Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Providence and Evil

On Shavuot, I was thinking about divine providence and the concept of evil. I would like to share a thought that may not be novel, but certainly seemed eye-opening to me (perhaps mostly due to the early hour of morning at which it occurred).

Rambam in the Guide accepts the idea (mostly found in Yerushalmi, and rejected in Bavli, see Y Elman's essay on rabbinic contributions to a philosophy of suffering in the Orthodox Forum series) that there is no suffering without sin. However, Rambam claims that the measure of divine providence experienced by a person is a direct result of the intellectual occupation with God. When his mind wanders, providence does too, and this is when evil can befall him. It seems clear that Rambam views the all too human proclivity to distraction from enraptured intellectual intimacy with God as the mechanism by which a person becomes available to the vagaries of the natural world and thus evil. Ramban replaces intellectual occupation with the more mystical d'vekut, cleaving to God, but it is the same idea.

Rav Saadia Gaon's view is less absolute. In Emunot V'Deot, he first states that most suffering can be understood as serving the purpose of punishment for past sins, or making the subject more worthy of reward, or a test for the subject. However, he also states that free will allows a person to plan a murder. However, in an occasionalistic passage, he explains that while Man can commit the act of murder (say by pulling a trigger), only God can cause death (the gun firing correctly and the bullet hitting its mark). Finally, he leaves wiggle room for cases that defy these rules by stating that divine providence does not abrogate the need for precaution and does not justify recklessness1: a person must take care to avoid known dangers and things of that nature (this last part is similar to the Bavli's caveats of luck, קביעה הזיקה, עידן דריתחא, etc).

It is interesting that though Rambam views evil and a lack of divine providence as products of sin, the sin which causes them cuts to the very core of what it means to be human. It is impossible to take suffering and evil away from the human condition, precisely because their causes are part of what it means to be human. The same idea is paradoxically accepted by the Bavli's (and to a lesser extent, Rav Saadia's) general conclusions which claim that there is suffering without reason. The world around Man, whether by nature, demonology, luck or astrology, can affect humans in negative ways that God does not always halt; nature often is left to run its course.

Essentially, as R Elman concludes, it is our inability to come to definite answers regarding these questions that leaves the Bavli and Rambam to an open ended philosophy of suffering, which, while trying to lay ground rules, leaves enough space for the reality witnessed around us, of things often countering these rules.

A similar open ended, non-answer appears in the midrashim and kinnot of the 10 martyrs, עשרה הרוגי מלכות. At the very climax of the suffering of the sainted rabbis, heavenly angels cry out to God, "is this the reward of Torah?!" This is a simple demand for divine justice in our world that is familiar to anyone who has witnessed suffering, especially that of a child. Is this the justice of God?!

It always bothered me that God does not answer the angels with words of comfort, or explanations regarding the world to come, of future reincarnation and dispensation of ultimate justice. God thunders back, "this is my decree, and if I hear another word, I shall destroy the whole world!" Why does God answer in this way?

I think perhaps the response of God (as imagined by the פייטן) leaves a very important imbalance or unease in the minds of readers. Yes, there is injustice and you have just witnessed it. Now, God will not provide you with comfort and make you feel good about it, for injustice is implied in the very free will that makes this world worth living! Injustice is woven into the fabric of our existence, and we are not to find comfort or solace from it. On the contrary, we must feel the tension, the evil, the wrong about it so acutely, for it is our task to fight it with every ounce of our strength. Any validation or justification for the evil or suffering which we witness weakens our resolve to fight it to the end. Although intellectually we know of the world to come, and future divine retribution, and we may discuss theodicy when we have nothing else to do, we are not to allow that to assuage our moral outrage at evil. And so, precisely at the times when injustice enflames our instinct for justice, at precisely those times, we are tasked not to explain away the injustice, but to fight it!

It seems to me that this is the response of the Bavli and Rambam as well: although we have a partial understanding of divine providence and the causes of suffering, we cannot have a full understanding; that is not within our power. What we are able to do, and this is our task, is realize that sometimes things will not fit in our philosophical boxes, and recognize the divinely mandated command to be His partners in perfecting the world: heal the sick, conquer disease, set up ordered and ethical societies, punish evil, reward good. We complete the intentionally unfinished business of creation by fighting injustice, destroying evil, and mitigating suffering as best we can.


1 Tangentially, Rav Saadia responds to those who rely on bitachon in a reckless manner by saying that if one believes in the concept of bitachon, they are essentially accepting the concept that God runs this world. In that case, he states, it would be a profound folly to believe that this gives them license to ignore the laws of cause and effect, which are the practical way that God causes the world to run according to His plan. Faith in God leads to wanton disregard for careful, planned living only in the most foolish of minds. See chapter 12 of Sefer Hap'rishut Hash'lema, which forms a sub-composition in treatise ten of Emunot V'deot.