Thinking About God and Natural Disasters

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Religious philosophy is replete with vibrant, sometimes desperate, reconciliations of divine justice and mortal experience. Explanations abound for why bad things happen to good people and good things to bad. But why bother? Why should so many great minds apply so much effort to this intractable problem? Put differently, since ultimately we must utilize faith somewhere in the answer, what have we gained with the complicated explanation?

While this formulation may seem sacrilegious, Medieval Jewish scholars addressed this implicitly and explicitly. Their different answers offer us insight relevant to other contemporary issues. Should we explore reasons for natural disasters? Is simple faith in God’s justice preferable to complex philosophical understanding? We can tease answers out of the differing Medieval approaches.

I. Philosophical Theodicy

The Mishnah (Berakhos 54a) states that we must recite a blessing over bad tidings — “dayan ha-emes, the judge of truth.” Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Berakhos 10:3) quotes the second Talmudic derivation for this practice from the verse: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might (me’odekha)” (Deut. 6:5) — in every measure (midah) that God measures for you. In other words, we must accept God’s judgment as an aspect of our love for Him. This is called tziduk ha-din.

This fits in particularly well with Rambam’s approach to achieving love of God. In his Sefer Ha-Mitzvos (imperative 3), Rambam lists comprehending God’s actions as a method for attaining love for Him. Interestingly, in Mishneh Torah (Hilkhos Yesodei Ha-Torah 2-4), Rambam only describes the heavenly retinue in this context. By understanding how God runs the world, we can better appreciate His kindness and grow in our love. I am not sure why he omits understanding God’s interaction. However, Rambam’s language in Sefer Ha-Mitzvos would seem to include theodicy. According to the Rambam, theodicy is a tool to reach true love of God.

II. Personal Theodicy

Other Medieval thinkers, less inclined to accept the full Maimonidean perspective, omit all discussion of philosophy in the mitzvah to love God. Rav Moshe of Coucy, in Semag (imperative 3), uses the mitzvah as an opportunity for his famous outreach speech that he delivered across Europe, describing God’s kindness in allowing humans to physically function and encouraging recitation of Shema and wearing of tefillin during prayers (this seems to be the origin of the practice to wear tefillin only during morning prayers and not the entire day). Rav Yitzchak of Corbeil, in Semak (no. 7), focuses on martyrdom as a fulfillment of loving God. Both cite the alternative talmudic reading of me’odekha, so that tziduk ha-din plays no role in this mitzvah.

However, both Semag and Semak find room for theodicy in a separate mitzvah to accept God’s judgment (tziduk ha-din), something the Rambam omits from his list perhaps because he includes it within love of God. Semag and Semak have slightly different formulations. Semag (imperative 17) focuses on someone who behaves meritoriously, such as a returnee, and finds his fortune counterintuitively changing for the worse. This is God’s way of repaying your sins now so that He can reward you fully in the afterlife. If such misfortune befalls you, you must accept that God is punishing you for your benefit.

Semak (no. 5) writes:

לצדק את הדין על כל המאורע כדכתיב וידעת עם לבבך כי כאשר ייסר איש את בנו ה׳ אלקיך מייסרך: לצדק דרשו חכמים אם הריעוך הרבה יהא בעיניך מעט ואמור מעט מחובי נגבתי: ויהי שמח ביסורין כשבאין עליו. ואם אינו יכול לסובלן מכ״מ לאחר שיעברו ישמח בהם וישתוק מהתפאר בהם כדאמרינן אגרא דיסורין שתיקותא. ומצוה זו נוטה מאד אל האהבה כאשר דרשו רבותינו בכל מאדך: בכל מדה ומדה שהוא מודד לך. גם מצינו דורות הראשונים שהיו מחבבין היסורין. וגם דרש רבי עקיבא חביבין יסורין:

To accept judgment on every event, as it says (Deut. 8:5): “And you will know in your heart that as a man disciplines his son, God your Lord disciplines you.” To accept — the Sages explained: If they damaged you a lot,1 it should be little in your eyes. You should say, “I only erased a little of my debt.”2 He should be happy with suffering when it befalls him. If he cannot withstand it, after it passes he should be happy about it.3 He should refrain from taking pride in it,4 as they say (Berakhos 6a): “The reward of suffering is in the silence.” This mitzvah guides excellently toward love,5 as the Sages explained: “With all your might — in every measure that God measures for you.” We also see that the earlier generations appreciated suffering.6 R. Akiva also explained (Sanhedrin 101a) that suffering is precious.

Semak recognizes that unhappiness and misfortune are an important part of life. Rather than rejecting them as aberrations, we must accept them as divine assistance, clearing our souls of guilt. We must see every difficulty as just recompense, receiving what we deserve, a gift to cleanse us and ward off punishment in the afterlife.

III. Strong Theodicy

Ramban (Sha’ar Ha-Gemul in Kisvei Ha-Ramban, vol. 2 p. 281) asks the question with which we began. If you see a puzzling situation, whether it is a righteous man suffering or a sinful man succeeding, and, despite all the tools of theodicy at our disposal you cannot explain it, you must — Ramban asserts — maintain faith that God is acting justly. If so, why bother with all the complex explanations Ramban had already proposed? Of what use is philosophy when it fails to completely answer its questions? He offers four reasons to engage in theodicy despite its shortcomings.

First, we benefit from gaining a better understanding of God’s ways. More wisdom is good. Metaphysical knowledge, understanding God’s actions, is always positive. Second, studying the ways in which God rewards and punishes people strengthens our belief. Our continuous exploration of God’s ways reinforces within us belief in His existence and His providence. Our greater understanding affords us confidence that explanations exist even to what we do not understand. Theodicy is good for our emunah even if we reach no final resolution and return to faith. Additionally, concludes Ramban, the obligations to fear and love God include a requirement to accept His judgment, to explain and justify God’s decisions.

IV. Faith and Calamity

We often see religious leaders offering analyses of contemporary disasters. Why did this earthquake happen or that disease spread? Based on their understanding of texts and values, they attempt to locate the sin for which God struck the world with a specific punishment. Where does this type of theodicy fall within Judaism? Granted, speculations of this nature are bound to the limitations in knowledge and sensitivity of their proponent. But in the hands of a wise and sensitive soul, someone uninterested in politics or publicity, what role should such a theodicy play even in private? We see two broad approaches in the views described above.

Rambam and Ramban see theodicy very differently. To Rambam, theodicy is a tool for increasing love of God. Understanding leads to emotion. To Ramban, the understanding itself is valuable. Wisdom is good and also serves other purposes. Simple faith lacks the depth available to the wise. However, both agree that the beneficial theodicy includes a broad understanding (to the best of our abilities) of God’s interaction with the world. In our exploration of God’s ways, we need to examine not only our own success and suffering but also those of others.

Semag and Semak see theodicy as a personal task to understand your own experience. Theodicy is limited to your own success and failure. You must accept God’s judgment in your life but need not explore His role in others’ lives. In this view, other people’s suffering is not subject to our analysis and their merit irrelevant to our thoughts. Theodicy is about simple faith, finding happiness in God’s embrace even if it is too tight. We need not speculate about ourselves or others. We need only place our trust and faith in the judge of truth.

(adapted from an essay originally published in Oct ’13)


  1. If you suffer greatly from misfortune. 

  2. I deserved much more for all my sins and only suffered relatively slightly. 

  3. Ideally, you should maintain perspective and accept the judgment during the suffering. If that is not possible, you must accept the judgment afterward. 

  4. It is not clear about what a person would be proud. Perhaps Semak considers a person who proudly states that he is righteous because his suffering erased his sins. – The standard text has ישתוק ואל יתפאר but the best manuscripts have ישתוק מהתפאר. See Paris – Bibliotheque Nationale heb. 1480, Paris – Bibliotheque Nationale heb. 643 and Nimes – Bibliotheque Seguier Municipale 26. I thank Yisrael Dubitsky and Prof. Judah Galinsky for directing me to these manuscripts. 

  5. Accepting judgment leads a person to love of God. 

  6. Semak offers no examples for this statement and the citation of R. Akiva seems like an additional point. Perhaps he means the persecuted Ashkeknazic Jews who suffered during the Crusades and faithfully accepted their fate. 

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link of New Jersey, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student recently served on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and currently serves as Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He also serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazine and the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

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