Tell Them I've Had a Good Enough Life:
A Religious Response to Suffering

The problem of evil has long been the greatest philosophical challenge to traditional religion. This conundrum often leads people in one of two directions. Either they adopt a rationalistic theodicy that too easily assumes it can explain everything, or they assume an agnostic position that denies Divine involvement in human affairs. Rabbi Carmy calls for a third alternative of "pious acceptance" in which the sufferer accepts Godís providential role but does not presume to know how God works. To get to this third position, one must abandon the third-person perspective of "forensic theodicy," a perspective that lends itself to neat intellectual categories, and adopt the first-person perspective of how real people deal with their tribulations.

This third position demands seeing Divine management of the world as a balance between general providence and individual providence. Any position that ignores the latter forsakes our traditional understanding of Divine concern for each individual person. Any position that ignores the former runs the risk of arrogance in assuming constant worthiness for acute providence and loses the important religious emotion of pained distance from God. Rabbi Carmy utilizes an idea from Rav Soloveitchik that each person can act either as "species man" or as a creative individual. Only the latter renders man worthy of individual providence. A blind individual can decide to see his ailment as part of the natural order, or he can view it as a challenge calling him to a unique destiny.

Rabbi Carmy notes that both Rav Soloveitchik and Rav Avraham Grodzinski (the last mashgiah in the Slobodka yeshiva) write about religious growth emerging from suffering while strenuously avoiding the rabbinic term for undeserved and yet beneficial suffering, "yissurin shel ahavah." He explains their terminological reticence with the idea that explicit categorizing of particular difficulties makes our understanding seem definitive when we truly do not know precisely why we suffer. Nevertheless we can still try to respond positively to that suffering. The modernist will not like this position as it takes seriously the possibility that we suffer due to sin, and that the suffering should challenge us, when the modernist only wants therapeutic comfort. In general, the posture that conveys our normal religious experience conceives of God sitting in judgment on mankind rather than the other way around.

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Torah U-Madda Journal 8 (1998-1999): 56-96. (© RIETS )

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