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Theodicy and the Slings and Arrows of Outrageous Fortune by Gordon Tucker

Now that the holidays are for the most part over, we get back to the theology of the plague! We continue our chapter-by-chapter readthrough of Torah In A Time Of Plague edited by Erin Leib Smokler – today it’s…

“Theodicy and the Slings and Arrows of Outrageous Fortune” by Gordon Tucker.

Do you know when G-d last speaks in the Tanach? We’ll find out shortly 🙂

Torah in a Time of Plague, deposited on a pillow with animal print sequins.

First we begin with a discussion of theodicy; i.e., theologians defending G-d. If he’s so good, why do bad things happen (LIKE A PLAGUE)?

A perennial question, and Tucker points out it implies an aversion to randomness and contingency. Surely G-d knows about all these bad things and has ordained them in some way.

One problem of theodicy is that it imposes our interpretations on G-d, and its aim is to make us feel better.

He quotes Edward Greenstein on the Book of Job that Job’s friends are like this… and it doesn’t work out for them:

“Note the ire that facile theodicies provoke in God (“I’m incensed at your friends” as the New JPS renders it).”

Job’s honesty based on his personal observations, and not his adherence to tradition, goes over much better. Tucker points out that there are several alternative ways traditional Jewish writers tried to get out of this difficulty.

  1. Everything comes from G-d’s will, but this will can’t be predicted
  2. G-d can ordain things and then let them proceed:

“[T]here is an assertion of contingency that God has ordained, but though having ordained it, God can neither override nor control it.”

(Now I see I hyphenated G-d but Tucker doesn’t; I just do it by reflex. Oh well, I’ll leave it this way. It has been ordained!)

And the third option Tucker presents is even more radical:

“the third text will present the most pervasive contingency of all, one that is built into the world, entirely independent of God’s will.”

So let’s see the first option.

There is an absolutely fascinating bit in BT Berakhot 7a –

“a tradition from Rabbi Yosi that Moses made three requests of God, and all were granted. The third of these was to be informed of God’s method for meting out prosperity and suffering.”

BUT WHAT WAS THIS METHOD, I MUST KNOW, you may ask (I certainly did). So did the Talmudic sages.

Well. They couldn’t figure it out. Rabbi Meir finally said that two requests were granted but this third one wasn’t! We can’t really understand the divine will.

“As Job, the book and the character, puts it (Job 9:12): “Who can say to God, What are You doing?””

Well, there we have the first option. (BUT REALLY, G-D, WHAT ARE YOU DOING)

The second option “comes from a medieval work by the older contemporary of Maimonides, Abraham ibn Daud.” He wrote a book called The Exalted Faith (Ha-Emunah ha-Ramah). Side note: He originally wrote it in Arabic, but only the Hebrew translation survives to this day (and has been translated to other languages like English).

He argues that G-d has ordained things to follow probabilities, not the specific outcomes. As he had it, “one ought not recoil from the idea that God knows only the possibilities.”

And the third option involves the Angel of Death.

There is a story in BT Chagiga 4b-5a where Rav Beivai bar Abaye (who had other occult dalliances as well, not discussed here) had a falling out with the Angel of Death. The angel got the wrong person by accident! Now, Rav Beivai bar Abaye complains at the angel in good Jewish fashion. (“Have you permission?”) The angel complains back. Etc.

The interesting part is that G-d is nowhere in the equation. Tucker quotes David Kraemer’s commentary on this:

““Have you permission?” is a broad question, and the angel’s response makes it clear that he feels he has the overall right to take lives prematurely. If there is any limitation on this power, it is not spelled out.”

Tucker likes this third option the most – but does it have textual support? He proceeds with a lengthy close reading of the ending of the Book of Job to show that it does. Which part I will NOT summarize, because my goal is to get you to read the book. 😀 (The Book of Job or Torah in a Time of Plague? Obviously both! ) BTW, the Book of Job – infamously ambiguously phrased in Hebrew – just got a new English translation and Tucker definitely made me want to pick that up too.)

To entice you about this, here are two nuggets.

  1. The ending of the book of Job is the last moment of the Tanach where G-d speaks. After this, it’s all done! G-d doesn’t speak anymore. So it is probably quiiiite important… (Tucker argues that it is)
  1. This quote I really like:

“What makes this understanding of God particularly apt as we ponder the ineluctable randomness in the world is that randomness is precisely the mechanism by which evolution proceeds and, in this vision, by which the divine reveals itself.”

Whew! Randomness is awesome. Allow me to quote another famous Jewish expert on this question:

“Anyone who considers arithmetical methods of producing random digits is, of course, in a state of sin.”

John von Neumann

If this was interesting / entertaining / terrifying, you can get the book!

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Also make sure to check out our posts about previous chapters as well!