Exploring the Range of Jewish Responses to Suffering
Alan Astrow, MD, Chief of Hematology and Medical Oncology, New York Presbyterian Brooklyn Methodist Hospital, Professor of Clinical Medicine, Weill Cornell Medical College, and Adjunct Professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary
Because of the explanatory and therapeutic power of scientific medicine many scientists and public intellectuals have argued that religious explanations for the existence of suffering are obsolete. Noted Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker, for instance, has written, “the belief systems of all the worlds traditional religions and cultures . . . are factually mistaken . . . There is no such thing as fate, providence, karma. . . divine retribution, or answered prayers. . . the worldview that guides the moral and spiritual values of an educated person today is the worldview given to us by science.” In 2004, then Director of the National Cancer Institute, Dr. Andrew C. von Eschenbach, announced the laudable “challenge goal” to eliminate suffering and death from cancer by 2015. While 2015 has come and gone, practicing physicians and nurses understand that some of our patients suffer now and likely will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Even as we hope to reduce human suffering through advances in medical science, viewing suffering purely in scientific terms ignores millennia of rich speculation into the underlying purpose of human life, and may leave the severely ill in a state of existential despair. In this presentation, I will survey the range of Jewish responses to suffering from illness and contrast these to pagan, dualistic, and gnostic approaches. As a monotheistic faith, Judaism does not allow for the existence of evil forces independent of God. I will examine biblical texts that portray suffering as a merited consequence of sin (“But if you will not hearken to Me, and will not do all these commandments . . . I will appoint terror over you, even consumption and fever, that shall make the eyes to fail and the soul to languish,” Leviticus 26: 14-16) and objections to this theology in Psalm 10 (“O God, why do you stand at a distance?/Why do you hide in the seasons of distress?”) and Psalm 73 (“I nearly turned away, I all but stumbled, because I was envious of boasters and I saw the peace of the wicked./They are not hanged, they are strong and healthy./They are outside the sufferings of mankind,/they are not whipped like other men”) and in the book of Job. I will review rabbinic responses: including frank expressions of despair, traditional belief in an afterlife and resurrection of the dead, and “chastisements of love” theology. I will also touch upon contemporary Jewish philosophical approaches such as those of Soloveitchik, Buber, Heschel, and Kushner. While there is no single Jewish response to suffering, the core Jewish value is to hold to the underlying goodness of life even in the face of suffering that seemingly has no explanation. Physicians embody that value both by seeking to advance medical science and fight disease and by remaining steady human presences to patients who are gravely ill. In facing suffering with their patients, they may sustain hope even when they cannot cure the illness.