Dr. Sarah Wolf
Theodicy: it’s not that ancient Greek epic you had to read in high school, but rather it’s the age-old problem – why does God let good people suffer?
Both Jews and Christians who were living under the Roman Empire were concerned with this problem. Things weren’t easy for them. Not only were most of them farmers who had to deal with things like droughts and famine, but they were also persecuted religious and political subjects who had to deal with things like getting killed by gladiators or having their Temple destroyed.
Most people are probably familiar with the Christian response to this problem, broadly speaking: Jesus Christ suffered on the cross because actually, suffering is good, and the reason that God is making all these Christians suffer at the hands of the Romans is because that’s actually a sign that they are spiritually special.
You might be surprised, though, to hear that Jews, including the early rabbis, had some similar ideas. Instead of comparing suffering of regular people to the suffering of saints or Jesus, the rabbis did to suffering what they did to a lot of other things in the wake of the destruction of the Temple: they decided it was a good thing because it essentially accomplished the same goal as bringing a sacrifice.
According to the early rabbis, just like sacrifices did before the destruction of the Temple, yisurin—that’s the Mishnaic Hebrew word for suffering—could help people achieve ultimate forgiveness from God. Rabbi Yishmael, who lived during the 1st-2nd centuries C.E., explained that yisurin actually fit into a whole framework of things that people can do to achieve atonement. Spiritual repentance (tshuva), Yom Kippur, yisurin, and even death all have the power to cleanse one’s metaphysical slate of different sins one might have committed.
In the Mekhilta, a work of midrash from approximately the 3rd century, Rabbi Nehemia says that “Yisurin please more than sacrifices. Why? Because sacrifices are with money but yisurin are with the body.” In other words, yisurin are not just equivalent to sacrifices but are even better. Your goat is merely a material possession that you could replace by buying another goat, but you only have one body, and that means God will consider the sufferings you personally experience to be even more effective as a means of atonement than if you displaced those sufferings onto your livestock.
So what happened to this idea that physical suffering is actually a sign of some kind of spiritual gift? Why isn’t Judaism today a religion of people walking around wearing hair shirts and hitting themselves over the head, like the monks from Monty Python and the Holy Grail?
By the time of the Babylonian Talmud, many rabbis were no longer living under Roman rule, and their lives had gotten a lot better. The idea that suffering was somehow a sign that God loved you was still around—the Talmud talks a little bit about yisurin shel ahava, sufferings of love—but people were also starting to grow uncomfortable with this idea. First of all, shouldn’t people have the option not to suffer, even if that meant not achieving the best heavenly reward? And second of all, if suffering was really so effective, and most people the Babylonian rabbis hung out with were actually pretty privileged, did that mean that nobody was going to heaven?
The Babylonian rabbis came up with a very clever way of solving this second problem: they decided to give a little tweak to the meaning of yisurin. “When,” they ask in the Talmud, Arakhin 16b, “has suffering been achieved?” They then go on to give several different highly relatable examples, including: having a piece of clothing made for you and discovering it doesn’t fit; asking for a hot drink and getting a cold one, or vice versa; and realizing that your shirt is on backwards. The Talmud explains that according to the school of Rabbi Yishmael, anyone who experiences forty days with no yisurin has preemptively cashed in on their share in the World to Come. So that means anyone who wants a heavenly reward needs to make sure they’ve experienced some kind of yisurin at least once in every forty day period, and what better way to do that than to redefine the category yisurin to include the kind of minorly disappointing thing that happens to all of us probably at least once a day?
Most modern Jews are put off by the claim that people get sick or lose loved ones because that’s how God shows care. But there’s something actually quite lovely about the idea that it’s spiritually significant to miss the train by ten seconds or forget your umbrella. By offering us this possibility, the rabbis of the Talmud are teaching us something important: we don’t have to completely accept theodicy and say that horrible things all happen for a divinely ordained reason, but we also don’t have to completely reject it and say that there’s no meaning in suffering at all. Because we are not just inheritors of the Jewish tradition but its interpreters, where we choose to see God at work in the world is up to us. We can reject our sufferings when they truly get us down, but when they are a little more manageable, we can lift them up and make meaning out of them.
Dr. Sarah Wolf is Assistant Professor of Talmud and Rabbinics at the Jewish Theological Seminary and a faculty member at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America.