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 http://www.despair.com/tradition.html. 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.
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