Daily Israel Report

Judaism: When Bad Things Happen to Good People

A question that has troubled everyone at some point
Published: Thursday, October 17, 2013 9:34 AM

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Q. Do you agree with Harold Kushner’s thesis in his book, “When bad things happen to good people”?

A. This famous book was published just over 40 years ago after the author’s son died from a terrible wasting disease. Kushner recognised as a fact of life that good people suffer unjustly whilst bad people (at least sometimes or more often) seem to get off scot free.

The way the Talmud puts it is, tzaddik v’ra lo, rasha v’tov lo (“The righteous for whom things are not good, the wicked for whom things are good”). One of the classical explanations is that this is the way it appears to our here-and-now human perception, but in the long sweep of history, including the World to Come, the reality may be different.

The argument that Kushner put forward was that we may be asking the wrong question. Instead of measuring a person’s destiny against their moral worth, maybe we should see things in terms of the physical laws of the Creation. The way the world was made, God has contracted Himself to make room for His creation. The resultant world operates according to parameters which He cannot adjust or interfere with.

It is not that He lacks goodness or morality, but other principles function in Creation and in the final analysis God can only lament when the result seems morally unfair. What He does is to sit on the ground with us and share our pain.

An interesting argument, but as I pointed out in a radio broadcast at the time the book was published, it neither accords with nor satisfies the tradition of Judaism. What Judaism has to say is that God knows what He is doing, and though we are often surprised and even disturbed at what we see, we trust that in the larger scope of things everything has its place.