by Rabbi Dovid Gottleib
Why do the innocent suffer? The question is thousands of years old. Jewish sources, from the earliest to the latest, address themselves to it. It
occurs to every thinking person with an interest in religion. We all know cases of good people who suffer terrible agonies for no obvious reason.
From a religious perspective this disturbs us because it seems to contradict certain basic Jewish beliefs. In particular, we believe (1) God is
omniscient (He knows everything); (2) God is omnipotent (He can do anything); (3) God is just. If these beliefs are correct, how is it possible
that innocent people suffer? If God is omniscient, then He knows about their suffering. If He is omnipotent, then He could prevent or relieve it.
If He is just, then He ought to prevent or relieve it. Since the innocent suffer, it seems that at least one of the above statements must not be
true. This is the problem of evil: The obvious fact of undeserved suffering seems to prove that at least one basic Jewish belief is false.
The Jewish sources respond to this problem by offering a variety of explanations for suffering. Each explanation does one of two things:
a) It may show that what appears to be innocent suffering really is not: The person may be guilty of crimes which make his suffering quite just.
This type of explanation denies the "obvious fact" of undeserved suffering in the cases to which it applies.
b) It may appeal to the fact that, although God is just, He is not only just. Other moral considerations like mercy and goodness may outweigh
justice in particular cases. This type of explanation solves the [apparent] contradiction between undeserved suffering by rejecting [God's
"justness"] as too narrow. A more complete description of God's moral attributes allows the possibility of suffering which justice alone could
Before we survey some of those explanations, we need to take account of two methodological points. First: The Jewish explanation of suffering
will be general and not specific. In order to understand the difference between general and specific explanations, consider this example. Ask a
physicist why, when a leaf falls from a tree, it lands where it does, and he can produce a complete list of relevant factors: The force of
gravity, motion of the air, mass and aerodynamic properties of the leaf, etc., together determine the leaf's downward path.
Now suppose there is a leaf still attached to the tree, and we ask the physicist to mark the exact spot on the ground where it will land when it
falls ten seconds from now. He cannot do it. Does this show that his explanation of why the leaf falls (gravity, air motion, etc.) is wrong? Not
at all -- he has cited all the relevant factors, but he cannot quantify them in a particular case. He cannot ascertain the exact motion of all
the molecules of air in the vicinity, the exact aerodynamic characteristics of the leaf and so on. His explanation applies to leaves generally,
but cannot be applied in detail to any specific leaf.
Similarly, the Jewish explanations of suffering will apply generally, but will not be able to explain in detail particular cases of suffering. We
will examine 12 different principles, each of which explains some type of suffering. Together they can explain any realistic case of suffering we
could imagine. But if asked about a particular person or community, or a particular historical event, we will not be able to say in detail which
principles are relevant to what degree. This inability does not invalidate our general explanation any more than the physicist's inability to
predict the exact landing point of the leaf invalidates his explanation of why the leaf falls.
The second methodological point is this. There are two different ways in which an action can be justified -- via the past or via the future.
These types of justification are independent of one another, and may even conflict. For example, suppose you sign a contract with a worker
agreeing to pay him $200 for a week's labor. On Friday afternoon he presents himself with his supervisor's positive evaluation. He has fulfilled
his part of the contract; you are now obligated to fulfill yours and pay him. To withhold his pay would be unjustified. These judgments appeal
only to the past. Given the contract you signed and his work, the wages must be paid.
By contrast, suppose a stranger requests $200 for an operation. You may regard this as an obligation of charity and feel that you ought to give
him the money. To refuse would be unjustified, given his need and your economic resources. Here the considerations are all future -- the medical
difference the money will make to him (in comparison to what the money could do for you). The past is irrelevant. You don't owe him money; he has
not earned it. Only the future use of the money justifies the gift.
To see how past justification and future justification may conflict, let's go back to your worker. As you are making out his check, you get a
telephone call from his social worker. She tells you that he is planning to use the money to buy a gun to shoot his wife and urges you not to pay
him. "I know you signed a contract," she says, "but you will be aiding him in a terrible crime if you pay him." You now have a dilemma. In terms
of the past you owe him the money and it is wrong to withhold it. In terms of the future it is wrong to help him commit murder. So the conflict
between past and future justification is clear. And if you should decide not to pay him, you are weighing future considerations more heavily than
Now let's analyze the problem of evil in terms of the two types of justification. What is the problem about -- past or future justification? The
answer is past. The problem concerns innocent people suffering. Innocence refers to the past: Up until the time of suffering he is blameless and
therefore his suffering seems unjustified. Since the problem concerns past justification, there are two different ways to approach it.
(1) We can deal with it on its own terms and try to justify suffering by appeal to the past. This will mean denying the innocence of the
sufferer; contrary to appearances, perhaps he deserves to suffer. In such cases the problem is solved by denying the "obvious fact" of undeserved
(2) We can expand our view to take account of future considerations as well. This means we admit that some innocent people suffer, but we take
account of the positive good that suffering produces and argue that the good outweighs the evil. On balance, then, the suffering is justified
even though the sufferer is innocent.
Jewish sources apply both approaches. Some explanations show that the supposedly innocent sufferer really deserves his suffering. Others show
that the suffering is instrumental in creating some future good. The goal is to justify the suffering by a combination of the explanations. By
"combination" I mean two things. (1) No one explanation alone is expected to cover all cases of suffering. (2) Some cases may be justified only
by applying several explanations together. In general terms, it may be that the sufferer is not so innocent as we thought, and therefore deserves
some portion of his suffering; the rest of his suffering, which is undeserved in terms of the past, is justified by the good it serves to create.
If we take into account the fact that explanations may apply to different cases in different degrees, we see that even a few particular
explanations can generate a great variety of justifications for suffering. To solve the problem of evil we need to find enough particular
explanations so that for any case of suffering, some combination of explanations could justify it. We shall see that Jewish sources do indeed
solve the problem of evil.
We often see someone suffering and ask: "Why him? He is such a kind, considerate person, etc. -- surely he doesn't deserve to suffer like that!"
Our surprise depends upon our evaluation of his innocence. That evaluation can be questioned in a variety of ways.
#1 - How well do we know the sufferer? Perhaps there is a darker side to his life of which we are unaware. A woman once approached me with a
horrifying tale of abuse at the hands of her husband. When I suggested she try to apply community pressure through the local rabbi, she answered:
"You don't understand. The minute he walks out the front door he is a different person. To the community he is warm, friendly, generous -- a
model neighbor. Only I know the evil of which he is capable." Now imagine some misfortune strikes her husband. The community will be dismayed
even though the suffering is deserved. This case illustrates the first principle of past justification: The suffering is deserved due to unknown
facts of the sufferer's life.
#2 - How do we judge that a person does not deserve to suffer? "He is a good husband and father, he pays his taxes, he volunteers for community
projects..." The list may go on as long as you like -- at the end we have to conclude that it is enough. In order to draw that conclusion we need
to know that we have taken account of all human responsibilities. If we have omitted some from consideration, our judgment is incompetent.
The Talmud (Shabbos 55a) recounts that certain people at the fall of the First Temple were marked for destruction. To the objection that these
people were righteous, the Talmud answers that in terms of their individual responsibilities they were indeed exemplary, but they did not make
sufficient effort to try to improve their neighbors. In other words, if we ignore this particular aspect of social responsibility then we must
judge them undeserving of suffering. Thus any judgment that suffering is undeserved presupposes that we have not left some human responsibility
out of consideration.
This gives us the second principle of past justification: The suffering is deserved due to the sufferer's failure with respect to human
responsibilities of which we have failed to take account.
#3 - Even if we assume that we know the sufferer's life in all detail and that our list of human responsibilities is complete, our judgment that
he does not deserve to suffer is still open to question. When we say that he does not deserve to suffer -- that he is innocent -- what do we
mean? Perfectly innocent? If only the perfectly innocent do not deserve to suffer, then the problem of evil has a very simple solution: Almost no
one is perfectly innocent!
In fact the problem is much broader than that. Often we judge that even though a person is not perfectly innocent, the amount of guilt he has
does not justify his amount of suffering. In other words, we make a comparative judgment: His suffering is out of proportion to his guilt. How is
this judgment made? When we compare his life to our list of responsibilities we do not require a perfect score. All that is required is a score
so high that his suffering is too much. How high a score is that? How can we determine the amount of suffering appropriate to any given state of
The Jewish sources regard this question as unanswerable. For, God judges a person in terms of his innate capacities and life circumstances. An
action which is accounted for Moses a great failure would be for us a trivial mistake. "God is exacting with His close ones to a hair's breadth!"
(Talmud - Yevamos 121b)
Now even if we can evaluate a person's performance vis-a-vis human responsibilities in general, we cannot know in detail what resources he
brought to the task. I cannot know in detail your personal strengths and weaknesses, the extent to which you must struggle to accomplish moral
and spiritual goals. So I have no way of knowing whether your accomplishment represents a heroic effort and deserves great credit, or is far less
then you could have achieved.
This gives us the third principle of past justification: The suffering is deserved because the sufferer is being judged by a higher standard due
to his greater abilities.
#4 - Another important type of past justification considers self-induced suffering (Maimonides, Guide of the Perplexed, 3:12; Beis Elokim, Shaar
HaTeshuvah, chap. 9). A great many of our illnesses and accidents are caused by distorted values and lack of self-control. How much heart
disease, not to mention mental illness, results from pursuing unnecessary luxuries? Smoking, excess drinking, poor diet, lack of exercise, etc.,
take an enormous physical toll; anger, pride, jealousy and other undesirable character traits create tremendous emotional strain (which has its
own physical consequences).
A significant portion of our resources -- both physical and human -- are wasted on war, degrading "entertainment," inter-personal and
inter-social competition, and trivial pursuits, instead of improving the quality of life. It is obviously not appropriate to blame God for
suffering which is caused by any of these or other similarly irresponsible actions.
#5 - The final principle of past justification is reincarnation: Even though his actions in this life do not justify his suffering, it is
justified when his actions in his previous life (or lives) are taken into account. It comes as a surprise to many that reincarnation is a Jewish
belief. Nevertheless, it is there in the sources (Winkler, The Soul of the Matter), and is obviously relevant to the problem of evil.
How do these principles of past justification affect the problem of evil? Strictly speaking they would be sufficient to solve the problem by
themselves. Given any case of suffering it could always be argued that the suffering is deserved due to unknown aspects of the sufferer's life,
responsibilities which we failed to take into consideration, a higher standard of judgment, his own irresponsible behavior, and/or reincarnation.
We could not know in any case that none of these principles applies. (Even the difficult cases of children suffering is covered by the fifth
principle.) Thus we could simply deny the "obvious fact" of undeserved suffering and solve the problem in its own terms. But many Jewish sources
do not stop here, and so we turn to the second approach to the problem.
We are now going to examine principles which help justify suffering -- even when it is undeserved -- by considering the good which suffering
#6 - This physical world is designed so that man should have free will (Luzzato, The Way of God). It is free will that makes man more than a
puppet (or robot) -- that makes his actions and his life significant and meaningful, especially in moral terms. In addition, free will exercised
in morally significant situations enables man to earn his ultimate reward, and that makes the reward greater in a certain crucial respect. For
these reasons (among others) free will and its consequences are regarded as overwhelmingly valuable. Now let's examine the presuppositions of
Imagine that Peter hates Paul and wants to do away with him. Peter climbs to his roof holding a high-powered rifle with a telescopic sight and
locates Paul in the cross hairs. However, as he pulls the trigger a breeze springs up and blows the bullet astray. When he tries again, a muscle
spasm pulls the rifle off target. A third attempt causes the rifle to jam. Eventually Peter gives up trying to shoot Paul and decides to poison
his milk instead. But his wife feeds the milk to their cat. Finally when Peter plants a bomb on Paul's car, his car is stolen and the bomb
explodes harmlessly in a forest. How long will it take for Peter to realize that there is something that will not let Paul die?
Now imagine Peter's experience expanded to include every attempt to inflict undeserved pain on another -- every such attempt is frustrated by
some unforeseen power. How long will it take mankind to realize that causing others undeserved pain is impossible? And once it is seen to be
impossible, it is no longer a serious alternative for our free will. There is no need to will not to fly, or to will not to push over skyscrapers
Similarly, once we realized the impossibility of causing undeserved pain, there would be no need to will not to do so. We would not have a
realistic alternative of choosing this kind of evil, and so our choices between good and evil would be psychologically predetermined. Thus the
great majority of decisions between social good and evil would no longer be subject to our free will. This, as we noted above, would compromise
the value of this world.
Let's return to Peter on his roof and imagine a slightly different scenario. This time the first bullet flies true and Paul is mortally wounded,
but Peter is immediately struck by lightning! If Peter steals a newspaper, a passerby's cigarette ash sends it up in flames, etc. In other words,
Peter is successful in his evil plans, but is immediately punished. Now imagine these experiences as universal laws: Every attempt to inflict
undeserved suffering is immediately punished. Crime literally does not pay! Clearly the impact upon free will is the same: No one will choose
socially evil actions for fear of punishment, and the value of this world is again undermined.
It is important to notice that this argument applies as well to "natural" evil -- floods, drought, volcanic eruptions plague and the like.
Imagine a world in which nature responded to man's moral status. The rain falls only on the fields of the righteous, only the wicked are subject
to disease; saintly investments average 18% per annum while those of the wicked never yield more than 5%, etc. Again crime does not pay, and
righteousness does! And again free will is undermined.
To be truly free I must know that I can do evil -- I will be neither prevented nor punished -- and then exercise my freedom to choose good
because it is good.
These reflections lead to an important conclusion: Free will presupposes that God's justice be hidden. If God intervenes clearly and effectively
in human affairs to prevent or repay evil, man loses effective freedom to choose evil. Without freedom to choose evil, there is no choice of good
either. This means that freedom requires that evil be allowed to occur without interference or punishment -- with all the undeserved suffering
which this implies. Evil claims its victims. What we see now is that there is no alternative. Free will demands that some innocents undergo
#7 - A second good consequence of undeserved suffering is to clarify the motivation of the righteous (Guide of the Perplexed, 3:24; Duties of the
Heart 4:3; Sefer Halkkarim, 4:13; Sefer Chasidim, par. 322). Their example will inspire the rest of us, only if we do not misunderstand them. If
their lives go perfectly smoothly, their absolute commitment to the right and the good is hidden behind the obvious self-interested benefit of
their righteousness. When we see them suffering and their commitment does not waver, our commitment is strengthened.
Furthermore, their steadfastness even in adversity serves to obligate others who might use suffering as an excuse for relaxing moral standards
(Talmud, Yoma 35b). "I am so poor that I cannot be expected to be honest." "I am in so much pain that I can't be blamed for insensitivity to
others." When we see others enduring great pain and privation and whose standards do not fall, these excuses sound hollow. As a result we
redouble our efforts.
#8 - The Talmud tells us that the suffering and death of the righteous can expiate the guilt of their generation (Talmud, Moed Katan 28a; Shabbos
33b; Sanhedrin 39a). At first, hearing this sounds strange. We are tempted to ask: "Why should they suffer for the misdeeds of others? They are
innocent!" But that question is a mistake. The point of this explanation -- and all explanations in the category of future justification -- is to
show the good which undeserved suffering can do. Of course those who suffer are innocent. If they deserved their suffering we would not need to
consider future good consequences.
Still, we may feel unsatisfied at the thought of some innocent people suffering in order to protect others. Perhaps a couple of parallels will
help. Just before he died, Nathan Hale said: "I regret that I have but one life to give for my country." In other words, he thought it a
privilege to die, even though he regarded himself as innocent. Why? Because he helped create what he felt was a great good for other people --
political freedom. Walter Reed proved that the anopheles mosquito transmits malaria by intentionally infecting himself. He didn't deserve to
suffer and possibly die. But he volunteered in order to help prevent malaria for other people.
Generous, idealistic people regard it as a privilege to contribute to a great benefit to others, even if it means pain and danger. We should not
think any less of our greatest men and women who are able to shield the rest of their generation from disaster.
#9 - Sometimes the future good to which the suffering contributes is for the sufferer himself. Imagine going to the doctor and being told that
you have six months to live. Would that change your plans for the next six months? If yes, why? Usually the reason is that with so little time
left, you want every minute to be used as well as possible. But isn't that important even if we have many years ahead of us? The value of time is
not really reduced by having more! But we fall into careless habits of wasting time and opportunities: "I'll get to it next week (year)."
Now imagine a miracle cure at the end of six months. Will you regret the scare, the worry and anxiety? Not necessarily. If you think of the
impact it had on your ability to focus on the really important aspects of life, you may even be grateful. Some types of suffering have this
effect of restoring appropriate focus and thus improving the quality of our lives. (Derashos HaRaN)
#10 - A second personal benefit of suffering is the development of abilities that might otherwise lie dormant (Nachmanides to Genesis 22:1,
Exodus 16:4). A person with the capacity for heroism may never develop that ability if his life is completely tranquil. A certain amount of
adversity is necessary to realize potentialities for courage, compassion, self-sacrifice, steadfastness, and other similar virtues. This kind of
self-development may be regarded as an end in itself: A life of courage, compassion, etc. is surely a greater life than one of tranquil
mediocrity. And it will contribute to other good consequences as well, e.g., inspiring others, increased reward and so on.
#11 - A third personal benefit of suffering emerges if we again consider our judgment that the sufferer is innocent. We are not talking about
perfect innocence. The sufferer has faults, but on balance he doesn't deserve his suffering. Now suppose for a moment we suppress all his
positive accomplishments and look only at his failures. Would he then deserve his suffering? Perhaps. If God is taking account only of his
misdeeds and disregarding his merits then it may be that his suffering is appropriate for his failures.
But why should God do that? The answer given in the Talmud is that he can be freed from liability for those failures in Olam Haba (the World to
Come) (Talmud, Taanis 11a; Kiddushim 40b; Yoma 86b-87a). Were we to appreciate the enormous suffering we avoid by this exchange, we would regard
it as an extraordinary kindness.
#12 - Finally, there is the consideration of reward in the World to Come. Rabbi Dessler gives the following analogy (Michtav MeEliyahu). A savage
once saved the life of a visiting king. Although they had no common language, the king motioned to the savage to follow him to the palace. They
went to the vault where the king stored his precious gems. He gave the savage a sack and indicated that he should fill it with gems. The savage
thought: "This is a strange reward. Apparently he wants me to carry these stones for him." He unenthusiastically dropped a few gems in the bag.
The king placed the bag on his shoulder and allowed him to leave. The savage rejoiced: "So I don't have to carry a heavy bag of stones. As soon
as I am alone I'll ditch it altogether."
When he told the story to his friends at home, one of them said: "You fool! Those were jewels which could have made you rich for the rest of your
life -- and you worried about a few hours' labor lugging a heavy sack?!" Similarly, our suffering can be infinitely compensated in Olam Haba.
From that perspective, our temporary suffering looks like a trivial price to pay for that infinite return.
We have surveyed some of the explanations for suffering. They were of two types. Those related to the past showed that the suffering was really
deserved, and hence no problem for our belief in a just God. Those related to the future showed that even if the suffering was undeserved, it
created good consequences which justified the suffering.
We then claimed that for any realistic case of suffering there is some combination of principles by which it could be justified. Evil is only a
problem if there are cases of suffering which entirely escape all the principles we discussed. But it is clearly impossible to prove that there
is such a case. For it would have to be a case where we know all of the sufferer's private life, the standard of performance against which he
should be judged, and whether he has lived previously -- in order to judge his relative innocence; and where we know that his suffering is not
needed to contribute to God's hiddenness, or to the example of the righteous, to save the generation, to refocus the sufferer's values, develop
his abilities, expiate his transgressions or increase his reward in Olam Haba. Since we cannot know those things, we cannot prove there is such a
case. Thus "the problem of evil" is not insuperable for traditional Judaism.
One final note. We began with three of God's "characteristics" -- omniscience, omnipotence and justice. Past justification argues that suffering
does not contradict justice. Future justification argues that suffering can be justified even if it is unjust. We must remember that God is not
only just; He has other moral attributes as well.
For example, God is merciful. Now mercy contradicts a narrow concept of strict justice. A plea for mercy starts with an admission of guilt: "I
know I am guilty and deserve to be punished, but have mercy on me (and don't punish me, or at least mitigate the punishment)." God is also good,
and goodness may also contradict strict justice. Strict justice would not allow the righteous to suffer in order to set an example for others, or
to contribute to God's hiddenness, but goodness may require it.
Past justification sees the problem of evil as wrong-headed -- relying on misinterpretation of the facts; future justification sees the problem
as short sighted -- focusing on strict justice to the exclusion of God's other moral attributes. Together they suffice to solve the problem.