05/01/2013 05:58 pm ET Updated Jul 01, 2013

Is God Guilty?

Getty Images

An observation I've made is that you can tell a lot about a religion -- and more importantly, a nation -- by how they react to suffering. Here are a few ways to view "bad things" from a people who have undoubtedly been subject to suffering for millennia: the Jews.

Mark Twain stated that the existence of the Jew throughout years of suffering is a miracle ("Concerning the Jew," 1899). But why would God create suffering for any of Adam's progeny in the first place? One answer is that suffering is spiritually cleansing. This perspective views physical suffering as being the consequence of sinning (Sanhedrin 27b). This was once explained to me to be similar to the way in which a child screams when his mother scrubs the caked mud out of his hair. So too, suffering is G-d's way of "cleansing" one's soul when he dirties himself with an evil act. However, the problem with this is that it's just not consistent with our reality.

You see wicked people who thrive in pleasure and good people who wallow in misery. This prompted the rabbis to write in the Talmud that "one cannot fathom the success of the wicked and the downfall of the righteous" (Pirkei Avot 4:15). So along comes the idea of hell -- that someone who didn't get physical suffering in this world to cleanse him of his sins would have to spend time in hell being cleansed there (Leviticus Rabbah 27:1). However, the problem with this is that it conflicts with the Jewish view of a God that "does not produce anything bad" (Shelah p. 106B). In other words, if we believe that God is inherently Good, then how could something bad even exist?

In the Talmud, there was a rabbi who believed that "bad things" are really good things. He believed this so strongly that he was nicknamed "Nachum This Too is for the Good" (Taanit 21a; Berachot 60b). This philosophy sees the bad moments of our lives as leading us to a "good" and better place. However, the problem with this is that the "bad stepping stone" itself still remains "bad." To answer this, some have said that the "bad thing" we see is actually a "good thing" in disguise (Moed Katan 9a). This can be explained through a parable of a child seeing a surgery and mistakenly thinking that the "bad hospital people" are trying to hurt the patient. So too, what we view as a "bad thing" is really a good thing in disguise. We just can't see the full picture.

However, there's still one last problem with this. The problem is the pain.

If God is so Great, why can't He just create a world without any pain whatsoever, just as we would do if we could invent a surgery that was completely painless?

Years ago, I was sitting at my uncle's table and I said that God was guilty for not figuring out a way to do what He wants without suffering. My uncle said I was being disrespectful to God. But I love God and the way I see it, God not only creates "good things" and "bad things" but also creates the context in which these things happen. Which means He doesn't have to follow any rules whatsoever because He made them all up! And if He made them all up, He can un-make them all up as well! So why not make up a world where suffering need not exist? If you disagree, you limit the power of an Infinite Almighty. So the truth may be that God could do this but He chooses not to. On the contrary, one may claim that He actually facilitates heinous events as He is the creator of the entire context of the events.

My uncle claimed that I was being a heretic with such words and that this type of thinking leads people away from faith. In other words, faith may be to accept suffering until that time when God will reveal His logic for creating pain and evil (Yoma 23a). At my uncle's table, out of my love for him, I did not push this further. However, there may be one biblical figure who would agree with me.


In Exodus 32:10-11, Moses argues with God that He should not destroy the Jewish people. He didn't adopt the thinking that "God knows best" and if G-d wants to destroy the Jews it must be the "good thing" even if it looks bad. No! Moses thought, "If it looks bad, it IS bad!" and he went on to accuse and argue with the All-Knowing God Himself! This is what made Moses such a beloved leader: the willingness to do anything for his people. Even to fight God.

And God approved. As it says, "And God repented of the evil which he thought to do unto his people" (Exodus 32:14). Now, I may not be Moses, but I know He can handle it if I question him. He can handle it if I challenge Him. He can handle it. For I will become the God that I wish to see in this world. As it says, "May the glory of God be in their throats and a double-edged sword in their hands" (Psalms 149:6).

And to my uncle, I wish to say, "I do not intend to be disrespectful to God. I do not intend to cause people to stop talking to God. I do not even intend to be angry at God for your terrible death from cancer. I intend to awaken people to think. And to think about what we can do to bring the world to the Time when I will see you again" (Pirkei d'Rabbi Eliezer, ch. 32).