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Religion Library: Judaism

Suffering and the Problem of Evil

Written by: Marc A. Krell

Title: Rashi Source: the medieval period, three different types of theodicies emerged to cope with persecution and suffering. In response to the Crusades in 1096, the Ashkenazic Jews of the Rhineland advocated a martyrological theodicy by advocating kiddush ha-Shem, dying for "the sanctification of God's name," rather than converting to Christianity. The 11th-century rabbinic commentator Rashi provided the soteriological theodicy by arguing that it wasn't Christ who suffered for the sins of the world, but rather the Jewish people as a whole. Finally, the 12th-century philosopher Yehuda Halevi constructed a missionary theodicy by arguing that Jewish suffering in exile was justified in the sense that through their dispersion, they could fulfill their mission of spreading the knowledge of God to the non-Jewish world.

Martyrological theodicySoteriological theodicyMissionary theodicy
in response to Crusadesargued by Rashiconstructed by Halevi
dying for God's nameJews (not Christ) suffered for sins of the worldJews suffering in exile spread knowledge of God

The tension between theodicy and antitheodicy reached its extremes following the Holocaust when Jewish theologians were faced with the tremendously difficult task of affirming their covenant with God while recognizing that the same God of Sinai is also the God of Auschwitz. Their responses span the spectrum of theodicy to antitheodicy.

 In Faith After the Holocaust (1974), Eliezer Berkovits rejected the deuteronomic notion that the Holocaust could be interpreted as a punishment for sin, but constructed a post-Holocaust theology with a strong theodic thrust by transferring much of the blame for the Holocaust from God to humanity, and more specifically Christian culture. In To Mend the World (1982), Emil Fackenheim viewed the Holocaust as historically unique and rejected traditional theodicies.  Instead, he created his own fragmented theology by arguing that the Holocaust represents a cosmic rupture that can never be fully repaired theologically. In After Auschwitz (First and Second Editions, 1966, 1992), Richard Rubenstein constructed a complete anti-theodicy by rejecting what he considered to be the traditional Jewish portrayal of an omnipotent and transcendent biblical God for whom the Holocaust would be a punishment for Jewish sins, concluding that we now live in the age of the death of the historical God.

Study Questions:
1.     Why was evil seen within the context of divine justice?
2.     Why are good and evil urges necessary? What is the perceived reward for choosing to follow the good ones?
3.     How is the covenant related to Judaism's understanding of evil?
4.     How is evil understood in a post-Holocaust society?


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