We Can Do Better Without It

Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan, writing at SophiaStreet, has a post prompted by the deaths of Eyal Yifrach, Gil-ad Shaar, and Naftali Frenkel.  (I’ve previously posted about this here and here.) In her post, Rabbi Kaplan argues that theodicy helps respond to suffering. She briefly catalogs the weaknesses of theodicy. For brevity’s sake, we will say that the basic problem with theodicy responses is that they have to contend with logical contradictions inherent to understanding God as all-powerful, all-present, and all-knowing, and yet allowing evil into the world.

She turns at the end of the post to say that yesterday, she would have thought these responses to be useless. Today (in light of the three students’ murders), however:

I think differently.

Today, this exercise in theodicy helps me clarify my thoughts and feelings. God is not all-powerful; power lies in our hands as well. Thus, I don’t really care if God is all-good; but I do want people to be better than we are. I want us to read the messages in suffering, particularly the ones that say, “enough!” I want us to take a leap of faith into the challenging work of creating peace, justice, and abundance.

This type of response to suffering is exactly the reason I’m a Humanistic Jew. Because this response begs the question of the necessity of God’s existence–let alone the necessity of acknowledging that existence.

Let’s be clear: when you say, “power lies in our hands as well,” you relegate power to someone else; yet, you know not how much. But you want, as well, to have others “take a leap of faith” into the work of “peace, justice, and abundance.” Does this mean you ought not rely on that other to use whatever power belongs (Is reserved? Is preserved? Is inherent? Was surrendered to?) to the other? When do we stop working and the other starts?

We don’t know the answer to that question; it’s unknowable. Rabbi Kaplan more or less acknowledges that while skirting the question; this is all too common within the argumentative moves of liberal theologians.

That makes it problematic to continue to use traditional God language. If you believe God is in control, by all means, say so; and in that case, your position retreating to “We can’t know God’s will” is entirely respectable and consistent, if troubling in the extent to which it renders divine justice nearly entirely inscrutable.

But if you don’t think God is in control, why say something to the contrary? Why continue each day to acknowledge God as taking one’s soul each day and putting it back in the next? (Yes, this is part of the daily prayers; it’s the FIRST thing traditionally recited upon waking: Modeh/Modah ani lefanekha, melekh chai ve-kayyam, shehechezarta bi nishmati bechemlah rabbah emunatekha–“I thank you, living and eternal King, who has returned my soul to me with compassion; Your faithfulness is abundant.”) Why continue to recite the Shemona Esrei in anything at all like its traditional form, asking for justice to be rendered by an unknown agent who may or may not have the power to do any of what you ask–particularly when you may well disagree with the justice understood by the text of the prayers?

When faced with the theodicy question, I reach similar conclusions to those of Rabbi Kaplan: we are all we can be certain of as having agency to create change in this world, and so it is incumbent upon us to take action. (Linguistic side-note: “agency” and “action” are from the same Latin verb: ago. (That’s a long O at the end, stress on the first syllable), meaning “to do.” It’s from that verb that we get our words, “agent,” “action,” and “agenda.”) But we are the only agents of which we can be sure (and radical skeptic philosophers dispute even that!).

Will we differ on what “better” means? Of course. A better world for some is a worse world for others, and the world is in all events a messy place–ethnically, ethically, and in all other respects. But acknowledging that to be so, ought we retreat to asking why a supposed Agent who is not subject to our examination permits suffering?

I cannot answer that question with a “yes.”

As a Humanistic Jew, I acknowledge that terrible things happen in the world. Sometimes they are the work of forces under no one’s control; sometimes not. In the end, the only sureties for us are that we can take honest account of the facts as they are; act to prevent what can be prevented and to alleviate what may be alleviated; right wrongs as we are able; provide comfort to those harmed, whatever our ability to act may be; and acknowledge openly the limits of our abilities and our knowledge, without harming our ability to do what we can by retreating to a vague hope that someone else will take up the slack–for we have no assurances of the latter.

And so offer whatever comfort we can to those affected by the loss of those young men, Eyal Yifrach, Gilad Shaar, and Naftali Frenkel. We agitate for whatever changes we think must be made to avoid this happening again to others. We can disagree honestly and in good faith about the changes; but those changes must be made through our own efforts.

May their memories be a blessing, and may we further our efforts toward peace.