Last week I was honored to speak to the Jewish community of Venice, Italy. Having just returned from Haiti, I addressed the issue of why a good God allows the innocent to suffer. I was amazed when an observant Jew approached me to say that the people of Haiti were not innocent, immersed as they are in voodoo, witchcraft, and idol-worship.
Truth regardless of consequences I said, “Surely you don’t mean to say that the morgue filled with the babies that I witnessed, the stench so bad that I was gagging, deserved to die? Or that the discarded bodies I saw being eaten by scavenger dogs deserved their fate?” His response: The people of Haiti as a whole were punished. A similar sentiment had earlier been voiced by the Rev. Pat Robertson on The 700 Club.
I have always been puzzled as to why many religious people enjoy portraying God as executioner-in-chief and are always finding reasons to justify human suffering. When Abraham is informed by God of His intention to annihilate Sodom and Gomorrah, he protests human suffering and challenges God. Raising his hands to the heavens he exclaims, “Shall the Judge of the entire earth not practice justice?”
When God informs Moses that He will exterminate the Jews after the sin of the Golden Calf, Moses tells God, “If so, remove my name from the Torah.” I will risk severing my relationship with a God who seemingly practices cruelty. Yet, when New Orleans was nearly wiped off the map by Katrina, many religious people said it was punishment for the sexual immorality of Bourbon Street.
The Holocaust produced two camps of Jews. Many decided that the Jews had been punished for intermarriage and wanting to be secular. But others had a more authentically Jewish response. They rejected any theological justification or self-blame and set to work even harder toward the creation of a Jewish state where Jews would find refuge and build an army to prevent another genocide.
The appropriate response to death is always life. And the Jewish response to suffering is to demand that God put an end to it.
So many people search for a reason why people suffer. They want to redeem tragedy by giving it meaning. Suffering ennobles the spirit, they say. It makes you more mature. It helps you focus on what’s important in life.
I would argue that suffering has no purpose, no redeeming qualities, and any attempts to infuse it with rich significance are deeply misguided.
Of course, suffering can lead ultimately to a positive outcome. The rich man who had contempt for the poor and suddenly loses his money can become more empathetic when he himself struggles. The arrogant executive who treats her subordinates like dirt can soften when she is told that she, God forbid, has breast cancer. But does it have to come about this way? Is suffering the only way to learn goodness?
Jewish values maintain that there is no good that comes from suffering that could not have come through a more blessed means. Some people win the lottery and are so humbled that they dedicate a huge portion to charity. Yes, Tiger Woods confessed to the corruption that came through his celebrity. But a rock star like Bono becomes rich and famous and consecrates his wealth and fame to the relief of poverty. The Holocaust led to the creation of the State of Israel, I agree. But there are plenty of nations who came into existence without being preceded by gas chambers.
Here is another way that Jewish values are so strongly distinguished from other value systems. Many religions believe that suffering is redemptive. In Christianity, the suffering servant, the crucified Christ, brings atonement for the sins of mankind through his own torture. The message: No suffering, no redemption. Someone has to die so that the sins of mankind are erased. Suffering is therefore extolled in the Christian Scriptures. “And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.” (Romans) Again, “If we are being afflicted, it is for your consolation and salvation; if we are being consoled, it is for your consolation, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we are also suffering.” (Corinthians) Indeed, Paul even made suffering an obligation, encouraging the fledging Christians to “share in suffering like a good soldier of Christ Jesus.”
But Judaism, in prophesying a perfect messianic future where there is no death or pain, ultimately rejects the suffering-is-redemptive narrative. Suffering isn’t a blessing, it’s a curse. Suffering leaves you bitter rather than blessed, scarred rather than humble. Few endure suffering without serious and lasting trauma. Suffering leads to a tortured spirit and a pessimistic outlook. It scars our psyches and creates a cynical consciousness, devoid and bereft of hope. It makes us envious of other people’s happiness. If individuals do become better people as a result of their suffering, it is despite the fact that they suffered, not because of it. Ennoblement of character comes through triumph over suffering rather than its endurance.
Speak to a Holocaust survivor like Elie Wiesel and ask what he gathered from his suffering aside from loneliness, heartbreak, and a sense of outrage. To be sure, survivors also learned the value of life and the sublime quality of human companionship. Wiesel is an incredibly profound man. But these lessons, this depth, could easily have been learned through life-affirming experiences that do not leave all of one’s relatives as ash.
My parents’ divorce drove me to a deeper understanding of life and a greater embrace of religion. Yet, I know people who have led completely privileged lives and have far deeper philosophies of life and are more devoted to their religion than me. And they have the advantage of not being bitter, cynical, or pessimistic the way I can sometimes be because of the pain of my early childhood.
As rabbi at Oxford University, I noticed that the college students I knew who were raised in homes in which their parents gave them huge amounts of love and attention were the most healthy and balanced of all. They were, usually, also the best students. Those who were demeaned by their parents could also be positive and loving, but a Herculean effort was first needed to undo the scarring inflicted upon them by parental neglect.
Whatever good we as individuals, or the world in general, receives from suffering can be brought about in a painless, joyful manner. And it behooves people of faith, especially, to once-and-for-all cease justifying the death of innocents and instead rush to comfort and aid the survivors.