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A Jewish Perspective on Suffering

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Where possible, suffering is something Jews try to avoid. We think eating, drinking, singing and being together are good things but we all know that, life being what it is, none of us will avoid suffering at some point. In fact for many, Judaism in the 20th century has been defined by suffering and that only adds to our loss because there are so many good and positive things Judaism can bring to a life.


Looking for answers

For many, including myself for a number of years, it is a real struggle to believe in God in a world where so much suffering exists. It doesn’t mean though that one can’t be engaged in Jewish life. Throughout the generations, Jews have tried to understand suffering and the existence of God. Although I don’t find most of the answers very helpful, I am most comfortable with the idea that God gives us free will and suffering is created by us, not by God. That places the onus on us to improve the state of the world. There is, however, no single, satisfactory answer.


What Judaism does offer me is the suggestion of how we on earth should meet suffering with compassion and charity, reaching out to those in need and comforting them. There is no reason behind suffering. But there is sometimes something we can do about it.


The book of Job

One of the classical Jewish texts dealing with the question of human suffering is the book of Job, where Job is made to suffer to test if he will stay loyal to God. His friends and family offer different explanations and ideas about why such suffering occurs in the world, and ultimately God comes to Job (in a whirlwind) and ‘explains’. God tells Job that we do not understand God’s ways. The idea of God answering Job is very powerful because at least this provides Job with proof of the divine’s existence. Most of us must struggle with our suffering and either have faith in God, or not – divine proofs do not come to the majority; hence the term faith.


In every lifetime, and every generation, there are personal and national tragedies that challenge people to consider why suffering exists in the world. They also challenge the idea of a good, just and all-powerful God. In our generation one of the biggest challenges for Jews was the Holocaust, but other genocides such as Darfur and Rwanda, Bosnia and Armenia continue to trouble and dehumanise us. Natural tragedies and suffering are also an enormous challenge, but ultimately while Judaism and Jews have found different answers to these problems through the ages, Judaism isn’t just about faith and belief. Judaism is a way of life, and an ethical heritage, and we must constantly challenge both ourselves and those around us to maintain these ethics and help to prevent and heal suffering wherever possible.