Why Do Some Rabbis Claim To Know The Reason For Suffering?

Dear Jew in the City,

A terrible tragedy befell the Jewish people this week when seven innocent children were killed in a fire in Brooklyn. As we mourn and attempt to comfort each other through this great sorrow I have heard that there are rabbis who claim to “know” the reason these precious souls were taken from us. From time to time you’ll hear that a rabbi or leader in the Jewish community publicly assigns blame to certain groups or actions after a tragedy occurs. Is this an appropriate way to think and talk in terms of Torah philosophy?


Dear Troubled-

Thanks for your question. I too am troubled by the people who claim to know the workings of God (as are the several rabbis and rebbetzins I consulted with about this topic), especially since prophecy ended two thousand years ago. There is an example from Tanach (the Jewish Bible) of people who claim to know why suffering occurs: In the book of Job, when Job loses his family, his property and becomes sick, his friends come over to tell him he is to blame. But at the end of the book Hashem appears before Job in a whirlwind and explains that His ways are beyond human comprehension:

Then the LORD answered Job out of the storm. He said: “Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge? Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me. “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it? On what were its footings set, or who laid its cornerstone– while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy? 

Hashem goes on and on about every detail of the universe that humans have no concept of in order to show Job that our comprehension of the Almighty does not even begin to exist. But even if we could understand God’s ways, it’s not even clear if reward and punishment are meted out in this world. The Torah tells us that honoring one’s parents and shooing away a mother bird (before taking her eggs) are two commandments which will lead to a long life (the reward for most mitzvos are not given), yet there’s a famous story in the Talmud of a man named Elisha ben Avuya who witnesses a boy follow his father’s directive to shoo away a mother bird to get her eggs and then plummets to his death. Seeing this Torah reward not play out, Elisha ben Avuya becomes a heretic. He concludes “There is no Judge.” But the Talmud explains that the “long life” these commandments speak of is a reference to “long life” in the next world.

However, we are told elsewhere in the Talmud that “one who suffers should examine his actions.” (Brachos 5)  So perhaps there is an idea that some amount of punishment could be connected to our actions in this world. However, the Talmud is very clear that one examines *one’s own actions* not someone else’s. And even when we examined our actions, no one actually knows the correlation between action and suffering – it could merely be a way to introspect and grow from the challenge. But aren’t there grisly curses described in the Torah for turning our back on God’s words and ways? Of course. But we are not told which action leads to which consequence. And as the great Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau (former Chief Rabbi of Israel and one of the youngest survivors of the Holocaust) explains in his book “Out of the Depths” he will never know the reason for the Holocaust. Neither will we.

Even if we could know the reasons for suffering, uttering such words of judgment fly in the face of the essence Judaism. As Hillel teaches the would-be proselyte how to sum up the Torah on one foot: “What is hateful to you don’t do unto your fellow. The rest is commentary.” The foundation of Torah observant Judaism is to be a mentsch and to have compassion (not judgment). The Jewish people are referred to as “rachamim bnai rachamim” (people of compassion who are children of people of compassion). And our sages command us, “Do not judge your fellow until you have stood in his place.” Even the Torah itself is described as “Daracheha darchei noam” (Its ways are those of pleasantness its paths are those of peace). Job’s friends are not wrong just for believing they know God’s ways. They are chided in the Talmud for speaking to Job with “onaas devarim” (hurtful words) when they blame him for his suffering.

And finally, the Talmud tells the story of a great Torah scholar, Rav Shimon Bar Yochai, who is often credited for writing the Zohar (which contains kabbalistic ideas – some of them seemingly fiery) yet when after seven years of studying in a cave (to hide from the Romans) he emerges from it and sees his fellow man occupied with farming and other “mundane” activities, he judges them for not being as on “high” a level as himself. “How can people engage themselves in matters of this world and neglect matters of the next world?” Shimon Bar Yochai asks as his eyes (allegorically) burn up the fields as he looks at them. But then a Heavenly Voice is heard, which says “Bar Yochai, go back to the cave! You are no longer fit for the company of other human beings.” So Rav Shimon Bar Yochai goes back to the cave to study for seven more years and learns how to appropriately act and speak to the people of his generation. Only then is he able to become a great teacher of Torah, the Revealed and the Hidden.

Sincerely yours,

Allison Josephs (aka Jew in the City)

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  • Avatar photo mike says on March 27, 2015

    You don’t really answer the question, Allison. you’ve explained why these so-called rabbis are wrong, but you have not explained why they make their bizarre pronouncements.

    • Avatar photo Allison Josephs says on March 27, 2015

      Thanks for your comment, Mike. If you reread the question closely, you’ll see the question actually is “is this an appropriate thing to do?” I answer that. I guess your complaint is actually on the choice of title. And for that we are limited by only a certain number of characters that fit on the front page, plus something that grabs a person’s attention. I will see if I can rework the title.


  • Avatar photo Rose says on March 27, 2015

    This post clearly explains something that some might find hurtful, as in playing the blame-game.

    But, I think one point should be made. What you clearly mentioned says in in the Talmud that “one who suffers should examine his actions.” Now, people have Rabbis to direct them on the proper path, and so is true here. If a Rabbi is aware of certain nisyoinas that his congregation struggles with, it would be a great opportunity to utilize the sorrow they all feel for the tragedy, and direct it to better themselves in certain areas.

    • Avatar photo Allison Josephs says on March 27, 2015

      Thanks for your comment, Rose. But again- notice the Gemara says for the *one* who suffered examine his actions. Not the one who lives nearby to the person who suffers. Look – I’m all for growing and I’d be fine if rabbis said “Something awful happened, let’s try to increase the merit for the Jewish people. Everyone should try to take a moment to find one small thing to improve on.” But that is FAR different than what these rabbis say…

      • Avatar photo Rose says on March 27, 2015

        Just to put some points on the good side- The speeches from Rabbis *I’ve* been hearing about this tragedy, mentioned precisely this: how every person in themselves should take this as a personal wake up call and become better in their weak areas. Plus, pointing out some things that most people today struggle with so we all get an idea where to start.

        • Avatar photo Allison Josephs says on March 27, 2015

          Thanks for your comment, Rose. So I didn’t hear specifically about this tragedy, but I’ve heard other rabbis from other tragedies say things like “Makeup causes breast cancer.” or “The boys in Israel were killed because they lived over the green line.” or “Terror attacks in Israel were caused due to immodesty.” I’m all for general encouragements for growth. But some of the stuff being said is truly troubling.

  • Avatar photo mike says on March 27, 2015

    I’m sure the title helped in terms of SEO, Allison, but I still feel like you’re shying away from the issue at hand. Is it appropriate, based on the Torah, for anyone to announce that they ‘know’ why a tragedy occurred? The answer, based on the sources you cite, is no. And yet, dozens of rabbis do it every single time something tragic happens. So if you are truly dedicated to plumbing the depths and ramifications of the question, it’d behoove you to ask those “rabbis and rebbetzins” with whom you consulted to weigh in. And quote them by name, if possible. You may also want to confront the rabbis who make these claims and ask them to explain their behavior. Then you’d have an interesting and click-worthy story.

    • Avatar photo Allison Josephs says on March 27, 2015

      Thanks for your comment, Mike. I’m not sure if these rabbis and rebbetzins want to be quoted by name, but the sources seem to indicate that there is no room for this other approach within Torah. I asked a very learned rav if there’s anything going against this view and he quoted me the idea that you should introspect when you suffer (meaning perhaps suffering could be correlated to one’s actions) but noted it was about self-introspection – not telling something else what to do. In terms of confronting these rabbis who go around telling people that makeup and mixed dancing cause cancer and terror attacks – something tells me they wouldn’t care what I have to say. I think there is a lot of ego in a person who claims to understand God’s ways. We decided to answer this question to create a record online for anyone else who heard such comments and wondered if this is a correct approach. I don’t think we here at JITC can stop people from doing things we object to (people have free will). But we certainly can show them another approach. So that’s what we’re doing..

  • Avatar photo Catholic Mom says on March 28, 2015

    The thing is that this is the flip side of the issue that was discussed related to your December posting about a two-year old who was found lifeless in a swimming pool and who miraculously came back to life without any form of injury when her parents desperately promised to increase their observance of mitzvot and good deeds.

    The issue then was — does God use life and death to reward and punish people? And it is exactly the same issue here. These children died because their parents were using a hot plate left on all Friday night in order to serve hot food on Saturday without breaking Sabbath laws. Did God punish them for their observance? Of course not. But he didn’t punish them for any other reason either, because God doesn’t use life and death to reward and punish people on this earth. If he did, Stalin would not have died in his bed and 6 million would not have perished in the Holocaust. Once you start explaining a miracle as a reward you have to logically consider that a disaster (or even the withholding of a miracle) is a punishment. And we know that is not true.

    We don’t know the reason for suffering on this earth, but we do know that it is not some part of universal justice, which is not found in this world, but in the next.

    • Avatar photo Allison Josephs says on March 29, 2015

      Thanks for your comment, Catholic Mom. It’s true, it’s the flip side, but I only share stories like Gali and the one about the woman going to the mikvah who’s cycle got shorter after decades of it lasting for 2 weeks with the caveat (of course we don’t know how God’s calculations work). I think the positive stories can uplift us, can be a sign of God “winking” at us, but I think it’s absolutely essential that we say “BUT OF COURSE WE DON’T ACTUALLY KNOW. Because we never will.

  • Avatar photo R' Yonason Goldson says on April 22, 2015

    A refrain I’ve heard over the years is, “I can’t believe in a G-d who would…” fill in the blank: allow the Holocaust, cause little children to starve in Africa, afflict saintly people with cancer, cause earthquakes and tidal waves that kill thousands, etc.

    The Talmud says that “it is not within our ability to explain the suffering of the righteous or the prosperity of the wicked.” That’s on an individual basis. In general, we do understand that suffering can come for a variety of reasons: to atone for past transgressions, to balance the scales for inequities in previous lives, to strengthen us for future challenges, among others. The wicked may be rewarded in this world so that they won’t enjoy reward in the next.

    On the most fundamental level, the appearance of injustice in the world is what makes free will possible. If all good people prospered and all the wicked suffered, sin would never be an option for any thinking person.

    That being said, to look for meaning in tragedy (and in prosperity, for that matter) is to seek G-d’s wisdom in an effort to come closer to him. What can I learn from the things that happen to me and around me, and how can I grow from them? It’s a difficult prescription, but “no pain, no gain” does not apply only in the gym.

    One quibble: Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai was in the cave for 12 years before he came out the first time, then went back in for one more year before finally emerging.


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