God Can’t Answer the Question of ‘Why’
by Jeremy Rosen
Innocent worshipers were shot outside a synagogue in Israel. Children were mowed down intentionally at a bus stop in Jerusalem. Eleven people were shot in Monterey Park, California. More were killed in storms in California. A hundred died in mudslides in Peru. More than 40,000 innocent humans were killed in Turkey and Syria by the earthquake, and thousands more are left starving, freezing, and shelter-less. Where was God in all this?
I am still traumatized by the very idea of the Holocaust, and that anyone could take so many babies and blow their brains out or smash them against walls in cold blood, the way so many Europeans did not so long ago. It could easily have been me. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya are abandoned and neglected, and no one seems to care. Money is squandered on arms and terrorism instead of humanitarianism. An evil man like Vladimir Putin thinks nothing of sending torrents of missiles upon innocent civilians simply because he wants something the victims do not. There are so many daily crises around the world, with millions suffering.
If you are a rationalist, you will say that the natural world functions according to its own rules. Volcanoes and earthquakes are simply the physical movements of the earth’s crust. They don’t intend to kill anyone. Floods have always happened. Avalanches engulf skiers, and we catch diseases, and we die. If we don’t look where we are going, we may get run over, or if we go to a crowded rock concert, we may catch Covid.
If disasters, whether man-made or natural, are punishments from God, then what did children in the Holocaust or Rwanda or Aceh do to deserve it? If God does control the world, then why doesn’t he punish the wicked or protect the good? Is all this God’s fault? The Talmud says that not a blade of grass moves on this earth unless God wills it.
How often are we told that if we suffer, it is because we must have done something to deserve it? Or that God works in mysterious ways? Or that we all have predestined life spans, and if a child dies, it is because it fulfilled some important role. Attempts to explain it often fall flat. Even Rabbis Hillel and Shammai concluded that life is so tough, it would have been better not to have been born!
Yet when bad things happen, people often ask, “why did this happen to me?” But they don’t often ask why they have been so fortunate to have had a roof over their head, food on their table, a car to drive, and fine vacations. What people want and need is comfort. Love and concern. These are emotional responses, not rational ones.
There is a very different way of looking at this. The mystical tradition sees things in a non-rational way. Just as some people are brighter than others or more emotional or spiritual, so in religious matters, some find comfort in simple faith and some in pseudo-rational explanations, and some in hocus pocus. The placebo effect is very powerful, and often helpful. But it is not rational.
The role of God for the mystic is not to solve our problems. It is an experience that gives strength and emotional support. I don’t turn to God to solve my problems or answer why. I simply experience loving energy that is, rather than does. I accept forces beyond my control and focus on what I can affect. Some mystics claimed that you need to fight God, to argue and accuse — and that this anger is at least a connection, an engagement. There is the famous myth of the rabbis in Auschwitz convening a court to try God and finding Him guilty, but then getting up to pray. God can be a kind of emotional punching bag, as well as comfort, even in the darkest hour.
When someone is in pain and asks “Why?” they don’t necessarily want a rational answer. They want to be comforted, and not necessarily with words.
My favorite opinion in the Mishna (Pirkei Avot 4:19) is that of Rabbi Yannai who said, “We can’t explain why good people suffer and bad people flourish.” At least he doesn’t try to palm us off with answers that do not satisfy. I am suspicious of those who claim to know how God works. But I do think providing comfort is crucial. One can love someone madly and yet not understand them completely. The love remains despite the disappointment.
The Torah keeps on repeating the need for love and respect. Rules and warnings help with the disciplines and structures we need in life. But it is passion and love and helping others that can help us cope. Emotional intelligence matters just as much as intellectual. God falls within those parameters rather than philosophy (with apologies to Maimonides). Most of us just seek comfort — a hug rather than a sermon.
I don’t turn to God to solve my problems or answer why. I turn to God to feel things I might not otherwise feel, and experience something that is, rather than something that does what I think it ought to.
The author is a writer and rabbi, currently living in New York.