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Thursday, July 16, 2009

Making Sense (nor not) of Suffering (Berakhot 5a)

This week, I want to take a step back to the subject of my first two posts and considered the background against which the Rabbis promulgate their theory of yissurim shel ahavah (afflictions of love). But I want to begin with a caveat: Last week in Pamplona, Spain, a 27-year-old man was gored to death in the Running of the Bulls. One day later, two more men were seriously injured as the event was repeated. This reminded me of the poster offered at Below a picture of the running of the bulls it says: “Tradition: just because you’ve always done it that way doesn’t mean it’s not incredibly stupid.”

Many people view suffering through a traditional lens. This lens was first ground by Tana”kh (Hebrew Scripture) that tells us that there are two causes for human suffering for which God is responsible. Either suffering can test our faithfulness (consider the Akedah, God’s command to Avraham to sacrifice his beloved son, Yitzhak), or suffering is God’s pay back for disobedience; that is to say: punishment. The latter is clearly the predominant view.

Torah sets the stage for the theology of reward and punishment. God, creator and owner of the universe, intervenes in human affairs in response to Israel’s behavior. While there are numerous passages in Torah that express this theology, one will suffice. Parshat Re’eh opens with this admonition:

See, this day I set before you blessing and curse: blessing if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I enjoin upon you this day; and curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord your God, but turn away from the path that I enjoin upon you this day and follow others gods, whom you have not experienced. (Deuteronomy 11:26-28)

This paints a picture of a scary, commanding, demanding, coercive God: Do My will and enjoy reward, but disobey Me and I will reign down havoc on your lives.

For the prophets, the cataclysmic events of 722 BCE (destruction of the northern ten tribes by the Assyrians) and 586 BCE (Babylonian destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and exile of the population to Babylonia) are understood within a worldview informed by this theology. The prophet Amos, a shepherd and tender of sycamore trees, lived in the hill country south of Jerusalem in the 8th century BCE. He berated the northern kingdom of Israel, and particularly the upper socio-economic classes, for breaching God’s covenant by amassing wealth at the expense of the poor, violating the sexual boundaries delineated in Torah, and engaging in empty religious rituals. While the Book of Amos ends on a note of hope and restoration for Israel, much of the book predicts doom and destruction at the hands of Israel’s enemies in a military defeat orchestrated on-high by God:

Thus said the Lord:
For three transgressions of Israel,
For four, I will not revoke it:
Because they have sold for silver
Those whose cause was just,
And the needy for a pair of sandals.
Ah you who trample the heads of the poor
Into the dust of the ground,
And make the humble walk a twisted course!
Father and son go to the same girl,
And thereby profane My holy name.
They recline by every altar
On garments taken in pledge,
And drink in the House of their God
Wine bought with fines they imposed…

Hear this word, O people if Israel,
That the Lord has spoken concerning you,
Concerning the whole family that I brought up from the land of Egypt:
You alone have I singled out
Of all the families of the earth –
That is why I will call you to account
For all your iniquities…

Assuredly, thus said my Lord God:
An enemy, all about the land!
He shall strip you of your splendor,
And your fortresses shall be plundered…

(Amos 2:6-8; 3:1-2, 11)

Amos’ younger contemporary, the prophet Hosea, similarly preached a message of imminent destruction, God’s punishment for the covenantal crime of idolatry. Hosea re-enacted Israel’s faithlessness in his own life by marrying a woman of ill-repute and naming his children by her Lo-ruchamah (“Not pitied”) and Lo-ammi (“Not my people”). Hosea’s description of the coming punishment is painfully graphic:

Samaria [capital of the northern kingdom, Israel] must bear her guilt,
For she has defied her God,
They shall fall by the sword,
Their infants shall be dashed to death,
And their women with child ripped open.
(Hosea 4:1)

The aspect of this theology that I appreciate is that it affirms God’s intense interest in human behavior and human affairs. How we organize ourselves and treat one another is a matter of cosmic concern. But the theology of reward and punishment – presuming a demanding, punishing, coercive God – is not the only way to express God’s concern with our moral and religious behavior. Nor is it the only way to understand human suffering.

The claim that human suffering is God’s response to sin flies in the face of human experience. The Rabbis recognized this and so they offer another explanation. This one is, to my mind, even more problematic. On Berakhot 5a we find:

Raba (some say, R. Chisda) says: If a man sees that painful sufferings visit him, let him examine his conduct. For it is said: Let us search and try our ways, and return unto the Lord (Lamentations 3:40). If he examines and finds nothing [objectionable in his conduct], let him attribute it to the neglect of the study of the Torah. For it is said: Happy is the one whom You chasten, O Lord, and teach out of Your law (Psalm 94:12). If he did attribute it [neglect of Torah study], and still did not find [this to be the cause], let him be sure that these are chastenings of love. For it is said: For whom the Lord loves, God corrects (Proverbs 3:12).

Raba, in the name of R. Sahorah, in the name of R. Huna, says: If the Holy One, blessed be God, is pleased with a person, he crushes him with painful sufferings. For it is said: And the Lord was pleased with [him, hence] he crushed him by disease (Isaiah 53:10). Now, you might think that this is so even if he did not accept them with love. Therefore it is said: To see if his soul would offer itself in restitution (Isaiah 53:10). Just as the trespass-offering must be brought by consent, so also the sufferings must be endured with consent. And if he did accept them, what is his reward? He will see his seed, prolong his days (Isaiah 53:10). And more than that, his knowledge [of the Torah] will endure with him. For it is said: The purpose of the Lord will prosper in his hand (Isaiah 53:10).

Raba tells us that we can analyze our personal situation and determine the cause of our suffering. First, I should consider if I have sinned, in which case, my suffering is retribution for my sins. If not, I should consider if I have neglected Torah study. If not, then I may conclude that my pain and suffering – still presumed to be God’s doing – are yissurim shel ahavah (afflictions of love). In fact, Raba tells us, God goes so far as to crush those most loved with painful afflictions, which are most religiously efficacious if received with consent.

I appreciate that the Rabbis are struggling to retain a theology that affirms God’s omnipotence and goodness, but this sends me screaming in the other direction. It is religiously and spiritually off-putting. This theology speaks volumes about God’s nature and character and, to my thinking, none of it good. Why does a good and loving God need to exert such heavy-handed and punitive power over people? It sure isn’t making us any better! (God forbid that we should treat our children this way.) The assertion that God causes good people to suffer for their own good is entirely overboard. If olam haba (the world-to-come) is to be good and pleasurable, it can be so without our having suffered in olam ha-zeh (this world).

Yet because we are humans, we struggle not only with experience, but with meaning. We must cope not only with suffering, but with the meaning we attach to suffering. More on this subject next week.

Let me close by paraphrasing the poster I quoted above. This is a bit more cavalier and irreverent than I would want, but here goes: Tradition: just because you’ve always been taught to believe that way doesn’t mean it’s not incredibly stupid.

© 2009 Rabbi Amy Scheinerman


Simcha said...

I would like to share few thoughts with reference to your 3 posts about pain and suffering;
I agree with your assertion that one way to deal with pain and suffering has to do with meaning we attribute to it. The question is what do you mean by “meaning”? I think that Berakhot 5 teaches us that meaning lies first in the idea that God is the essential reason for ones suffering, and second, that crisis is a result of wrong relationship with God. Therefore, it is our task to repair this relationship. The comfort should come from the experience of change. It is an invitation to use God as a foundation for order.
Crisis shapes us and gives us the opportunity to grow. We feel the pain because we are in an unbalanced situation, but we can check out our behavior for the sake of growth -- not because we did something wrong. After all – you cannot study enough Torah, and you can never really repair your relationship. We will never make it through, so what kind of challenge is it…?
I imagine that you will bring the book of Job into this theme, as it begs our attention to theodicy.

Rabbi Amy Scheinerman said...

I appreciate your thoughtful comments. How would you respond to one whose suffering is caused by a hurricane (Katrina, for example), or a tsunami, or disease? Is this the result of a "wrong relationship with God?" And what does this say about God? If God afflicts massive suffering on people through what is commonly termed "natural disasters" because they have a "wrong relationship" with God, will this encourage a "right relationship" or only fear and contempt? Crisis does indeed provide opportunity for growth -- I agree completely. But I do not hold God responsible for each and every crisis: did God ordain the Holocaust, the savage killings of the Pol Pot regime, the Stalinist "purges"? These brought untold suffering though it's not clear that brutal murder leaves much room for growth. I would also differ with you on "you cannot study enough Torah" if in fact one's time spent studying Torah comes at the expense of a preponderance of other responsibilities and commitments such as providing for one's family, serving one's community and country, and being a productive member of society. Seems to me that what we need is balance in our lives, not fanaticism. What do you think? Thanks for your fascinating comments, Simcha. All the best.

Simcha said...

Thanks for your response. I would like to make it clear, R' Amy that I am not a fanatic...! When one brings divinity to the picture it does not mean that he/she is a fanatic. I am only trying to unpack the theme you are dealing with by exposing all the challenges that I see in Berakhot 5a,b. The question is how to harmonize the difficulty of the text with the modern way of meaning we claim to attribute it.
I thought that the sugya deals with personal suffering; therefore I did not even mention the various natural crisis, genocide etc. In general – like you, I do not believe that God is responsible for any crisis or suffering, nor do I blame victims for being sinners. The nature of God is another discussion, but yes, fear of God produces anger, and it is not a healthy thing for us.

There are many scientific reasons why suffering occurs, but I think that people search for spiritual reasoning. As you said, meaning to suffering is the key, but what meaning? If suffering could be understood as a reflection of unbalanced relationship between humanity, nature and divinity, would that be enough for someone who is in the midst of suffering? What language, for example, will you use with a dying person? I am often asked: “how do I find the strength to deal with “meaning” while I am in pain?” In my experience, personal suffering elicits exactly the same questions about God and the relationship with God that I mentioned before. Perhaps discussion about relationship with the divine could be only a start? I am wondering whether the ‘psycholization’ of theology is enough.
I think you miss understood me regarding Torah study. We always have to study even if we think we know it all. Because studying is endless, we must look somewhere else for justification of suffering. I think that what you have in mind is the model of the Talmid Chacham, who is not obligated to work, but only study. In this case it is a real ethical question which poses a serious social dilemma, especially in Israel.


Rabbi Amy Scheinerman said...

Simcha, my thanks again for your comments and challenging insights. First, let me apologize if it appeared even for a moment that I consider you a fanatic. Far from it! What I meant to point out is that good ideas taken to the limit sometimes lead to extreme ideas that can be harmful. What we need is balance and humility about our own ideas. It sounds like we are on the same page in many ways and your questions are an excellent challenge for me -- thank you.

Concerning natural disasters, my point in bringing these up is precisely because they *do* precipitate individual suffering. I agree with you completely that blaming God or blaming the victim (as Job's friends do) is unconstructive. Indeed, I would say it is a distraction from our obligation to comfort and heal. (One of my pet peeves is the expression, "God never gives you more than you can handle" because I hear it as a dismissal on the part of the person who says it of the one suffering before him/her; in other words: God will take care of you and I don't have to.)

I appreciate the search for meaning. Like everyone else, I’m engaged in it all the time. But for me to assign meaning to someone else’s suffering, or suffering in general, strikes me as hubris on my part. Who am I to say that suffering results from a lack of balance in any arena since suffering is so often brought on my uncontrollable events? It for the one who suffers to determine what his/her suffering means; it is for me to attempt to alleviate his/her suffering as best I can. Our Sages taught that bikkur cholim (visiting the ill) removes 1/60 of the patient’s suffering. I would not be inclined to look anywhere for a justification of suffering any more than I would be inclined to pin suffering on God. Some questions have no answers. I hope rather than trying to address the question of theodicy, more people might respond with compassion and caring to those who suffer. Then perhaps the experience can be transformed from purely painful to redemptive.

This is a wonderful conversation -- thank you, Simcha.

Mark Hurvitz said...

This is an intriguing conversation. Thank you, Simcha for starting it and R. Amy for moving it along.

The meaning of pain and suffering seems to be one of the major human concerns. I think we can accept death as a natural part of things. After all we see it happen in all other parts of the living earth. But, we're not aware of other living beings experiencing pain and suffering the way we humans do. I remember when our pet dog experienced his final illness, it was clear that he suffered and was in pain. Yet he did not come to me for comfort. Our vet suggested that dogs, as "pack animals" don't (or can't) display "weakness". To do so would put them at more risk than the pain and suffering that debilitates them.

A friend learned from a custodian he knew (Reginald Stewart) the following thought:

“Pain is just weakness leaving the body.”

I recently dealt with some shoulder pain which continued far too long. I know that my life is not exemplary, and I also know that my Torah study has not been regular, but I could not assign the pain to any particular series of events that would help me learn what I had done wrong… so that I could correct my behavior and eliminate the pain. Not until the pain became debilitating did I seek help. I finally went to a physical therapist. Through a series of exercises I continue to do, I have been able to strengthen my shoulder and eliminate that pain.

In a sense we can think of pain as a form of “biofeedback” ( If The Holy One would give more precise feedback we would truly be able to learn from our pain. Lacking that clear feedback, I will need to leave this issue unresolved. I hope I’ve been able to add some useful thoughts.

Rabbi Amy Scheinerman said...

Thanks, Mark. Just a quick comment about dogs as an example of non-human living creatures: ours recently underwent significant bone surgery to reconstruct both knees. He was in enormous pain after the surgery, despite a fentanyl patch and additional narcotic pain medication. But he also appeared to be suffering. And in contrast to your dog, he craved human closeness for the first few days. So long as someone was nearby, and preferably touching him (a hand resting lightly on his head or back was sufficient) he was quiet and calm; if no one was nearby he whimpered and trembled. If he was in someone's lap, when the hour arrived to give him another pain pill, he could wait a while to receive it. I was very surprised by this behavior and his reaction to pain, his seeming need for human proximity and touch, and the (healing?) affect we had on him. Yes, he's a pack animal and apparently we are his pack. (Good thing all the kids were in town this week so we could take turns attending to his needs round the clock.) Is it possible that other living creature also suffer and benefit from compassion?

Simcha said...

Mark ; I appreciate your positive remarks and I enjoy your useful thoughts. There are few things that I would like to comment on. (1) “I think we can accept death as a natural part of things.” –- In my experience, people are afraid of death, and mostly avoid talking about it. Even when people are about to die, there seem to be an avoidance to discuss it. I also see doctors who have a hard time dealing with this issue. Unlike the Tibetans, who teach their kids how to ‘die’ as part of the natural things. (2) “we're not aware of other living beings experiencing pain and suffering the way we humans do”. – Depends who you talk to. The activists for Animal Rights for example, will say the opposite. They even go as far as condemning the Kosher slaughtering on the basis that it makes pain and suffering for animals we eat. There were many discussions on this lately. Also, I was never raised with a pat at home so I would not be able to say more about it. (3) “I recently dealt with some shoulder pain which continued far too long”. I am so sorry that your pain was a problem, but I am glad that you got to the bottom of it. This physical pain we experience seems to push us to find the WHY and than treat. In many cases, we take a pain killer and forget about the WHY. Alternative medicine begins with the root of the problem and than treat. This is to say that perhaps what a modern take of our sages suggestion ‘to search’ for our deeds, is for us to take the time to get to the bottom of the pain and not ignore it…?
As R’ Amy mentioned - When we are in pain, it is the physical sensation we feel. When we are in emotional stress due to pain, it is the suffering we deal with. How to get by it? I agree with R’ Amy that relationship can alleviate suffering, but I am half afraid that this does not work for everybody.
With much respect,

Simcha said...

R' Amy: "Is it possible that other living creature also suffer and benefit from compassion"?
It sounds like you have much reciprical feelings of love and compassion to and from your dog. Kol Hakavod! I think your question is a rhetorical question, is it not...?

robin said...

This post summarises one of the main problems which I have with Jewish text - much of the time, it says things which are highly objectionable. The Talmud can (I am told) often be the saving grace of Tanach since the Rabbis often interpret the text in a more sensible and palatable way. Yet in this case, they do not. Their answers to the question of suffering are woefully inadequate. They try desperately to shoehorn a concerned god into the equation in a wholly unconvincing and frankly intellectually worrying way (see the above discussion on the holocaust etc). So, I suppose my question to the Rabbi is Why bother with all of this? Why not just turn our backs on a philosophy which seems badly wrong and read something more convincing? (BTW I ask this genuinely, hence my visit to the blog!)

Rabbi Louis Rieser said...

Robin, your question goes to the heart of why I was interested to start this blog. There is, I believe, a wealth of wisdom and spiritual guidance available in our texts, but also parts that are deeply disturbing. It is only by confronting the texts, wrestling with them to see what they yield that we can discover what works for our generation. These texts represent a conversation that has been on-going for centuries. As any inter-generational conversation there are points of agreement and points of conflict. What makes this a liberal conversation is the willingness to argue with the texts and insert our own voices. We are not passive, receiving the tradition as a given, but participants who interact and create the next level of an evolving tradition.
I would note two books that set the stage for this kind of a reading of the text. Arthur Waskow wrote 2 books titled "Godwrestling", in which he both describes why he chooses to wrestle with the Torah and models his struggle with Biblical texts. Judith Plaskow includes a moving account in her introduction to "Standing Again at Sinai" of her decision to refuse "the split between a Jewish and a feminist self." She chose to insert her voice into the ages old conversation -- even when it demanded a counter voice to the tradition. I hope that is part of what we will do in our blog -- confront texts, reveal new readings, renew the converstaion to include all our voices. Please keep adding your voice to the conversation.

robin said...

Thanks very much for the reply. I will follow up the reading suggestions (time permitting!). Broadly, I very much agree with your approach. It is vital to understand Talmudic conversations as ongoing, but I wonder if there is a limit to how much interpretation a text will bear before it snaps and the interpretation and the text find that they have nothing in common or are completely at odds with each other. In this case, I would feel compelled to say something like the text and its Talmudic interpretations are plain wrong and leave it at that and then walk away. I mean, is there really any way of reconciling a liberal view of god with this text without simply betraying the text? My other concern, is that in engaging with Tanach-based texts, we might accidentally become apologists for something that is unambiguously sexist and homophobic (etc.). Is there a point at which we should refuse text?

Rabbi Amy Scheinerman said...

Robin, thank you for joining the discussion and so honestly sharing your concerns and frustrations, which so many of us share with you.

Personally, I cannot dismiss the Talmud because of its often problematic viewpoints. Rather, I stay and struggle with it as I would in any valuable and meaningful relationship. There is much here that, with little effort, is elevating, inspiring, spiritually evocative, meaningful, and moving. At the same time, there are passages that are far more difficult to wrest meaning and value from. And there are passages that are deeply troubling and problematic in a variety of ways. But isn’t this true of people as well? We do not like and appreciate everything about them, and all they do and say, yet we stay connected and work out the rough spots. Talmud does not speak in one voice; it is a symphony of voices, opinions, sensibilities, and theologies. Even if not every one resonates – and even if some trouble or offend me – the process of wrestling with them and their implications is valuable and helps me learn and grow in new directions. For me, that is worship – service of God. So for me it’s not about the texts being “wrong” or “right” but rather how they help me learn and grow. What is more, “staying in the game” keeps me connected to our Tradition and to a community of people who are similarly engaged – and that now includes you, Robin.

You ask specifically about texts that are “unambiguously sexist and homophobic (etc.)” and indeed these are of great concern. But I think we need to retain a high degree of humility and recognize that the opinions we put forth and the actions we take (and fail to take) in our lives may well in the future be regarded as egregiously lacking. Consider how inadequately we deal with those who are differently-abled, those who live in poverty, those who struggle with mental illnesses. Will future generations look on our writings and find them so lacking that they prefer to jettison the whole rather than extract what is worthwhile?

Please hang in there. There is much nectar in these flowers, and occasionally thorns on the stems.