PERHAPS THE OLDEST QUESTION in the history of monotheism is “why do bad things happen to good people?” The reason this question is specific to monotheism is quite simple. To the atheist of course there is no question; there is no judgment and there is no judge. To the believer in multiple gods there is no question either, because what might be a value to one god might not be to another. Furthermore, the gods in such a system would not be of unlimited power, and therefore would not necessarily be able to prevent bad things happening to good people. But to a believer in classical monotheism, that is in one God, who values good and has unlimited power, the concept of bad things happening to good people has always presented a challenge.
Throughout the traditional literature we find this issue brought up numerous times. The biblical book of Job bases itself around this problem. According to the sages of the Talmud, Moses himself struggled with this problem, and quite possibly never received a satisfactory answer. Throughout the ages various solutions have been proposed, with each commentator presenting another approach; each attacking the problem from another angle. I doubt that I can add anything to the plethora of commentary and give-and-take that is already on the table, and I cannot say that I know enough to state definitively what “the Jewish perspective” is. However, be that as it may, I wish to explore one general way of looking at things, which might hopefully shed a clearer light on one of the angles which is often neglected by the more traditionally inclined.
There is an interesting passage in the Talmud in which a number of dialogues between the sages and the roman philosophers are recounted. One of them goes as follows:
ת"ר: שאלו פלוסופין את הזקנים ברומי: אם אלהיכם אין רצונו בעבודת כוכבים מפני מה אינו מבטלה? אמרו להם: אילו לדבר שאין העולם צורך לו היו עובדין, הרי הוא מבטלה. הרי הן עובדין לחמה וללבנה ולכוכבים ולמזלות! יאבד עולם מפני השוטים?! אלא עולם כמנהגו נוהג, ושוטים שקלקלו עתידין ליתן את הדין. דבר אחר: הרי שגזל סאה של חטים [והלך] וזרעה בקרקע, דין הוא שלא תצמח! אלא עולם כמנהגו, נוהג והולך ושוטים שקלקלו עתידין ליתן את הדין. דבר אחר: הרי שבא על אשת חבירו, דין הוא שלא תתעבר! אלא עולם כמנהגו נוהג והולך, ושוטים שקלקלו עתידין ליתן את הדין.
Our Rabbis taught: Philosophers asked the elders in Rome, “If your God has no desire for idolatry, why does he not abolish it?” They replied, “If it were something which the world has no need for that was worshipped, he would abolish it; but people worship the sun, moon, stars and planets; should he destroy the universe on account of fools?! Rather the world runs its natural course, and as for the fools who act wrongly, they will have to render an account. Another illustration: Suppose a man stole a measure of wheat and went and sowed it in the ground; it would make sense that it should not grow! But the world runs its natural course, and as for the fools who act wrongly, they will have to render an account. Another illustration: Suppose a man has intercourse with his neighbor’s wife; it would makes sense that she should not conceive! But the world runs its natural course, and as for the fools who act wrongly, they will have to render an account.”
To me, this Gemara is completely revolutionizing the concept of free will. But before elaborating on this I would like to try and develop another idea.
Try the following thought experiment: Ten immature, uneducated and disrespectful children are put into your care, and it is your job to instill them with a sense of camaraderie and mutual respect. You have two options, and you are guaranteed that both of the options will be at least somewhat effective. One option is to discipline them appropriately, punishing them for every questionable act and keeping them perfectly in line, until it won’t be long before being good is the only way they know. The second option is to let anarchy reign. Stand on the sidelines and make sure nothing gets too far out of hand, but by-and-large let them go crazy and beat the living daylights out of each other until eventually they come to the realization – on their own – that this is not the way to live, and they chart their own course toward camaraderie mutual respect. This way they end up in the same place as they would have had they been disciplined, though after a much longer period of time, and coupled with multiple bruises and cuts and what not.
If not for time constraints and angry parents, and perhaps fears that it wouldn’t work out perfectly, I would certainly choose the second way. That is because in the first way the discipline is coming from an outside source; it is me, it is not them. Therefore it would mean less to them; it wouldn’t be as real to them. Even if the effect were to last just as long, I would rather instill them with these values in a way that would mean something deeply real to them, than in a way that would be just rote, based on what they had been forced into. Because life without meaning is worthless, and so the more meaning there is in something one does, the more value one’s own life has. In the second way they did it themselves. It is real to them. It has meaning.
Several traditional sources state that the purpose God has in mind for man is to reach the greatest perfection humanly possible. That perfection includes doing what is good and right, but not merely out of rote, rather out of an extremely developed sense of self that has found meaning in doing what is good and right. This is because without such meaning the self has not been perfected to its deepest core; it is merely the acts which the person does which are perfect. If God wanted robots he could have made robots. But God doesn’t want robots. He wants human beings. He wants a civilization of humans who have developed themselves to the extent that they are good to their very core.
Let’s return to the Talmudic passage mentioned above. The philosophers asked the sages, “Why doesn’t God get involved? Why does he not stop evil?” Their answer is simple and straightforward. God doesn’t take apart the world to change people’s actions. He stands on the sidelines, allowing the world to run its natural course. Why? I think the intention here is that he is analogous to the warden of the children. God doesn’t get involved, because he wants the world to evolve into a moral and a spiritually connected community on its own. Because he wants it to be real.
This is why bad things happen to good people. Jewish tradition asserts that there is a concept of an afterlife and that there will be a future accounting for all of our actions – so it will work out in the end anyway. But in this world, indeed, bad things happen to good people, and for no reason other than that God chooses to stand on the sidelines.
IN NO WAY AM I DENYING that God can get involved. Neither am I denying that God might choose to get involved for one reason or another. Indeed, the obligation of prayer is proof that Judaism maintains that God does, at times, get involved in human affairs. I am only arguing that the default position of God is at the sidelines, and that in general he allows nature to run its natural course, because doing so is the only way of achieving the main purpose of all our existence.
Again, this is only a suggestion of one possible way of looking at things. Also, I think that even with this way of looking at things it is possible to differentiate between times and places; for example, if there should be a community at any given time that has reached close to the highest levels, perhaps God would get involved more and openly strike down evildoers and reward righteous people, because it is already real to them. In such a scenario, God getting involved would only be stopping them from losing what they had already built rather than turning them into robots. All this requires further thought.