A whole week of Shabbat
Middot through text and practice

A week of thinking about theodicy

The morning class I took at smicha students' week was a history/philosophy class called "Theodicy, Catastrophe, and Paradigm Shift," taught by Reb Laura Duhan Kaplan. Our aim, Reb Laura told us on the first morning, was to examine the question of the dike of theos -- is God just? (And if not, what will we do about it?) The course was designed to spark both intellectual and intuitive responses to those questions, drawing on the wide range of answers offered by Jewish tradition. The course description begins:

Major catastrophes in Jewish history that result in individual and collective suffering have been catalysts for the development of our rich religious tradition. Catastrophes provoke Jews to ask about God’s role in the world, to adjust to changing historical circumstances, and to find new ways to relate to God collectively and individually. This is a history of ideas course, so we will examine questions of theodicy (God’s justice) in two ways: (1) as philosophical ideas expressive of individual crying out; (2) as new theological theories that express differences between priestly, rabbinic, and hasidic world views.

Most often, when someone comes to a rabbi with a personal question about something painful, she isn't looking for a mini-lecture on our changing conceptions of how suffering can bring us closer to God. But our texts can offer a framework for fielding the personal questions we expect to encounter in our rabbinates. The more we know about  the varying ways in which Jewish tradition has dealt with suffering, the more they can subtly inform our work...and the more prepared we'll be for the reality that our own answers to these questions will inevitably shift over time.

We began with a set of four traditional religious conceptions which aren't easy to reconcile. 1) God exists and is involved in our lives; 2) God is good; 3) God is omnipotent; and 4) evil and suffering exist. What do we do with the disjunction between those ideas?

Throughout the week, we looked at how paradigm shift becomes necessary because of ruptures in our lives. The old categories may no longer work. Over centuries, out of brokenness, new paradigms emerge. (For instance: the destruction of the Temple precipitated a paradigm shift into a new unfolding of Judaism.) Rupture leaves an indelible mark, which over time yields (or maybe precipitates) a kind of renewal. How has the Jewish community responded to suffering, and how have our central metaphors and teachings shifted over time in response to changing historical and theological realities?

We delved first into a Biblical paradigm for responding to suffering, the book of Eicha (Lamentations). Then we spent time with a Midrashic response to suffering (the Geonic-era "Legend of the Ten Martyrs," a.k.a. Midrash Eleh Ezkerah, the story that gave rise to the piyyut/liturgical poem recited on Yom Kippur; find the midrash in Rabbinic Fantasies: Imaginative Narratives from Classical Hebrew Literature.) And finally we moved into a Hasidic response to suffering, exemplified by Sacred Fire: Torah from the Years of Fury 1939-1942 (Hebrew: אש קודש), the divrei Torah of the Piazetzner Rebbe, Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, written in the Warsaw Ghetto.

Meanwhile we offered, and took in, presentations on history (Raymond Scheindlin's A Short History of the Jewish People), theology (Rabbi Neil Gilman's Sacred Fragments, which I blogged about recently), and philosophy (a chapter from Reb Zalman's Paradigm Shift, and Reb Laura's essay And You Shall Love... a Rabbinic Theodicy, among others.)

It was an incredibly intense week, not only because we were asked to assimilate so much material but also because the material is emotionally and spiritually challenging. On the second day, my friend Simcha Daniel led us through a guided meditation that sought to connect us deeply with the fall of the first Temple and the Babylonian exile -- and by the end I was weeping, overwhelmed by a piece of history I'd never really connected with before. I'll probably post more about that in the coming week as we approach Tisha b'Av; I know Lamentations will resonate for me in new ways this year.

The writings of the Piazetzner Rebbe were also really hard for me to read. (For all of us, I think.) Reb Laura offered a short history of the formation of the Warsaw Ghetto and the suffering and privations it entailed. With that grounding, we discussed a handful of the divrei Torah that Rabbi Shapira offered to his community in the ghetto. How he wrote in 1940, after the creation of the ghetto, that he was beginning to really understand Mitzrayim, the constriction of Egypt / the Narrow Place. How he wrote, in 1942, that God weeps for us in the hidden chambers of heaven, and that we can weep with God, in God's presence. And, of course, the last drash he offered, a few days before the Great Deportation which fell on 9 Av, in which he talked about God truly seeing our suffering.

I don't think it's coincidental that as our reading brought us closer to the present day, and to suffering which is still alive in our collective consciousness, it became harder to face. There's a teaching in that, too. The Temple fell almost two thousand years ago, so we can see pretty clearly how that catastrophe shaped and shifted our theology and our practice. The Shoah is still too recent; it's too soon to know how it will impact our theodicies, our liturgy, or our sense of how God and history interrelate.

Does suffering have meaning, and can it be redemptive? Is meaning inherent in our suffering, or is meaning something we read into suffering, as we read it into our holy texts? What does it mean to say that God is good, and to hold that truth alongside the reality of suffering? How does our brokenness shape our theodicies, on both a personal and a communal level? How have persecution and suffering been a creative crucible in which our community has taken form? Where is the chesed, the divine quality of mercy, in the many stories of suffering that our tradition holds dear? Where is God in our stories, and our experiences, of suffering and pain?

(I'm still working on my answers to those questions. Could take a while. If you want to offer yours in the comments, please do.)

The material we studied was difficult on many levels. And yet the class managed to be uplifting. We began and ended each day with a thematically-appropriate song or niggun (my favorite was Myrna Rabinowitz's "Hashiveinu," the title track on her latest album, which sets the familiar penultimate line of Lamentations to a beautiful melody...) And Reb Laura did a beautiful job of keeping us on-track and focused, balancing presentations with discussion with hevruta, and recognizing the many senses in which this material is really, really hard.

Late on Shabbat afternoon, we were asked to reflect in hevruta on something we wanted to carry away from the week. From this class, I carry away a renewed recognition that these are questions with which I will wrestle for the rest of my life. There is no easy answer to the question of how to reconcile a just God with suffering, but the process of the wrestle can -- I hope -- be redemptive in its own way.

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