Academic journal article Shofar

The Meaning of Suffering in the Thought of Abraham Joshua Heschel

Academic journal article Shofar

The Meaning of Suffering in the Thought of Abraham Joshua Heschel

Article excerpt

This essay is dedicated, with gratitude, to the memory of A. J. Heschel, whose work has inspired both my religious vocation and my academic work, on the centenary of his birth.

In this essay I will first consider the mystery of evil from the perspective of the Jewish tradition. Then, drawing on the theological reflections of Abraham Joshua Heschel, I will elaborate on the theme of the sufferer as person and the person as sufferer. Next I will examine the topic of suffering as a matter of anthropodicy rather than of theodicy. Then I will analyze the prophetic vision which sees man as a source of evil and sees suffering as both punishment for sin and means of redemption. Finally, I will consider the problem of suffering and redemption in rabbinical theology and briefly outline some approaches to suffering in hasidic thought.

The problem of evil is not simple and, indeed, has many ramifications. Though they are related, metaphysical evil (i.e., the limitations of creatures) is not the same as physical evil (i.e., pain, sickness, and death), and moral evil or sin.

Likewise, the fact that the mystery of evil is secondary, not in importance but, rather, in terms of its being a consequence of the mystery of creation, gives rise to the following three key topics: a) the existence God as creator of the universe, b) the nature of the creation as good but limited, and c) the creation of man as a free being capable of knowing, of suffering, and of causing suffering.

The paradox of evil is clearly expounded on by David Hume: How can one reconcile the existence of an all-powerful and good God with the existence of evil in the world? Many great thinkers, including Plato, Plotinus, Saint Augustine, Leibnitz, and, in our time, Camus, have struggled with this enigma, examining it from a psychological, philosophical and religious point of view. But none of them has been able to fully solve it, and perhaps no individual explanation, and not even all of those proposed put together, could constitute a full solution to this age-old paradox.

Nevertheless, in this essay I propose to examine Abraham Joshua Heschel's interesting approach to this mystery, based on an exploration of the broad canon of Hebrew thought. I am convinced that many of his ideas also throw light on Christian thought in the area. Indeed, in a still unpublished letter written in German to Cardinal Augustine Bea, Heschel suggests that "the formulation of the biblically inspired dogmas of the Church was influenced by Jewish perspectives."1

Moreover, since no other people has suffered so much defamation and tragedy and so many exiles and persecutions, it is hardly strange that Jewish thinkers have reflected so profoundly on the nature of suffering. For instance, Max Scheler has tried to elucidate the problem from the philosophical point of view, and Victor Frankl, who miraculously survived the Holocaust, has offered us profound reflections on the topic from the psychological point of view. Finally, Abraham J. Heschel has tried to decipher the mystery of pain and suffering from a theological angle, examining prophetic visions, rabbinical theology, and hasidic thought.

In a biographical sketch of Rabbi Pinhas de Korzec, Heschel reminds us that, of the many afflictions that the Jews suffered while in exile, none was more terrible than the persecution of 1648-1649, a year in which the total number of deaths exceeded all those occasioned by the Crusades and by the Black Death together. Nearly 700 Jewish communities were destroyed, and those that managed to survive were left destitute and traumatized by pressure to renounce their faith and embrace the cross.2

Not long after, in 1764, when Catherine the Great incited the Ukrainians to attack the Poles, the Ukrainians, supported by the Cossacks, fell upon the Jews. Catherine issued a decree in which, claiming that both the Poles and the Jews were equally contemptuous of the Orthodox faith, she ordered her troops to cross the border and kill Poles and Jews alike. …

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