Amongst theologians and practicing members of religion, indeed, amongst all those who believe in a God, there exists a problem which is so fundamental as to reach to the core of Humanity’s struggle to understand the world. Over the centuries, philosophers of all stripes have grappled with this issue, suggesting a myriad of different interpretations and responses to a seemingly unsolvable riddle.
If God is good and just, why does Evil exist in the world?
Theodicy – rationalising the existence of Evil with an all-good omnipotent God – is a practice in which nearly every major religious thinker has engaged. Yet, over three millennia after the revelation at Sinai, Moses’ cry still echoes loud and clear, “If you are pleased with me, teach me your ways so I may know you and continue to find favour with you.” (Exodus 33:13)
Opposite this claim of God’s omnipotence stands another, equally fundamental belief. Man has free will. “Pay attention! I place before you today a blessing and a curse,” Moses instructs the Jewish people in the plains of Moav, “The blessing, that you will heed the commandments of the Lord your God, which I command you today; and the curse, if you will not heed the commandments of the Lord your God, but turn away from the way I command you this day, to follow other gods, which you did not know.” (Deuteronomy 11:26-28)
For Maimonides, the Torah’s very existence would be for naught if man did not have free will.
Freedom of choice has been granted to every man: if he desires to turn toward a good path and be righteous, the ability to do so is in his hands; and if he desires to turn toward an evil path and be wicked, the ability to do so is in his hands…
This concept is a fundamental principle and a pillar of the Torah and its commandments. As it is written [Deuteronomy 30:15]: “See, I have set before you life [and good, and death and evil]” and “See, I set before you today [a blessing and a curse]”… For were G-d to decree that a person be righteous or wicked, or if there were to exist something in the very essence of a person’s nature which would compel him toward a specific path, a specific conviction, a specific character trait or a specific deed…how could G-d command us through the prophets “do this” and “do not do this,”…? What place would the entire Torah have? And by what measure of justice would G-d punish the wicked and reward the righteous…? (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance 5:1–3)
We are left at an impasse, faced with the same problem that has plagued theologians since time immemorial. Who’s in control? Us, or God?
Professor Jose Faur, in his paradigm-shifting work The Horizontal Society, argues that God has wilfully relinquished His omnipotence; “Without God’s wilful disconnection from omniscience, no dialogue between Him and man could take place” (Faur, 37). He compares God to a conductor of an orchestra. “During the entire performance, the conductor stands with his back to the public. … In this fashion, the conductor conducts the audience and leads it to the realm of music.” (ibid, 38). Quoting Canetti, Faur continues, “During the whole performance of a work they never see his face. He is merciless: there are no intervals for rest. They see his back always in front of them, as though it were their goal” (Canetti, cited ibid). Faur then writes, “One thing is evident. The conductor is the supreme master of the orchestra and the audience. The musical score – like the Cosmic Book of Creation – lies before his eyes alone” (ibid).
In a similar vein, R JB Soloveitchik, famously known as “the Rav”, writes in perhaps one of his greatest works, Kol Dodi Dofek,
Evil is an undeniable fact. There is evil, there is suffering, there are hellish torments in this world… Evil, which can neither be explained nor comprehended, does exist. Only if man could grasp the world as a whole would he be able to gain a perspective on the essential nature of evil. However, as long as man’s apprehension is limited and distorted, as long as he perceives only isolated fragments of the cosmic drama and the mighty epic of history, he remains unable to penetrate into the secret lair of suffering and evil. (Soloveitchik, Fate and Destiny, 4–6).
What remains then, from our position in the crowd, is to exercise our free will, to act in the best way possible in each situation. R Aharon Lichtenstein writes on the idea of trusting in God even in the darkest of times,
Obviously, this approach … does not attempt to scatter the clouds of misfortune … try to raise expectations or strive to whitewash a dark future. It does not claim that “It will work out for the best,” either individually or nationally. On the contrary, it expresses a steadfast commitment – even if the outcome will be bad, we will remain reliant and connected to God. We will remain faithful until the end and shall not exchange out trust in God for the dependence on man. This approach does not claim that God will remain at our side; rather it asks us to remain at His side.
Naturally this approach is much less popular than its counterpart. A demand is always less marketable than a promise. For one who makes an honest assessment, though, this approach also functions as a source of solace and strength. In truth, this approach presents not just a demand but also a message. Being disconnected from God constitutes the greatest tragedy that can befall a person. When the Torah states, “To Him you shall cleave” (Devarim 13:5), it simultaneously expresses a demand as well as an opportunity. Similarly, the psalmist’s call, “Israel, trust in God” (Tehillim 115:9), constitutes both a demand and an opportunity. (Lichtenstein, By His Light, 143–144).
Quite often, we find that despite our best efforts to the contrary, things happen in our life that are not good. Tragedy strikes, and we are left to pick up the pieces. Perhaps, it is in those times, more than any other, those times when God has pressed His proverbial thumb down on our plans, that we must exercise our free will, as R Aharon writes above. Perhaps it in those moments that we must remember the verse, “Many are the thoughts of man, but it is God’s will alone which endures” (Proverbs 19:21). Perhaps, it is in those times that we must choose blessing, even if it is hard to see.