Saying that suffering is caused by sin blames the victim

Saying that suffering is caused by sin blames the victim

The movie “Noah” is generating global controversy even before its release. Bill Maher set the blogosphere alight when he ranted that the movie was “about a psychotic mass murderer who gets away with it, and his name is God.

“What kind of tyrant punishes everyone just to get back at the few he’s mad at?”

The question of why God allows the innocent to suffer is the most challenging in all religion. But while the Bible offers examples, like the flood, where sin is expressly identified as the cause of suffering, it is both foolhardy and blasphemous for humans ever to claim to know why people suffer, or to hold them accountable for their own agony. The man-is-sinful-God-is-just response is arrogant and sanctimonious, and provides small comfort for a parent who, say, God forbid, loses a 7-year-old child who obviously was without sin. After victims suffer some uncontrollable tragedy, rabbis and priests would inflict the final indignity against them by saying that either their suffering really is something good – but they are too blind to see it – or that they must be cleansed of wrongdoing. Rubbing people’s noses in their pain and misery is hardly a just response to tragedy.

One of the books that most changed my life was Elie Wiesel’s “The Town Beyond the Wall.” Mr. Wiesel is a man haunted by heartbreak – he lost most of his family in Auschwitz and survived that hell as a teenager. In his novel he introduces Elisha, a character modeled on himself, who wishes to return to Poland after the war in order to confront his gentile neighbor, who watched silently as the Jews of his town were herded together like sheep for the gas chambers. But it is clear that the neighbor is a metaphor for God Himself, who stood by watching silently as the Jews of Europe went to the crematoria. Elisha thunders against a creator who can allow such cruelty. But far from blaspheming or storming against God sacrilegiously, Elisha does so from a framework of faith. Where other religions advocate total submission to the divine will, the world “Israel” translates literally as “he who wrestles with God.” Mr. Wiesel has spent his life demanding accountability from a God who seemingly watches passively as evil triumphs.

Man need not bow his head in humble obedience in the face of seeming divine miscarriages of justice. The authentic response to suffering is to protest to God when He allows cruelty to dominate the earth. This is fully in the tradition of Abraham at Sodom and Moses at the Golden Calf. Both demand that God grant clemency even after the Almighty has declared a sinful party to be deserving of destruction.

In “The Town Beyond the Wall,” Mr. Wiesel introduces an astonishing character, Varady. This challenge to the Divine is perhaps best contained in this haunting figure, a former scholar who has become a recluse and emerges after many years of seclusion to preach a sermon to the town. “He emphasized the strength of man, who could bring the Messiah to obedience. He claimed that liberation from Time would be accomplished at the signal of man, and not of his Creator… ‘Each of you, the men and women who hear me, have God in his power, for each of you is capable of achieving a thing of which God is incapable!… [Man] will conquer heaven, earth, sickness, and death if he will only raze the walls that imprison the Will! And I who speak to you announce my decision to deny death, to repel it, to ridicule it! He who stands before you will never die!'”

It is a mark of our distance from authentic Judaism that many spiritual leaders teach us to succumb to circumstance and find meaning in suffering rather than challenge God to make things betters.

I remember so vividly how the Lubavitcher rebbe used to pound the table in front of thousands of people when he would hear of the deaths of Israeli soldiers, demanding of God, “Ad masai?” How much longer, Lord? How long will you be silent and when will you send the Messiah and push death from the earth?” The rebbe never was compliant. He always was defiant.

What God wishes of us is not to make peace with disease and death but to work strenuously toward a blessed messianic future. As another of Mr. Wiesel’s characters, Pedro, declares, “The dialogue – or… duel… between man and his God doesn’t end in nothingness. Man may not have the last word, but he has the last cry.” Redemption from suffering is discovered only when we protest to God against it, and the most effective way of dealing with suffering is to extend ourselves to other humans in friendship and compassion. This includes never allowing another to suffer in silence, and never blaming people for the misfortune that may befall them. God is omnipotent. He does not need mankind’s defense. But humans are vulnerable and we must all run to each other’s rescue.

About a year ago I listened to a renowned rabbi lecture in Englewood to a crowd of educated modern Orthodox Jews about the Holocaust. He said the genocide of the Jews was punishment for Jewish abandonment of God and tradition. He said that the Jews of Europe had become corrupt and secular, materialistic and self-centered. God sent the Nazis to punish them. He then hit his high note. The proof of this truth, he said, was the Jewish women who were forced to take off their clothes before going into the crematoria. Many paraded around in front of the German guards, uninhibited and unashamed. That’s how far from the Jewish laws of modesty they had strayed.

Jewish women, condemned to death, were being defamed by a man who had never met them. And rather than protest, we all sat in blissful silence.

It’s time to make some noise.