Of Sensitivity and Humility: An Exposition of Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein’s Approach to the Suffering of Others

 

Over the course of the last century, two immeasurably significant events occurred in Jewish history. The first was the Holocaust, which consisted of the murder of six million Jews and the suffering of countless more. The second was the establishment of the State of Israel, a redemption of sorts from a seemingly endless exile. Both the scale and the proximity of the two events prompted many to attempt to explain the reason they happened. In order to do so, the proposed explanations needed to address the issue of the evil and suffering so prominently exhibited and experienced during the Holocaust. The questions of evil and suffering are age-old questions,[ii] and despite the unprecedented scale and singularity of the Holocaust, they are relevant to other tragic events of the last century as well. Twenty-first century calamities like the Indian Ocean Tsunami, Nepal Earthquake and Hurricane Katrina also appropriately triggered these questions.[iii] At various junctures in Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein’s tenure as Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion, he deemed it important to address these events and the issues raised by them. In doing so, he presented a consistent, honest, and nuanced approach that preached humility and sensitivity in both understanding and responding to the suffering of others. This approach in many ways was explicitly impacted by that of his father-in-law, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. Additionally, a few relevant comments by Rabbis Shalom Carmy and Emmanuel Feldman further develop and illustrate Rabbi Lichtenstein’s opinion. A careful survey and presentation of his approach to these issues will demonstrate its importance by illustrating how Rabbi Lichtenstein’s approach is simultaneously theologically, philosophically, and morally compelling, thereby providing a suitable framework for us to confront tragedy.

The Problem of Evil and Suffering

In a sermon delivered in the aftermath of the tragic Tsunami of 2004, Rabbi Lichtenstein addressed the basic issue at hand: “Questions regarding the evil and suffering in the world – questions that lie beneath the surface of our existence, on the level of primal consciousness, from time immemorial – exist all the time; they arise at especially terrible times, such as now, following this disaster.”[iv] These questions Rabbi Lichtenstein references are neatly summarized in a chapter of his book By His Light discussing the challenges of the Holocaust. He writes, “The question which concerns us principally is the prophetic query echoing throughout the generations, the question of theodicy: Why do the righteous suffer?”[v]

This central question causes some to pontificate about why such an event took place. In doing so, they consider the surrounding circumstances, location, people involved, and time of the event.[vi] What compounds the issue is the relationship between sin and suffering. Rabbi Lichtenstein notes that “both the prophets and Chazal generally connected destruction with sin.”[vii] Rabbi Lichtenstein believes that those precedents in Hazal and the prophets have caused some people to arrive at their conclusions, attributing tragedies to misdeeds in the areas of Zionism, immodesty and Sabbath observance, amongst other areas.[viii]

Proposed Solutions and Interpretations

Rabbi Lichtenstein describes this general group of interpreters in his sermon delivered after the Indian Ocean tsunami. He writes: ‘Some people concern themselves with the question of why it happened, voicing opinions on why the tragedy occurred specifically in that place and that time. These same people, in different circumstances, also explain why infants and young children die. Apparently, they consider themselves experts in the ways of Divine Providence.”[ix] This tongue-in-cheek quote reflects the basic assumption of the group of interpreters Rabbi Lichtenstein takes issue with; they deem themselves capable of understanding the ways of God.

In his writings, Rabbi Lichtenstein presents various solutions and responses proposed by others to the question of suffering broadly and to the Holocaust and other events specifically.[x] One non-religious approach described by Rabbi Lichtenstein is to abandon faith completely as the result of the scale of the event. While Rabbi Lichtenstein advocates not being judgmental of those who have this type of response and perhaps even sympathizing with them, he does not believe this approach is within the parameters of religious thought.

In By His Light, Rabbi Lichtenstein mentions three different approaches to the meaning of the Holocaust. The first is “Not only is it untrue that God ignored what was transpiring, but, on the contrary, the Holocaust was the fulfillment of His will. We need to recognize this and confess that it occurred ‘because of our sins.’”[xi] This approach, known as the “mi-penei hata’einu” approach, calls on us to examine the behavior of the Jews preceding the Holocaust and identify their sins which sparked the Holocaust.[xii] A second approach is the opposite of the first: God gave man free choice and is now unable to interfere.[xiii] A third approach is the combination of the first two: “The Holocaust represents hester panim, the hiding of God’s face. It is neither a purposeful act on His part, nor is He bound by human freedom of choice, but rather it is a situation whereby God withdrew His hand because of the sins of Am Yisrael.”[xiv]

Rabbi Lichtenstein takes issue with these approaches as a whole, but particularly dislikes the first, the “mi-penei hata’einu” approach. He presents a variety of reasons for his discomfort with it. The first is that the implication of this approach leads to a statement that is morally unacceptable to Rabbi Lichtenstein because it requires that we view the Jews in Europe as a gravely sinful community to such a degree that they precipitated the Holocaust. He cannot fathom daring to make such a harsh accusation against a previous generation, especially one with many holy and saintly people in its midst. He cites a narrative in Isaiah where the prophet is punished for uttering an accusation against his community.[xv] He argues that if Isaiah was punished for his accusation, how dare we feel comfortable making such a serious one? The alternate option within this approach is also unbearable for Rabbi Lichtenstein because it would force us to believe that terrible punishments are actually the deserved and appropriate response to standard sins. By adjusting our standards of sin and punishment we are now compelled to perceive God, the God of the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy, from an entirely different and much more severe perspective. Rabbi Lichtenstein considers this modification unacceptable because it clashes with too much of the broader corpus about our understanding of God.[xvi]

In another context Rabbi Lichtenstein presents two additional elements of discomfort with the “mi-penei hata’einu” approach. First, the staggering enormity of the group murdered seems too vast to fathom within any philosophical approach. Second, he contends that historically, Western Europe, the area which would be presumed to have sinned the most, was hit much more mildly than Eastern Europe where many practiced traditional Judaism.[xvii]

Rabbi Lichtenstein also finds faults in the other two approaches of either believing God was unable to interfere or that it was a period of hester panim. He argues, “maintaining that God’s hands were tied, as it were—we must also reject, for this would imply that we deny Him any role in the course of history.”[xviii] Finally, he comments that the “hester panim” approach also “leaves us with a question: Why? Was the situation so dire that we really deserved for God to hide His face from us?”[xix]

Yodea Da’at Elyon?

Aside from the specific flaws with these individual approaches, Rabbi Lichtenstein also presents a number of broader and more fundamental issues. His first issue, simply put, is that we are neither Hazal nor prophets.[xx] He writes that despite many sources of a causal nexus between sin and suffering easily found in Nevi’im and Hazal, “contemporaneously… to asseverate with assurance is out of the question. Such statements constitute the height of arrogance vis-a-vis the Ribbono Shel Olam.”[xxi] Rabbi Lichtenstein considers it both arrogant and pretentious for a modern man to provide explanations for these tragic events because it is impossible for him to have any certainty that there is validity to what he is saying. Elsewhere, Rabbi Lichtenstein commented: “such explanations are in the realm of prophets, and perhaps Chazal – but we? Who gave us the right to speak in such terms?”[xxii]

Rabbi Lichtenstein finds support for his approach in a famous Midrash about Bilaam and was wont to quote it as such. The Talmud[xxiii] describes how Bilaam believed he knew God’s mind. The Talmud strongly rebukes him: “This person, who claimed to know God’s mind- could he not understand his donkey’s mind?” Rabbi Lichtenstein understands the message of this Midrash to be that it is utterly foolish for one to consider himself capable of understanding the ways of the Ribbono Shel Olam. He writes: “It would be foolish of me to pretend to read cuneiforms or picture languages, and it’s folly for a person to imagine that he understands God’s supreme wisdom.”[xxiv] Aside from Rabbi Lichtenstein’s qualms about the ability of modern man to interpret tragic events, he also finds moral fault in the self-confidence inherent in doing so.[xxv] Rabbi Lichtenstein therefore has no stomach for the frightful demonstration of arrogance by those who make such statements.

Despite his strong objections to the aforementioned approaches, Rabbi Lichtenstein makes a critical qualification about his views. He does not think it is impossible that any of the previous interpretations are inherently untrue, and may in fact be correct. It is intellectually dishonest to categorically rule them out. Nonetheless he believes that, “it’s much better to admit you don’t know rather than to give answers which are, in every way, unsatisfactory from a spiritual point of view.”[xxvi]

Further Illustrations of Rabbi Lichtenstein’s Approach

An idea articulated by Rabbi Emanuel Feldman potentially provides further support for Rabbi Lichtenstein’s approach. In an article penned following a number of dramatic statements about the causes of Hurricane Katrina, Rabbi Feldman argued that, in contrast to Rabbi Lichtenstein, the prophets and sages of old were not “as all-knowing as some of us claim to be.”[xxvii] He cites Biblical and Talmudic examples to demonstrate how even they did not consider themselves capable of identifying the cause of tragic events. Rabbi Feldman’s idea goes beyond Rabbi Lichtenstein’s approach in that the distinction made between the prophets and Hazal on the one hand, and us on the other is lacking in that even our great predecessors did not consider themselves all-knowledgeable in the ways of God. Thus it is also a display of arrogance because implicitly one is demonstrating that he considers himself to be more knowledgeable of God’s ways than even the prophets and sages.

Rabbi Shalom Carmy, a student of Rabbi Lichtenstein, both further develops and illustrates Rabbi Lichtenstein’s point about considering oneself capable of interpreting contemporary events. Beyond the issue of the assumption of understanding the unexplainable ways of God, there is also an issue with the common methodology utilized to arrive at such interpretations. Rabbi Carmy offers a description of the evidence often adduced in support of interpretive claims. He writes: “typically their argumentation leans heavily on the drama of breathtaking coincidences, on inventive correlations between God’s purposes and the calendar of the sequence of parshiyot, and marvelous gematriyot and other numerical calculations.” Tongue-in-cheek, Rabbi Carmy continues: “Rabbi Feldman wonders how contemporary spiritual guides can claim certitude not vouchsafed to the prophets. Not surprising: Jeremiah and Habakkuk lacked the computer programs to generate fresh gimatriyot.”[xxviii] Rabbi Carmy’s point not only indicates his alignment with Rabbi Lichtenstein on this issue but simultaneously serves as a valuable illustration of Rabbi Lichtenstein’s point. Hazal and the Prophets may have been capable of suggesting general interpretations for God’s ways, but who are we? The tools Rabbi Carmy describes reflect how ludicrous it is for one to believe that he can understand the ways of Ribbono Shel Olam through such pshtetlakh. Finally, Rabbi Carmy makes another crucial point: “What happens when our communal or personal calamities, regarded as divinely ordained afflictions, become the subject of clever pshetlakh?”[xxix] Simply put, what type of effect will there be on our communities if the most serious and sensitive of issues in our communities are not dealt with intellectual, philosophical and religious rigor?[xxx]

Rabbi Carmy finds an additional fault with the assumed self-confidence of those who offer explanations for tragedies and elaborates beyond Rabbi Lichtenstein on the issue. He comments that often the proposed explanations of tragedies made by preachers are truly dedicated “to settling accounts with those outside the circle of the preacher’s admirers. We do not confess our sins, but profess the sins of individuals or groups we wish to weigh against.”[xxxi] Thus, beyond being pretentious and arrogant, it can also serve as a distasteful display of opportunistic attack against those who do not align with one’s views.

Responding With Humility

Rabbi Lichtenstein instead preaches an approach of humility. He writes about the Holocaust: “The first thing that is required, then, when relating to the Holocaust, is absolute humility and complete self-nullification. First and foremost, I refer to humility in relation to God. This means avoiding all those philosophical and theological statements, issued from all sides, with great pretension, seeking to provide one or another explanation – while the best response is silence.”[xxxii] In another context describing the Holocaust, Rabbi Lichtenstein remarked that “it is preferable to live with the question and with the faith surrounding it rather than to try and grasp at explanations of one kind or another. We cannot nor will we ever be able to provide an adequate explanation for what happened.”[xxxiii]

Rabbi Lichtenstein believes that a sense of humility is necessary for other events besides the Holocaust: “Someone who cannot provide an answer for what took place during the Holocaust should not be overly eager to provide explanations for current events.”[xxxiv], [xxxv] He concludes his remarks following the Tsunami with: “the message that arises in the wake of the events of the Twentieth Century is that we have no business poking our noses into the “why;” in the context of such questions, what is required of us is absolute humility.”[xxxvi], [xxxvii]

Not Just Humility

Yet Rabbi Lichtenstein does not believe that simply exhibiting humility with regards to interpreting events is a sufficient response to the suffering of others.[xxxviii] In his comments on Hurricane Sandy he argued: “A person lives through a period of tragedy; hopefully one would expect a response which, on the part of the person, does not focus upon his understanding and perception of why and how the Ribbono Shel Olam is running the world.”[xxxix] He instead believes that the point of focus should be shifted and as such, “the question is not only what we should say, but what we should do. On this level, our responses subdivide into actions with practical effects and actions with emotional effects.”[xl]

First and foremost, Rabbi Lichtenstein makes a critical point about one’s mindset with regards to the suffering of others. He writes: “the primary of hovot halevavot upon our relation the suffering of others is felt, however, insofar as the suffering becomes in some sense and on some level, our own. From a purely moral standpoint this degree of empathy is desirable in itself, as a reflection of the ability to transcend egocentrism and weave an element of fellowship, community, or universality into the fabric of personal identity.”[xli] To further illustrate this point, he references the famous example from Kol Dodi Dofek about the two headed Jew who has both heads scalded when boiling water is poured on one.

This mindset has a number of ramifications. The first is that it calls for tefillah as a response to the suffering of others in the same manner one would respond with tefillah to personal suffering.[xlii] It also crucially focuses on tikkun, amending one’s ways. Rabbi Lichtenstein argues that there should be no difference between the self and extended self in this obligation. Yet the obligation and opportunity to amend one’s ways need not result from finger-pointing or ascription of blame. While a general connection between sin and destruction should be acknowledged, this does not have to impact one’s teshuvah and therefore “continued adherence to that tenet remains more a facet of emunah than of teshuvah.”[xliii] Rabbi Lichtenstein argues the obligation of tikkun “can be approached without the self-righteousness and without recrimination in a forward looking spirit rooted in commitment to both avodat Hashem and ahavat Yisrael.”[xliv] Thus, while still preaching tikkun, Rabbi Lichtenstein is able to divert the focus from ascribing blame to others for their sins.

On one level, Rabbi Lichtenstein stresses that it is obviously important to provide practical support and assistance via charity and other kind acts, and refers to this as hesed. Yet he also preaches a different kind of response, that of sensitivity. While perhaps of less practical assistance to those suffering, Rabbi Lichtenstein considers this to be of utmost importance. Similar to his point about viewing it as one’s personal suffering, Rabbi Lichtenstein calls for a sense of identification with those suffering because of its attitudinal significance. He quotes the Talmud which indicates “that Chazal regard such a situation, where a person does not participate in communal distress, as a most severe manifestation of egotism.”[xlv] As a paradigm for his approach, Rabbi Lichtenstein quotes another Talmudic saying: when the Israelites fought Amalek in the desert, Moshe sat on a rock, instead of on a chair or cushion: “Moshe said, ‘Since Israel is suffering, I too am with them in suffering.’ And whoever makes himself suffer with the community, will merit to experience the community’s consolation.”[xlvi] Whether Moshe sits on a rock or on a sofa makes no difference at all to those who are waging the war against Amalek; nevertheless, Moshe would never think of not identifying with the nation in its time of trouble, in the midst of war.”[xlvii] He also presents other places in Hazal where one is obligated to perform certain minor acts in order to keep specific things in mind.

Rabbi Lichtenstein thinks identification is crucial on a number of levels. First, he believes that it may actually help those suffering. Despite not offering anything on the material level, a display of sympathy and identification with the pain of those suffering may provide them with solace. Beyond this though, he stresses an additional important element— the development of sensitivity for the sake of ourselves. He writes: “We must aspire at least to attain a level where we will have human sensitivity…our sensitivity and sympathy are necessary to aid those who have suffered loss and injury, while they are also demanded of us as part of our service of God. These feelings are important not only for the sake of our interpersonal relationships and our relationship with God, but also for the sake of our relationship with ourselves, namely, for developing our moral character and refining our religious personalities.”[xlviii] Thus, a sense of identification is critical for Rabbi Lichtenstein.

Specifically in the context of the Holocaust, Rabbi Lichtenstein describes particular messages and lessons that must be learned. These lessons include higher levels of love for fellow Jews, recognizing how fortunate we are, humility, faith, strength and possessing a sense of mission. He describes how there is a burden of continuity, a mission “to continue that great and impressive world, with all its different facets, that was cut down and destroyed in its prime, a flourishing, thriving world of Torah, culture and creativity that was annihilated. We bear this obligation not only because it is necessary, but because we – who stand here today – are the emissaries of those holy, great, saintly people.”[xlix] These lessons and messages delineated by Rabbi Lichtenstein reflect his approach of learning from the suffering and including those lessons into how one responds in the future.

You Sing Praise?

Another important element of Rabbi Lichtenstein’s approach to the suffering of others is his view of the sufferings of non-Jews. He addresses the issue on three levels. He writes: “The ethnic factor is of little moment on the philosophical level. In dealing with theodicy, whether Job was Jewish, Gentile or fictional is wholly irrelevant.”[l] A second level is that of compassion, prayer and sensitivity. He believes that we are charged with acting with all of these emotions for victims of all nations. Rabbi Lichtenstein presents[li] various historical precedents as proof for this approach, such as Avraham and Sodom, Jonah and Nineveh,[lii] as well as a Midrash in the context of keri’at Yam Suf where God criticizes the angels for not displaying sensitivity towards the drowning Egyptians.[liii] He considers this approach intuitive if we truly strive to abide by our tradition. He writes: “the tendency, prevalent in much of the contemporary Torah world in Israel as well as in the Diaspora, of almost total obliviousness to non-Jewish suffering is shamefully deplorable… the notion that only Jewish affliction if worthy of Jewish response needs to be excoriated and eradicated.”[liv] On a third level though, Rabbi Lichtenstein does make a distinction between the sufferings of the two groups. He writes: “On the practical level, however, it is of considerable import. Up to a point, this is fully understandable humanly, and also, from our perspective, morally. There is no gainsaying the fact… that Judaism espouses a double ethic. The Halakhah indeed champions a double standard grounded in recognition of Kedushat Yisrael and the perception, of relevance to ideal bland universalism.”[lv] Thus Rabbi Lichtenstein does believe in prioritizing the needs of Jews ahead of non-Jews.

Acceptance

All the above notwithstanding, Rabbi Lichtenstein argues that there is another obligation a Jew has in response to suffering. Jews, writes Rabbi Lichtenstein, must “accept God’s judgment, despite our incomprehension….  The philosophical and religious difficulties are present, and there is no point in denying them, but we are believers and descendants of believers. With great humility, even when our comprehension is lacking, we must regard ourselves, even at difficult times, as being able to cope psychologically, and also practically (to some extent).”[lvi] While clearly a difficult task, as Rabbi Lichtenstein admits, it is necessary for a Jew to be submissive and to maintain his belief in God’s supreme wisdom.[lvii]

Rabbi Lichtenstein and the Rav

Beyond being the son-in-law of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Rabbi Lichtenstein was in many ways one of the intellectual heirs of the Rav. With regard to question of suffering in general, as well as the suffering of others, Rabbi Lichtenstein very much continues the tradition of the Rav. This is very evident in Rabbi Lichtenstein’s affinity for quoting the Rav on the topic.[lviii] More specifically though, Rabbi Lichtenstein’s philosophy is comparable with the Rav’s in at least five ways.

Rabbi Soloveitchik emphasizes how halakha recognizes and legitimizes the experience of suffering. In fact, for one to ignore it would be a missed opportunity. In Out of the Whirlwind the Rav writes: “The practical topic Halakha did not and could not evolve a metaphysic of suffering. It simply refused. It was not eager to find the rationale of evil and to convert the negation into an affirmation. It neither justified evil nor denied and hid it. The topical Halakha always held the view that evil exists and that man must face it in perplexity and embarrassment.”[lix] Rav Lichtenstein likewise emphasized that suffering is an important and legitimate experience, one that certainly should not be ignored. The Rav and Rabbi Lichtenstein present a variety of reasons for this.[lx] Firstly, to deny the suffering of others is morally objectionable. If they are experiencing pain and suffering, how can one dare to tell him that he is not really suffering and it is all just an illusion? Secondly, suffering is an important experience for man if visited upon him, and has many redemptive qualities. Third, Rabbi Soloveitchik mentions that to modern man these metaphysical explanations are of no use, meaning a modern man does not find it to be relevant or valuable to his emotional experience.[lxi]

Another way in which the Rav and Rabbi Lichtenstein compare also serves as a fourth reason for not explaining away suffering. The Rav emphasizes our inability to understand the ways of God and thus it is inconceivable to try to explain to someone that their suffering is an illusion, if we are finite and cannot know the infinite big picture.[lxii] This idea is the subject of the opening pages of Kol Dodi Dofek. The Rav writes: “There is evil that is not susceptible to explanation and comprehension. Only by comprehending the world in its totality can man gain insight into the essence of suffering. However, as long as man’s perception is limited and fragmented, so that he sees only isolated portions of the cosmic drama and the mighty saga of history, he cannot delve into the recesses of evil and the mystery of suffering.”[lxiii]

The Rav also believes that the point of focus should be on response and not trying to philosophize about the nature of the event. This is the subject of the Rav’s famous distinction between fate and destiny. He writes: “the emphasis is removed from causal and teleological considerations and is directed to the realm of action.”[lxiv] Rabbi Lichtenstein draws from this reflection of the Rav tremendously in his own philosophy as he makes this very same distinction. The Rav also indirectly makes an important point about relating to the suffering of others. He quotes the story of Job to show how it is crucial to sympathize with those suffering. He understands God’s critique of Job as: “You were still short of attaining that great trait of loving-kindness in two respects: (a) never did you bear the communal yoke, nor did you participate in the trouble and grief of the community, and (b) you did not feel the pain of the individual sufferer.”[lxv] This is very much in line with Rabbi Lichtenstein’s argument that there is an imperative to identify and sympathize with others who are suffering. Finally, the Rav argues there must be another element to a Jew’s suffering. In the same manner that Rabbi Lichtenstein argues for acceptance and continued faith in response to suffering, Rabbi Soloveitchik writes: “the third proposition is faith… the topical Halakhah has always believed, based on an eschatological vision, that at some future date, some distant date, evil will be overcome, evil will disappear.”[lxvi] Once again, the Rav and Rabbi Lichtenstein both agree that man must accept the Divine verdict of suffering with faith and humility.

Rabbi Lichtenstein’s approach to the suffering of others is significant because it displays a true sensitivity to moral, Halakhic, and philosophical principles simultaneously. It also, under the radar, takes a dramatic stance against proponents of Divine interpretation amongst whom are some revered rishonim.[lxvii] While Rabbi Lichtenstein does not clearly delineate when exactly the heter for general divine interpretation ends, he holds that it is our responsibility is to respond with a sense of humility and sensitivity to those suffering. In this manner, Rabbi Lichtenstein’s philosophy is appropriate and crucial when one deals with the suffering of others.

Avraham Wein is a second-year student studying Tractate Sanhedrin at Yeshiva College.

[i] I would like to thank Rabbi Shalom Carmy, Rabbi Reuven Ziegler, and Rabbi Moshe Rosenberg for their help in preparation of this article. I would also like to thank Dr. Moshe Cohen for reviewing an early draft of the article.

[ii] For relevant sources see Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Kol Dodi Dofek (New York, NY: Yeshiva University, 2006), 1.

[iii] Rabbi Lichtenstein makes this point (albeit implicitly) in a number of places. See Aharon Lichtenstein, “The Duties of the Heart and the Response to Suffering,” in Aharon Lichtenstein, Leaves of Faith: The World of Jewish LearningVolume 2 (Jersey City, NJ: KTAV Pub. House, 2004), 144. and Aharon Lichtenstein, “I Am with Him in Distress: The Challenges of the Holocaust,” adapted by Reuven Ziegler, By His Light: Character and Values in the Service of God. (Jersey City, NJ: KTAV Pub. House, 2003), 165. For a more explicit and thorough example of this argument see Eliezer Berkovits, Faith After The Holocaust (New York, NY: KTAV Pub. House, 1973), 128-130.

[iv]Aharon Lichtenstein, “After the Tsunami,” The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash, available at: etzion.org.il/en/

[v]By His Light, 165.

[vi] The connection between sin and destruction in Hazal is not always evident though. See Yaakov Elman, “When Permission is Given: Aspects of Divine Providence,” Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Thought 24:4 (Summer 1989), 24-45 and Yitzchak Blau, “Afflictions of Love: The Relationship between Suffering and Sin,” The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash. Also see Avot 4:15, Berachot 5a, Berachot 7a and Shabbat 55b for some examples. For an interesting analysis of Rabbi Akiva’s approach to theodicy see Maier Becker, “Rabbi Akiva and Theodicy,” Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Thought 37:1 (Spring 2003), 52-60.

[vii] Aharon Lichtenstein, “‘Is This Not a Brand Plucked From the Fire?’ Confronting the Aftermath of the Holocaust.” Alei Etzion 16 (Iyar 5769), 175. This point also appears in other of his writings. See Leaves of Faith, 145 and “Tsunami.” For a few examples of this phenomenon in Hazal see Sotah 1:7-9, Avot 5:8-9, Moed Katan 28a, Shabbat 2:6, Shabbat 13b, Shabbat 55a-b and Gen. Rabbah 84:7. Also see the writings of my revered teachers Rabbi Shalom Carmy and Rabbi Mosheh Lichtenstein who address the validity of this claim with regard to the Torah. See Mosheh Lichtenstein, “Weep for what Amalek has Done unto You – Lamentation and Memory of the Holocaust in Our Generation,” Milin Havivin Journal 2 (June 2006): 25-41. and Shalom Carmy, “Cold Fury, Hidden Face, the Jealousy of Israel: Two Kinds of Religious Estrangement in the Torah,” Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Thought 43:4 (Winter 2010): 21-35. It is worth noting that Rabbi Lichtenstein does not really examine the validity of this claim with regard to the Torah explicitly.

[viii]For a survey of these type of propositions see Emmanuel Feldman, “‘Plunging Into Mighty Waters And Emerging With A Broken Shard’: New Orleans and the Mind of God,” Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Thought 40:1 (Spring 2007): 5-16, at pgs. 5-6. With regard to the Holocaust see the approaches of Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum and Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook referenced in Reuven Ziegler, Majesty and Humility, (New York, NY: OU Press, 2012), 276-277.  For some more specific contemporary examples see The Associated Press, “ Shas Rabbi: Hurricane Is Bush’s Punishment For Pullout Support,” Haaretz Online Edition, 7 September, 2005, available at www.haaretz.com, VIN News Staff, “Satmar Rebbe Attacks Zionism Says Blood Of The Three Slain Boys Is On Parents’ Hands,” 2 July, 2014, available at http://www.vosizneias.com/, and Jesse Lempel, “Rabbi’s Unwitting Lesson in How Not To React to Nepal’s Earthquake,” 27 April, 2015, available at forward.com. Also see the comments of Rabbis Zechariah Wallerstein and Rabbi Yosef Mizrachi following the horrific fire in Brooklyn this past year available at “torahanytime.com.”

[ix] “Tsunami”

[x] For a survey of approaches within a Jewish philosophical lens see Leaves of Faith 2, 144. For a broader survey of approaches to the Holocaust specifically see Tamir Granot, “Faith and the Holocaust,” The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash and Moshe Maya, A World Built, Destroyed, and Rebuilt: Rabbi Yehudah Amital’s Confrontation with the Memory of the Holocaust (Jersey City, NJ: Ktav Pub. House 2005).

[xi] By His Light, 162-163. For other places where he puts forth these solutions see Alei Etzion 16, 178., Aharon Lichtenstein., “On Appropriate Religious Responses to Hurricane Sandy.” Pages Of Faith- Exploring the Thought of Harav Aharon Lichtenstein, available at: pagesoffaith.wordpress.com and Leaves of Faith 2, 145.

[xii]  For an explanation of Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner’s mi-penei hata’einu approach see Joseph Grunblatt, Exile and Redemption: Meditations on Jewish History (Hoboken, NJ: Ktav Publishing House, 1988), 145-147.

[xiii] By His Light, 162-163.

[xiv] ibid.

[xv] Isaiah 6:5.

[xvi] By His Light, 163-164.

[xvii]Pages Of Faith.

[xviii]By His Light, 164.

[xix] ibid.

[xx] This may be a reflection of Rabbi Lichtenstein’s broader philosophy of immense respect of Hazal. See Aharon Lichtenstein, Leaves of Faith: The World of Jewish Learning (Jersey City, NJ: KTAV Pub. House, 2003), 11-12.

[xxi]Leaves of Faith 2, 145.

[xxii]Alei Etzion 16, 179.

[xxiii] Sanhedrin 105b

[xxiv]Pages Of Faith.

[xxv] ibid.

[xxvi] ibid. For a similar perspective see Moshe Rosenberg, “Towards a Jewish Response to Natural Disaster,” YUTorah Online, available at yutorah.org.

[xxvii]Emmanuel Feldman, “‘Plunging Into Mighty Waters And Emerging With A Broken Shard’: New Orleans and the Mind of God,” Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Thought 40:1 (Spring 2007): 5-16, at pg. 6.

[xxviii] Shalom Carmy, “Cops and Robbers,” Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Jewish Thought 40.4 (Winter 2007): 1-6, at page 5. Rabbi Carmy does acknowledge the entertainment value of such an approach though.

[xxix] ibid. For a dramatically variant form of this type of approach see Gidon Rothstein, “Can a Reasonable Person See the Hand of God in Cataclysmic World Events?,” YUTorah Online, available at yutorah.org. As will be demonstrated later on in the article, it is possible Rabbi Lichtenstein would respond to Rothstein’s argument that it is not necessary to use those means in order to turn towards the path of repentance.

[xxx] Additionally it makes it impossible to offer the type of responses discussed later on in the article. This approach seems to fall in line with a comment made against simplicity by Rabbi Lichtenstein in By His Light where he argues for presenting students with a variety of views and preaches the importance of complexity. See Aharon Lichtenstein, “Bittachon: Trust in God,” adapted by Reuven Ziegler, By His Light, 157-158. Rabbi Carmy’s point also aligns with a point made by the Rav. See Joseph Epstein, Shiurei Harav (Hoboken, NJ: KTAV Pub. House, 1974), 6.

[xxxi]Shalom Carmy, “Cops and Robbers,” Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Jewish Thought 40.4 (Winter 2007): 1-6, at page 6. In a different context, my esteemed teacher Rabbi Michael Rosensweig termed this the “mi-penei hatat’hem” approach.

[xxxii]Alei Etzion 16, 179.

[xxxiii]By His Light, 164.

[xxxiv] ibid.

[xxxv] This is also clear because of the consistency of his comments in his discussions of other tragic events as well as in his more general discussions of the suffering of others. See Leaves of Faith 2, 145.

[xxxvi]“Tsunami”

[xxxvii] I think Rabbi Lichtenstein’s call for humility is related to his discomfort with declaring the State of Israel to be the “reshit tsemihat ge’ulateinu.” Who are we to say whether this is the beginning of the ultimate redemption or not? See Elyashiv Reichner, By Faith Alone: The Story of Rabbi Yehuda Amital (New Milford, CT: Maggid Books, 2011), 69.

[xxxviii]This also serves as an additional reason why Rabbi Lichtenstein finds fault in the previous approaches.

[xxxix]Pages Of Faith.

[xl]“Tsunami”

[xli]Leaves of Faith 2, 144.

[xlii] See Psalms 130. Also see the famous debate between the Rambam and Ramban regarding the nature and scope of the Biblical obligation of prayer.

[xliii] Leaves of Faith 2, 146.

[xliv] ibid.

[xlv]“Tsunami”

[xlvi] Ta’anit 11a

[xlvii] “Tsunami”

[xlviii] ibid.

[xlix]Alei Etzion 16, 184.

[l]Leaves of Faith 2, 146-147.

[li] See “Tsunami” and Leaves of Faith 2, 146-147.

[lii] For another similarity between the approaches of the Rav and Rabbi Lichtenstein, see Abraham R. Besdin, Reflections of the Rav: Man of Faith in the Modern World volume 2 (Jersey City: KTAV Publishing House, 1989) 142-146.

[liii] Sanhedrin 39b

[liv] Leaves of Faith 2, 147.

[lv] ibid.

[lvi]“Tsunami”

[lvii] This approach fits in very well with a possible reading of the story of the deaths of Aharon’s sons. See Alex Israel, Parshat Shemini: The Deaths of Nadav, Avihu, and Uzzah – Lessons for Yom HaShoah,” Beit Hillel- Attentive Spiritual Leadership, available at http://eng.beithillel.org.il/.

[lviii]For examples see Alei Etzion 16, 180. and Leaves of Faith 2, 118.

[lix] Joseph Dov Soloveitchik, Out of the Whirlwind: Essays on Mourning, Suffering and the Human Condition (Hoboken, NJ: Toras Horav Foundation, 2003), 101.

[lx]For a clear expression of this in Rabbi Lichtenstein’s thought see Leaves of Faith 2, 126-128.

[lxi] Out of the Whirlwind, 99-100.

[lxii]This may be connected to the same reason why the Rav argues that rational proofs of God fail in Uvikashtem Misham since in both cases an inadequate response is a distortion. While See Joseph Dov Soloveitchik, And From There You Shall Seek. (Jersey City, NJ: Ktav Pub. House, 2008), 12.

[lxiii]Kol Dodi Dofek, 5.

[lxiv] ibid. 7.

[lxv] ibid. 15.

[lxvi] Out of the Whirlwind, 103-104.

[lxvii] For some of the relevant sources in the Ramban see C.J. Henoch, “The Religious Thought of Nachmanides – from His Exegesis of the Mitzvot,” Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Thought, 11:1 (Spring 1970), 64-83.

 

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