Rabbi Marc Gellman writes about religion for Newsday.
The following is an e-mail debate with a reader from Florida, who identifies himself as Dr. P. His comments are typical of many I've received following recent columns on free will and suffering.
DR. P : "Your column on the problem of evil fails to mention that if any of us are in the presence of evil and fail to do anything, then we become evil. If I see a pedophile abducting a child and ignore it, then I am evil. If God exists and did nothing to stop the genocide against your people during the Holocaust, tell me, then, why God is not as evil as Hitler?"
MG: Our complicity in evil is the result of a God-given gift of free will, which is both good and also necessary for moral responsibility. If God stopped all evil, we'd have no incentive to do good. These are obvious truths and I still remain perplexed why so many people find the problem of evil so recondite.
DR. P: "Ah, yes. The free will explanation has such a long history of being offered as an answer to the problem of evil. Have not gallons of ink been spilled on that subject? And yet I think it would offer me little defense should I ever have to answer to human society why I sat idly by and watched a pedophile abduct a young child.
"We (at least some of us) seem to be held to a higher standard of behavior than God. As a trauma surgeon, I've seen more senseless human tragedy than I like to recall. I'm sure you have, as well. I recall once being called into the ER to attempt to resuscitate a lifeless toddler. 'What happened?' I asked. It seems that Mom was outside (yard sale) and a chest of drawers had fallen over on the child. Had you or I been in that room, we'd have immediately lifted the chest off the child. God was apparently content, however, to just sit there and watch the child suffocate. If lifting the chest was too much to ask, why not a quiet premonition planted in mother's head: 'Psst! Check your baby!' My response to these types of imponderable situations has, over the years, been shortened to three words: 'I don't know.' ''
MG: The argument that if God made the world, and evil is in the world, therefore God made evil, is valid. We learn this directly from Isaiah 45:7: "I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things."
However, your argument is slightly but importantly different. You contend that if God made the world, and evil is in the world, then God is evil. This argument is not valid. It doesn't follow that just because God created a world where evil could be freely chosen by free people, that God is responsible and complicit in those evil choices.
Yes, it's true that God could intervene and stop all evil, but only at the cost of ending free will. Our free will is precisely what it means for us to be made in the image of God. Our free will is precisely the trait we possess that distinguishes us from all the other animals God also created without free will.
If God constantly intervened in history, we human beings would quickly get the message that there was no need for us to exercise our courage and wisdom to help reduce evil in the world. We'd become passive observers of the moral fate of humanity, rather than active participants in its improvement. Obviously this is why we're granted free will by a good and powerful God.
The words of Isaiah are a reminder to us that in the big picture, God is responsible for evil, but only in the sense that God gave us something to struggle against so that we might rise to the moral heights God expects from us.
I fail to understand why some people believe that if the world is not perfect, God does not exist. God has given us an imperfect world, as well as the free will and intelligence to make it better. Any other choice would be both unworthy of God and morally debilitating to us.