week I was honored to speak to the Jewish community of Venice at the
Chabad House, which hosts thousands for Shabbos meals, and to the
extremely warm and welcoming main community. Having just returned from
Haiti, I addressed the issue of why a good G-d allows the innocent to
suffer. I was amazed when an observant Jew approached me to say that
the people of Haiti were not innocent, immersed as they are in
idol-worship. ‘Surely you don’t mean to say that the morgue filled with
the babies that I witnessed, the stench so bad that I was gagging,
deserved to die? Or that the discarded bodies I saw being eaten by dogs
deserved their fate?’ His response: The people of Haiti as a whole were
punished. A similar sentiment had earlier been voiced by the Rev. Pat
Robertson on The 700 Club.

I have always been puzzled as to why
many religious people enjoy portraying G-d as executioner-in-chief and
are always finding reasons to justify human suffering.

The holocaust produced two camps of Jews. Many decided that the Jews
had been punished for intermarriage and wanting to be secular. But
others had a much more Jewish response. They rejected any theological
justification or self-blame and set to work even harder toward the
creation of a Jewish state where Jews would find refuge and build an
army to prevent another genocide. The appropriate response to death is
always life. And the Jewish response to suffering is to demand that G-d
put an end to it.

So many people search for a reason why people suffer. They want to
redeem tragedy by giving it meaning. Suffering ennobles the spirit,
they say. It makes you more mature. It helps you focus on what’s
important in life.

I would argue that suffering has no purpose, no redeeming qualities,
and any attempts to infuse it with rich significance are deeply

Of course suffering can lead ultimately to a positive outcome. The
rich man who had contempt for the poor and suddenly loses his money can
become more empathetic when he himself struggles. The arrogant
executive who treats her subordinates like dirt can soften when she is
told that she G-d forbid has breast cancer. But does it have to come
about this way? Is suffering the only way to learn goodness?

Jewish values maintain that there is no good that comes from
suffering that could not have come through a more blessed means. Some
people win the lottery and are so humbled that they dedicate a huge
portion to charity. A rock star like Bono becomes rich and famous and
consecrates his celebrity to the relief of poverty. Yes, the holocaust
led directly to the creation of the State of Israel. But there are
plenty of nations who came into existence without being preceded by gas

Here is another way that Jewish values are so strongly distinguished
from other values systems. Many religions believes that suffering is
redemptive. In Christianity, the suffering servant, the crucified
Christ, brings atonement for the sins of mankind through his own
torment. The message: No suffering, no redemption. Someone has to die
so that the sins of mankind are erased. Suffering is therefore extolled
in the New Testament: “And not only that, but we also boast in our
sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance
produces character, and character produces hope.” (Romans) Again, “If
we are being afflicted, it is for your consolation and salvation; if we
are being consoled, it is for your consolation, which you experience
when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we are also
suffering.” (Corinthians) Indeed, Paul even made suffering an
obligation, encouraging the fledging Christians to “share in suffering
like a good soldier of Christ Jesus.”

But Judaism, in prophesying a perfect Messianic future where there
is no death or pain ultimately rejects the suffering-is-redemptive
narrative. Suffering isn’t a blessing, it’s a curse. Jews are obligated
to alleviate all human misery. Suffering leaves you bitter rather than
blessed, scarred rather than humble. Few endure suffering without
serious and lasting trauma. Suffering leads to a tortured spirit and a
pessimistic outlook. It scars our psyches and creates a cynical
consciousness, devoid and bereft of hope. Suffering causes us to dig
out the insincerity in the hearts of our fellows and to be envious of
other people’s happiness. If individuals do become better people as a
result of their suffering, it is despite the fact that they suffered,
not because of it. Ennoblement of character comes through triumph over
suffering rather than its endurance.

Speak to a Holocaust survivor like Elie Wiesel and ask them what
they gathered from their suffering, aside from loneliness, heartbreak,
and outrage. To be sure, they also learned the value of life and the
sublime quality of human companionship. Wiesel is an incredibly
profound man. But these lessons, this depth, could easily have been
learned through life-affirming experiences that do not leave all of
one’s relatives as ash.

I believe that my parents’ divorce drove me to a deeper
understanding of life and a greater embrace of religion. Yet, I know
people who have led completely privileged lives and have far deeper
philosophies of life and are even more devoted to their religion than
me. And they have the advantage of not being bitter, cynical, or
pessimistic the way I can sometimes be because of the pain of my early

When I served for eleven years as Rabbi at Oxford University I
noticed that the college students I knew who were raised in homes in
which their parents gave them huge amounts of love and attention were
the most healthy and balanced of all. They were usually also the best
students. Those who were demeaned by their parents could also be
positive and loving, but a Herculean effort was first needed to undo
the scarring inflicted upon them by parental neglect. Whatever good we
as individuals, or the world in general, receives from suffering can be
brought about in a painless, joyful manner. And it behooves people of
faith especially to once-and-for-all cease justifying the death of
innocents and instead rush to comfort and aid the survivors.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s new book on Jewish values, Renewal: A Guide
to the Values-Filled Life, will be published in April by Basic Books.
His trip to Haiti can be viewed at

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