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Miscellaneous thoughts and ramblings
Tuesday, June 19, 2007
"There is no suffering without sin."

Professor David Shatz has just quoted what he says is most talmud-learned people's response to the question of why bad things happen. But, he says, people don't seem to be aware that this was not a generic statement uttered by the anonymous sages, but a specific argument of a particular man, Rav Ami.

Dr. Shatz is speaking at the Fourth Annual Ariel Avrech ZT'L Yahrtzeit Lecture in Los Angeles. And he says that at the end of this passage in the Talmud (I apologize for forgetting which tractate), the rabbis refute this statement. Rava (in Moed Kattan, I think - I knew I should have saved the source sheet) went as far as to say that suffering is determined by nothing but "mazal." (Mazal can mean anything from luck to zodiac sign, but I think here it has to do with some sort of mystical flow of the universe or something.)

An aside: Early in my returning-to-Judaism years, I was a guest at a family's Shabbat table. Someone mentioned that a neighbor was recently hit by car. I'll never forget what the mother of the family said, without hesitation: "She must not have given enough tzedakah." I was repulsed by this sentiment. I'm afraid she's not the only religious person - of any religion - to have such an attitude.

The topic of this year's lecture was "Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik on the Problem of Evil." The Rav (Rabbi Soloveitchik, that is), being the Rav, frames the discussion in halachic terms. I forget the exact parameters that the professor laid out, so please bear with me. He spoke of two approaches to halacha (Jewish law): the topical and the, um, sub-topical. That which goes deeper, I suppose. He used the example of Shabbat.

Shabbat, in purely legalistic terms, is a day of things you must do and thing you must not do. That's the topical view of Shabbat. But of course Shabbat is much more than that; it's a day in which we withdraw from the material and attempt to create a spiritual oasis. We focus on our families, and hopefully on God and on our souls as well.

But just like we cannot remove the yoke of the positive and negative rules on Shabbat regardless of whether we are achieving our spiritual ideals, so too we cannot abandon what is required of us when it comes to suffering and to evil. Namely, alleviating suffering and squashing evil.

On this point Dr. Shatz admitted that the Rav went even further, and basically focused exclusively on the topical. That is, the meaning of suffering is almost irrelevant - what's important is how we respond to it. And we must respond in full force to remove it, from ourselves and from others.

I agree with that sentiment up to a point. That is, we cannot allow ourselves to come to the conclusion that suffering and evil have meaning and therefore should be allowed to flourish. And I guess there is some danger of this happening - could there be an inkling of this sentiment behind pacifism? In any case, the Talmud in Brachot states that even if we know that some good will come out of a negatve event - let's say you know that the heavy rain that destroyed your crops this year will actually help your crops next year - you still must relate to it in the here-and-now. So in this sense, the meaning really is irrelevant.

And yet this avoids the initial question. At the end of the lecture, Dr. Shatz brought a Ramban stating that we must investigate the cause of negative events because people want peace of mind. The professor said that this disparity of approach reflects the Rav's worldview that the religious personality should be one of tension and conflict. Ultimately, however, I don't think that assigning reason to bad things removes conflict. While that might seem counterintuitive, I think it's because it pits the intellect against the emotion. And intellect and emotions have to co-exist.

Before the lecture, I read Rabbi Yitchok Kirzner's Making Sense of Suffering. This book records a series of lectures that Rabbi Kirzner delivered when he himself was going through some sort of life crises (the editors don't mention what it was). Rabbi Kirzner lays out the traditional Jewish response to suffering. Some examples, to put it simplistically, are to bring the sufferer to repent, or to give some pain in this world in order to remove it from the next.

According to Dr. Shatz, the Rav would respond that these explanations provide their own conflicts: if someone needs to suffer for a particular reason, then this means that helping that person would actually be a disservice! After all, alleviating suffering in these cases would mean either that you are holding back a person from necessary repentance, or ensuring that his experience in the next world will be worse than it could be.

I see the point, here of course. But I think it's almost too on-the-nose. If we're engaging in speculation, then why not say that the suffering that occurs before or despite necessary intervention is what we're finding meaning for. Doesn't this merge the two sides just a bit? In other words, just as (in a halachic system) making Shabbat beautiful takes for granted that the rules are being followed, can't the search for meaning within evil take for granted that we are striving to end that evil?

But of course our question is so much more emotional than the issue of creating a Shabbat atmosphere. This is one of the points that Rabbi Kirzner makes, and that I hinted at above. That while one may understand the tradition's search for meaning, it doesn't necessarily reduce the emotional impact of a bad event any easier to swallow - nor should it.

Here's how it breaks down in my mind. The emotional aspect is for the public sphere: we fight injustice. We visit the sick. We comfort the mourner. We say kaddish.

The intellectual aspect is for the private sphere. We can assign meaning to our own suffering - we can use it as an impetus to change ourselves or change the world. But it is no one's place to tell someone else why they are suffering, or its implications. Not only is it meaningless, it is destructive (and, let's face it, obnoxious).

Rabbi Kirzner's book is actually more about spirituality, in my opinion. Yes, it lists the traditional approaches to suffering. But I found that most of the content was about connecting to God.

Please note that this post represents my recollections of the lecture. I apologize in advance any errors on my part in reporting Dr. Shatz's presentation. For a better view, see his book, which his lecture was based on: Out of the Whirlwind
Am glad and proud to have attended Ariel's zt'l memorial lecture with you. Just linked to your worthy summary.
woops! "anonymous" = me
Thanks Big J!
This may be the first time in history that the Rav was quoted so extensively directly after the phrase "Pimp Juice."
Were you taking notes? If not, you have an amazing memory - thanks for the recap.
Yehudit- thanks for the kind words. I was not taking notes, and my memory usually isn't that great. Must have been the apple fritters that seared - seared - it into my brain.

Thanks so much for attending, this your second year in a row. Greatly enjoyed meeting Mrs. Ralphie.

Fine, fine summary. You do have a great memory.
Thanks for having us!

Did I mention you had more flavors of coffee there than Starbucks?
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