because by definition of His Oneness, he can't be evil. There can only be Him and our subjective observation of the result of His actions. And without intent can something be called evil?

    4. "G-d;s Justice". It's not so hard to maintain a straight face when you bring reincarnation into the equation.

    5. "No pain no gain". Contrast your argument with Berachos 5a where it speaks about
    יסורין של אהבה.

    I don't think there is one blanket answer to every instance. But at least with regards to Egypt we have the verse in 1Kings 8:51
    כי עמך ונחלתך הם אשר הוצאת ממצרים מתוך כור הברזל
    The iron crucible of Egpyt was the refining of imperfections in order to create the Nation of Israel.

    1. Dear Why Kay,

      In response to #1: I would imagine that if G-d, the most objective of all beings, were going to set standards, His actions would best reflect said standards. But it's ultimately irrelevant because this makes the assumption that G-d is a personal G-d. You already posted on my blog entry about literal interpretation, so you know that I would postulate that when Tanach says "G-d does X, Y, or Z," it is not meant to be taken literally.

      In response to #2: I "have a problem with some of my problems," which is why I ultimately concluded at the end of this blog that much of evil can be explained by G-d granting us free will. I brought it up in the first place because others have opined that "G-d is evil because evil exists." I end up dismissing the "G-d is evil" argument because I don't find it has merit.

      In response to #4: If there were proof that reincarnation exists, then yes, reincarnation would certainly be a way to explain injustice. However, you assume so with "facts not in evidence."

      In response to #5: Still not seeing how יסורין של אהבה applies to children, especially infants.

      To reiterate, my conclusion is that if G-d wanted to create angels, He would have. However, He created human beings with free will, which means they have the ability to commit good acts and evil acts. Thus, the free will argument best explains why bad things happen to good people.

    2. I have to search for each individual post I made, so sorry if there is some redundancy.

      I am ultra-orthodox, so I do take reincarnation for fact. However, I think denying the existence of reincarnation limits G-d's ability.

      For instance, there can be no limiting factors to G-d's ability to execute Justice. However, if a child is killed by an act of evil, then without reincarnation/life after death, we have limited G-d's ability to recompense the child for injustices done to him. Also, by allowing an injustice to occur, G-d becomes party to it, since ultimately He has the ability to prevent it.
      Therefore there must be some alternative means to balance the scales. Otherwise we must call G-d unjust. Your answer would be an impersonal G-d. The problem is that this does not circumvent the issue of G-d's omnipotence making Him a part to every action.

      יסורין של אהבה would be an example where as the Talmud says, there were no sins, but the person still suffers. This defines a child who is sinless.

    3. My response to the "issue of G-d's omnipotence" would be similar to that of Gersonides, i.e., G-d doesn't necessarily have omnipotence, or alternatively, having the power to do something doesn't translate into actually doing it.

      But with regards to reincarnation there certainly is a compelling argument that can be made in favor of reincarnation, which is why I cannot rule it out as a possibility.