Shmuel Polin
ניט מיט שעלטן/לאַכן קען מען די וועלט איבערמאַכן

Why do bad things happen to good people? A personal response

As clergy people, belief and G-d can be a difficult subject to address with congregants. Our faith is tried, as it is with everyone in difficult and often confusing circumstances. The expectation, however, for members of the clergy is that they have all the answers that people are searching for in theology and that we do not struggle ourselves over troubling theological matters. This expectation is unrealistic and does not actually serve in the interests of ideal leadership. Here is an opportunity to delineate some of my personal struggles with belief and G-d among colleagues: Why do bad things happen to good people? How can a just, compassionate, merciful G-d watch over genocides, murders, rapes, and violent crimes? Why is G-d seemingly not present by intervening in the horrors of the world?

These concerns have been a constant battle for me throughout the last several years of my life. Most recently, I completed a master’s in Holocaust and genocide studies and also lost a relative under painful circumstance. During this challenging time, I struggled with these questions: How could the Holocaust have happened? Why does a just and compassionate G-d simply stand idle and watch people as they are murdered?

My search for answers to these questions led me in all different paths. For a long time I tried to find theological responses to these questions. I expanded my knowledge, taking courses in my master’s program, which offered theological responses to the Holocaust. The theological answers to my questions never satisfied my desire for understanding.

I walked away from these experiences with more questions than answers. I could not stomach the intrusion of G-d and theology on the most godless acts of humanity. It seemed totally inappropriate to try to explain the murder of much of my own family in Europe with Hesder Panim, judgment, messianic or redemption theology. Rabbi Kalonymus Kalmish Shapiro, the Rebbe of Pianseczor, and Zalman Kalmanowicz all offer up compelling thoughts and insights into the Holocaust and theology.

The Piaseczner Rebbe developed an explanation of the catastrophe via the concept of a human-divine partnership in suffering. This is described as Hester Panim (divine hiddenness, the eclipse of G-d). Hashem’s presence—or even absence—in the face of the calamities that befell us was limited for the following reason: G-d’s desire to mourn in privacy from even earlier catastrophes.

Kalmanovitsh had a slightly different approach. European Jewry’s destruction was better explained as an attack by the Nazis on a sacred triad: the Torah, Israel, and G-d. Essentially the War was a conflict with G-d.

However, my search led me to not answering my questions but, rather, reaffirming my empty perplexity with a loud non-answer. It is difficult to understand the Holocaust through Judaism alone. A whirlwind of rabbis all offer different spiritual approaches to explaining the Holocaust. Order from the chaos must be maintained via realism paired with spiritualism. G-d has G-d’s place. It belongs not in the Holocaust or in explaining the murder of close loved ones. Why bad things happen to good people and why genocides occur are not questions that need to be answered.

Where does this analysis lead me? Despite the unanswered questions, I do believe in G-d. I do not doubt G-d’s presence. Wars take place, genocides happen, suffering exists, and people’s lives are cut short every day. We live in a fragile world. However, wars can be prevented. Genocides can be prevented. Murders can be prevented. Such tasks require our work. It is our sacred duty to side with people and organizations that work to protect human rights and victims while being a voice for peace. In working with congregants and ourselves, we must not lose faith in the goodness of humanity. We must always strive for a better tomorrow. Deep theological explanations that address these issues just do not cut it for me. I feel greater satisfaction reaffirming my faith and belief with acts of love and kindness with the thought in mind of creating a better tomorrow. Love, kindness, protecting victims and human rights actually invites G-d into our world— one that often is seemingly empty of his/its/her presence.

About the Author
Rabbi Shmuel Polin is the Rabbi of Etz Chaim Congregation - Monroe Township Jewish Center on Monroe Township, New Jersey. A New Jersey native, he completed his B.A. at American University in Washington D.C. where he studied Jewish Studies and International Studies. He also completed both an M.A. in Holocaust and Genocide Studies and an M.A. in Jewish Studies from Gratz College of Melrose Park, Pennsylvania. His thesis focused on the depiction of European antisemitism in 1930's-1940's American and foreign cinema. Subsequent to both of masters programs, Rabbi Polin graduated with a third Masters in Hebrew Letters and received his Semikhah (Rabbinic ordination) from the Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, Ohio. Shmuel has years of experience of teaching Hebrew School at Kehillat HaNahar of New Hope, Pennsylvania, leading as a student rabbi at Beth Boruk Temple (Richmond, Indiana) and Temple Israel (Paducah, Kentucky), and also working for Israeli non-governmental organizations.
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