In the Jewish community today, there is little patience with a theology of suffering. Our communal suffering, particularly the Shoah, makes us intolerant of any description or theological justification of suffering. Indeed, we turn our backs on justifications of the suffering of our people, and all the more on a theology of the redemptive value of an individual's suffering. But the word "today" may be a little overemphasized. Despite the pleas of the prophets and the interpretations of the sages, the theories of the medieval philosophers, or the charismatic leadership of the Chasidim, it is not clear that Jews have ever had patience with suffering and its theology. I am not a historian of Jewish popular attitudes, but I suspect that in every generation, Jewish suffering has met with despair, anger, and a refusal to dignify it with redemptive theories. What I do know is that in synagogues when I try to present contemporary accounts of suffering by leading Jewish thinkers, I am met with at least the suspicion that those thinkers are betraying our experiences in this century.
I am thinking most of all of Emmanuel Levinas (but we could substitute Hermann Cohen, or Martin Buber or Franz Rosenzweig, or others) and his discussion of how my responsibility for the other person, the one nearest to me, makes me hostage for the other, persecuted for the other, and responsible for the other, to the point of atoning for the other. 1 When most Jews hear such views, they object that such a theory of suffering and responsibility is Christian, and not Jewish. It does not seem to matter that such a theory of suffering for the other arises from Isaiah, or that the long tradition of Jewish exegesis and reflection on martyrdom lies behind it. Today (and again I hesitate to see our time as an anomaly) an elevation of suffering, even a reflection on suffering, seems un-Jewish. It would be, we Jews often think, something that Christian thinkers do. They praise suffering; they imagine expiation. We have had enough of it.