Medieval Jewish Responses to Suffering & Evil

The philosophers and mystics of the Middle Ages suggested an array of solutions to the problem of suffering.

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Reprinted with the permission of The Continuum International Publishing Group from The Encyclopedia of Judaism, in 4 volumes, edited by Jacob Neusner, Alan Avery-Peck, and William Scott Green.

Exponents of the medieval Jewish philosophical tradition represent a range of opinions regarding suffering and evil. Saadia, writing in the early tenth century, follows a traditional path. Beginning with the uncompromising insistence that humans have free will, he offers that suffering may be either punishment for the few sins a person commits in this world (assuring his place in the future world) or a test from God, later to be compensated. Judah Halevi likewise writes (early twelfth century) that a person’s troubles serve to cleanse sins, and therefore he recommends a pious attitude of acceptance and joy.

In the Mishneh Torah (Laws of Repentance, chapter 5), Maimonides (twelfth century) polemically insists that God has granted humans complete free will; he will allow no room for the opinion, evidently still popular, that God decrees the course a person will follow from his or her youth. Thus, evil caused by humans must be understood as the result of their freely chosen path. Those who fail properly to repent will, as the tradition suggests, die as a consequence of their sins. Obviously speaking from a philosophical perspective, Maimonides nevertheless employs the voice of Torah.

Evil as Absence

But in his Guide for the Perplexed (3:10‑12), Maimonides forces a distinctive philosophical position. He begins with the assumption that God’s created world is thoroughly good. Contrary to the claim of [the biblical book of] Isaiah, then, God cannot have created evil in any of its forms. If not, then how can the obvious evils of creation be explained? He answers that evil is privation, and privation, being not a thing but the absence of some thing or quality, is not created.

By his enumeration, there are three species of evil: 1) evils that befall people because they possess a body that degenerates; 2) evils that people, because of their ignorance (that is, the absence of wisdom), cause one another; and 3) evils that people, because of their ignorance, cause themselves. God creates none of these evils or their associated sufferings. According to Maimonides’ system, all are caused by natural forces, by essential human failings, or by human ignorance.

Suffering in Medieval Mysticism

The opinions of medieval Jewish mysticism (Kabbalah) regarding evil and consequent suffering are varied and sometimes at odds. Early Kabbalistic texts record the belief that evil is a product of the unchecked growth of divine judgment. Judgment, untempered by mercy, is wicked. The domain of judgment gone awry is called the sitra achra, “the other side.”

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Dr. David Kraemer

Dr. David Kraemer is Professor of Talmud and Rabbinics at the Jewish Theological Seminary. He is a Senior CLAL Associate at the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.