September 19, 2005
About two weeks ago, a reader who uses the name “Needsabetterjob” left the following comment on my post “Choosing Life, Choosing Faith” (the translations and explanations in square brackets are mine):
“I am still amazed at your continued adherence to all the religious minutae. After what you have been through how are you able to love Hashem [God]? I understand that you do, it is just that I know someone else who had a similar ordeal, that he lost his son around age 6-8. He had a very successful business and still does, but he divorced his wife within a year of the tragedy and then shortly after is living with a non-Jewish woman. He will not have anything to do with religion, even to the point if he is needed for a minyan [a quorum of ten, which is needed to pray publicly] he will not agree, he will not be part of a Mizuman [a quorum of three to lead Grace After Meals], etc...That is, he abandoned his closeness to Hashem. I am interested how you have taken an opposite approach to this man.I am asking because while I have not gone through anything remotely like your tragedy, I am having many difficulties in life, and feel often that Hashem is not with me.”
I admit, Needsabetterjob, that you’ve caught me out. I’ve fairly well avoided dealing directly with the question that you and so many others pose: that of my feelings toward a God who created a world in which there is so much suffering – and who doesn’t intervene when the innocent suffer. I’ve felt that this question is too big for me, and have approached it only obliquely in my posts. I’ve even wondered whether I would really dare tackle it by the time my blog is due to end (in January 2006, five years after Timmi’s death). But now that you’ve asked, I owe you – and perhaps myself – an articulate answer.
I’ve always believed that innocent suffering is THE theological problem in this world. My question, though, has never been, “Why am I suffering?” or why any particular person suffers, but rather has always been, “Why does any blameless person suffer?” In a sense, what my question really boils down to is “Why did God create an imperfect world?” I have no answer to this question, of course, and never will – certainly not in this life. And I see no point in expecting to understand something so deep and fundamental, or becoming angry that I can’t. Already in ancient times, the writer of the Book of Job saw any human attempt to understand the paradox of a just God allowing the innocent to suffer as futile: "It is hidden from the eyes of all the living... God understands the way to it, and He knows its source." Since that time, many minds much greater than mine have grappled with this question, and have not come up with any truly satisfactory solution.
Still, I do believe that I can respond – in part, at least – to the more intimate and personal question of how I can continue to love God even after what my family and I have been through.
Losing faith in God because I suffer would mean presupposing that if I and those I love lead a good life, evil will not befall us. I’m sure this is what your friend is feeling – why should I have anything to do with a God who didn't keep up His end of the bargain, and allowed my blameless child to suffer and die? But given that my basic theological question is “Why anyone?” rather than “Why me?”, my own expectation (if I had one), would be slightly different – I would believe that God has promised humankind that innocent people generally will never suffer, or will never suffer unjustly. If that were my basic belief, though, I would have lost my faith as soon as I opened my eyes and looked around me at this world, in which innocent people – including millions of blameless children – have suffered and died since the beginning of human time.
Yes, I chose, and continue to choose, to be religiously observant despite this enormous philosophical difficulty. Why? Because loving God gives me what I need to survive emotionally in this cruel world; it keeps me from bitterness, cynicism and despair. From the Torah I learn that what I do every day matters to God. No matter what is happening in my life at any particular time, there is work for me to do in the world. In return for doing that work, God has promised me that He will give me the strength to go on: To go on living the life that He has mapped out for me in the Torah as it has been passed down through the centuries. Especially, to go on performing acts of lovingkindness, and raising my children to be the moral, compassionate people they have become, even after our devastating loss. (I find it very inspiring that Judaism requires even the poorest beggar to give a tenth of what he receives to charity.) In return for continuing to engage in those acts of kindness, I receive the love of those around me – which is, I believe, a reflection of God’s love. And God’s love gives me the resilience, as my friend Alan Busch has said (in his comment to my post “Knowing and Not Knowing”), to “glare at the face of adversity and assert: 'You will not get the better of me!'”
I don’t claim to have given here a fully adequate answer to the most difficult theological question ever posed. But I think that my very partial answer does explain why I persevere in Jewish observance - which I admit might well seem illogical or even preposterous to a person whose inner experience has been different from mine. As for the even more intimate question of loving God, my response - the only response I can give - is that I love God because I believe that the loving is mutual, and because I cannot imagine living in this world without that love.