Theodicy, or the question of why bad things happen to good people is perhaps the most difficult question that believers of an interventionist God must address. Books of Tanach and Rabbinic writings have been addressing this question for thousands of years, giving many different and unique answers. In a series of blog posts I hope to give many of the classic answers to this question along with my own commentary and opinions!
Upon opening the first Parsha in the Torah, the question of” why bad things happen to good?” people is immediately thrust upon us. We are all familiar with the famous story of Cain killing Hevel, but many of us do not think about the profound philosophical question that is being implicitly asked by the Torah. Why did Hevel deserve to die?
While there are many interesting Midrashim on this story, which attempt to give it some context, I am more interested in the Pshat. This story is seemingly showing us the harsh reality that sometimes bad things happen to good people.
We can learn a lot from the name of the victim, Hevel. While this word has many different translations, the most common way to read this word is vain or meaningless (vapor). Flip a few pages in our Tanach and we arrive at the book of Kohelet.
Thought by classical Judaism to have been written by Shlomo Hamelech (even though this this undoubtedly not the case), the book of Kohelet addresses a number of deep questions. Interestingly enough, Kohelet opens up with the phrase “הֲבֵל הֲבָלִים אָמַר קֹהֶלֶת, הֲבֵל הֲבָלִים הַכֹּל הָבֶל ” – This phrase basically translates into Vanity (or Meaningless) of vanities, says Koheleth; vanity of vanities, all is vanity. The immediate connection to the story of Cain and Hevel is noted. We see that the author is using this story in the Torah as a springboard for his book. Just as Hevel seemingly died for no reason, Kohelet notes that many times bad and evil things happen with no explanation:
And moreover I saw under the sun, in the place of justice, that wickedness was there; and in the place of righteousness, that wickedness was there. Kohelet is unable to find any rhyme or reason for things happening in the world. (Kohelet 3:6)
Kohelet continuously reiterates that acquiring materials and knowledge is worthless, since in the end we will all either lose it or die. Kohelet, however does not let these difficult questions destroy his morale. He knows that sometimes life is not fair but his answer is not to sit back and do nothing but rather to do the opposite. As Scholar Michael Fox write:
“Kohelet finds no answer for life’s absurdity; the best he can do is recommend accommodations to it”
Kohelet does not let his inability to make sense of some of his bigger philosophical questions stop him from going out and trying to make the most out of his life. The answer of Kohelet seems to present a big theological problem to Judaism.
This problem is seen from the fact that many Tanaim did not want to codify Kohelet as a part of the Tanach: (In the Talmud the phrase “makes hand pure/impure” means is part of Tanach or not – When a book is a part of the Tanach is makes hands impure and vice versa)
All the holy writings make the hands impure. The Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes make the hands impure. R. Judah says: The Song of Songs makes the hands impure, but there is a dispute about Ecclesiastes. R. Jose says: Ecclesiastes does not make the hands impure, but there is a dispute about the Song of Songs. R. Simeon says: Ecclesiastes is one of the leniencies of Bet Shammai [who say it does not make the hands impure] and one of the stringencies of Bet Hillel [who say it does make the hands impure].. R. Simeon b. Azzai said: I received a tradition from the seventy-two elders on the day when they appointed R. Eleazar b. Azariah head of the court that the Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes make the hands impure. (Mishnah Yadayim 3:5.)
From the quote above we can see that many members of Chazal felt that this book should not be given a place among our holy literature. However, the critique does not end here!
It is very clear that the last few verses of Kohelet were not written by the original author, but rather by a later editor. This fact is agreed on almost unanimously by bible scholars and even some Rishonim have pointed out this fact. The last two verses read as follows: Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil. (Kohelet 12:12-14)
What most likely happened is that some later editor saw the philosophically ambiguity of Kohelet’s message and added in an ending that flows better with normative Jewish belief. However the actually ending repeats the beginning: “Vanity! Vanity!” says the Teacher. “Everything is Vanities!”
Kohelet ends his message the same way that he begins.
His conclusion seems to be that for some of life’s deeper philosophical questions we will never truly know the answer. While some may look at this conclusion and fall into a depressive state, Kohelet keeps trying all throughout the book and all throughout his life to arrive at what he thinks is the true meaning of life. While to our point of view the world may seem cruel, unjust, and even meaningless we cannot let this fact ruin our moral and passion for life itself. Kohelet teaches us that while we can seemingly never answer such questions such as “why bad things happen to good people” we cannot let our questions take over our lives.
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