Look up ‘theodicy’ in the dictionary, and you will likely come across a quotation from John Milton’s famous epic poem Paradise Lost. Milton, in the opening lines of the poem, sets out to “justify the ways of God to man.” Justification - because of the persistent presence of evil and suffering in the world.
Theodicy attempts to answer the question – whether we talk about the pain of a three year old with a hang-nail or the loss of millions in the Holocaust – why does suffering exist? Milton may devote twelve long books to the question, but never does provide a definite answer, perhaps because he understood that some things remain “invisible to mortal sight,” and perhaps even, “unlawful to reveal.” He even imagines the poetic muse, usually the benevolent source of classical inspiration, tearing him to pieces, for going too far in his speculation about God’s ways.
By contrast, our contemporary Jewish theologians in Israel, if you can even call them that, show no such hesitation in sharing their knowledge about God’s ways. In the latest development, Rabbi Elyakim Levanon, the Chief Rabbi of Samaria, in response to the fires that swept across Israel last week, offers his justification of God’s ways: weather and fires that have plagued Israel are “divine punishment.” Levanon is only the latest of rabbinical retribution champions: in 2005 Rabbi Ovadia Yosef claimed that Hurricane Katrina was ‘God's punishment’ for American support for Israel's disengagement from Gaza.
Now in 2016, according to Levanon, homeowners in Zikhron Yaakov, Haifa and Beit Meir have endured loss of property or rendered homeless because of the government’s planned evacuation of West Bank settlements, especially Amona, the illegal settlement slated for evacuation in less than a month. If only the Regulation Bill, the Knesset move to legalize outposts in the West Bank had already passed, Levanon assures us, then maybe the nation would have been saved from the punishment of the current wave of fires. “Until the threat of eviction is lifted,” he prophetically intones, “no rain will fall.” But the day the bill is passed, “that very day the rains of blessing will begin to fall.”
Notwithstanding Levanon’s pretense to know the divine mind, Jewish tradition warns against such speculative chutzpah. Maimonides, for example, in his Guide for the Perplexed stresses that all Biblical descriptions of God are only metaphors, that one cannot attribute human characteristic or motive to Him.
But the authority of Maimonides is not enough to stop Levanon from turning the God of Israel into a petulant arsonist taking sides in a Knesset fracas, and, for the sake of a few illegal settlements, burning homes, perhaps destroying lives. This petty and nasty God may be Lord of the Universe, but he moonlights as an instigator of death and destruction, all for the good of the outposts of Judea and Samaria. Such a God even advocates extra-judicial killings, permitting Jews to shoot Arab arsonists (who, if we follow Levanon’s own reasoning, are divine agents), and even on the Sabbath. One could imagine Naftali Bennett giving such a God a place on the Habayit Hayehudi electoral list.
With Israeli politics devolving into caricatured positions on both Right and Left, the rabbis of the territories portray a God suitable to both – a cartoon character best outgrown in childhood. Levanon’s version of the divine is a God tailor-made for his followers, a God that satisfies their simplistic political narrative, but also for the skeptical secular Left because this God is so easily dismissed as a childish fantasy. Indeed Levanon provides a straw-man of God and religion that would make any rational person think: Judaism is a primitive endeavor, a silly crutch for the weak and unenlightened.
But not all Jewish theologians act as God’s accountant, keeping track of the balances of divine reward and punishment. For Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, writing in 1956, the pronouncement in Genesis that the world is “very good” is made only from God’s perspective; man, however, experiences evil, suffering and death as stubborn realities. Man, with his “partial vision,” Soloveitchik continues, cannot make sense of the universe, certainly not speculate about how God “governs the world.”
Soloveitchik balks at the idea of theodicy, not even bothering to explain evil. For him, we cannot explain the existence of evil, but we can ask ourselves what to do when confronted by it. We might ask, for example: what forms of kindness and generosity can we offer to those who endure hardship, to those in Israel who were injured or lost their homes?
To Levanon, Soloveitchik might say: Turn your attention away from the self-interested speculation that transforms God into a small-minded tyrant, instigating arson for political gain, to the here-and-now world that requires our attention and care. Soloveitchik may not, like Levanon, offer the consolation of theodicy, with pat explanations of suffering and evil, but he does appeal to the potential for human nobility, to transform the experience of evil into action – into the consolation of others who are suffering.
William Kolbrener is Professor of English Literature at Bar Ilan University, author of Milton’s Warring Angels (Cambridge 1996), and Open Minded Torah: Of Irony, Fundamentalism and Love (Continuum 2011); his The Last Rabbi: Joseph Soloveitchik and Talmudic Tradition is recently published by Indiana University Press. Follow him on Twitter: @OMTorah
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