When Theodicy Is No Theodicy

There is an old, venerable strain in Jewish thought, which would have us allow current events to inspire us to greater introspection and inspiration in our service of G”d. The question being answered is not “Why has G”d allowed such a thing to happen,” but ” how should I change my life, now that these terrible tidings have reached my ears – how to I shake myself awake to become a better person?”

To understand that approach, we should delve a little further into this citation of “the world was created for me.”*

Mamonides elaborates in his code:

Every person should see himself year round [meaning, not just during the High Holidays, but always] as if both his and the world’s merits are in perfect balance, with sins exactly cancelling out merits, and, conversely, merits exactly cancelling out sins. If he commits one sin, he pushes the scale — for the entire world — in the directly of sin, and brings destruction to the world. If, however, he fullfills one commandment, he pushes the scale — for the entire world — in the directly of merit, and brings redemption and salvation to the entire world.

צריך כל אדם שיראה עצמו כל השנה כולה, כאילו חצייו זכאי וחצייו חייב; וכן כל העולם, חצייו זכאי וחצייו חייב: חטא חטא אחד–הרי הכריע עצמו והכריע את כל העולם כולו לכף חובה, וגרם להם השחתה; עשה מצוה אחת–הרי הכריע את עצמו והכריע את כל העולם כולו לכף זכות, וגרם להן תשועה והצלה. זה הוא שנאמר “וצדיק, יסוד עולם” (משלי י,כה), זה שצידק עצמו הכריע את כל העולם כולו והצילו. (הלכות תשובה פרק ג:ח)

The Breslover Rebbe goes one step further, and writes that:

So it turns out that I must constantly seek and analyse how to repair the world and to fill the needs of the world and pray for them.

נמצא … צריך אני לראות ולעין בכל עת בתקון העולם. ולמלאות חסרון העולם, ולהתפלל בעבורם. (לקוטי מוהר”ן ה:א)

It is in this light that the last time around when Japan was hit with a massive tsunami, in 1923, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, the ‘Hafets ‘Hayim, Informed of the mass deaths in Japan, the 85-year-old rabbinic leader was visibly shaken, immediately undertook to fast and insisted that the news should spur all Jews to repentance. However, none of the above are attempts at explaining the unexplainable, why so many people, men, women and children, elderly and suckling babes, all perished in a moment.

Nonetheless, as the difference between theodicy on the one hand, and a call for taking responsibility and even pray for the betterment of the world on the other hand, is only subtly explored in most such Mussar Schmussen, many audiences miss the point.

Thus, after the enormity of the Nazi genocide of Jews became known, R’ Joseph Ber Soloveitchik was less subtle about it. Rochelle Millen neatly summarized his view as:

… despite the horror of Auschwitz, despite G”d’s slience and absence, God remains “ours”: the partner, although sometimes silent and absent, in the covenants of fate and destiny. Soloveitchik’s theodicy is rooted in Deuteronomy 29:28: “The secret things belong to the L”rd our G”d; but the things that are revealed belong to us and our children forever, that we may do all the words of this Torah.

Or, in the more succinct words of Juergen Manemann, R’ Soloveitchik’s words are an “emphasis on praxis” and “an argument a pure theoretical questioning of G”d … who is a mysterious G”d.”

Thus, instead of asking “why,” we must ask “how am I supposed to react.”

* = It should be remarked that the quote from the Talmud need not be interpreted as relating to theodicy at all. Thus, Rashi ad loc. explains:

The world was created for me – This means that I am like an entire world, and I will surely not want to leave the world on account of my sins.

בשבילי נברא העולם – כלו’ חשוב אני כעולם מלא לא אטרד א”ע מן העול’ בעביר’ אחת וימשוך ממנה:

For Rashi, the statement is meant to magnify each and every individual, and to underline that the loss of even one individual is extremely tragic, and therefore, individuals should realize how tragic their loss would be, were they to die on account of their sins. In other words, this is a purely motivational statement, which is totally unrelated to the question of theodicy.

Incidentally, while the elaborations of Maimonides et al. amount to sound Jewish philosophy, Rashi’s explanation seems to this author to be closest to the Talmud’s original intent, as it complements an earlier statement comparing saving a single individual to saving an entire world.

2 Responses to When Theodicy Is No Theodicy

  1. micha says:

    There is an entire sefer Iyov. His friends’ viewpoints, with most of the ink spent on “you must have sinned”, is dismissed. The book’s conclusion, given to us by words uttered by the One Who Does Know, is that we can’t know.

    So why all the speculation? Did Chazal canonize Iyov for naught????

    There is a separate question of how to deal with the aggaditos that do seem to provide sins for which bad events are posited as punishment. A few answers I’ve used, depending on my mood, include:

    1- The message is what lesson one could take from the event, not positing that we know it’s an actual cause.

    2- Interestingly, note that in none of those cases do Chazal reach a consensus. There are no less than 7 reasons why Nadav and Avihu dies, 4 or 5 causes of the fall of the First Temple, and at least 6 for the second. The message of the gemara is that grappling with the question of tragedy is only natural. But don’t expect an answer!



    • Arie Folger says:

      Thanks. Obviously, Sefer Iyov, which is what Rav Soloveitchik bases himself on, supports the idea that ultimately G”d’s ways are mysterious, and we cannot, in our finite minds, grasp His ways, though they are just.

      The aggadot that do provide theodicy arguments should be separately analysed, as you do indeed briefly in your comment. My point is not that there cannot be a study of theodicy, tough it will always be limited, as Iyov and other texts teach us. My point is that many arguments that seem to be about theodicy are really about what lessons to inspire from the events, and not what are the actual reasons for those events. In that vein, I find your remark under point 2 very telling. Thank you.

      A little meta-information: this post is a tangent I separated off another post I am writing now, about a view of the Japanese disaster. I offloaded this otherwise interesting background information in order to make the next post more readable. Your comments are much appreciated.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: