Why Such a World in the First Place? – God & Evil – Part III

This is another installment in a group of posts on the subject of theodicy from a meqori perspective – the other post can be found here (God & the World), here (God & Evil – Part I), and here (God & Evil – Part II).

In my previous post I shared in brief my personal understanding of theodicy, based largely on the writings of Maimonides (Rambam) and Gersonides (Ralbag), as found in their well-known works of Jewish philosophy, the Moreh HaNavokhim and Milhamot HaShem respectively.

I stated there that, like Maimonides, I do not believe that God creates or causes “evil” in the world and I believe that evil can only be attributed to him in an “indirect” way since He created a world in which evil and tragedy have the potential to occur (Gersonides also affirms that God is not the author of evil in the world, but attributes it to the world having been formed from a pre-existing matter – as taught in the Platonic school – the nature of such matter is intrinsically imperfect and thereby gives rise to “evil”). However, this often evokes a further line of questioning: “Why did God choose to make the world with the potential for evil in the first place? What is the purpose of the creation? Why did God make a world at all?” And it is to these questions we now turn.

In my experience, these questions are usually fueled by two basic assumptions: [i] that “evil” is predominant in the world overall, and [ii] that mankind is the pinnacle of creation. There are some additional upsets in the thinking of many people related to the creation, and I will attempt to address these in the course of this post as well.

In the Moreh HaNavokhim (3:12), the Rambam discusses the error – common in his time as well as ours – that the “evils” in the world are more predominant than the “good” when in fact evil and tragedy are, on the whole, in the minority. The Rambam also discusses there how ludicrous it is to assess the amount of evil in the world on the basis of the life experiences of one individual or a small group of people. The same is true today; many people feel that what predominates the daily lives of humanity is evil, tragedy, suffering, etc. when in fact the opposite is the case. This illusion is strengthened due to the media and the internet through which millions of people can choose to make themselves constantly aware of every salacious crime and scandal that happens anywhere in the world. Although this certainly makes it feel as though the level of evil in the world is predominant over good, the reality is that it is not. Humanity and civilization are affected by tragedies and difficulty based on locale, etc. and era – they are not a constant occurrence in every place, in every time, or for every person. If we track various crimes committed in society, we find that these things happen to a minority of people, i.e. most people are not robbed, most people are not assaulted, most people are not murdered, most people are not kidnapped. And notice that everything I have mentioned is a form of person to person evil! And even fewer people are killed or injured in floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes worldwide!

Beside the illusion of evil’s predominance in the world, another erroneous assumption that causes people to wonder why God created the world as it exists is the idea that mankind is the pinnacle of the created world. Although it is true that Rav Saadiah Gaon in his HaNivhar Emunot Ve-De`ot holds that humanity is the center and pinnacle of the entire creation, the Rambam in the Moreh (ibid.) explains that the world was not created for man and that mankind is a lowly creature in the overall schema of the creation, albeit of great importance. He further explains that only “fools” interpret the words בשבילי נברא העולם (“for my sake was the world created” – b.Sanhedrin 27a) in their literal sense (cf. Rashi there) and he brings proofs from Tanakh, Hazal, and logic for his position. This misconception often leads people to feel “entitled” to argue with God over their lot in life, if however the world was not created “for us” then we have little to argue about since we are a species in the Creator’s world that enjoys quite a bit more prosperity and opportunities than do other species. Add to this our ability to have a spiritual relationship with God, and I would say that people should feel privileged to be human (i.e., “What is man that You are mindful of him?…etc.” cf. Tehillim 8:5).

This line of questioning is brought on by a self-centered and myopic view of the world. Each person feels justified in condemning the way in which God ordered the creation because of his own circumstances. The fact is that God gave us a good world (cf. “…it was good” – Bereshit 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, and 31) and to us he gave the potential to be successful and happy, living peaceful and productive lives, but humanity has historically chosen a world full of war, economic disputes, and tragedy. God is not doing those things, people are. One of the most difficult things for most people to accept is that humanity as a whole lives in the state of the world that they have collectively chosen through their own choices. The innocent victims affected by those choices are our victims, not God’s. The problems in the world are our mess and God had nothing to do with them. And none of us are purely innocent; we all make choices that are wrong and negatively affect others. This means that we are all a part of the problem, but in repairing our own lives we will eventually repair the world that the Creator gifted to us.

So the question of “why” God made the creation in the way that He did still remains. I think that the answer to this question is best related to in the following way. The Rambam, in the same section of the Moreh, discusses the purpose of creation (i.e. the question of “why”) and answers that we are meant to understand that the world as it is could theoretically have been different, but it’s not – and it exists in its current manner simply because of the will of the Creator; that His infinite wisdom dictated that it be so (see there). Further, I think that just as we are only able to describe God by way of negation (i.e. stating what He is not, versus what He is – which is not possible) and metaphor (i.e. drawing comparisons between His perceptible actions and familiar objects or phenomena), I think that we must relate to this question in a similar manner. The Rambam explains that everything in the universe exists for its own purpose; the purpose for which the Creator brought it into existence. The end. Anything much beyond this is a mystery, the answer to which is currently unavailable to us. I personally believe that the simpler question of “Why did God create the world?” has no perceptible answer.

It is also my view that asking these questions ultimately leads to absurdity. What I mean is this: while the question may sound reasonable when asked in general terms – so apparently reasonable that on its basis many complain – but when asked specifically, the questions (and complaints) become nonsensical. Why do we have five fingers on each hand instead of six or nine or twenty? Why do trees grow up? Why is grass green and not pink? Why is sugar sweet and not sour? The answer to all of these and similar questions is: because that’s the way the world is! And it is no different with regard to our capacity to make free choices, our intellectual abilities, the resources afforded by the planet, etc.

The world is the way that the world is. And we can complain about it, but it isn’t going to change. The fact is that we know that we have the power of choice and that the world is set up so that we generally suffer the consequences of poor choices and reap the benefits of good ones. We also know that our choices can negatively or positively affect others. We know that certain foods will make us healthy while others will slowly kill us. We know all of this – yet we want to blame God for giving us the space to fail? This is no different from a child’s complaint that it is someone else’s fault that they make a mistake – their self-centered and immature outlook makes them want to shirk responsibility onto others for what they have either done or not done. Humanity as a whole is apparently no different.

Bottom line is: we are here in this world and have a job to do. Why the world is set up this way is because the Creator willed it to be that way (obviously, or it would be different!) We need to face up to that reality and deal with it. God made a good world and gave us the choice to keep it that way or not. We chose not and have been trying to fix that mistake ever since.

One thought on “Why Such a World in the First Place? – God & Evil – Part III

  1. Shalom Ahi.

    Just read your posts.

    Here is a little addition that I think may help contextualize your point.

    People often speak about the ratzon ha’Borei – “God’s will.” As you point out in your article, the common observant Jew today generally believes that everything which happens is the ratzon ha’Borei. Of course, examples like the BY girl you cite call that perspective deeply into question.

    Recently, I was having a discussion with someone on this topic. We started talking about the issue of “God’s will” and I asked him this question. He was perplexed by it and found it challenging – after all, can a person really say its “God’s will” – that God desires that the BY girl gets raped? Of course not. To say so would impute the most awful qualities to God.

    I explained to this person, that the world ratzon means “want”, and that according to Rashi, all the instances of “ratzon” we find in the Torah mean “nachas” (נחת – deep, pleasured contentment). So this begs the question further – does HaShem get nachas when a BY girl gets harmed? Of course, again, to say so is ludicrous.

    I drilled down and explained that just because something happens doesn’t mean it is HaShem’s ratzon. As you well explained in your articles, man’s exercise of free will is a primary intermediary factor. HaShem’s ratzon – his desire – that which gives him nachas (so to speak) – is that we do the mitzvot. If we do not, he’s set up an “algorithm” (as it were) within the natural order that “creates evil” designed to (hopefully) get us back on track. It is not Hashem’s ratzon that we need to utilize the algorithm; the algorithm is a bedieved proposition.

    For example, I tell my kids if they behave, they get to go on vacation. My ratzon is to give them the goodness of waterparks, shopping, and a break from the norm. But should they misbehave and invoke the punishment algorithm – no vacation this year. It is not my ratzon that they do not get to go on the trip. I desired for them good, but they chose the punishment algorithm.

    This person came away with a new perspective on “HaShem’s will” – one that I believe was a relief to him. A great many people struggle with the suffering they see around them because of the “everything that happens is HaShem’s will” perspective. This view is incorrect and does not match what all of us – especially those of us who are parents – know deep down to be truly good: that a loving parent’s only ratzon (desire) is good things for their children.

    Like

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