God’s justice often appears mysterious and cruel. Why do the evil prosper? Why do the righteous suffer?
Starting with the Bible, and including the protest literature from medieval and modern times, Judaism has a rich and pervasive tradition of calling God to task over human suffering.
The name “Israel,” applied to Jacob, the progenitor of the 12 tribes, literally means, one who “wrestled with God.” The theological and ethical wrestling in which the angry and apparently betrayed Jew argues with God begins with such biblical figures as Abraham, Moses, Elijah, Jeremiah, Job and the Psalmist. It continues with rabbinic questioning in the Midrash and Talmud, in the literature of the Middle Ages, and with horror about the Holocaust in our own day.
Living in the shadow of the Holocaust dims our perception of Jewish suffering in the past. But previous generations have known immeasurable sorrow. Think of those who have suffered and died in the wars against the Romans, in the Crusades to redeem Jerusalem, in the Chmielnicki rebellion that ravaged communities in the Ukraine and Poland in the 17th century, in the Russian pogroms, etc.
Where is God? A talmudic master named Raba stated, “Master of the Universe! O God! We have heard with our ears, our fathers have told us what deeds you did perform in their days, in the days of old – but as for us, with our own eyes we have not seen it.”
One of the most famous of the chassidic prayers of protest is Rabbi Levi Yitzhak’s “Din Torah mit Got” (a lawsuit with God) in which he asserts, “And I, Levi Yitzhak, son of Sarah Berditchev, say, from my stand I will not waver, and from place I shall not move until there be an end to this exile.”
Ellie Wiesel has declared that “the smoke of Auschwitz has obscured the view of Sinai.” Wiesel in all of his work urges his readers to accept the dilemma and learn to live it as well. “Perhaps someday someone will explain how Auschwitz was possible. It still remains the most disturbing of problems.”
Some years ago in an interview, the renowned author Isaac Bashevis Singer declared that when Moses broke the Tablets this was an act of rebellion. The Jew does not recognize that might is right even if it is divine might. There is in the Talmud the expression: “One does not give heed to a heavenly voice.” When we feel that we are right and God is wrong, we are allowed to say so.
Singer continued that, in a way, the Torah, the Law, is of higher importance than the maker of the Law and of the world. The Jews revere God, but he does not cringe before Him, he considers himself a partner to God and the Law. “The Holy One, blessed be He, the Torah, and Israel are one.” There is great depth in this conception of Jewishness. We don’t surrender to God unconditionally. We must know the terms.
The anguish of the true believer is greater today than ever before. It is important for God to hear these honest prayers. Perhaps, it is even more important for human beings to enunciate them.