December 2, 2004
Turning Evil Around
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"Evil and the Morality of God" by Harold M. Schulweis (Ktav, 1984).
We have all been with those near to us as they have grieved over the loss of a friend to cancer, the end of a marriage, a death.
These real-life situations are often stranger than fiction. They present the greatest challenge to us as human beings: Why? Why me? Why does evil occur? If God is so moral, why did this have to happen? The questioning of God is called theodicy, indeed a logical problem. If God is all-powerful, then God is aware of suffering in the world. If God does nothing, God is either not completely powerful or not good. If God is both distant and unconcerned, then where is God's morality?
In his book, "Evil and the Morality of God," Rabbi Harold Schulweis, the eminent Conservative rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, resolves the problem with evil by dissolving it. Schulweis suggests that the trouble has been that the question "why" has itself been faulty. We think of God as a Subject, an Entity, a Something or a Somebody. What we have learned about God's perfection is for us a sense of indifference to what we consider good and evil. But perhaps we are using the wrong language. Perhaps we speak to God or about God concerning human suffering using language that has an entirely different meaning when applied to God.
We cannot prove to anyone what we know about God. But we have seen and experienced human kindness. We know what it is to do good, to love justice, to embrace compassion, to walk humbly, to care for another as we care for ourselves. These are the values that make life a blessing for the living. These are our realities. A proper belief system affirms these values as the actual subject -- and God is the verb.
Let's remember a grammar lesson. The subject comes before the predicate. But if we turn them around an insight emerges. Not God is just, but justice is Godly. Not God is compassionate, but compassion is Godly. Not God is loving, but loving another is Godlike. Thus, we have a new term called "Predicate Theology," which emphasizes human interaction and responsibility. We have the capacity, Schulweis says, to experience, express and cultivate Godliness.
When evil occurs, the question should not be "O God, why did this happen?" For we have no answer and perhaps God is stunned to silence as well. Rather, we might ask, "What must be done for people to help one another, to act with the Godliness with which each of us is endowed?" Predicate Theology places the emphasis on people's response to evil.
Recently, we have faced the tragic results of waves of hurricanes. Schulweis teaches that divinity is not in natural disasters or so-called "acts of God," but in "the human control of its floods and destruction.... There is no need for theology to compete with science in offering better or deeper explanations for the tornado and the drought.... Predicate Theology will express its profoundest sympathy, help organize relief, and urge the reclamation of the land. In the acts of encouragement, compassion, mutual aid and cooperative effort, godliness is expressed."
If God is not omnipotent and able to take away all hurts and sorrows, why bother praying -- why bother dealing with religion at all? We have to learn to ask the right questions about God and evil in this world. Rabbi Richard Hirsh notes that instead of "'God, why are You doing this to me,' ask God, 'See what is happening to me; can You help me?' or, instead of 'Why must we feel pain?' we can learn to ask, 'What can we do with our pain so that it becomes meaningful and not just pointless, empty suffering?' And instead of praying for miracles, we ought to pray for strength to bear the unbearable. In this manner, we shift the emphasis from question to response, and it is then that the role of religion becomes crucial."
Schulweis recognizes that this orientation of theology is not meant for everyone. It is meant for those who are embarrassed by dealing with a God who is morally defenseless or indifferent to suffering. Predicate Theology is a modern, intellectual concept of God that can help us face the emotional difficulties of life.
Every day that we read the paper, we see a new variation on a theme of human agony. But, as the Thanksgiving holiday we just marked teaches us, we know that, somehow, people have a capacity to persevere, to overcome, to survive the journey through the valley of the shadow of death with dignity and integrity. Predicate Theology may help us understand God in a new way. But Rabbi Ira Eisenstein adds one caveat: Don't ask God the wrong questions. Don't ask why you are suffering. Ask for the patience, the strength and the courage to transform your experience into deeds of Godliness.
Morley Feinstein is senior rabbi of University Synagogue.