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Sun, Sep. 14th, 2014, 07:49 pm
Theodicy and the Daf

A friend once pointed out that there are three main approaches that the Bible takes to the problem of theodicy, what Rabbi Harold Kushner titled the problem of "When Bad Things Happen to Good People".

The Deuteronomic approach asserts that life is fair: If you follow God's mitzvot, you will be rewarded; if you stray, you will be punished.

The Jobian (not Jovian) approach is that God has a Plan, and we don't know what it is, but we should have faith that when bad things happen, it is for an ultimately good reason.

The Kohelet philosophy is that things happen. Sometimes good, sometimes bad, but not always fairly and not always because there's a Plan.

The appeal of the Deuteronomic approach is that we like to feel that things are fair. And so much of the teshuvah literature is based on this: if something bad has happened to you, you should reflect on your deeds and figure out what you did wrong; conversely, you know that you have sinned and you have punishment coming to you, and so you'd better pray for God's forgiveness.

While I admit that this philosophy has some utility in prompting us to examine our deeds, it is dangerous because (a) it can lead people to disregard the needs of the unfortunate, because "they must have deserved it"; (b) it can lead people whose lives are going well to neglect their spiritual growth; (c) it can lead good people who are having difficult times to abandon God.

The appeal of the Jobian approach is that we like to feel that things are fair, even when they don't look like they are. By asserting the existence of a sekkrit Plan, we can explain away seeming incongruities between doing good and doing well. But not everyone has the "faith of Job", and telling a suffering person that their suffering is needed for God's ultimate Plan seems rather patronizing. (As the character Aristophile puts it in Good Omens: "This wouldn't be the ineffable plan, would it?")

Much of the Talmud's dealings with the problems of theodicy follow these two approaches. So I found myself gratified to encounter two passages in the Daf Yomi last week that show that even in rabbinic thought, the Kohelet approach is considered a valid alternative:

Rava said: Life, children, and food do not hang on one's merit, but rather on one's luck. (Mazel in this context probably refers to astrological influences, but I think it's not unfair to treat it as "luck".)

Rava then brings his proof by example: For Rabba and Rav Chisda were both righteous sages; one would pray and rain would fall, and the other would pray and rain would fall. (The fact that God would listen to their prayers demonstrates their righteousness.)

But: Rav Chisdah lived to age 92, and Rabbah to age 40. Rav Chisdah's household had sixty wedding feasts; Rabbah's household had sixty funerals. Rav Chisdah's household had bread made from high-quality flour even for the dogs, and no one needed to ask for some; Rabbah's household had coarse flour even for the people, and there was not enough of it to be found. (Moed Katan 28a)

And then a few days later this bizarre aggadic narrative:

When Rav Yosef reached the verse 'But there are those who are swept away without justice' (Prov. 12:23) while he was studying, he would cry. He said: Who is it who goes (i.e., dies) before his time? Is such a thing possible?

Yes, responds the gemara, citing what happened with Rav Bevai bar Abaye, who was familiar with the angel of death. One time, the angel said to his emissary: go, bring me Miriam who braids women's hair. The emissary went and brought him Miriam the nanny. The angel said to him, I said Miriam who braids women's hair! The emissary said to him: In that case, return her to life. The angel said to him: Since you brought her, she shall be counted among the dead.

Rav Bevai asked the emissary: But how could you take her if it wasn't her time to die? The emissary explained: She was holding a shovel in her hand, and she was lighting and sweeping the oven. She accidentally put it on her foot and burned herself and she had bad luck, and I took her. So again we see the concept that a person's luck (mazal) can be bad, and they can die before their time for no reason at all.

Rav Bevai asked the angel: You have permission to do this?</b> You're allowed to take people who have bad luck before it is their appointed time? And the angel replied by quoting the verse with which this sugya began: He said to him, and is it not written, 'But there are those who are swept away without justice?'" (Chagiga 4b-5a)

As we work our way through Elul, listening to the blasts of the shofar each morning and repairing the breaches in our moral bulwarks, I find this a comforting perspective. Sometimes God's justice is visible; sometimes we express faith in a Plan, but most of the time life seems random because most of the time it is.

That doesn't excuse us from the task of trying to be the best people we can be.

It just means that we should do that not because we expect a reward, but because being the best people we can be despite the vicissitudes of life is God's plan for us.

Mon, Sep. 15th, 2014 04:46 am (UTC)
violetcheetah

As a former Southern Baptist, it was often taught in church that God didn't punish people for sins in this world, that if you had misfortune, it wasn't payback for some transgression you didn't remember. But the informal lesson I got from many sources was, if not punishment, that "God was trying to tell you something." At least if they were talking to you face-to-face, if they were talking about someone they didn't approve of, then generally that person got what was coming to them. But the Jobian view of the world is -incredibly- strong, and one that I clung to when life was intolerable: that there was some greater purpose, and a benevolent figure was in control and had deemed this necessary and someday in the afterlife it would make sense and it wasn't in vain. Even then, though, it rankled me; I used to pray for God to just reveal to me the reasons for things, that I could take whatever it was, I just needed to know, to understand. So while I held out hope that one day it would make sense, it didn't really bring me the comfort it seems to bring other devout Christians.

Now, as an atheist, my views are pretty similar to option 3, "It just means that we should do that not because we expect a reward, but because being the best people we can be despite the vicissitudes of life is God's plan for us," with the exception of the God's plan part. But one result of that view is that I accept that "the best people we can be" is not always kind and generous and accepting. Some people, whether because of innate wiring or because of the particular bad luck they've had, or lack of support, or combination, may never achieve anything "best"er than "I will not kill myself today," or "I will not kill anyone else." I don't necessarily want to be around those people, but I'm not sure their bitterness is any more their fault than the misfortunes that led to it, and, at least at a distance, I can empathize.