The Problem of Evil

Michael J. Harris

This article examines approaches to the problem of evil in historical and contemporary Jewish theology. The material is structured conceptually rather than as a chronological survey. The introduction contrasts classical Jewish formulations of the problem of evil with the standard formulations of the problem in Christian and Western philosophical thought. The former tend to focus on evil’s distribution rather than its existence, while the latter ask how evil can exist in the world God created if God possesses the traditional attributes of omnipotence, omniscience, and moral perfection. The Introduction then turns to Jewish conceptions of attributes of God which are particularly germane to the problem of evil and notes the important distinction between natural and moral evil.

The second section turns to theodicies and defences, mainly utilizing categories familiar from contemporary philosophical discussion of the problem of evil, and analysing relevant Jewish theological material under these headings. The discussion includes Talmudic theodicies and theodicies considered by medieval Jewish thinkers such as Saadia Gaon, Maimonides, Joseph Albo, and others. The final two subsections deal with theodical approaches in Kabbalah and with the post-Holocaust theodicies of Eliezer Berkovits and Ignaz Maybaum.

The third section introduces the approach to the problem of evil termed in the contemporary philosophical literature ‘sceptical theism’. Classical Jewish texts that appear to anticipate sceptical theism are noted in this context.

The fourth section focuses on antitheodicy and its treatment in the thought of Jewish theologians such as Richard Rubenstein, Emil Fackenheim, Joseph Soloveitchik, Emmanuel Levinas, and Irving Greenberg. The Jewish theological significance of treatments of the Holocaust in literature, for example in the work of Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel, is briefly considered.

The fifth section explores, from a Jewish theological perspective, some strengths and weaknesses of the different general approaches to the problem of evil that have been discussed in this article – theodicy/defence, sceptical theism, and antitheodicy.

Finally, the conclusion emphasizes the great variety of approaches to the problem of evil in the history of Jewish theology and argues that Jewish theological approaches to the problem can often both enrich and be enriched by contemporary debates in the philosophy of religion.

1 Introduction

1.1 Conceptual versus historical approaches

This article explores historical and contemporary perspectives on the problem of evil in Jewish theology. The material is structured conceptually rather than as a chronological survey. It is beyond the scope of this article to attempt to identify every important Jewish thinker who has adopted one or more of the approaches treated here; major and representative examples are cited. The main organizational categories utilized are familiar from the contemporary literature on the problem of evil in analytic philosophy of religion. There is no problem of anachronism in this method, since it is possible to discuss Jewish theological approaches under contemporary philosophical headings without misrepresenting the Jewish material, and it is often even fruitful to do so, since the Jewish and contemporary philosophical approaches can shed light on each other.

The focus of this article is the problem of evil as a philosophical and theological challenge to Jewish belief and thus, perhaps, primarily a problem for reflective individuals. It should be noted, however, that there is a body of literature not discussed here which consists in collective or communal Jewish responses to the problem of evil – most prominently literary responses to concrete historical instances of evil and suffering that have afflicted Jewish communities down the ages. Such literature includes the biblical book of Lamentations, liturgies of mourning and protest, some medieval liturgical poetry, accounts of the Crusades, and some modern Hebrew poetry (see Mintz 1996).

1.2 Classical Jewish formulations of the problem of evil: the focus on distribution

In classical Jewish sources, the problem of evil tends to be framed as the question: Why does God allow the righteous to suffer and/or the wicked to flourish? Thus Jeremiah, for instance, asks God: ‘Wherefore doth the way of the wicked prosper? Wherefore are all they secure that deal very treacherously?’ (Jer 12:1), and the Talmud depicts Moses as inquiring why there are righteous people to whom evil occurs and wicked people for whom things go well (b. Berakhot 7a). Such formulations suggest that it is not the mere existence of evil that creates the theological problem as much as the apparently-unjust distribution of evil and suffering in the world. Isaiah Tishby suggests that this is for the straightforward reason that, in classical Jewish thought, evil is simply a means of achieving some of the good aims of the good God. Thus, the Hebrew Bible and the Talmud do not question the existence of evil but largely confine themselves to querying the way in which God uses evil as a means to God’s good ends, i.e. why the distribution of evil (and good) often appears unjust (Tishby 1984: 13).

In the Christian and Western philosophical traditions, the problem of evil is standardly formulated as the problem of how evil is possible in the world, if – as claimed by religions such as Christianity and Judaism – it was created by a God who is omnipotent (and therefore capable of preventing the occurrence of any evil), omniscient (and therefore knows about all the evil in the world), and omnibenevolent (and therefore would not cause or allow any suffering without adequate moral justification). In the contemporary philosophical literature, a distinction is often drawn between two versions of the problem of evil. In the logical problem of evil (see Mackie 1955), the traditional Judeo-Christian conception of God as omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent is taken to be logically incompatible with the existence of evil in the world, such that the existence of evil facilitates a deductive argument for atheism (or at least for the existence of a very different kind of god). More often, however, the focus of discussion is the evidential problem of evil, in which the existence of evil is taken not to logically contradict the existence of God but nevertheless to constitute important evidence against it.

1.3 Classical Jewish conceptions of God’s power, knowledge, and goodness

The traditional attributes of God which are particularly germane to the problem of evil are omnipotence, omniscience, and omnibenevolence. Qualified interpretations of one or more of these attributes might mitigate or even solve the problem of evil, whether in the traditional Christian or the classical Jewish version. For example, if God is not fully omnipotent, God might not possess the power to prevent evil which God knows about and wishes to prevent. Or if God is not fully benevolent, God may be capable of preventing evil and may know about it, but not desire to prevent it all.

Overall, this route is blocked in traditional Jewish thought, which generally espouses robust interpretations of the relevant divine attributes. Mention should be made, however, of Maimonides’ doctrine of negative attributes. The problem of evil is not straightforward for Maimonides – even to formulate – since Maimonides’ negative theology denies that the attributes of power and knowledge can be ascribed to God (the attribute of goodness is a more complex issue; Shatz 2021: 224–226).

As noted, however, the divine attributes relevant to the problem of evil are on the whole straightforwardly asserted in Jewish tradition. The Psalmist proclaims God’s omnipotence: ‘Whatsoever the Lord pleased, that hath He done, In heaven and in earth, in the seas and in all deeps’ (Ps 135:6). As to limits on God’s omnipotence, Saadia Gaon, Albo, and some other medieval Jewish thinkers maintain – like Thomas Aquinas – that God cannot do the logically impossible. However, Saadia states that this implies no restriction on God’s power: God is able to do everything, and the absurd is nothing (Saadia Gaon. 1948: 134 [Treatise II, Ch. 13]; Albo 1929: 179 [Book I, Ch. 22]). Maimonides points out what seem to be metaphysical impossibilities and asserts that God cannot duplicate Himself, annihilate Himself, become corporeal, or change: ‘all of these things belong to the class of the impossible; and the power to do any of these things cannot be attributed to God’. Nevertheless, in parallel to Saadia, Maimonides insists that God’s lacking the power to do such things ‘signifies neither inability nor deficiency of power on His part’ (Guide to the Perplexed; Maimonides 1963: 460–461 [part III: chapter 15]). Some Hasidic thinkers, such as Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav (1772–1811), take issue with the medieval view and argue that even the truths of logic are subject to divine omnipotence (see Weiss 1952: 248).

God’s omniscience is declared or alluded to in the Bible (e.g. Jer 23:24; Ps 33:12–14; 2 Chr 16:9). Maimonides states it explicitly (e.g. Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Yesodei HaTorah 2:9–10) and lists it as the tenth of his Thirteen Principles of Faith. Gersonides argues that God does not have knowledge of particulars. One category of particulars is future particular contingents, such as knowledge of which of two particular actions a human individual will choose to do in the future. However, since Gersonides believes knowledge of, for example, future particular contingents to be logically impossible (for human beings as well as for God), this does not constitute any kind of limitation on God’s omniscience; God knows everything that is knowable (Gersonides 1998: III: 4; Feldman 2010: 92–93, 100; Rynhold 2009: 164–169). Gersonides’ position is an outlier in medieval Jewish philosophy, though Ibn Daud advocates a similar position: God does not have knowledge of human choices prior to those choices being made, but this does not constitute any imperfection in God since contingent actions cannot be genuinely known in advance (Ibn Daud, Emunah Ramah II 6:2; Bleich 1983: 416–426).

Divine moral goodness and omnibenevolence are frequently mentioned in the Bible. The attributes of God listed in Exod 34:6–7, which occupy a prominent place in subsequent Jewish thought and liturgy, include compassion, grace, and loving-kindness. Other examples include the declaration of Ps 145:9 that God is good and compassionate towards all, and the refrain of Psalm 136: ‘for His mercy endureth forever’. Psalm 92:15 states that God is upright and there is no wrong in Him. The Talmud recommends to its readers frequent repetition of the maxim that everything that God does is for the good (b. Berakhot 60b). Rabbi Moses Hayyim Luzzato (1707–1747) states that God is the perfect and true good who desires to give His creatures the maximum good that they are capable of receiving (Luzzato 1981: Part 1, Chapter 2, section 1). While the Bible contains some commandments and narratives that appear radically at odds with God’s moral goodness, Jewish tradition rarely, if ever, attempts to close the gap by questioning the morally perfect character of God (see e.g. Harris 2003).

1.4 Moral versus natural evil

The term ‘evil’ in philosophical and theological discussions of the problem of evil usually refers both to what philosophers term ‘moral evil’ – the evil done by human beings, most notably to each other, such as murder, robbery, or rape – as well as to ‘natural evil’, such as tsunamis, floods, earthquakes, and sickness (Susan Neiman has questioned the natural/moral evil distinction – see Neiman 2002). Jewish theology is similarly troubled by both kinds of evil.

2 Theodicies and defences

The term theodicy is derived from the ancient Greek words for ‘god’ and ‘justice’. A theodicy thus aims to justify God morally, to provide an adequate moral justification for why God would allow or inflict suffering. Theodicies loom large in both traditional Jewish reflection on the problem of evil and in the contemporary philosophical literature. Collectively, theodicies constitute the dominant approach in classical Jewish sources to the problem of evil.

It should be noted that there are some theodicies presented in important Jewish sources which do not find clear echoes in the contemporary philosophical discussion. For example, the Talmud (b. Shabbat 33b) suggests that righteous people may die or suffer for the sins of their generation. A further example is Saadia Gaon’s proposal that suffering can be designed to test us, and God permits such suffering in order to later reward us for passing the test. This ‘test theodicy’ is, according to Saadia, the one which explains the suffering of Job. To the objection that God could surely confer benefits on people without requiring them to suffer first, Saadia replies that reward is far more beneficial to its recipient than simply receiving goods as an act of undeserved divine grace (Saadia Gaon. 1948: 214–215).

The contemporary literature often adopts the distinction, originating with Alvin Plantinga (Tomberlin 1985: 35), between a theodicy and a defence. One important construal of this distinction is that a theodicy identifies a morally sufficient reason for God’s permitting the existence of evil. In other words, it claims that x is a or the reason for God permitting evil. A defence, by contrast, makes the weaker claim that x might be a or the reason for God permitting evil (e.g. Stump 2010: 19–20). Although this distinction is not made in traditional Jewish theology, and many approaches that will be surveyed below are most naturally interpreted as theodicies, many could be deployed to construct a defence instead.

2.1 Punishment

The great majority of the book of Job, the book of the Hebrew Bible which addresses the problem of evil more fully and directly than any other, is taken up with Job’s theological conversations with his three friends Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar in response to Job’s horrendous suffering. Job’s friends primarily offer him what is referred to in the philosophical literature as a punishment theodicy: despite his apparent righteousness, the friends argue, Job must have committed sins deserving of punishment in the form of the suffering which he is now undergoing, since all suffering is a divine punishment for sin. However, God seems to clearly favour Job’s aggressive questioning of divine justice over the pious yet platitudinous theodicies of his friends (Leaman 1995: 27; Shatz 2009: 272–273):

[T]he Lord said to Eliphaz the Temanite: ‘My wrath is kindled against thee, and against thy two friends; for ye have not spoken of Me the thing that is right, as My servant Job hath’. (Job 42:7)

In this way, the book of Job theologically legitimizes the subsequent millennia of intense debate concerning the problem of evil in Jewish theology. Yet it should be noted that classical Jewish texts such as the Babylonian Talmud (Bava Batra 15a–16b) are ambivalent about Job and, like Saadia Gaon in the medieval era, much less condemnatory of his friends (see Mittleman 2009).

Unlike the Babylonian Talmud, which includes a range of theodical approaches, the Mishnah and the Jerusalem Talmud usually view suffering as punishment for sin (Kraemer 1995: 16, 113; Elman 1990a; 1990b). Examples of punishment theodicy in the Mishnah include the ascription to sin of difficulty in making a living (Mishnah Kiddushin 4:14) and the explanation of the death of women in childbirth as due to negligence in the observance of three commandments in which the female role is central (Mishnah Shabbat 2:6). However, the Babylonian Talmud (b. Shabbat 55a–b) concludes its discussion of punishment theodicy by explicitly rejecting it.

In medieval Jewish philosophy, Saadia Gaon advocated a punishment theodicy in addition to the ‘test theodicy’ mentioned above (Saadia Gaon. 1948: 213–214 [Treatise IV, Ch. 3]). In his commentary on the book of Job, Saadia mentioned a third theodicy: suffering for the sake of discipline and instruction (Saadia Gaon. 1988: 124–125). This may be a variant of his punishment theodicy or of the ‘test theodicy’ (Rynhold 2009: 210).

A minority of rabbinic thinkers understand the Talmudic concept of yissurin shel ahavah (‘the sufferings of love’ – see section 2.5 and section 2.6) as a punishment theodicy (see Harris 2016: 69–70).

2.2 Later reward/eschatology

In the contemporary philosophical literature, Marilyn Adams has suggested that a post-mortem beatific vision of God can retrospectively comfort even one who has suffered horrendously in this life, giving meaning to his or her suffering (Adams 1990). John Hick, recognizing that the soul-making theodicy that he advocates (see section 2.5) cannot plausibly cover all cases of suffering, also relies on the afterlife in attempting to resolve the problem of evil: ‘Belief in an after-life is [...] crucial for theodicy’ (Hick 2010: 338). Some Talmudic passages similarly contain an appeal to life after death to solve the problem of suffering in this world. Rabbi Ya’akov states baldly that: ‘There is no reward for the performance of a commandment in this world’ – the reward is furnished only in the afterlife (b. Kiddushin 39b). This passage also relates the famous Talmudic story of the man who climbed a building in fulfilment of his father’s request to collect some chicks from a birds’ nest. Honouring parents and sending away the mother-bird from the nest when taking her chicks are explicitly stated in the Torah as commandments carrying the reward of long life. Yet the man fell on his way down from the building and died (in Midrash Ruth Rabbah 6:4, a variant of the story has a man climbing a palm tree in order to fulfil the commandment of sending away the mother-bird and being killed by a snake on coming down from the tree). The Talmud responds that the biblically promised long life refers to the life of the post-mortem World to Come.

Saadia also relies on the World to Come in order to explain and justify the apparently unjust distribution of suffering in this world (see e.g. Saadia Gaon. 1948: 215). Following the Talmud (b. Kiddushin 40b), he maintains that the wicked may prosper or the righteous suffer in this world, the former for their few good deeds and the latter for their few sins, in order that the bulk of the deserved reward or punishment is received in the next world (see also b. Yoma 87a; b. Ta’anit 11a).

2.3 Free will

Free will defences or theodicies are a standard response to the problem of evil in philosophical literature. The essential claims are that the great good of human free will outweighs the evil resulting from misusing it to choose evil rather than good, and that even an omnipotent God cannot determine the outcome of a free choice because that choice would then by definition not be free, and omnipotence (following the widespread anti-Cartesian conception of it) does not include the ability to do the logically impossible.

That human beings have free will is central to traditional Jewish thought. Maimonides, for example, in the course of surveying biblical articulations of free will, terms it ‘a pillar of the Torah and commandments’ and emphasizes its absolute indispensability in underwriting moral responsibility, reward, and punishment. Without free will, Maimonides asks rhetorically, ‘what place would there be for the entire Torah’? (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance 5:1).

There is much to be said about Maimonides’ views on the problem of evil, but one thing that he explicitly does in the Guide of the Perplexed is to advocate a free will theodicy. He identifies two of the major sources of evil in the world. First, the many physical, psychological, and other evils which people cause to each other, and second, the evils that are self-inflicted, resulting from our own vices such as avarice or conflicts with others. These categories of evil are the fault of human beings. ‘We suffer because of evils that we have produced ourselves of our free will, but we attribute them to God’ (Maimonides 1963: 443 [III:12]). Ultimately, however, it is a third major source of evil, namely matter (see section 2.6), that is responsible for all types of evil, since ‘[a]ll man’s acts of disobedience and sins are consequent upon his matter [...] earthy, turbid, and dark matter, which calls down upon man every imperfection and corruption’ (Maimonides 1963: 431–432 [III:8]).

Related to his free will theodicy, claiming evil as the fault of human beings, is Maimonides’ view that individual divine providence is dependent on intellectual virtue, the capacity for sophisticated abstract thought, and therefore varies between individuals:

[P]rovidence is [...] consequent upon the intellect. Accordingly, divine providence does not watch in an equal manner over all the individuals of the human species, but providence is graded as their human perfection is graded. (Maimonides 1963: 475 [III:18])

Moreover, even people who have achieved the intellectual level necessary to benefit from individual providence are protected by it only at those times when they are actually engaged in thought about God. Thus most people, most of the time, do not enjoy the shielding from harm afforded by individual providence – something which Maimonides insists is their own fault – and are therefore vulnerable to the vicissitudes of nature. Consequently, even the generally virtuous sometimes suffer.

2.4 Soul-making

Broadly speaking, soul-making theodicies argue that the justification of God inflicting or permitting suffering is that suffering nurtures the development of moral and spiritual character. The classic contemporary articulation and defence of soul-making theodicy is that of John Hick (2010). Hick elaborates on the basic idea of soul-making theodicy as follows:

Antitheistic writers [...] assume that the purpose of a loving God must be to create a hedonistic paradise; and therefore to the extent that the world is other than this, it proves to them that God is either not loving enough or not powerful enough to create such a world [...] Such critics [...] are confusing what heaven ought to be, as an environment for perfected finite beings, with what this world ought to be, as an environment for beings who are in the process of becoming perfected [...] an environment whose primary and overriding purpose is [...] the realizing of the most valuable potentialities of human personality [...] we have to recognize that the presence of pleasure and the absence of pain cannot be the supreme and overriding end for which the world exists. Rather, this world must be a place of soul-making. (Hick 2010: 256–259)

In a further key passage, Hick argues that ‘the virtues of compassion, unselfishness, courage, and determination [...] all presuppose for their emergence and for their development something like the world in which we live’ – namely, a world ‘in which there are obstacles to be overcome, tasks to be performed, goals to be achieved, setbacks to be endured, problems to be solved, dangers to be met’ (Hick 2010: 326).

The concept of yissurin shel ahavah, ‘the sufferings (or ‘afflictions’) of love’, has justifiably been termed ‘the most interesting concept in Jewish discussions of suffering’ (Shatz 2013: 314). The locus classicus for this notion is the extensive discussion in the Babylonian Talmud (Berakhot 5a–b) which is in fact ‘the longest deliberation (by far) on suffering as such in all classical rabbinic literature’ (Kraemer 1995: 188). Yissurin shel ahavah is understood by most rabbinic commentators as a non-punitive notion: God is inflicting or permitting suffering out of love (Maimonides [1963: III:24] finds yissurin shel ahavah problematic, criticizing the idea of suffering not preceded by sin as incompatible with God’s justice). However, it is not entirely clear from the Talmudic discussion what this amounts to.

One interpretation to which the concept of ‘the sufferings of love’ seems open is as a type of soul-making theodicy (see Shatz 2009: 293, 301 [note 10]; Shatz 2013; Harris 2016: 71–76). There are at least two ways in which this might be so. First, the afflicted person’s potential to withstand suffering and maintain his or her moral excellence is realized or made actual, and this elevates the sufferer to even greater spiritual heights than previously attained. The medieval Jewish philosopher Rabbi Joseph Albo provides a detailed analysis of yissurin shel ahavah in his magnum opus, Sefer ha-Ikarim (The Book of Principles; Albo 1929). The most important type of yissurin shel ahavah, Albo argues, has as its divine purpose increasing the reward of the sufferer so that he or she receives full reward for the commission of a good deed rather than the lesser recompense bestowed by God for mere good intentions. The sufferer has actually undergone difficulty in showing love of God through a particular deed, rather than simply having been willing to hypothetically endure suffering. The example given by Albo is Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac in the Akedah episode (Gen 22) in which Abraham acts on God’s instruction to take Isaac for sacrifice, aborting his mission only at the very last moment when thus instructed through divine revelation. Despite the focus on reward in Albo’s discussion here, there is also an important soul-making element in this kind of yissurin shel ahavah. Albo writes that the righteous sufferer who acts will be worthy of greater reward ‘because through the deed his heart will be strengthened in the love of God, since every action establishes a stronger disposition in the soul than can be achieved without action’. Doing the deed-involving-suffering required by God, in other words, improves the soul (Sefer Ha-`Ikkarim Book 4: chapter 13; Albo 1929). Albo emphasizes this point again later in the same discussion: ‘a person does not reach the level of complete love [of God] until he actually suffers difficulty and toil for the love of God’.

A second way of understanding yissurin shel ahavah as a type of soul-making theodicy focuses on the purging of the soul. In his eighteenth-century commentary to the Talmud, Rabbi Jacob Joshua Falk argues that the damage done by the biblical serpent of the Garden of Eden to all future human souls, even those of the completely righteous, makes it impossible, without suffering, to purge the soul of a righteous person from the material and physical and allow that soul to enjoy its full spiritual reward in the world to come. Rabbi Falk’s view here is close to that of Aquinas, for whom ‘suffering is medicinal for the cancer of the will innate in all post-Fall human beings. Unless that cancer is cured, human beings cannot be united to God in the afterlife’ (Stump 1997: 532). Even without the harm caused by the serpent, Rabbi Falk continues, the human soul is too attached to the material to be able, without the purging effected by suffering, to ultimately receive the supernatural light of the higher worlds.

This ‘soul-purging’ interpretation of soul-making theodicy brings the discussion back to Albo. Albo describes a further subcategory of yissurin shel ahavah in addition to that discussed above. Deploying a subtle distinction, Albo suggests that suffering can be inflicted by God to atone for sin without that suffering constituting a punishment for sin. Its goal is rather the essential cleansing of the soul from the stain left by the sin. Albo sums this up as follows:

It is from the love of God for the righteous person that he brings suffering upon him, to purge the dirt and impurity that is in the soul, in order that it achieve the spiritual level that is appropriate for it according to its good deeds and that nothing will impede this. (Albo 1929: 4:13)

These are some of the ways in which the doctrine of yissurin shel ahavah might be interpreted as a kind of soul-making theodicy. David Shatz argues, however, that the idea that ‘the sufferings of love’ enhance the spirituality of the sufferer differs from standard soul-making theodicies in contemporary philosophical discussion in three important respects (Shatz 2013: 317). First, contemporary soul-making theodicies usually aim to justify God allowing suffering rather than inflicting it. Second, they do not aim to justify the sufferings of the righteous in particular. Third, soul-making theodicies justify suffering in terms of the moral improvement it fosters in others, not in the sufferer. Despite these differences, Shatz concludes that ‘we have a close enough fit [in Jewish sources] to furnish a potential precedent for a contemporary-style SMT [soul-making theodicy]’ (Shatz 2013: 317; see also Shatz 2009: 293).

The fit between ‘the sufferings of love’ and soul-making theodicies appears to be even closer than Shatz suggests. In general, Hick seems to focus his soul-making theodicy both on the sufferer and on others. Richard Swinburne also favours theodicies which appeal to the moral growth of both the sufferer and others (Swinburne 1998: 42).

2.5 Divine intimacy

A different contemporary philosophical theodicy promises a still-closer fit with the doctrine of yissurin shel ahavah. Laura Waddell Ekstrom argues, in opposition to Hume and others who believe that pain and suffering count as evidence against the existence of God, that some suffering can constitute a religious experience and a path to knowledge of and intimacy with God (Ekstrom 2004: 95–110; 2013: 266–280). Ekstrom calls this ‘the divine intimacy theodicy’ (2004: 96). On this theodicy, God sometimes permits personal suffering ‘in order to provide occasions in which we can perceive God, understand him to some degree, know him, even meet him directly’ (2004: 97; it should be noted that Ekstrom has recently elaborated her reservations concerning divine intimacy theodicy: Ekstrom 2021).

The potential for linking divine intimacy theodicy to ‘the sufferings of love’ becomes clear in Diogenes Allen’s observation along similar lines to Ekstrom: ‘Some religious people report that suffering, instead of being contrary to the love of God, is actually a medium in and through which his love can be experienced’ (Allen 1990: 189). Allen cites Simone Weil, who wrote: ‘I only felt in the midst of my suffering the presence of a love’ (Allen 1990: 197). This idea suggests itself as a plausible interpretation of yissurin shel ahavah. The concept can be interpreted as denoting suffering visited by God upon a person whom God loves in order to facilitate greater closeness, deeper acquaintance, and heightened love between God and that person. The notion of yissurin shel ahavah is understood here as a divine intimacy theodicy.

The idea that one can arrive at deeper intimacy with God through suffering is both amplified and grounded in the Hebrew Bible in Eleonore Stump’s treatment of the book of Job (Stump 2010: ch. 9). Referring to Job 42:5, ‘I had heard of Thee by the hearing of the ear; But now mine eye seeth Thee’, Stump suggests that through God’s speeches to Job towards the end of the book consequent upon Job’s great suffering, Job comes to a new, deeper, and closer kind of knowledge of God, second person rather than propositional (2010: 192). Although Stump does not use the term ‘divine intimacy theodicy’ here, this deeper knowledge indicates a more profound and intimate relationship with God, a relationship that Job now enjoys as a result of his suffering. One could similarly interpret yissurin shel ahavah as suffering that God visits on a person in order to facilitate this more profound knowledge of and intensified relationship with God that can be described as love. Interestingly, Stump, who does not refer to yissurin shel ahavah in her discussion, uses the word ‘love’ to characterize Job’s face-to-face experience of God that comes about because of Job’s suffering.

In terms of how exactly the suffering visited on a person as yissurin shel ahavah could nurture greater intimacy between God and the sufferer, one possibility is that yissurin shel ahavah might, as Simone Weil envisaged, lead to greater intimacy with God by the sufferer yielding to the suffering and experiencing greater closeness to God as a result. Another possibility is centred on what Weil terms ‘affliction’ (malheur), a level beyond suffering in which God’s love is experienced not merely through suffering but – a distinction emphasized by Allen (1990: 199, 201) – in suffering. The suffering itself is experienced as God’s love, like the physical embrace of a friend which is so tight that it hurts (Weil 1973: 76–94).

Divine intimacy theodicy, and yissurin shel ahavah interpreted as divine intimacy theodicy, are, like all other theodicies, open to philosophical objections. Discussion of such objections is beyond the scope of this article. However, in the case of divine intimacy theodicy and yissurin shel ahavah, there is a theological challenge of which it is important to take note. This is that divine intimacy theodicy resonates, at first glance, from a Christian perspective but not a Jewish one. As Ekstrom puts it:

Is not suffering as a means to intimacy with God exactly what one would expect of a God who, on Christian scripture and tradition, took on human form and suffered along with and for the world? (Ekstrom 2004: 96)

Ekstrom develops her divine intimacy theodicy in this distinctively Christian direction. It can be responded that the core idea of suffering as intimacy with the divine is, as has been noted, certainly reminiscent of yissurin shel ahavah. Also, as noted above, Job 42:5 indicates how the idea of suffering as leading to intimacy with God can be plausibly grounded in a biblical text. The Jewish pedigree of the notion that suffering can be productive of intimacy with God seems to be further confirmed by the rabbinic teaching that God sometimes causes suffering because God longs for the prayers of the righteous or of God’s chosen people. God sometimes invites a person or group, through suffering, to develop a deeper connection with God (see, e.g. b. Yevamot 64a; Exodus Rabbah 21:5). Moreover, while the idea that God can suffer (sometimes termed ‘divine passibility’ or ‘theopaschism’) is not essential to divine intimacy theodicy (Ekstrom 2013: 274), even if it were, there are ample classical Jewish sources that depict God as suffering (see, e.g. Exodus Rabbah 2:5; b. Megillah 29a; Mekhilta, Massekhta de-Pisha, ch. 14; Mishnah Sanhedrin 6:5). Even if these texts are intended metaphorically, the language of God as suffering is clearly far from alien to Jewish tradition. The idea of divine suffering is important to the theology of A. J. Heschel (see Berman 2022).

2.6 ‘Only way’ arguments

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz famously argued that this world is the best of all possible worlds (Leibniz 1952). In this spirit, some philosophers argue that, for all we know, the natural system that exists in our world is the only possible such context for morally significant human lives, i.e. the only way in which this major good can be achieved. For example, William Alston (1996: 116–118) responds to the claim that God could have instituted a quite different natural order to the one we actually have, a natural order in which there is no (or much less) human and animal suffering, viruses or bacteria, predators in the animal kingdom, earthquakes or hurricanes, and so forth. Alston insists that we do not know what possibilities for the natural order are open to God:

[W]e are in no position to make a sufficiently informed judgement as to what God could or could not create by way of a natural order that contains the goods of this one (or equal goods of other sorts) without its disadvantages. (Alston 1996: 117)

In the history of Jewish reflection on the problem of evil, Maimonides has a similar kind of ‘only way’ argument. For Maimonides, as noted in section 2.3, the ultimate source of evil in the world is matter. All people and things are composed from matter, the basic physical material of the world. Yet because matter can take different forms (e.g. the same bronze can take the form of a statue, a candelabrum, or a plate), it is intrinsically unstable and deficient, suffering privation, and susceptible to harm, such as natural disasters. God cannot change the nature of the matter that He has created because that is a logical impossibility, matter being necessarily linked to privation (Shatz 2021: 231–232). The only way that a world such as ours can exist and serve as the framework for the kind of human life with which we are familiar is as a world in which matter, with all its attendant disadvantages, is the basic material.

2.7 Theodicy and Kabbalah

The early Kabbalists often viewed the source of evil in the world as the Sefirah or divine emanation of din (strict justice). Evil is drawn down to the world as a result of evil human actions, which cause din to inflict suffering and death as punishment (Tishby 1982: 287). This approach is therefore a kind of punishment theodicy.

The Zohar, the central work of Kabbalah, combines a strong dualistic tendency to view evil as having an existence independent of God and free from God’s control with a more traditional Jewish theological approach which qualifies and softens the dualistic motif (Tishby 1982: 287–288). On the dualistic side, the autonomous existence of evil, termed the Sitra Ahra or ‘Other Side’, is evident in its having a precisely corresponding sefirotic structure to that of the forces of holiness and good. The forces of good and evil also ontologically correspond in other ways. The forces of evil are unleashed to cause harm in the world as agents of the Sitra Ahra in the same way that angels bring good to the world as emissaries of God. Thus, death and destruction in the world are not acts of God but the work of the evil ‘Other Side’ (Tishby 1982: 288–289). The forces of good and evil struggle constantly for control of the world (Tishby 1982: 290).

This dualistic tendency is attenuated by other Zoharic teachings, which suggest that the Sitra Ahra is dependent for its existence on the Divine and that evil is a secondary phenomenon which came into being as a by-product of the formation of good, generated by the Sefirah of strength (Gevurah) which is the divine attribute of strict justice (middat ha-din; Tishby 1982: 292, 295–298; Scholem 1991: 73; Tishby 1984: 16) or one of the other Sefirot (see Wolfson 1986: 31–32; 1988: 83, note 37) or even before the emanative process began (Wolfson 1988: 81). Some Zoharic statements suggest, in contrast to the dualistic motif, that evil is subservient to the forces of holiness and that harm in the world is the work of God, through the agency of the forces of evil, in order to punish wrongdoing and facilitate fear of God (Tishby 1982: 293–294, 341), in the spirit of punishment theodicy or soul-making theodicy. The Sitra Ahra can operate only with Divine permission and is a messenger of (and dependent upon) God (Tishby 1982: 341–342). Some Zoharic statements suggest a single continuum running between the Sefirot and the Sitra Ahra rather than viewing them as polar opposites (Tishby 1982: 301; see also Wolfson 1988: 83). Gershom Scholem suggests that the Zohar views the metaphysical origin of evil in the transformation of the category of din into an absolute, but that it is ambiguous regarding the issue of whether this transformation occurred organically, as it were, because evil has an independent reality, or whether it was caused by human sin (Scholem 1954: 238).

A Kabbalistic doctrine concerning the origin of evil, contemporaneous with the Zohar but diverging from it, appears in the writings of R. Joseph Gikatilla (1248–c.1305). Evil has only a potential existence, which would never have been actualized had Adam not eaten of the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. This teaching also appears in the works of some Lurianic and later Kabbalists (Scholem 1991: 78–82). On this doctrine, the existence of evil in the world is the result of human sin. Relatedly, according to some Lurianic and earlier Kabbalists, human beings are only embodied – and thus vulnerable to disease, injury, and death – because of Adam’s sin, prior to which Adam’s existence was non-corporeal (Tishby 1984: 104–105).

For some Lurianic Kabbalists, evil takes on a real and independent existence only at a later stage than is indicated by the Zohar, namely after the shevirat ha-kelim or ‘breaking of the vessels’, a pivotal event in which, according to one main line of explanation, some of the Sefirot were unable to contain the Divine light which came pouring into the vessels designed to contain it and which thereby caused the fracturing of those vessels. The powers of evil developed from the scattered fragments (Scholem 1954: 265–266; Scholem 1991: 82; Tishby 1984: part 1). An alternative explanation of ‘the breaking of the vessels’ is teleological: it was a purposeful event brought about in order to enable evil to come into the world, for without the existence of evil as well as good there could be no free will, moral choice, reward, or punishment for human beings (Tishby 1984: 43, 84). This explanation is a version of the free will theodicy.

Rabbi Isaac Luria himself, and his closest disciples, traced the origins of evil back further to the very act of Divine tzimtzum, self-contraction, which took place when nothing existed but God and which was necessary for the creation of the world, but through which the forces of din became concentrated and more potent (Scholem 1991: 82–84; Tishby 1984: 11, 56). There are implications for the problem of evil in this Lurianic approach:

The question as to why God did not create a perfect world, Himself being perfection, would have seemed absurd to the Kabbalists of the Lurianic school: a perfect world cannot be created, for it would then be identical to God Himself, who cannot duplicate Himself, but only restrict Himself. (Scholem 1991: 84)

There are, then, a variety of theodicies and explanations of the existence of evil that appear in Kabbalistic literature. Zoharic dualism clearly provides the most radical and direct route to the solution of the problem of evil. It construes evil as independent of God and beyond God’s control, hence perceiving God as lacking in omnipotence and therefore unable to prevent evil. Yet most traditional Jewish theists consider this too high a theological price to pay.

2.8 Post-Holocaust theodicies and responses

There is a wide range of Jewish responses to the Holocaust and the horrific scale and force with which it raised the problem of evil: how could a good and omnipotent God allow such a massive degree of murder and human suffering, albeit inflicted through the deliberate actions of human agents? This section briefly considers the positions of Eliezer Berkovits and Ignaz Maybaum. Anti-theodicy is central to some other key responses, and these will be considered in section 4.2 below.

Eliezer Berkovits denies both the uniqueness of the Holocaust and the necessity, alleged by some writers, to treat it outside the paradigms of traditional Jewish responses to the problem of evil (Berkovits 1973). The Holocaust is unique in its quantitative scale, Berkovits argues, but not in the challenge it poses for religious faith: ‘From the point of view of the problem we have had innumerable Auschwitzs’ (Berkovits 1973: 90). The problem of evil is raised as much by the murder of one innocent person as by that of six million. Berkovits addresses the problem of evil as instanced by the Holocaust by focusing on the concept, originating in the book of Deuteronomy, of hester panim, the periodic ‘hiding of the face of God’ from the world. At times of hester panim, God does not interfere in the world but instead allows space for human beings to exercise their free will, a free will which by definition they can deploy for evil purposes such as genocide rather than for the good ends which God desires. Central, therefore, to Berkovits’ response to the Holocaust is a traditional free will defence or theodicy.

Maybaum’s theology of the Holocaust is somewhat idiosyncratic as well as morally and religiously problematic. Like Berkovits, Maybaum denies the uniqueness of the Holocaust and stresses its continuity with the past (Maybaum 1965). Maybaum’s theological response to the Holocaust focuses on the notion of vicarious atonement:

Jews have a history to which the Servant-of-God-texts of the Book of Isaiah provide the pattern. In Auschwitz [...] Jews suffered vicarious death for the sins of mankind [...] the Jew hatred which Hitler inherited from the medieval Church made Auschwitz the twentieth-century Calvary of the Jewish people. (Maybaum 1965: 35)

Even the Holocaust, for Maybaum, conforms to the divine will. The larger purpose of history is the bringing of the gentile nations to God, and the conduit for this relationship is the Jewish people. For Judaism to communicate with the Christian world it must re-embody the crucifixion, the lesson of which is that vicarious death is necessary for the world to progress morally. Thus, the modern Jew must undergo persecution and death in the Holocaust in order to achieve a positive world-historical transformation. This transformation is the end of the medieval era, the end of religious authoritarianism and religious persecution, and the rise of a modernity characterized by widespread freedom and democracy.

A further important Jewish theological response to the Holocaust that should be noted is that of Hans Jonas (1987). Extending the Kabbalistic idea of tzimtzum, divine self-contraction in order to make room for the creation of the world, Jonas suggests that, after Auschwitz, the only defensible conception of God is of a deity who ‘has divested himself of any power to interfere with the physical course of things’ (Jonas 1987: 10).

3 Sceptical theism

3.1 Core idea and varieties

There is much discussion, in contemporary philosophical literature on the problem of evil, of the position termed ‘sceptical theism’. Sceptical theism combines the theistic claim that the traditional God of the Abrahamic faiths exists with scepticism about the human ability to understand why God acts or does not act in any particular instance. It is likely that in many cases God has reasons for acting or not acting that are simply beyond our intellectual grasp. The gap between divine and human knowledge is so vast that it is entirely plausible that an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent God would allow the suffering of the innocent for reasons which are beyond human cognitive reach. We cannot therefore be confident in claiming that the world contains any gratuitous evils, i.e. evils for which there is no reason that provides moral justification for God to permit them. A central example of such a reason would be that some greater good, or the prevention of some equally bad or worse evil, cannot be achieved without this evil. For all we know, God, with His infinitely superior – even perfect – knowledge, has a morally-justifying reason for permitting every evil in the world that seems gratuitous. There are different varieties of sceptical theism in the philosophical literature that share this common core (e.g. Wykstra 1990; Bergmann 2009; DePoe 2014).

3.2 Sceptical theism in Jewish sources

While some major Jewish thinkers, such as Nahmanides in the medieval era, insist that theodicy is the correct religious approach to the problem of evil (see section 5 below), the essence of sceptical theism has a distinguished pedigree in Jewish tradition. A clear strand in classical Jewish thought emphasizes the limits of human understanding and eschews any attempt at theodicy. While the book of Job does not articulate any single unambiguous approach to the problem of evil, its famous finale seems to endorse sceptical theism. God rhetorically asks Job: ‘Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? Declare, if thou hast the understanding’ (Job 38:4). In context, God is apparently asking Job how, from his radically limited mortal perspective, Job could possibly know that there is no justification for the suffering that he has undergone (or indeed for the suffering that others have experienced). The entirety of God’s long speech here is in the same vein: creation is vastly complex, and human beings are ignorant of its inner workings and of how the cosmos operates (for a fuller discussion of sceptical theism and the book of Job, see Rudavsky 2013: 379–386).

In the Mishnah (Avot 4:15), Rabbi Yannai states flatly that we lack the ability to understand either why the wicked prosper or why the righteous suffer. In the Talmud (b. Berakhot 7a), Rabbi Meir teaches that even Moses, the greatest of the prophets, was refused an answer by God to his question about why evil in the world is apparently distributed in an unjust way. In a further famous Talmudic passage (b. Menahot 29b), Moses is not told why Rabbi Akiva, whom Moses assumes should have enjoyed reward for his great Torah scholarship, instead underwent horrendous suffering. Indeed, God instructs Moses to be silent when Moses requests an explanation, stating simply that this was His decision. The natural inference is that an explanation or justification would be beyond the cognitive grasp of any human being, even Moses.

4 Antitheodicy

4.1 Antitheodicy defined and briefly explicated

Antitheodicies come in different versions. What they share is the core idea that theodicy should be rejected not because of any objection to any particular theodicy but because ‘theodicies are by nature defective in various respects [... t]he very project of theodicy, on this view, is a non-starter’ (Trakakis 2017: 125).

One important type of antitheodical argument is that some theodicies trivialize suffering and evil and therefore carry negative moral consequences, for instance by blunting our sensitivity and aversion to evil. For example, as noted in section 2.2, some philosophers have suggested theodicies based on eschatology, according to which the incomparable good of everlasting bliss and intimacy with God after death not only outweighs but renders trivial any evil suffered in earthly life (Trakakis 2017: 126). The antitheodicist argues that this dangerously underplays the reality and horror of a great deal of evil in the world and loosens our ethical moorings (Trakakis 2017: 126). This seems a strong objection if we think of many particular evils in history, e.g. the Holocaust and other genocides. A related antitheodical moral objection to theodicy is that theodicy makes peace with evil and undermines our motivation to combat it (e.g. Trakakis 2017: 133).

4.2 Articulations of antitheodicy in Jewish theology

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik takes the problem of evil very seriously in a Jewish theological context, opening his celebrated work Kol Dodi Dofek with the statement: ‘One of the darkest enigmas with which Judaism has struggled from the very dawn of its existence is the problem of suffering in the world’ (Soloveitchik 2000: 1). However, he frequently describes theodicy as a futile enterprise, and indeed goes further, seeming to advocate not just the sceptical theism that the designation of theodicy as futile suggests, but also (and often in the very same passages) a more radical stance of antitheodicy according to which the entire project of theodicy is deeply misguided and inappropriate:

Man should not ask: Why evil? He should rather raise the question: What am I supposed to do if confronted with evil; how should I behave vis-à-vis evil? [...] instead of philosophizing about the nature of evil within the framework of a theodicy, Judaism wants man to fight it relentlessly and to convert it into a constructive force. (Soloveitchik 2005: 331–332)

Evil is to be uncompromisingly combatted, rather than rationalized and consequently tolerated. The question of why evil occurs is thus the wrong one from a religious perspective and a dangerous distraction from the proper religious question, namely how should one act in response to evil (see also Soloveitchik 2000: 4–5, 7–8, 18–19; 2003: 102–103, 127–128, 164–165; 2008a: 150; 2008b: 32). Soloveitchik concedes that Jewish tradition devotes much attention to the theodical approach, but he marginalizes it (see especially ‘A Halakhic Approach to Suffering’, Soloveitchik 2003: 86–115). It is possible that Soloveitchik’s stance on the problem of evil is influenced by Hermann Cohen’s emphasis on the ethical instead of the metaphysical in this context (see Sokol 1999: 317).

In his response to the Holocaust in Kol Dodi Dofek, Soloveitchik takes the same antitheodical line and again stresses the need to avoid philosophical questioning about suffering in favour of a practical, ‘halakhic’ approach:

[W]e have to pose the question in a halakhic form and ask [...] What commanding voice, what normative principle arises out of the afflictions themselves? [...] Then, and only then, will we rise from the depths of the Holocaust, possessed of a heightened spiritual stature. (Soloveitchik 2000: 18–19)

In his reference to the ‘commanding voice’ that arises out of the afflictions of the Holocaust, Soloveitchik seems to anticipate the work of Emil Fackenheim, according to whom a divine revelation emerges from Auschwitz. This is Fackenheim’s famous ‘614th Commandment’, the imperative for Jews to survive as Jews, thereby denying Hitler a posthumous victory (Fackenheim 1970; 1994). Fackenheim argues that all traditional theological explanations of evil and suffering are inadequate given what he regards as the Holocaust’s unique horror. He thus – like Soloveitchik – rejects theodicy as a legitimate approach to the Holocaust and advocates a similarly practical response.

This anti-theodical theology of the Holocaust is strongly endorsed by Emmanuel Levinas, who speaks of the ‘end of theodicy’ after the Holocaust. For Levinas, Auschwitz demonstrates ‘the disproportion between suffering and every theodicy [...] with a glaring, obvious clarity’ (1988: 162). Corresponding to Fackenheim and Soloveitchik, Levinas likewise favours a practical response: greater compassion (1988: 163–164). Moreover, for Levinas, theodicy, the attempt to justify the suffering of the other, is morally scandalous – not only in the case of the Holocaust but in general (1988: 163).

One of the best-known and most radical post-Holocaust Jewish theological works, Richard Rubenstein’s After Auschwitz (1966; 1992), again advocates a version of Jewish practice rather than any theodicy. However, Rubenstein goes much further than the other thinkers discussed in this section, advocating a form of Jewish paganism. Rubenstein argues that Jews can no longer believe in an omnipotent and beneficent God after the Holocaust (Rubenstein 1966), though he emphasizes in the second edition of After Auschwitz (1992) that he does not endorse atheism.

Also rejecting a theodical approach to the Holocaust, Irving Greenberg insists that ‘[n]o statement, theological or otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of the burning children’ (Greenberg 1977: 23). Greenberg makes the radical suggestion that after the horrors of the Holocaust, the covenant between God and the Jewish people can no longer be considered obligatory, only voluntary, for Jews (Greenberg 1982).

The problem of evil in its radical Holocaust incarnation has been intriguingly probed, not only in works of Jewish philosophy and theology but also in literature, in the works of Elie Wiesel, Primo Levi, and many others. These treatments are clearly of theological significance – one obvious dimension is their vivid, detailed, and layered portrayal of the profound evil that the authors witnessed and suffered, a portrayal which demands a serious and considered response and the power of which rules out in advance any glib or overconfident theodicy.

5 Theodicy, sceptical theism and antitheodicy: strengths and weaknesses of each approach from a Jewish theological perspective

Three general approaches to the problem of evil have been discussed in this article: theodicy/defence, sceptical theism, and antitheodicy. This section briefly explores some strengths and weaknesses of these different approaches from a Jewish theological perspective.

Section 3.2 above noted that a clear sceptical theist strand can be identified within the classical sources of Jewish tradition. Sceptical theism, like antitheodicy, also seems congruent with traditional Jewish values at a deeper level. Some traditionally minded Jewish thinkers are unambiguous about the necessity, particularly in the post-Holocaust era, to reject theodicy as a response to the problem of evil and to embrace cognitive humility. Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein writes, in a similar spirit to his father-in-law Rabbi Soloveitchik (see section 4.2):

The message that arises in the wake of the events of the twentieth century is that we have no business poking our noses into the ‘why’; in the context of such questions, what is required of us is absolute humility. (Lichtenstein 2004)

However, sceptical theism and antitheodicy face several challenges from a Jewish theological perspective. First, not only is a range of theodicies advocated in traditional Jewish sources, but some important thinkers explicitly and sharply favour the theodical approach itself over the sceptical theist’s position that while God’s ways are just, we cannot grasp the divine reasoning behind them. Thus, Nahmanides considers the question of why a believing Jew should bother with theodicy at all. Given that

we must believe in His righteousness insofar as He is the true judge [...] why do you trouble us [...] Why do we not hinge everything on the support we will arrive at eventually, that there is no iniquity or forgetfulness before Him, but rather all His ways are just? (Cited and translated in Shatz 2019: 198)

Nahmanides responds sharply:

This [objection] is the claim of fools, despisers of wisdom [...] It is the obligation of every creature who serves [God] out of love and fear to investigate in order to make [His] justice right and to show the judgment true, according to his ability [...] in order that his mind become composed in this matter and the verdict of his creator will appear true to him. (Cited and translated in Shatz 2019: 198)

For Nahmanides, theodicy has major religious advantages in terms of strengthening the faith of the person successfully pursuing the project, and also presumably in terms of persuading others of God’s justice. These benefits fail to accrue to those who simply (and lazily, in Nahmanides’ view) assert that the whole matter is beyond human cognitive grasp and take God’s justice as a simple matter of faith without putting in the intellectual heavy lifting.

A further difficulty with sceptical theism arises from a Jewish theological perspective if, as some have argued, sceptical theism involves a consequentialist stance in normative ethics. A consequentialist theory is one that considers the moral rightness or wrongness of an action to depend solely on the consequences of that action. In contrast to consequentialist theories, deontological approaches to ethics maintain that some acts are morally obligatory (or prohibited) regardless of the consequences (see Harris 2008: 68). Sceptical theism seems committed to consequentialism because ‘[s]ince the sceptical theist is willing to allow that any seemingly gratuitous evil can be justified given sufficiently good consequences, she must hold an ethical view in which the ends ultimately justify the means’ (McBrayer 2010: 616). However, a deontologist might hold that there are some things that a human being should not do, e.g. torture an innocent person, however beneficial the overall consequences. So too there are evil things that God should not permit to occur (again, for example, the torture of an innocent person), regardless of how good the consequences might eventually be. While it would be too simplistic to suggest that Jewish tradition is uniformly either consequentialist or deontological, overall it seems to lean more towards deontologism (see Harris 2008). Thus, if sceptical theism commits us to a consequentialist ethics, that might represent a significant challenge from a Jewish theological perspective.

Theodicy, sceptical theism, and antitheodicy thus all have strengths and weaknesses from a Jewish theological viewpoint.

6 Conclusion

The history of Jewish theology from ancient to modern times includes a variety of approaches to the problem of evil, and many sub-varieties within the broader category of theodicy. Jewish theological approaches to the problem often find echoes in theodicies debated in contemporary philosophy of religion and can both enrich and be enriched by those debates.


Copyright Michael J. Harris (CC BY-NC)


  • Further reading

    • Berman, Todd. 2022. ‘Berkovits, Heschel, and the Heresy of Divine Pathos’, Tradition 54, no. 4: 50–90.
    • Braiterman, Zachary. 1998. (God) After Auschwitz: Tradition and Change in Post-Holocaust Jewish Thought. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
    • Carmy, Shalom (ed.). 1999. Jewish Perspectives on the Experience of Suffering. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, Inc.
    • Katz, Steven T. 1985. Post-Holocaust Dialogues: Critical Studies in Modern Jewish Thought. New York: New York University Press.
    • Kraemer, David. 1995. Responses to Suffering in Classical Rabbinic Literature. New York: Oxford University Press.
    • Leaman, Oliver. 1995. Evil and Suffering in Jewish Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
    • Sacks, Jonathan. 1992. Crisis and Covenant: Jewish Thought After the Holocaust. Volume 2. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
    • Shatz, David. 2013. ‘On Constructing a Jewish Theodicy’, in The Blackwell Companion to the Problem of Evil. Edited by Justin P. McBrayer and Daniel Howard-Snyder. Chichester: John Wiley and Sons, 309–325.
    • Soloveitchik, Joseph B. 2003. Out of the Whirlwind: Essays on Mourning, Suffering and the Human Condition. Edited by David Shatz, Joel B. Wolowelsky, and Reuven Ziegler. Jersey City, NJ: KTAV/Toras HoRav Foundation.
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