Bookstore Glossary Library Links News Publications Timeline Virtual Israel Experience
Anti-Semitism Biography History Holocaust Israel Israel Education Myths & Facts Politics Religion Travel US & Israel Vital Stats Women
donate subscribe Contact About Home


The presence of suffering in the world poses a problem for religion insofar as it seems to contradict the notion of an all powerful benevolent God. It would seem that if God were good, He would not want His creatures to suffer, and if, all powerful, He would be able to prevent their suffering. Judaism has attempted to cope with the problem of suffering in various ways. The Bible is from the very beginning aware of suffering as a characteristic of human existence (Gen. 3:19; Job 5:7), as is rabbinic Judaism (PR 189b). In kabbalistic doctrine the existence of the world and man as distinct from God by definition entails the pain of separation from God. A similar position is taken by Leibnitz when he defines suffering in the "best of all possible worlds" as a necessary feature of finiteness, and Paul *Weiss when he says "No matter how good and concerned God might be, there is always metaphysical evil to mark the fact that the universe is not God and God not the universe" (N. Glatzer (ed.), The Dimensions of Job (1969), 193).

Philosophical Explanations

Some religious philosophies overcome suffering by denying either its importance (Stoicism) or its reality (Spinoza), or by seeking release from existence in the world (Buddhism). A certain other-worldly emphasis is also characteristic of certain types of Christian thought. Augustine formulated the classic philosophical view of evil which states that since everything that exists must have been created by God and must be good, evil is not an existent but is merely privation, i.e., the absence of good. This essentially neoplatonic doctrine also has a long tradition in Jewish philosophy, Maimonides being among those who adopted this view (Guide of the Perplexed, 3:8–25). While he does not deny that suffering does exist, he believes that the particular evils which befall one are for the good of the universe as a whole. He opposes the doctrine that the innocent sometimes suffer in order to be rewarded in the *olam ha-ba, holding that all suffering is punishment for priorly committed sins (Guide, 24). Among modern Jewish philosophers, Buber holds that evil is really only a "turning away" from the good toward "nothingness." He adhered to this view even after the Holocaust, explaining that there is a turning away that is so far gone that it can never be turned back (M. Buber, Good and Evil, 1952). Judaism in its nonphilosophic form acknowledges the utter reality of evil and suffering. Indeed, God Himself is often described as suffering with man. Man is challenged to remedy suffering wherever it can be remedied, and to endure it without complaining wherever it is irremediable. M. Bred in Heidentum, Christentum, Judentum (2 vols., 1921) considers the attitude toward suffering the major distinguishing factor between Judaism and Christianity.

Compassion for the Suffering of Others

Judaism demands that man extend active sympathy toward the suffering of others. So that it may be remediable, the essence of suffering must be perceived not in death or natural catastrophes but in illness and poverty. "The poor are God's people," and they exist so that others may help others out of their poverty (BB 10a). Man is admonished to share in the suffering of the community and not enjoy himself while others are suffering (Ta'an. 11a). The historic Jewish penchant for medicine and social reform may have its source in the biblical and rabbinic attitude toward suffering. It is forbidden, according to Jewish law, to inflict suffering on animals (ẓa'ar ba'alei ḥayyim; BM 32a; Ex. 20:10). With the coming of the Messiah, illness, poverty, and even death will be abolished (Ex. R. 46:4).

Punishment and Purification

The primary traditional explanation of suffering is that it constitutes punishment for sin: "When a man sees that he is being chastised let him examine his ways" (Ber. 5a; Sanh. 27b). There is a didactic element in this explanation insofar as it encourages man to refrain from sin in order to avoid suffering. However, it is difficult to uphold this explanation in the face of the suffering of the innocent and the prosperity of the wicked (Jer. 19:1, Eccles. 7:15, Job). One way of coping with the moral imbalance in the world is to formulate a doctrine of *reward and punishment in the *afterlife. Another explanation of the existence of suffering is that it is a process of purification. The Talmud terms such suffering "afflictions of love" (yissurin shel ahavah). Suffering was thought to be the ultimate form of divine purification leading to unio mystica (A. Rote, Shomer Emunim, 1 (1959), 111a, ch. 8). Nevertheless there is room within Judaism for protest to be leveled at God when suffering is thought to be undeserved. Among those who reproached God for inflicting suffering unjustly were *Abraham, *Job, and *Ḥoni ha-Me'aggel, and *Levi Isaac of Berdichev. The *Holocaust has in the 20th century aroused much concern with the problem of suffering.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.