The problem of evil is partially a result of a discrepancy of expectations and experience, of ideals and reality, of what we believe about a providential world created and guided by God and how we interpret what we encounter.
Some Rabbinic solutions seek to modify our reading of the events and some limit our expectations of God. The selection from Babylonian Talmud (Avodah Zarah 54b) presents a radical re-conceptualization of how God establishes the rules of the game for this worldly behavior, how God defines the laws of nature. This view is called “the world has a way of its own” (olam k’minhago noheig). It is in deep contrast to much of the depiction of the Biblical world of Divine intervention in nature and history.
The Mishnah introduces us to a group of anonymous Rabbis simply called the “elders” who visit Rome. The commentators identify them as the four leading Rabbis who travel to Rome in the final years of the first century. These were R. Gamaliel, R. Akiva, R. Joshua and R. Elazar ben Azariah. These four constitute the Rabbinic leadership of Palestine (at that time, the only Rabbinic world) living in the generation after the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem by the Romans whom they are visiting.
The religious dispute in which they are engaged must be understood against the background of the Roman defeat not only of their nation but of their God’s Temple and city. These Romans are still their rulers and these Rabbis who are also the political leaders of Judea are probably on a diplomatic visit to the capital of the conquering empire.
It was Gamaliel who took over the leadership at the new center at Yavneh from Yohanan ben Zakkai, who had established it at the time of the destruction. As such Gamaliel presided over the Sanhedrin at Yavneh. Akiva and Joshua were two of the leading Rabbis of that generation. When Gamaliel was forced to step down from his position after a confrontation with Joshua, it was Elazar ben Azariah, a prodigy, years younger than the others, who temporarily took over the position of head of the Sanhedrin at Yavneh.
The other figure mentioned near the end of the piece is the Palestinian Amora, Simeon ben Lakish, known to all as Reish Lakish. He was born somewhere near the beginning of the third century and rose to prominence as the disciple, brother in law, friend and havruta partner of R. Yohanan ben Naptha, the great scholar.
The Challenge to Judaism
The background to the Mishnah is the atmosphere of religious/political struggle and competition in the first centuries of the Common Era. At this time, Judaism was involved in a religious argument with paganism – the polytheistic belief that there are many gods in the world, which are connected to the natural and visible forces of nature. Each god was associated with a political entity as well as a central temple, so the political vicissitudes of the city or state or the temple were often understood as a reflection of the god’s relative power. This politico-religious argumentation is even reflected in the Torah, where Moshe uses it to convince God not to destroy his people in the desert:
If You put this people to death, then the nations that have heard of your fame will say that God lacks the capability to bring them to the land he swore to give them and that is why God slew them in the desert. (Numbers 14:15-16)
Paradoxically, even though Judea was defeated and the Christian religion, which was just beginning its infiltration of the Roman Empire was prohibited and persecuted, the religious and intellectual competition was slowly but surely being won by the forces representing monotheism.
Paganism was still ascendant institutionally by the time the debate in the Mishnah is believed to have happened at the end of the first century C.E., but the tides were turning from paganism towards monotheism. Roman upper class patricians were showing increasing interest in Jewish faith and practice and some were converting, so that almost 10 percent of the empire was Jewish in the second century.
Nevertheless, pagan philosophers would be engaged for centuries in a desperate rearguard battle against the forces of monotheism, and at this period, that meant principally the Jews. The Jews would be challenged for centuries by pagan thinkers.
It was at this time, however, that a new and stronger force was beginning to challenge Judaism and its representatives in a series of debates. This group, the ascendant Christian faith, would be a far more formidable opponent in the early centuries of the Common Era.
From the Jews’ point of view, this was a struggle with the enemy within, the monotheistic faith that had sprung from Judaism and was fighting the Jews for the soul of every disillusioned pagan. Moreover, whereas paganism was on the whole a worldview that was capable of tolerating other religious ideas, Christianity was the opposite. As a religion that had suffered persecution in its formative stages it might have been expected to behave with tolerance toward other religious concepts. Unfortunately, it would respond to its opponents with great violence, believing that its search for religious truth had automatically delegitimized all other ways to God.
Monotheistic religions were usually less tolerant than their pagan predecessors. They were apt to use their power against their opponents. By the time the Gemara was being put together on the basis of the discussions in the Talmudic academies of Eretz Israel and Babylon, the Church Fathers were developing their doctrines and their rules against the Jews. It is certainly possible that, although the Mishnah and Gemara are both concerned with an argument between the Jews and the pagans, underneath the text of our Gemara, there are echoes of the argument with the increasingly powerful Christians.
The latter would use the argument of power against the Jews. God, they said, had abandoned all previous support for the Jews and was proving the superiority of the Christian faith by rewarding them with power. The Jewish concept of God was legitimate only in the version of Christianity. The God of the Bible had abandoned them. Their Temple had been destroyed and their people scattered. If God had wanted to help the Jews, God would have done so.
Jewish powerlessness was not proof of God’s impotence or non-existence as it was for the pagans in the Mishnah. It was a proof of God’s abandonment of the Jews. These were the arguments that lie at the heart of the Mishnah and its discussion in the Gemara.
Christian and later Muslim thinkers continued to argue with Jews throughout the Middle Ages and at times had great success in attracting or coercing Jewish converts. Those debates are still alive today in the form of a sophisticated propaganda war against Judaism led by missionary Christians and militant Muslims. The Muslims are no longer interested in Jewish converts, but their religious attacks on Judaism inflame millions of Muslims to see them as inhuman purveyors of an evil religion.
The Mishnah: The Challenge to God
The Mishnah opens up with the visit of a group of the leading Rabbis to Rome in the year 95 C.E., a quarter of a century after the Temple’s destruction. The scene is a discussion between the Rabbis and a group of pagan philosophers. It sounds like a casual conversation at a street corner, but it may have been an organized public debate as part of the diplomatic encounter with the Roman sovereigns.
The elders were asked in Rome. If [your God] has no desire for idolatry, why does God not abolish it?
They [the Rabbis] replied: If it was something unnecessary to the world that was worshipped, God would abolish it. But people worship the sun, moon, stars and planets. Should God destroy the universe on account of fools?
They [the Romans] said [to the elders]: If so, [your God] should destroy what is unnecessary for the world and leave what is necessary for the world.
The [rabbis] replied: [If God did that] we should merely be strengthening the hands of the worshippers of these [remaining idolatrous objects], because they would say: be sure that these [others things, which have been left existing] are deities, for behold they have not been abolished.
The pagan philosophers challenge the Rabbis. “If your God is as powerful as you claim, how come God does not destroy idolatry” i.e. worship of all sorts of natural forces? This sounds like a classic religious debate. The idolatry in question is, of course, the religion of the pagans. In other words, the question is as follows. If your God is so powerful, how come we are still here? God could just destroy everything we believe in. At that point we would have no choice but to accept the superiority of your ideas and go over to your faith.
In the context of a religious debate against a group that contends its God has created the world and is all powerful, this is a strong argument. It is the argument from power against a group that has claimed their God is all-powerful.
The Jews’ argument in response is clever, although ultimately, as we shall see, it is not unproblematic. Their first argument is that such a thing is indeed possible: God could destroy the sources of idolatry, but the cost would be too great. It would be one thing if the things that were worshipped were marginal in importance: all such things could indeed be easily destroyed, but the problem is more complicated.
The things that people worship are precisely those essential to the running of the world. To destroy them in order to convince the fools (the pagans) and to undermine their belief system, would be totally counterproductive. It would be to “win the battle but lose the war,” because the consequence would be the destruction of the world.
This is an excellent response. God’s strength is absolute but God’s temper is controlled. God uses self-restraint and does not get involved in theological ego battles. This is reminiscent of the argument in the Noah story when God says: “I will not again curse the ground any more for people’s sake for the impulse of a person’s heart is evil from youth.” (Genesis 8:21)
Here, as there, God does not resort to the counterproductive. The world will not be destroyed just to make a point. The God of the Rabbis is cool and rational, a true heroic God who will conquer the natural urge to “show them.”
Now the pagan philosophers come back with an excellent follow up. “Not everything that is worshipped is necessary” for the functioning of the world. Choose one of the unnecessary things – a tree, a rock, a spring. They are right; there was no shortage of candidates for destruction that would have inflicted no damage to the world, but whose destruction, if witnessed, would have proved the truth of Judaism. All it needs is a little miracle, in the sense of something that goes against the laws of nature.
This was a clever response, because the Rabbis had indicated in their first answer that God would indeed be prepared to destroy anything non-essential. Logically, the pagans have put the Rabbis in a corner. But the Rabbis, of necessity, shift their ground. They appear to feel that they are not living in a world where God performs miracles through intervening in history. If not, the Jewish People would not be in such a humiliating position.
God might have the power, but there is no evidence it is being used. This necessitates a slightly different argument. If the smallest things were to be destroyed and the essential sun and moon left, then the worshippers of the latter would be reinforced in their own belief. This would actually assure the triumph of paganism, because nothing God can do can prevent its being interpreted perversely to justify the pagan cause.
So ends the Mishnah. The Rabbis appear to have won the argument for God’s power being expressed in inaction against the Divinely created forces identified mistakenly as pagan gods.
For the moment, let us note the implications of the argument of the Mishnah. God is all-powerful to be sure, but in fact, despite the Divine power, God’s hands are tied. God has the power but cannot use it. It would be senseless and counterproductive to use it. Therefore, as long as God wants to keep the world from destruction God has to abdicate the use of power to prove his case. Catch 22.
Gemara: The World has a Way of its Own
Our Rabbis taught: philosophers asked the elders in Rome: If [your God] has no desire for idolatry, why does God not abolish it?
The [rabbinic elders] replied: If it was something unnecessary to the world that was worshipped, God would abolish it. But people worship the sun, moon, stars and planets. Should God destroy the universe on account of fools? The world has a way of its own, and as for the fools who act wrongly, they will have to render an account.
The beginning of the Gemara brings a Baraita, an alternative tradition that tells the same story in a different way. The beginning of the story is identically recounted, but at the end of the first answer, the Rabbis in the story add a crucial addition: the world has a way of its own!
We can imagine the Rabbis adding this comment for themselves, not necessarily to help their argument against the pagans. It is a principled theological position rather than merely a rhetorical flourish, as it may be in the Mishnah.
This is not sophistry; it is rather a brave and radical philosophical thesis by thinkers stunned by the contrast between the power of God, expressed in countless miracles in the biblical text, and a God who does not display those miracles in their contemporary world, as in the destruction of Jerusalem.
The answer brought here extrapolates the argument of the Mishnah that God has power in the world but chooses not to use it against idolatrously interpreted natural forces. But we are told that God never uses that power. The world works according to natural laws, and God accepts the rules of the game without intervening according to the ethical laws of reward and punishment or the religious ones distinguishing idolatry from worship of the Divine.
According to Jewish belief, of course, those laws were established by God at the beginning of creation. But God has decided, for reasons that are unclear, not to interfere in the functioning of the world. The reasons might be clear in the case of idolatry, suggests the Baraita, but it has left that argument about God’s self-limitation of power behind when it makes the absolute case that the world has a way of its own.
God still presides over a system of reward and punishment, to be sure, but that system has now been totally relegated to the “world-to-come.” It does not happen in this present world. The world has a way of its own. There are rules for this world and for the next world. In the next world, there is a system of justice. The fools and sinners will get what they deserve – there. But here, in the present world, the rules are different. The rules are the rules of nature and God does not interfere.
For the Teacher: Defending Judaism in a Religious Disputation
Before seeing the Mishnah, explain to the students the idea of a religious debate as these things occurred throughout pre-modern history, especially in the Christian world led by the Roman Pope who would emerge about 300 years after the debate reported in the Mishnah.
In such debates the Jews were asked to defend the truth of Judaism against the claims to truth of other religious groups. Explain that in such a disputation a series of questions would be put to the Jews aimed at discrediting their faith. Give the students one such question: they have to come up with a one-page response to the question that is the sort of question that Jews were asked in debates like these. The question is this:
If you think that God is all-powerful and is on your side in history, how do you explain the fact that Jews are attacked all over the world as Jews and in the state of Israel, and God does nothing? Is God really so powerful, or has God abandoned you, or was God never on your side, or does your God not exist?
Bring the responses to class and read out the answers in small groups. Ask each group to report the responsive arguments that were brought up in each group to defend the Jewish position.
List the arguments on the board and discuss which of these arguments would be most effective. If you were attacked as Jews by people using these arguments, which would be most useful in responding?
Finally the members of the group, either singly or in pairs have to produce another page which is based on whatever they have heard in the discussion. his is their final “Defending Judaism Page.”
Suggested questions for study (Mishnah and background)
- What is the reality of the power relationship between the Roman pagans and the Rabbis of 100CE?
- What is the question that the Rabbis are being asked? What are the pagans (worshippers of natural forces) really saying?
- What is the Rabbis’ first answer?
- Do you think that it is a good response? Why? Why not? Is there any weak point in the Rabbis’ response?
- Explain the pagans’ second question. How do you rate this question from the point of view of the pagans?
- Explain the Rabbis’ second answer. How do you rate this answer from the point of view of the Rabbis?
- Do you think that the fact that the pagans disappear off the page after the Rabbis’ second answer shows that the Rabbis have won the debate? Could the Rabbis’ answer have convinced the pagans and won the debate? How might the Rabbis feel about justifying God’s inaction in the battle against paganism? Could they have made a better argument?
- Reflect on this question in a Rabbinic diary entry, written a day after the debate has finished.
Suggested Questions for Study (Gemara and Conclusion)
- The Gemara has brought a different version of the story of the debate in the Mishnah. What is the major difference in the two versions?
- What do you think that the words “The world has a way of its own” actually mean? What is the argument being put forward?
- Where and in what way do you think that the “fools” of the text will render a full account according to the Rabbis?
- Which of the two versions of the debate would have been more likely in an argument against the pagans? Why?