Trying to say something new or relevant about theodicy is tantamount to attempting to say something creative about the writer Franz Kafka, or Radiohead. I love talking and writing about these artists, so here goes an attempt to talk about theodicy in light of the Jewish fast, Tisha Ba’av, a fast that commemorates the destruction of the temple amongst other national tragedies.
For the most part, people tend to think of theodicy as a settled matter, one way or the other. Either, the weight of evil proves so the absence of a god, or the irrelevance of god so conclusively that it obviates the need for further discussion, or the matter requires too much metaphysical speculation and Talmudic casuistic thinking that it provides nothing but the most superficial of intellectual answers. The only people who actually speak about theodicy in any sort of dynamic manner are the theologians of today who in general few people read. We find ourselves in theodicy limbo. The question retains its importance and its complexity while we feel that no answer could even begin to provide solace or intellectual satisfaction.
After the Holocaust, most thinkers slowly realized the paucity of any previous answer to attempt to justify the ways of God in the eyes of man. Consequently, they opted to explain that though an answer exists, we cannot, with our limited human understanding, possibly fathom the divine reasons for the way of the world. Instead of focusing on the vexing questions, they explain, we should focus on how we can better both ourselves and the world. To an extent, this type of answer respects human dignity while at the same time it undercuts our human intellect. It posits that we would never deign to deny the pain and suffering or attempt to explain it away through a simplistic understanding of evil as tit for tat for sin. Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, one of the unsung thinkers of Jewish thought in the 20th century stated that any sort of theodicy you would not feel comfortable saying to a parent who lost their child is not any sort of theodicy we can endorse. Theodicy must not only provide academic answers but emotional solace.
However, this type of thought also treats human beings as limited, and sets boundaries to human thought. They tell us both based on authority and experience not to delve into these mysteries of the infinite. It will provide nothing but frustration. But to whom will this suffice? We never think of the horrors of tragedy until it relates to us personally, but when it does, how many of us can truly take heart in the eternal mercy of a God we cannot ever in this lifetime understand? So much of our religious personalities these day centers on the questions we can ask, and if we take away the ability to ask this basic question then we deprive religious man of the great founts of religious frustration and inspiration.
Yet, what other options do we have? No one, in the history of thought has ever created a coherent, accepted, and holistic thought of theodicy. Even on an intellectual level, every answer in the long tradition has not stood the test of time. Every answer contains glaring and obvious logical holes on top of the fact that it fails to provide any emotional comfort. Dostoevsky, in perhaps one of the most famous pieces on theodicy give voice to this sentiment. Intuitively, or implicitly, we realize that much of what we call evil stems from free will. People hurt other people. Of course this doesn’t account for all sickness or natural disasters, but much of the evil in the world does stem from our ability to choose. Dostoevsky, in his dramatic fashion through the eternal voice of Ivan Karamazov, exclaims that if one child is needlessly killed so that the rest of the world can enjoy their free will then anyone who would create that world lacks any sense of Justice. A god that choose the pain of the innocent so as to give us free will is not any god that he would want to worship. I find it immensely hard to disagree with this argument.
People love to point out that Judaism, traditionally, is a religion of protest. It never simply accepts the ways of God, rather, it frequently questions the way of God. Abraham protests God’s desire to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, Moses protects the people from destruction, and Hasidic masters always defend their people from the prosecution of God. I find attempts such at these to distinguish Judaism from other religions slightly offensive, simplistic and misguided. As much as Judaism can be said to be a religion of protest, it is also, for centuries, a religion of acceptance of our harsh fate. Most immediate answers to the horrors of the Holocaust, if you read them today, would embarrass the staunchest of religious conservatives. Many rabbis simply adopted the prevalent sin theodicy in which the Jewish nation was being punished for a sin, whether assimilation, a lack of unity, and even Zionism.
Even with Abraham, if you read his conversation he evinces a skewed sense of justice. He beseeches god to spare the righteous inhabitants, but gives up when God tells him that not even ten righteous people live in Sodom. What about children though? Abraham doesn’t ask the simple question of how could a just God punish children for the sins of their fathers? Abraham, as well, and I thank my grandmother for this question, Abraham the defender of sinful strangers never even protests for a second the slaughter of his righteous son. No figure in the bible ever truly questions the ways of God. Rather, they question what appears as injustice. Even Job, the quintessential study on theodicy drops his questions after god appears out of the whirlwind and restores Job’s life to its previous glory. Most of the world receive neither of these courtesies.
If so, where does this leave us? It appears to leave us in a constant state of ambivalence. Even if we want to embrace a godly world, a world in which a divine being cares about us, about our children, our worries, our world, we must confront this unanswerable question. Enter the scroll of Eichah.
Eichah, one of the five scrolls in the Jewish bible is a lamentation written in response to the destruction of the first Temple. Written in a dense, terse, poetically rich and complex five chapters, it has been a challenging text since its appearance. To then attempt to extract a theodicy from Eichah seems like a losing endeavor. Despite all of this, I contend that eichah offers an interesting model of engagement with theodicy that both respects human dignity and our human intellect.
The most curious part of Eichah, besides its jarring poetics, is its lack of narrative coherence. At first glance, as many academics note, it’s hard to fathom how these five chapters fit together. If we look at these chapters in a holistic sense in terms of their stance on theodicy we see the same phenomenon. The first chapter largely consists of classic sin theodicy (see verse five,) in which the narrator easily accepts the justice of God’s punishment. Yet, chapter two turns a 180. Chapter 2 of eichah signifies one of the harshest chapters in the whole bible. In it, the narrator rails, yells, screams at God that he destroyed without any mercy (a phrase that is repeated no less than five times.) Twice, God is referred to as the enemy of the Jewish people, and at the end God is a God who can watch mothers eat their children in the streets without intervening. This is the theodicy of protest, not of sin or of acceptance. This same vacillating pattern repeats itself through the rest of the book numerous times. How though can we reconcile these conflicting strands. Scholars give numerous answers all of which make sense.
One answer simply explains that these voices represent temporal stages. Who says that these chapters need to have been written at the same time. In fact, it is clear from the text itself that chapter five was written with hindsight, with some distance from the tragedy. If so, then perhaps, these different sentiments arise at different points in the stage of national mourning.
Another answer, in a similar vein, doesn't see this as a temporal continuity but as the varied, layered, and complex feelings of a mourner. A mourner, at any given moment can feel both a sense of justice and a sense of injustice, anger and love can mingle with ease in the life and mind of a mourner. Consequently, given the disarray of life after the temple it would be shocking if we found any a coherent theodicy. While I like this answer, we need to realize its nature as wholly reconstructive. We only say this because we are backed into a corner, and when backed into a corner in the academic world one of the greatest ways out is to turn a weakness into a strength. Here, the incoherence of of Eichah turns into the beauty of eichah as it perfectly captures the tenor of mourning. Clever, but not so obvious. Furthermore, it relies on the fact that Eichah reads and feels like the immediate sentiments of a mourner. Eichah is raw, painful and harrowing. But we cannot let its power overshadow the fact that it is a masterfully crafted book. We generally don’t mourn or cry out in poetry. Rather, a poetic person like Jeremiah needs to channel these painful emotions through the prism of language. To then accept this theory we need to accept that Jeremiah purposefully wrote an incoherent text in order to mimic this feeling, which we can see as possible but not necessarily probable.
To modify this answer, we need to think of Eichah as more of a dialogic text. Mikhail Bakhtin, a famous Russian literary theorist, explicated a dialogic theory of literature in which certain texts can be read as engaging in an active, dynamic dialogue with previous texts, with itself, and with readers. To that, we can add that often in biblical texts there is a dialogue with God. This helps explain a curious facet of Eichah. Despite the harsh sentiments, the narrator turns from talking before or about God to talking to God (see chapter two verse 19 for the most jarring example of this.) Almost out of nowhere, after attacking the ways of God, the narrator will urge that we all turn to god and pour out our hearts. You can understand that these turns towards God soften the anger of the texts, but alternatively, you can understand that they frame the anger in the text in dialogues. What allows Jeremiah to oscillate between positions is not simply the complex emotions of a mourner over time, but as well, an extended conversation with God about theodicy. Theodicy, according to this, gains its importance not only as answer to an impossible question, but as an ongoing issue to discuss with God.
Theodicy is not something abstract that resides outside the realm of our messy reality, but neither is it simply a prod to do better deeds. We are owed an answer for the Holocaust, and for all tragedy. God, in this scheme does not want us to let him off the hook. Rather, what he desires an engaged conversation with Him. Theodicy is an endless prompt to deepen and broaden our relationship with God. Just as a husband and wife who don't fight but let their wounds fester will experience backlash, so too in our relationship with God, often referred to as a marriage relationship demands that we discuss everything, whether our joy or our anger. the experience of life. It is an essential part of our ongoing conversation with God.