David S. Zinberg

A cruel and unusual theology

It must have been very hard to pay Job a shiva call. What can you say to someone who has just lost everything? All ten children killed in a single day. A prodigious estate decimated by bandits and fire. Then, to deepen his sorrow, indignity, and loneliness, Job’s entire body is wracked with a painful and deforming skin disease.

Yet, three friends found the courage to visit him.

As we all know, however, these were friends with an agenda. They were less interested in consoling Job than in convincing him — and no doubt themselves — in chapter after chapter of pompous sermonizing, that he deserved to suffer because God could not have punished him in vain. Despite your claims of piety and model citizenship, they said while wagging their fingers, you, Job, must have done something wrong. Think hard enough and it will come to you.

Our current experience includes, on some level, elements of mourning. For many of us, the anguish of social isolation is real. Those who are not sick themselves may suffer from the fear that they or a loved one will soon contract our modern global plague. Many have already lost income and some will lose their entire livelihood. Families have been separated. Our lives have been upended by privations large and small, not necessarily comparable to the sufferings of Job, but in ways that are just as tangible, physically, emotionally, and financially.

For millennia since the Book of Job was written, and likely millennia before, religious thinkers and philosophers have struggled with the problem of evil. How could an all-powerful and all-knowing God inflict (or allow) suffering on human beings, especially children, who have never sinned? Like Abraham, people of faith expect God to act justly, and every religion has one or more solutions to this problem. Following major catastrophes in our own history, especially the Holocaust, the problem took on a new urgency, forcing Jewish thinkers to revisit traditional responses.

The temptation to provide a theological exegesis of our current trials may be too great to overcome. Some religious people will always see divine messages in human suffering. And there are multiple variations on the theme: Perhaps the pandemic should be taken as a spur to introspection, a sort of global psychic reset. A more extreme version interprets coronavirus as divine punishment for a whole host of moral and religious sins; a Noah’s flood for our times. Someone even suggested recently that antisemities who blame the Jews for all the world’s ills — including, of course, coronavirus — are actually correct because the Jewish people, as the metaphysical firstborn among the nations, have not modeled ethical behavior to their younger siblings and, therefore, the entire world must suffer on their account.

The problem with some of these ideas is not so much that they are speculative and untestable, but that they are offensive, especially when spoken in front of a world in semi-mourning, seeking comfort instead of rationalization. Yes, you will find theology of this kind in rabbinic literature. But after Auschwitz, the Talmudic rabbis themselves would consider it obsolete. Some ideas do come with an expiration date.

There are many things to say at a shiva visit, but thoughtful and sensitive people will hesitate to serve up theology, even in small portions. As intellectually satisfying as any particular explanation may or may not be, to tell someone in mourning that you have determined the cosmic reason for their loss and suffering is quite literally cold comfort. It is also, of course, supremely arrogant to think that you have discovered the reason.

The rabbinic establishment deserves the highest credit for their wisdom and courage in shutting down our shuls and yeshivot. We appreciate such practical life-saving measures and encourage more of the same.

We should also expect high profile rabbis to exercise humility, empathy, tact, and common sense — the latter known as “sechel” in the vernacular — before pronouncing grandiose solutions to intractable problems, solutions that will satisfy few modern people, and alienate many.

In the final chapter of Job (42:7), God says to Eliphaz the Temanite: “I am incensed at you and your two friends, for you have not spoken the truth about Me as did My servant Job.” What, then, was the truth behind Job’s pain? Because we are not God, we are not supposed to know — that is the book’s message. We can be certain, though, especially now, of this: It is better to offer a hand in true friendship, though it leaves an ultimate problem unresolved, than to speak an ugly untruth.

About the Author
David Zinberg lives in Teaneck, NJ with his wife and three sons and works in financial services.
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