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Two Approaches to Jewish Suffering

There are two main explanations the biblical and Rabbinical texts take towards the notion of suffering. One approach is to claim that God is just and his reason for suffering can be explained. The other approach is to be hurt, angered, and confused by the suffering, which is given by the hand of God. Both of these explanations are defined in Anti/Theodic Bible and Midrash, a work by Zachary Braitman. The first approach he calls “theodocy” and the second approach “antitheodicy”. Classical Jewish explanations of suffering swings back and forth between these two approaches.

The Jewish theodicy approach can be seen in the doctrine of reward and punishment. This doctrine comes from Deuteronomy when God says to Israel

If, then you obey the commandments that I enjoin upon you this day, loving the Lord your God and serving him with all your heart and soul, I will grant the rain for your land in season, the early rain and the late. You shall gather in your new grain and wine and oil- I will provide grass in the field for your cattle- and thus you shall eat you fill. Take care not to be lured away to serve other Gods and bow to them. For the Lord’s anger will flare up against you, and He will shut up the skies so that there will be no rain and the ground will not yield it’s produce; and you will soon perish from the good land that the Lord is assigning to you.

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This text taken has been taken literally by many Rabbis to explain the reasons for Jewish suffering. The notion that suffering is because of sin can be seen throughout classical Jewish literature. For example, in the Talmud, R. Ammi claimed that both Moses and Aaron died on account of their sins because “there is no death without sin and there is no suffering without iniquity.” Another example can be found in the rabbinic text Avot de Rabbi Nathan, when a young women lost her husband and looks for an explanation of why God took away her husband. She confronts Eliijah the Prophet and finds out the reason for his death was because her husband laid with her while she was menstruating. Eliijah responded, “Blessed be God who killed him, for thus is it written in the Torah, ‘Also thou shall not approach unto a woman as long as she is impure by her uncleanliness.’” These stories clearly demonstrate the way the Rabbis took the notion of reward and punishment and never questioned it; this is what can be defined as theodicy.

Still there is more to this traditional theodicy approach, the Rabbis understood that although they suffered in this world it was precursor to the next world. In other words, the Rabbis understood that when the righteous suffered and the wicked prospered it was because there was a word-to-come, where this doctrine of sin and punishment will be played out. For example, the Rabbis thought “God can only reward Israel in the world-to-come after cleansing them in this world. Conversely, the wicked receive reward in this world and for their good deeds so that God may punish them in the next.” As it says in the midrash, “Only for man’s good does suffering come upon him, to rid him of what he has done [wickedly]. So the sages teach “Be not doubtful of retribution’”. With this belief the Rabbis redefined the meaning of suffering. The Rabbis were able to see suffering as a precious thing God bestowed to cleanse Israel of their sins. As Rabbi Shimon b. Lakish said, “Sufferings wash away all the sins of man.” These beliefs lead to the idea of martyrdom, in the theodicy approach.

The theodicy approach allowed for martyrs, whom were able die to show their devotion to God. It was part of the theodicy approach because when a martyr was about to suffer they did not question God. The act of martyrdom plays out the verses in Deutaronomy that states “love the Lord Your God with all your heart, and all your soul and all your might.” While the famous sage R. Akiba was being tortured to death, he did not question God but praised him. He said “Righteous is the Lord. The Rock! -His deeds are perfect; yea, all His ways are just; a faithful God, never false, true and upright is He.” The Rabbis expressed their theodic belief when they wrote that an angel saw this and declared, “Blessed art thou, Rabbi Akiba. For You were the righteous and just; a faithful God, never false, true and upright is He. To further understand how martyrs did not question the ways of God in face of suffering, one must look at the martyrdom of R. Hanina b. Teradion and his family

When they apprehended R. Hanina b. Terdadion, he was condemned to be burned together with his Torah Scroll. When he was told of it, he recited the verse, “The Rock His work is perfect.” When his wife was told, “Your husband has been condemned to be burned, and you to be executed,” she recited the verse, “a God faithfulness and without iniquity.” And when his daughter was told, “Your father has been condemned to be burned, your mother to be executed, and you yourself to be assigned to (disgraceful) work,” she recited the verse, “Great in counsel, and mighty in work, whose eyes are open”.

Rabbi Hanina b. Teradion and his family did not search for a reason they just accepted death and disgrace because they knew it was from God. Hence, the traditional theodic Rabbi’s did not try to explain God in time of suffering, but rather endure it with trust, devotion, and hope in God.

The author of the Book of Job takes Deuteronomy’s verses that make up the bases for the doctrine of sin and punishment and reverses the charge. In other words, Job claims his own innocence and wonders why God is punishing him. This is the antitheodic approach that the Rabbis take in classical texts. This approach is the exact opposite of Rabbi Hanina b. Teradion and his family approach of accepting their own death because God decreed it. Instead, the Rabbis challenged and expressed complaint against God. A major way the Rabbis did this was through enlisting the Patriarchs. For example, in a famous Midrash, Rabbi Samuel b. Nachman writes how Abraham wept to God complaining how his children were suffering. He says to God, “Sovereign of the Universe, why hasnt Thou exiled my children and delivered them over to heathen nations who have put them to all kinds of unnatural death.” The Midrash continues and has God respond with the doctrine of sin and punishment, “Thy children sinned and transgressed the whole of the Torah and twenty-two letters in which it is composed.” The Midrash ends with God putting the aleph-bet on trial and Abraham, playing the role of prosecutor defending the Israelites. When the aleph came before the court, Abraham yelled “Thou aleph art the first of all the letters, and thou comest to testify against Israel in the day of their trouble! Remember the day when the Holy One, blessed be He, revealed Himself upon Mount Sinai and opened with thee, ‘I am the Lord thy God’ and no nation accepted thee but my children, and thou comest to testify against them.” The aleph immediately stood aside and the trial continued with Abraham prosecuted the other letters and with them stepping aside. Another example of the Rabbis’ use of the Patriarchs can be seen in the midrash were Moses defends God. Moses comes before God during the destruction of the temple and quotes Leviticus to defend Israel. He tells God, “Sovereign of the Universe, thou hasnt written in thy Torah, whether it be a cow or a ewe, ye shall not kill it and its young in one day’; but have they not killed many, many mothers and sons, and Thou art silence.” Hence, the Rabbis challenge the ways of God and do not just see suffering as part of sin and punishment; this is what can be defined as the antitheodic approach.

There are more aspects to the antitheodic approach taken by Rabbis. One aspect that must be understood is that only authorized people can complain to God and it must be done on behalf of community. For example, the Rabbis’ use the Patriarch’s to argue with God, but never do the Patriarchs complain of their own personnel disappointment. The Patriarchs only argue for the benefit of the Jewish community. As it says in the midrash from Exodus Rabbah after Moses complained to God, “Then did the Attribute of Justice seek to strike Moses, but after God saw that Moses argued thus only because of Israel, He did not allow the Attribute of Justice to strike him.” This shows that the dignity of the community is more important to God than his own honor. Another aspect of the antitheodicy approach is that upon death Rabbis could be sad rather than happy because of hope for the reward in the next world. These ideas can be seen in the midrash, when R. Yohana visits the dying R. Eleazer and sees him crying. R. Yohana tries to comfort his friend and assures him that merit receives reward and tells him not to worry. R. Eleazer responds that he weeps for his body that is destined to rot in the earth and not because he fears the next world. In other words, R. Eleazer tells his friend he is scared to die. This is a very antitheodic approach in that the Rabbi does not just say death is a reward from God, but actually fears it. Through the antitheodicy approach, Rabbis’ use Patriarchs to show how its acceptable to question God on behalf of the Jewish community and were able to fear death rather then just embrace it as a reward.

In conclusion, the theodic and antitheodic approached are used in classical biblical and Rabbinical texts to understand suffering. The theodic approach does not question Gods and was used by martyrs to declare their devotion by God by not questioning His ways. The antitheodicy approach is the exact opposite, it questions God and even challenges Him through midrashic tales of the Jewish Patriarchs. Therefore, both approaches are used and at times and intermingled by the Rabbis to confront the unfairness of Jewish suffering by the hand of God.

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