Saturday, May 24, 2008

The Blasphemy of Theodicy

The news this week that Ted Kennedy is suffering from a malignant brain tumor hit my family very hard. Not because we love Ted Kennedy so much, although my parents do seem to have some affection for him, and his politics do match our collective ones fairly closely. But rather because we celebrated a recent milestone of our own- the 5th anniversary of my mother's diagnosis and removal of a benign brain tumor of her own.

I was traipsing along the internet and found a post by Batya not-so-subtly suggesting that Ted Kennedy's (and Ariel Sharon's) illnesses were divine punishment. She asks,
Does G-d punish non-Jews in the same way as Jews?

I can only speak for myself, but this question exemplifies all the reasons I find theodicy utterly disgusting as well as personally infuriating. (To be fair to Batya, her post was by far one of the less obscene examples floating around.)

This was my reply to Batya:

Given that our politics and religious beliefs are so different, I'm not surprised that I disagree with your take on this.

However, the fact that my mother recently "celebrated" her 5th year of surviving a brain tumor gives me an intimate perspective on this sort of thing.

I have always rejected theodicy, while recognizing that this places me at odds with many people who need to attribute all suffering to God to make the world make sense, who need to make God a punisher as well as a healer. I understand that, but I cannot accept it. I could not accept it before. I certainly cannot after spending long evenings with my mother in the hospital, helping her in the years after her recovery, when she had forgotten the most rudimentary basics of her life, such as her times tables, or how to read.

My mother was never religious, and still seems confused or uncomfortable when she sees me doing things like baking challah, making kiddush, or hosting a seder. Repeatedly, however, the one question she does seem interested is, "Do you think I am being punished?" "Do you think I did something to deserve this?"

And as always, my answer is no. Just as there was no sin that justified the Holocaust, there was no crime that my mother committed that would have justified being cursed with a growth the size of an orange squeezing against her brain, nothing she could have done to deserve a series of seizures and internal bleeding that wiped out her ability to multi-task, engage in rapid memory recall, or any of the other activities she formerly excelled at. The fact that deep down, she thinks that maybe, just maybe, she considers her permanent disability something she earned makes me both furious and sick.

Keeping this in mind, while there are plenty of groups and politicians I find distasteful, I cannot support people imagining themselves in the role of God, trying to sort out why this punishment is appropriate for this person, or that group.

I do not consider myself a religious person. But I call this blasphemy. Just as I would if the "target" of the theodicy were someone I intensely disagreed with, such as Ronald Reagan or Mordechai Eliyahu. I do not believe that THEIR medical problems are divine retribution anymore than Sharon's, Kennedy's, or my mother's were. Furthermore, I find it hypocritical that some people are so quick to guess at what Sharon or Kennedy are being punished for while they seem a lot less eager to theorize what past "sins" might have landed the esteemed Rav in the hospital.

I believe that anyone who has lived with or cared for someone with a brain tumor, Alzheimer's, cancer, heart disease, or a myriad of other illnesses would be hard-pressed to find a theology that neatly lines up these heart-breaking episodes with a convenient or appropriate "sin." And frankly, I feel that any God who visits such punishments on average Joe schmoes (or even morally questionable politicians) while allowing some of the greatest murderers of our age to die in their sleep (Stalin and Pol Pot) or take their own lives (Hitler) is not worth believing in.


Batya said...

I'm terribly upset with myself for being so unclear. I definitely don't agree with simplistic reward/punishment accounting. I'm a CPA's daughter and I consider G-d's accouting system for the next world, not this one.

I mentioned:
"Chazal, our Sages, say that the righteous are punished in this world, so the next will be all rewards."

This is a very common belief in Jewish Philosophy. It's the classic rationale and brought up to show a later reward.

For this to make any sense, one must believe that there is a "Next World."

None of this is my original theory. It's just late that night, when I saw the announcement about Ted K, that's how my mind associated.

I'm really sorry for upsetting you.

sam said...

It is a commonplace of Jewish theodicy that sins are punished and/or atoned for by means of illnesses. We even pray that this not happen on Yom Kippur after every Amidah:

u-mah she-chata'ti l'fanecha marek b'rachamecha ha-rabim, aval lo al y'dei yissurim va-chola'im ra'im.

"And as for what I have sinned before You, may You cleanse in Your great mercy, but not through troubles or grave illnesses."

So I don't think it's surprising that a traditional perspective still seeks to understand sicknesses via this kind of theodicy. It's still crass and despicable and gross and wrong and, as you say, a good reason not to believe in a god who would inflict this kind of suffering on people. But it does make sense of why it might be a reasonable explanation in some people's minds—especially vis-à-vis politicians, whose "sins" have the potential to be visible and notorious when perceived by (a) the media or (b) their political opponents.