Rabbi Marc Gellman writes about religion for Newsday.
Q: I was once a Christian woman, raised my children in church, etc. As I grow older, more mature, I realize none of it makes any sense. There is just so much cruelty and yet folks are told to “pray more” and “let go and let God.” I have a friend who was abused as a child. In her late 50s now, her life has been nothing but heartache, and she’s sought help from God and church. Then there are those who cannot actually speak to God. Abused animals and abused young children cannot pray. Every single day is a struggle. Where is God when a 3-year-old is taped up and then used for sex? Where is he? The cruelty in this world! Can you help me with these questions?
— L, via email
A: I believe that if it were not for the problem of suffering innocents, every single person would believe in God. I receive versions of your heartfelt and agonizing question more than any other.
So, let us try a theological thought experiment. Let us imagine a world in which God prevents all evil. In this imagined world God steps in and stops every evil act before it happens. In this world we human beings would be utterly incapable of cruelty. We could not choose to do evil. We could only choose to do good. Would this be a better world? It would seem so and yet it is not so. What is it that makes us uniquely human if not our ability to choose between right and wrong? Animals are driven by instinct. We alone are given the moral self-consciousness to freely decide what we will do. This is not just an accidental or regrettable human ability. This is the best way to live. If God decided everything, we would lose our ability to strive to make the world better. We would just passively sit around and let God take control of our lives and our world. It would be like waiting for Superman to fly in and stop Lex Luthor. We would be an audience to our life’s drama, not its essential actors.
There is a deep biblical wisdom here.
Life for Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden was very much like the world you want God to create for us. Every good thing was there except for the knowledge of good and evil. The fruit of that tree of moral knowledge was forbidden to them and yet they still ate from it. Their act is widely read as an act of disobedience to God or the story of original sin or the story of the fall of man. I read it another way.
The Garden did not offer moral challenge or moral growth that alone would enable them to become fully human. In the Garden, Adam and Eve were really no different from the animals. They were God’s pets, not God’s people. So I think they ate of the fruit of the tree willingly, even eagerly, in order to claim the moral free will that is the only important human gift from God.
The Exodus from Egypt is another example of the value of moral freedom. The people who left Egypt constantly complained to Moses about preferring slavery in Egypt to the challenges of desert freedom. Slaves are given everything they need to live except freedom and the deepest truth of the Exodus is that freedom is worth the desert.
The ultimate reason that a life of moral freedom, even though it must include moral failure, is superior to all other forms of life is love.
Love requires freedom to choose. We are commanded to love God by God, and this commandment is impossible if God is controlling all our choices. Loving God means choosing not to love greed and cruelty. Loving God means choosing life and not death. Loving God means supporting those who suffer and seeking justice for the oppressed. Loving God means clinging to hope that our broken world could be healed by our efforts and by our sacrifice and by the strength of our collective ability to choose the good. Freedom is the moral and theological prerequisite for love.
You ask if God is just watching all this and I say yes. God is watching. God is watching to see what we will freely choose to do in order to be in the words of the prophet Isaiah, “a shelter in the storm.” I believe that God is watching us, but I also think that God is seeing how we fail one another and hurt one another, and I think that God is crying.