There comes a point in the life of all faithful Jews when we face the fact that what the Torah says, just isn’t so. This does not occur when we see the differences between the ancient understanding of the origins and structures of the physical world and contemporary scientific knowledge. The Torah is not a science text book, but uses the knowledge of its time to illustrate the various ways in which God, the Creator, interacts with creation. Nor does it happen when we first note the differences between the Torah’s use of history and modern academic historical work and journalistic reporting. The Torah’s concern is not objective reporting but rather is interested in using historical events to describe the evolving relationship between God and God’s people, Israel.
The fundamental challenge takes place when we discover that the way in which the Torah orders its world does not correspond to the way in which we experience our world. In the world described by the Torah those loyal to the Covenant and strive to fulfill its holy directives are promised success, security and long years. But in our world, those promises are rarely, if ever kept. What we see in our live-a-day world is that all too often the saintly receive no rewards, people of faith fail to obtain material gifts, and the blessings of health, happiness, prosperity and longevity are not guaranteed to any human being no matter how righteous that soul may be. Theologians describe this challenge to faith as the question of theodicy, God’s justice.
The Bible takes up the issue of theodicy in the Book of Job. There Job, a righteous man, suffers the loss of wealth, family and health His friends come to comfort him but when they hear him declaring that he does not deserve what has befallen him, they accuse him of impiety. Despite his protestations of innocence, they insist that he must have been a great sinner to deserve such great punishments. Job’s conversation with his friends ends when God appears before Job in the midst of mighty whirlwind and blows away Job’s friends’ claims to be able to control the God of All Creation by their simple moral calculus. In the presence of God’s greatness, Job accepts his fate, both the evil he had already experienced and the blessing with which the book concludes.
The classic discussion of theodicy in rabbinic literature grows from a passage from this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tetzey. The rabbis of old used the occasion of the tragic death of a young boy who had fallen from a tree while collecting eggs in accordance with the Torah’s directive to chase the mother bird away before taking the eggs (Deuteronomy 22:6-7) as the critical event in Elisha ben Abuyah’s, one of their colleague’s, rejection of traditional faith. After witnessing the accidental death of the child, Elisha ben Abuyah uttered the powerful cry of despair – “There is no justice, there is no Judge.” Despite the Torah’s promise of length of days to all who follow this commandment, the child came to an early death (Kiddushin 39b).
There is no answer to the question of theodicy but there are responses How we respond, gives meaning and purpose to our faith. We may respond like Elisha ben Abuyah and deny purpose and direction in this world and, out of despair, embrace the apparent chaos of existence? We may also choose to respond like Job’s ‘friends’ and deny our experiences and reject the reality of what we know in favor of a mistaken piety? We can also respond like Job and submit before the vastness of the God of All Creation? But as faithful Jews we have another choice besides apostasy, blindness and submission. It is action — the deeds of love and kindness we perform when we read the words of Torah as a prophetic vision of what the world might be tomorrow rather than a description what the world is today. In a perilous, unfair world, we can hear the Torah directing us to make the world safer, fairer, kinder and more just? We need to ask ourselves, “How can we ensure that the Torah’s promises are true?” We respond to promises of the Torah by binding Job’s wounds, by consoling the child’s bereaved family – by standing with those who suffer and by learning to give and to accept comfort. We are to turn theory into reality.
In time all the material blessings promised by Torah will fade. What is good and lasting in the Torah are the words themselves and the actions they demand. God’s justice may be hard to see but the Torah-based responses to pain, suffering, cruelty and injustice are easy to read. The faithful Jew meets the challenge of theodicy not by despair, blindness or humble submission, but by responding to the injustice we see with deeds of love and kindness and by giving thanks for the blessings we have already experienced.