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Unimaginable Pain

by Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen
Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

The unimaginable pain on seeing the evidence of children tortured, limbs cut off and burnt to death, screams for an explanation. Why did God let this happen? Why do some human beings behave so evilly? And why do so many mentally challenged humanoids excuse it by trying to blame Israel entirely without apportioning at least some blame on the other side?

In times of crisis, many people turn to religion for comfort. The social media have bombarded us with positive messages almost as much as with hatred. Pictures and clips abound of groups worldwide gathering to recite psalms, acts of support both material and spiritual. People who previously either scorned or ignored religious lifestyles are suddenly adopting them. All this highlights the need in many human beings for a religious dimension. In some it is transient in others it is permanent.

Religions function on different levels (there is no Biblical word for religion as such). The intellectual or rational tries to explain and find answers. The mystical ignores rationality and stresses experience. A third aspect is the sense of national community. There is no simple answer. Religion offers an experience, not answers. Which is why the Bible gives hardly any explanations.

It is easy to explain scientifically why a child dies or a disease strikes, or a flood happens. But when someone is in pain and asks 'Why?' they don't necessarily want a rational answer. There has always been a powerful mystical tradition that sees things in a totally non-rational way. And just as some people are brighter than others or more emotional or spiritual or whatever, so in religious matters, some find comfort in 'simple faith', some in 'pseudo-rational', some in 'hocus pocus', and I, for example in simply accepting and valuing forces beyond my control and focusing on what I can affect.

Some Hassidic masters claimed that you need to struggle with God, follow Abraham’s example of challenging a Divine decision, argue and accuse and the very anger is at least a connection. There is the famous story of the rabbis in Auschwitz convening a court to try God and found Him guilty, but then they got up to pray.

People either die because other humans kill them, natural disasters sweep them away, disease, or simply old age. We can answer certain kinds of questions. But others not. Yet we must carry on and cope. Perhaps we need to have someone or something to be angry. We tend to blame God for the bad things in life but not to consider all the positive blessings we take for granted.

I don’t turn to God to solve my problems or answer why. I simply experience a loving energy that is, rather than a power that solves or answers me specifically whenever I demand it.

My favorite quote in the Mishna (Pirkei Avot 4:19) is that of Rabbi Yannai who said, 'There are no answers' and I certainly don’t have any. I am suspicious of those who think they do or those who claim to know how God works.

Indeed, what arrogance to think we can understand God. The problem really comes when you must deal with Torah texts that appear to get God to conform to human standards, such as Abraham saying, ‘Won’t the Judge of all humanity be humane?’ or Moses saying “God is just and forgiving” or indeed God Himself saying He repays the good? One answer the rabbis gave was simply ‘Not in this world.’ And you can take it or leave it. Others say we are the authors of our own misfortune. And others that God is speaking to us in our terms and our language to set a gold standard for ethical behavior, not a system of rewards and punishment.

The Talmud (Eiruvin 13b) tells of a debate between the school of Hillel and the school of Shammai. “Would it have been better for humanity had we not been created?” Hillel said “no” and Shammai said “Yes”. For two and a half years they argued until they took a vote (see how democratic they were then) and decided that it would have been better not to have been created. But they also agreed that since we are here, we should make the best of it and examine our own actions.

The Torah was written in a language appropriate to its time. Its laws are to be taken as a constitution (with the Oral Law), but its ideas were left to be interpreted, as the phrase 70 faces of the Torah implies. In theological terms, we have debate but no answer. And that is the struggle of life and the challenge of God!

I know that I have no answers to many questions. And I can only offer love and support to those who suffer. It is like loving someone madly and yet not being able to understand them completely. The love remains despite the disappointment. I also know I must do my best to try to make the world a better place in whichever way I can.

Just as I cannot control a drunken driver, a suicidal maniac, or a lunatic, so too I cannot control lots of things that happen in this world. All I can do is deal with those areas I do have a measure of control over. Even then I know too well I fail more often than I succeed, and I like to think I'm one of the less evil specimens of mankind. But shared pain is easier to cope with and the sense of togetherness these horrors have caused is in itself a comfort too.

Shabbat Shalom



Jeremy Rosen was born in Manchester, England, the eldest son of Rabbi Kopul Rosen and Bella Rosen. Rosen's thinking was strongly influenced by his father, who rejected fundamentalist and obscurantist approaches in favour of being open to the best the secular world has to offer while remaining committed to religious life. He was first educated at Carmel College, the school his father had founded based on this philosophical orientation. At his father's direction, Rosen also studied at Be'er Yaakov Yeshiva in Israel (1957–1958 and 1960). He then went on to Merkaz Harav Kook (1961), and Mir Yeshiva (1965–1968) in Jerusalem, where he received semicha from Rabbi Chaim Leib Shmuelevitz in addition to Rabbi Dovid Povarsky of Ponevezh and Rabbi Moshe Shmuel Shapiro of Yeshivat Be'er Ya'akov. In between Rosen attended Cambridge University (1962–1965), graduating with a degree in Moral Sciences.

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