In Part I we discussed two major issues: [i] That God is not the direct cause of evil and [ii] that many times people blame God for “evil” and suffering in the world that most often originates with either human action or inaction. In this post, I want to clarify and expand on these views and share my personal philosophical view of theodicy.
[i] Saying that God is not the direct cause of evil, but can only be credited indirectly, is to say that God has given us the capacity of free choice, a “space” in which we are allowed to make either good or bad choices. These choices affect us and others and are coupled with a world structured by a natural order – an order that sometimes results in catastrophic events. In other words, God is the indirect “cause” of evil in that he has created a world wherein it is possible for evil choices and tragic things to take place.
The Rambam and the Ramban (Maimonides and Nahmanides, respectively), among other prominent Rishonim, present this as the proper explanation of the statement in Shemot 4:11 that God makes man “blind or seeing.” According to this view, God does not actively pick people to deprive of sight, rather he can be said to have “made” people blind only in that He created a world in which it is possible for a body to be formed that lacks sight (ibid., see there – and Moreh HaNavokhim 3:10). But when babies are (has ve-shalom) born blind or otherwise disabled, this is simply the aggregate of natural laws and external factors in the created order taking their course – as God designed it to work. And it is important to note that just because God designed nature in His perfect wisdom, that does not mean that it will always work out in an ideal way. After all, being subject to imperfections is the nature of matter. If the universe did not have this potential, then God would have simply created another God, not a world, something which is impossible.
[ii] As I attempted to express in the story about my answer to the question “Where is God when people suffer?” (as if God is to blame) it is my opinion that the vast majority of suffering is due to evil human actions, human ignorance (i.e. about the natural world), and/or human stupidity (i.e. about how to interact with the natural world). This is the most honest and practically productive assessment of all evil that happens in the world. This is also the view of both Rambam (Maimonides – cf. Moreh HaNavokhim 3:10-12) and Ralbag (Gersonides – cf. Milhamot HaShem 4:6). Alongside these considerations is that in the natural order there is a concept of “chance.”
Natural disasters, famine, economic downfall, slavery, genocide, murder, theft, war, etc. – all of them can be traced to either inadequacies of either human morality and intelligence or the wiles of the natural order that are sometimes expressed in the world around us. If we are are honest with our self-assessment as people, and especially as Jews, this conclusion is, le-aniyut da’ati, unavoidable. The related question of why God would create a world in which all of these potentialities exist will be addressed in the next section.
Theodicy – A Summary of My Personal View
Theodicy, the defense and/or maintaining the belief in the goodness of the Divine in view of the existence of evil (in other words, “How can a good and all-powerful God permit the existence of evil?”), has been a major concern since almost the beginning of human religious discourse and was a central theme particularly for the Jewish and Islamic philosophers of medieval times. Drawing mainly from Aristotle and his expositors, these philosophers sought to answer the two basic questions of theodic inquiry: “Why do good things happen to bad people?” (i.e. רשע וטוב לו, in Jewish parlance) and “Why do bad things happen to good people?” (i.e. צדיק ורע לו). Jewish prophets, sages, and thinkers have been seriously examining these questions for millennia (cf. Kohelet 7:15, 8:11; Iyov 21:7; Tehillim 73:3, 12, 14; Yirmeyahu 12:1; b.Berakhot 7a; Moreh HaNavokhim III; Milhamot HaShem IV, et al) and the discussion continues today.
My view of Divine Providence is that only humans, since they alone possess a tzelem elohim (a human rational faculty), can merit particular providence (hashgahah peratit). However, such providence is only the benefit of certain special individuals who have perfected themselves to become completely united with God’s will. In this way they can usually be said to have achieved a level of prophecy. Because of both the exceeding willingness and availability to carry out the Divine will on the part of such individuals, God invests His particular providence in them (e.g. the Avot, Yosef HaTzadik, Mosheh Rabbenu, etc.) The rest of us are under mostly general providence (hashgahah kelalit) and need to use the tools of free will, critical thinking, technology, understanding of nature, harnessing the resources and power of the planet, and our moral compass to succeed in life – particular providence being not constant; an “act of God,” if you will. The more we perfect ourselves, the more God invests His providence in us. The key to understanding this process is to realize that the operation of the human rational faculty (the tzelem elohim) in consonance with Divine wisdom is identical to, not a result of, hashgahah peratit.
Cataclysms are just a part of the natural order and are not actively performed by God. Rather, as Hazal state in b.Avodah Zarah 54b “olam ke-minhago noheg – the world operates according to its natural order.” In the natural course of the world, things like tsumanis, floods, and earthquakes happen – its just part of the world we live in. According to Maimonides, when the Tana”kh attributes these things to “God” it is only doing so because that is the style of the Scripture and because God is the ultimate cause of everything – being the Creator. It is not the intention of Scripture that we should thereby adopt the view that God is exercising His will to cause such events in every moment. The details of this view are many, but this – in brief – is my understanding of the world and God’s interaction with it from a Jewish philosophical perspective. Believe it or not, this does not necessarily invalidate the idea of prayer or “miracles” – although it does rather limit them – as there are explanations for these concepts as well that fit with this view of Divine providence and theodicy, but they will have to be for another time.
For now, suffice it to say that human beings have been equipped by the Creator with what they need to make peace in the world, engender moral societies, and avoid most instances of tragedy and pain. Like I said before, “Where are we?” – we are here, together, and are expected by the Creator, blessed be he, to do our job.