Last Friday I attended a lecture by New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman. During the talk he mentioned that he had abandoned his fundamentalist Christian faith because he was unable to reconcile its belief in a good and interventionist God, with all the suffering he saw in the world. I understand Dr. Ehrman’s problem, but opt for a different solution.
My own position is simple: God is not good. Neither is God bad. God is just God, Reality. We humans invent the categories of good and bad: good is what we like, bad is what we don’t like. Different people have different lists of likes and dislikes, and some among us insist that their lists come from God. God never says otherwise, so their claim can be ignored or denied, but never refuted.
As a student of the Bible I have trouble believing that God is opposed to suffering. God drowns almost all humanity in Genesis, terrorizes the Egyptian people, and murders their first born sons in Exodus, and then goes on to order the genocide of the indigenous peoples of the Promised Land.
Causing suffering is God’s MO: look what He is willing to put His Son through just to keep Himself from condemning all of humanity once again. God could have simply forgiven humanity, he didn’t need the torture and death of Jesus. Or did He? The Jewish and Christian Bibles make it clear that God needs the death of innocents (animals, babies, Jesus, etc.) to assuage His wrath. So who says God is anti-suffering?
I find the Book of Job to be the most honest book in the Bible. Job suffers because God wants him to suffer. In his conversation with Job God makes it clear that suffering is part of life, and there is nothing anyone (including God) can do about it. That insight was enough for Job, and he found comfort in the chaos of life. I accept the truth of Job, but I want something more: I want the chutzpah of Abraham.
When God tells Abraham of the coming destruction of Sodom, Abraham demands that the Judge of all the world should himself act justly (Genesis 18:25) . Killing the innocent along with the guilty is wrong. God agrees, though both he and Abe are willing to let the city die if ten good people can’t be found within its gates.
Dr. Ehrman left Christianity because its loving God seemed false. I have yet to leave Judaism because its God—Job’s God—seems all too true.
Judaism is (for me) a blending of Abraham and Job. Like Job I know that suffering and injustice are inescapable, and like Abraham (and the Prophets) I fight against them anyway. Judaism is a rebellion against reality: making meaning in a universe that transcends meaning. It is a rebellion that cannot be won, yet cannot be abandoned (It is not for us to complete the task, but neither are we free to abandon it—Rabbi Tarfon, Avot 2:21) . Our messiah is always coming and never arrives because our vision of a perfect world is always a hope and never a reality.
Suffering does not drive me from Judaism, it confirms the need for it.