At times of tragedy, the question invariably arises: where is God now?
Whether due to natural disasters (ironically labelled “acts of God” by insurance companies), or humanly induced suffering, the question is posited overtly or lies just beneath the surface.
In our personal or communal grief, we ask: How could God let this happen?
One of the great problems of theology is theodicy- God’s justice in an unjust world, God’s goodness in the midst of evil.
We know from the great diversity of Jewish thought on this most difficult and painful issue that there is no one answer. A recent book, Thinking About Good and Evil: Jewish Views by Rabbi Wayne Allen finds no fewer than thirty-five different Jewish responses to the question.
Perhaps even more importantly, we know from the great tribulations of Jewish history that people will react in all kinds of ways. Some will find faith; others will lose it. Some will praise God; others will challenge God.
Some will do both. There is a venerable tradition that extends from Abraham’s challenge to God at the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah to the Hasidic master Rabbi Levi Yitzhak’s “Lawsuit to God” of a Jewish theology of protest. The Talmud even coins an expression for challenging God in this spirit: chutzpah k’lapei shemaya, which some translate as “holy chutzpah”.
Elie Wiesel, in A Jew Today, affirms this dialectic of praise and protest, “Of course man must interrogate God, as did Abraham… But only the Jew opts for Abraham—who questions, and for God-who-is- questioned… Only the Jew knows that he may oppose God so long as he does so in defense of His creation.”
In his bestselling When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Rabbi Harold Kushner, who passed away last April, offered another perspective. Coming to terms with the tragedy of losing his own son, Kushner retained belief, but, provocatively, in a God limited by nature and human nature: “I no longer hold God responsible for illnesses, accidents, and natural disasters, because I realize I gain little and I lose so much when I blame God for those things. I can worship a God who hates suffering but cannot eliminate it, more easily that I can worship a God who chooses to make children suffer and die, for whatever exalted reason.”
Kushner adds, “Our responding to life’s unfairness with sympathy and with righteous indignation, God’s compassion and God’s anger working though us, may be the surest proof of all of God’s reality. “
In these tragic times, may our search for faith both sustain us and stir us.