What can we do about suffering?

Rava, and some say Rav Chisda, proposes the following approach to suffering: ‘If a person sees that suffering has befallen him, he should examine his actions, as it is stated ”We will search and examine our ways, and return to God” (Lamentations 3:40).

In the Steinsaltz elucidation the following phrase is added by way of explanation: ‘Generally, suffering comes about as punishment for one’s transgressions.’

This deeply upsets me, on many levels.

First of all, it certainly does not correlate with my experience of reality, nor with my understanding of history.  The righteous have suffered, do suffer and will, in all likelihood, often suffer in the future.  So I take it to be untrue, and certainly not something I should accept as a given.

Secondly, Rava was not suggesting that suffering comes as a result of transgressive behaviour.  To put these words in his mouth is to trivialise the original and profound point he is making.

Rava is suggesting that a creative and constructive response to suffering might be to engage in some meditation on the way one has behaved in one’s life.  Suffering may overwhelm us, it may make us into a victim or kick-start a vicious cycle of depressive paralysis.  He is suggesting that we should avoid this by engaging the active parts of the psyche in some thoughtful introspection.  By moving swiftly back into the role of agent, we may allay the onset of these negative effects.

And perhaps he is saying more than this, perhaps he has noticed that when we suffer we are often quite raw – our thick skin is shed, our inflated ego is a little less inflated and our everyday defences are down.  At such a time, moral reflection might just be particularly effective, we may see things with an honesty that sometimes eludes us.

This is very much borne out by the verse he uses as support, a verse from Lamentations, written in the immediate aftermath of the Temple’s destruction and the first exile of the Jewish people.  This was a period of deep hopelessness, and all one could do was to turn inwards, and try to find an internal way of improving the world.

Yes, there are many prophetic passages suggesting that the Israelites were being punished for their various sinful acts – though even here a careful reading may support the idea that the diminishing of society’s moral fabric was the source of the people’s ruin.  But the mood of Lamentations goes beyond that, I do not believe that the author who writes so movingly about mothers eating the flesh of their children believed that they were doing so as punishment for failing to keep God’s Law.

In the rhythm of the Jewish year, we move almost immediately from commemorating the despair of this destruction into a period of renewed soul searching in preparation for the new year.  That is what we do.  We do not understand suffering, but we do respond to it.  Suffering may trouble us deeply, it may shake our faith in the goodness and love that constitute our world.  But we must find space for that, we must not try to write it out of reality, thinking that we are thereby somehow doing God a service.

If we need to deny meaningless suffering, then I would suggest, from a psychoanalytic perspective, that we need to deny it because we cannot bear it ourselves, because we cannot bear to live in a world where it happens.  I do not think that such denial is irrational or unreasonable.  But we should know that it is denial and we should own it.

So, returning to Steinsaltz, that comment completely distorts the meaning of Rava’s idea.  It both trivialises it and makes it somewhat repugnant.  It turns Rava into a denier of reality and presents him as incapable of responding to suffering with honesty and sensitivity.

What bothers me more, I think, is that I don’t believe for a second that Rav Steinsaltz meant to do this.  He is a prolific scholar whose work in bringing the Talmud to a broader readership has benefitted many thousands, myself included.  But it seems to me that he perhaps makes the comment unthinkingly, and that it reflects what is generally taken to be ‘the religious position’ or ‘the orthodox view’.

As I hope I have made clear, I consider the view of suffering as caused by transgression as deeply problematic, not least because of the punitive and unloving image of God it must assume.  Rava’s view, understood correctly, is a profound contribution to the consideration of suffering, and reflects the best ways that religious thinkers might approach the issue.

The Talmudic discussion continues, and proves to be very rich.

After considering some approaches to soul searching, it concludes that sometimes one will not find anything problematic.  We are surely to read this as a statement of the difficulty and intractability of our moral reflection, it cannot be that the Talmud thinks there are many people who will genuinely not benefit from some consideration of their lives.

That said, the Talmud’s response is fascinating, in such a case ‘he may be confident that these are afflictions given out of love, as it says ‘For God rebukes those that He loves, as does a father the son in whom he delights.’’

This is both baffling and brilliant.  It is baffling that God might choose to chastise those whom He loves.  (The verse may be suggesting that such Divine behaviour might mirror the disciplined and structured love with which a father must raise his child, but it’s still quite baffling.)

And yet it is brilliant.  It is suggesting that when confronted with inexplicable suffering we must avoid the temptation of nihilism, of experiencing the cosmos as cold and uncaring, of feeling the universe to be indifferent and random.  As physicists we might endorse such a view, but as human beings our psyches do not deal in neutrality.  The world is either loving or it is cruel, it is welcoming and inviting or it is forbidding and threatening.  To this dichotomy, to the childlike layer of the unconscious which can only think in this way, the Talmud responds with love.  ‘It may be hard to see, it may be even harder to feel, but believe, if you are to believe anything, that the world is a place of love, that Life is sustained by compassion.  This is the meaning of religion.’

It is a relief to see that the Talmud then discusses how hard it is to maintain such an attitude.  It acknowledges that we will usually fail to attain it.

And then it continues.  We meet Rabbi Yochanan, whose suffering in life included burying ten of his sons.  Rabbi Yochanan is not convinced that this is affliction given out of love, and argues against those who try to convince him that it is so.

The Talmud continues, in its style, to imaginatively play out the argument with Rabbi Yochanan, to come up with proofs that he didn’t mean what he said.  But there is no indication that Rabbi Yochanan would have accepted these arguments, nor, in my opinion, is the Talmud insisting that we accept them.  They are offered, we may take them or leave them.  I personally choose to leave them, I think Rabbi Yochanan has the right to speak honestly of his experience.

And then, in a suggestion that the Talmud – and it’s by now unclear what I mean by this: The redactors?  The text?  The imagined authority that we have by now invested in this book? – accepts his non compliance it relays three fascinating stories.

In all three stories, Rabbi Yochanan is visiting someone sick or is the recipient of such a visit.  In all three stories, the visitor asks the sufferer: ‘Are these sufferings dear to you, are you enjoying them?’.

The sufferer responds: ‘Neither the sufferings, nor their purported benefits, are bringing me much joy’.

At that point, something magical happens, and they are healed.

I love this.  After plumbing the depths of suffering, after suggesting profound approaches to dealing with it, the discussion ends on a very human note:  Suffering is bad and we don’t enjoy it.  We shouldn’t over romanticise it and we shouldn’t pretend it will always bring out the best in us.  Sometimes it sucks, and we just want it to pass.

It’s a sin. Maybe.

The Talmud is enquiring into David’s claim to piety in the Psalms – why should he be considered pious?  (You have to love the audacity of this – can you imagine a rabbinic text nowadays posing such a question?)

One opinion is that he rose at midnight every night to praise God, or perhaps even that he stayed awake studying until midnight and then began his songs of praise.  Study or prayer, already an unsteady ambivalence.

Another very interesting opinion is that his merit stems from the fact that he would quite literally get his hands dirty to legislate in matters of feminine ritual purity and render a woman permitted to her husband.

I love this – the emphasis on the fact that he strove to permit the married couple to resume or continue being intimate, that he didn’t just take the safe or easy option and tell them to wait another night or two.  This teaches us a lot about the right spirit in which to approach the Law.

It gets better.  Rabbi Yosi points out that David was often filled with doubt as to his worthiness, whether his part was with those of the righteous or whether God took a different view of him.  He does this through a reading of psalm 27, which I think is spot on.  That psalm really is a picture of a quick and sudden shift, the move from a strong sense of righteous grace to a mood of abandonment and despair, wherein the Divine is suddenly absent.  I love the fact that Rabbi Yosi got this, it’s all too easy to read it 100 times through the month of Ellul and not see it at all.

What was the root of David’s worry?  We are given the mysterious explanation, ‘Perhaps the sin will cause’.  We’re not told what it will cause, or what the sin is, simply that the sin will cause.  We must suppose that what it will cause will not be good.

Rashi – one of the Talmud’s earliest expositors – steps into the breach and unpacks the mystery.  He reads that perhaps David will sin in the future, and that this future misconduct will bring him punishment and remove his lot from that of the righteous.

I don’t like this reading.  Firstly, there’s no clear implication in the discussion that the sin will be in the future, that that is the source of uncertainty.  Rashi, in reading this way, suggests that if there was sin, if David had already sinned, then he would indeed be unworthy, in some sense condemned.   So for doubt to be there, there must be doubt about the presence of sin.

I read it differently.  The Talmud brings other examples of people who were concerned with ‘maybe the sin will cause’.  It suggests that it’s a theme that runs through religious life.  And I think it is.  Sin – a consciousness of our failings, however small – is an enduring concern for the religiously oriented sensibility.  Rav Soloveitchik describes such awareness as an ‘anti-aesthetic experience’.  And the big question, which the Talmud is putting into David’s mouth, is: ‘What is the impact of sin?’.

Does sin mean that we are tainted and corrupted, banished from the shadows of the Divine light, unable to dwell intimately with its presence?  Must our guilt torment and hound us, continuously distancing us from the ideal image we hold of ourselves?  Must our weakness tip us into a vicious cycle of depression and hopelessness?

The Talmud doesn’t give us an answer, it leaves us hanging with ‘maybe’.

It perhaps suggests that doubt is precisely the point here, that the uncertainty is the recurring theme.  In doing so it proposes that this is a key dynamic of fear, that a lapse in our courage is often linked to a sense of our moral failing.

If we go back to David and the Psalms, we see many times that being in a state of sin does indeed distance a person from the purity of their ideals.  This, however,  is viewed as the stimulus to move closer once more to the Divine, not reason to abandon hope of connecting with it.

God is not seen as inaccessible to those of us who are less than perfect, but as very much a part of our rehabilitation, an aid in helping us to live with ourselves once more.  As we say every evening, in the build up to the Shema: ‘For He is merciful, forgiving sin and not destroying, frequently and regularly overcoming His anger.’

‘Maybe the sin will cause.’  Maybe.  But then again, maybe not.