Several weeks ago, before the outbreak of the war in Gaza, I sent the first part of an essay concerning God’s greatness and the question of evil in this world. Now, in the aftermath of the war, this topic is very much on the minds of many of our readers, due to the many losses we have suffered, the question of the efficacy of our prayers, and the numerous miracles we have experienced, all of which seem to contradict each other. I am therefore sending both parts of the essay this week in the hope that it will be of help. In addition, I suggest that the reader look at Thoughts to Ponder 345 – Protesting the Tragic God of Sublimity; TTP 354 – God Does Not Exist; and TTP 368 –The Joy of Religious Doubt. See our website: http://cardozoacademy.org/, Library ˃ Thoughts to Ponder>Index.
Our Struggle with God’s Goodness
God Is Too Great to Be Justified.
(For the philosophically inclined!)
It is time to stop justifying God. Morally, His ways are sometimes inexcusable. Allowing a Holocaust in which six million Jews were killed in the cruelest ways imaginable, causing unbearable pain to innocent children, is morally intolerable. Creating earthquakes, hurricanes, tornados and other “natural” disasters is insufferable. Any attempt to justify these deeds of God is to profane His holy name.
God is too great to be justified. In fact, any attempt to do so undermines His very being. It is trying to bring God into the limited dimension of human comprehension, which invalidates His total otherness. It is like explaining a three dimensional reality with the aid of a flat surface – a hopeless task that would ultimately lead to idol worship, the worst of prohibitions. Idol worship is an endeavor to limit the Infinite to the constraints of the finite.
To believe in God is to believe not only that there is ultimate meaning to our existence but also that this meaning is completely beyond our comprehension. We do not know why God created the universe and man; to know that, we would have to be God. We would have to abandon the human condition and confront a metaphysical reality that our brains are not equipped to absorb. A reality that asks us to do the impossible – to utterly reject our thoughts, go beyond the shore of our reason and enter into the unfeasible situation in which God’s thoughts become ours.
As long as we do not know why God created anything, we cannot deal with the question of why God causes, or even allows, so much pain to be inflicted on us. Only if we would know why the world was created would it be possible to see if there is a need for pain and if it could therefore be justified.
The very fact that we do not know why God created the world forces us to admit that we cannot know what place morality plays in the divine scheme of things. It may well be that morality is only one of many necessary elements in creation and that it sometimes has to yield to other divine considerations. Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard spoke of the “suspension of the ethical” when he discussed the moral problem inherent in God’s asking Avraham to sacrifice his beloved son Yitzhak.
From a moral point of view, it is clear that the creation of the world is unjustifiable as long as even the slightest form of pain accompanies it. The anguished cry of even one baby undermines the very pretext of creation. We cannot infer from that, however, that God does not exist or that He had no right to create the world. It only means that by purely moral standards He had no right to do so.
Any attempt to explain all of God’s deeds in terms of moral standards is doomed to fail. It only leads to apologetics, which ultimately produces no satisfactory explanations. That does not mean that God is not moral, or that He lacks the attributes of goodness, mercy and other lofty qualities. What it does mean is that morality is not the whole story. The need for morality is the necessary result of creation, not the purpose of creation. In fact, moral criteria may be required to temper the severe conditions under which the divine purpose of creation had to be realized. This may also be one of the goals of halachic living. It is God who asks us to live by His halacha so as to moderate the consequences resulting from His creating the world in a way necessary for it to exist.
To argue that He created man so as to grant him happiness is of little meaning once we ask why man needs to be happy at all and therefore to exist.
To argue that good can exist only in relationship to that which is bad is to ask why there is a need for good to exist at all when it can only be accomplished through the creation of that which is seriously flawed.
To argue that God formed man so that he can earn his reward in the world to come is of little comfort once we realize that man would be much better off having never been created. What, after all, is the virtue of reward when it constantly comes at the cost of so much pain? It is true that not having been created would deny us happiness, but in what way is this to our disadvantage? If we would not exist, we would never know what we fail to enjoy. Would, then, our non-existence not be more pleasant than our existence? To try and answer this question is to ask for the impossible.
The great rabbinical schools of Beit Shamai and Beit Hillel fully realized this fact. In a most unusual debate, which lasted two and a half years, they discussed whether it is better for man to have been created, or not to have been created. (Eruvin 13b) Their conclusion is most telling. It is better for man not to have been created; but now that he has been created, let him examine his deeds. It is in this knowledge, that man was created despite all moral norms, that he realizes the need to live his life most carefully. And it is in this knowledge that he will find great joy. Only by acknowledging that human existence is beyond all moral comprehension can man realize how important it is to God that he exists. Not because man knows what God’s reasons are, but because he knows that it holds ultimate meaning in His eyes.
To deny God’s existence on the basis of the Holocaust is to misunderstand His supremacy. To try and justify His ways is to violate His omnipotence.
To live a life of Torah is to live a life of the greatest nobility in the presence of God, fully aware that the purpose of life is to live the ultimate mysterious “why” while never understanding it. Therein lies its meaning.
The Goodness of God; Man as His image
What do we mean by professing that God is good and man was created in His image? When God allows and even causes unbearable pain to befall man, afflicting him with sickness, cruel death, earthquakes and the most horrible wars, there seems little room for these claims. So, we ask again: If God, by our moral standards, cannot be justified for many of His actions, how are we to revere Him?
How can man live a meaningful life when it is entirely impossible for him to know why God created the universe and therefore man? Ultimately, man has no insight into why he was placed in this world and can only wonder why God seems to treat him like a divine experiment. What can be the purpose of man who has been denied any information about his existential meaning? Is he not given any consideration? How can we claim that God is benevolent, good, merciful, and cares for His creatures when He does not even inform man of His intentions?
If God is entirely unknowable and the reason for man’s existence is beyond the grasp of his intellect, should we then conclude that from man’s perspective his life is indeed meaningless, even though God knows better?
Is pain, then, completely pointless in man’s eyes, his suffering of no value, his perseverance to survive against all odds nothing but an emotional need to see purpose in his life while there really is none? Is God the only one who knows the story, refusing to give man any insight? And is this the God who is to be emulated by man?
Moreover, what do we make of the biblical claim that man was created in His image? If God is the cause of so much evil and pain, does this not pave the road for man to be cruel and evil, as he was created in that very image?
Jewish tradition has never denied that God is the creator of evil. The Bible itself attests to this: “I make peace and create evil.” (1) The sages never lived in a psychological vacuum denying the realities of life. There was no attempt to cover up all the terrible things that could befall man. They tried only to understand where evil belonged in the scheme of the divine creation.
When Jewish tradition claims that God is good, even in the face of all evil, it speaks the truth. But it can only make that claim from within the system of divine purpose. “God is good” does not mean in the moral sense of the word but in the sense that there is ultimate meaning to man’s existence, known only to God.
With evil abounding throughout the world, it is clear that the “moral good of God,” as generally understood by man, is not the whole story. There must be a reason for all this evil, but it can only be justified in terms of divine meaning, not in moral terms. The unfathomable meaning of all existence becomes clear the moment that evil becomes apparent. It is in the deviation from and violation of God’s own moral standards as expressed in the Torah and felt in the heart of man that it becomes clear that the purpose of the creation of the world requires God’s “teleological suspension of the ethical.” The world was not created for the sake of ethics; it was created for the sake of divine meaning. It requires moments and circumstances in which God’s morality must be side-tracked.
To argue that evil needs to exist so that man can grow spiritually has no bearing here. There are forms of evil from which man is not able to grow, such as heinous crimes perpetrated during the Holocaust. Moreover, we remain with the unanswerable question of why man needs to exist so as to be able to grow. True, the Sages stated, “If a man sees that painful sufferings visited him, let him examine his conduct” (2); and “The Holy One blessed be He brings suffering upon the righteous in this world so that they may inherit the world to come.” (3) But this does not shed any light on why evil needs to exist, since it does not answer the question of why man must exist to examine his deeds or why he must suffer to merit a share in the world to come. All these arguments are a posteriori.
This is not to imply that there is no meaning to man’s suffering, or that pain has no function and moral dilemmas no purpose. Throughout history we have seen how much these have contributed to the spiritual and moral greatness of man. It is through these challenges that people of moral stature have emerged and inspired millions. It has certainly been meaningful in human terms. But this is so only because there is an a priori reason for man to exist that surpasses any reason for him to be moral. The latter can never be seen as man’s ultimate significance. It is of secondary importance in the overall divine meaning of existence. It is a by-product, albeit a deliberate one that God intended.
In fact, it is in the absence of knowing why God created the world that man is able to find meaning. To be part of God’s world and play a crucial role in it without knowing exactly whatrole one plays, or why there is even a need for it all is by far the most profound awareness man can ever experience.
What gives life its grandeur is living with the knowledge that one plays a role in some plan that is much greater than one can ever fathom. It is recognizing that the value of human existence is in living with fundamental questions which, like diamonds held up to the light, show the spectrum of colors without ever being able to unite all these colors in a well formulated position. The moment these questions would be answered, the light would dim and the colors refracted in it would lose their splendor.
Every answer is a killer since it destroys the art of searching, the very element that makes life exciting. A world that makes total sense is a world not livable. It is endless human curiosity, which can never be satisfied, that is the drive behind all meaningful life. It is not the knowledge of something that gives us joy. It is the relationship between what is known and what remains an ultimate question – that is what gives man the satisfaction of “being.” Lacking this mystique, man can achieve nothing noble. It is God’s gift to mankind, and for that He is to be revered.
It is this unknowable mystique that mitigates man’s pain even when tortured. What raises our indignation against suffering is not the torment itself but its senselessness. What makes the anguish of a suffering child intolerable is the inability to raise it to the level of meaning. As such, it is the most disturbing form of “teleological suspension of the ethical.” It is thisparticular case of a child’s suffering, demonstrating the complete absence of divine justice, that proves morality is not at the core of all creation.
For man to truly live life he must live for the sake of God. Our love for God is tested by the question of whether we seek Him or His gifts of goodness. A God of only mercy is a God unjust. To live for His sake means to feel and sustain the ultimate “wherefore” that cannot be answered. This is what the Kotzker Rebbe meant when he said: God, I do not need to know why I suffer, but I want to know whether I suffer for Your sake. “For Your sake we are killed all the time.” (4)
It is possible for God to exercise mercy and benevolence only as long as His ultimate meaning for this world’s existence is not violated. It is seemingly despite this divine purpose that mercy exists, not because of it. In this sense, mercy is a novelty because its existence may run contrary to God’s purpose in creating the world. This may be a disturbing observation – it violates our understanding of who we believe God is and who we want Him to be – but it cannot be circumvented. It reminds us that God is not there for the use or benefit of man. Nor is He within the parameters of man’s comprehension. No reason can be given for the nature of God, because that nature is the foundation of rationality but not rationality itself.
It is in the image of this divine mercy that man was created in God’s likeness. It is despite God’s ultimate reason for the creation that man needs to live in His image. Man is asked to undo the amoral effects of God’s ultimate purpose for His creation, since the need for morality is an integral part of God’s being but is not His totality. God’s demand that man live in His image is in partial contradiction to the fundamental purpose of His creating the world. It is only in its a posteriori intention that this demand can be made. Since man has no part in the reasons for this creation, he cannot play a role in its entire fulfillment; he can only do his part, which is to try to be ultimately good, as God’s likeness. God’s likeness is only His image, not His divine totality.
(1) Yeshayahu 45:7.
(2) Brachot 5a.
(3) Kiddushin 40b.
(4) Tehillim 44:23.