Some Theological Musings on the Recent Israeli Synagogue Massacre

November 22, 2014

The recent massacre at the synagogue in Har Nof, Israel, should not be easily forgotten, and for some people it cannot be.

One of the those who cannot easily forget is a friend of mine whose parents are both sole survivors of Shoah families, having been mere toddlers at the time, and who miraculously escaped the horrors.

This friend was deeply troubled this week, crying out about why, if God loves us Jews so much, he lets us suffer so . . . and the fact that these religious men were murdered in the midst of praying the holiest prayer of the daily liturgy, the Amidah, makes their seeming abandonment by God the more crushing.

There is nothing one can say that will make the pain go away, nor should there be. Some pains are not meant to vanish. They are too crushing, too deep, too horrid, and existentially, relationally, philosophically, or theologically significant. They are meant to remain. And contemplating such pains can ennoble and instruct us, even amidst the sorrow or terror, and even when we can find no answer for the questions we ask.

Why the innocent suffer is one of the oldest questions of self-aware humankind. Certainly, it looms large in the Bible. The issue of suffering appears in the Bible with Adam and Eve, banished from the Garden, their relationship to each other, to God, and to work forever complicated and changed, exiles from life as it was meant to be to life as it is. The suffering of the innocent is a subtheme of the story of Cain and his brother Abel. Abel is innocent—and religiously accepted by God. And yet his jealous brother rises up and kills him. We see here a foreshadowing of what happened at Har Nof.

Here at the very start of the Bible we meet issues which will be there until its last pages: issues of violence, and of the suffering and death of the innocent. What am I saying then? I am saying the dilemma is ancient and that one of the evidences of the weight of the Bible is that it takes suffering seriously. Indeed, the most extended theological investigation in the Bible is the suffering of the innocent as handled in the Book of Job.

Here are some thoughts to bear in mind on this issue, from the perspective of the worldview of the Bible and the religious culture of the Jewish people.

  1.  God is good even when life is bad.
  2.  Life can be horrendous.
  3.  It should be comforting to know that from the beginning of the Bible, the text takes suffering seriously, especially the suffering of the innocent. This is why Abraham our Father reasons with God not to bring judgment on Sodom and Gomorrorah, “Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” (Gn 18:25). It is also crucial to note that this theme of the suffering of the righteous, is STRONG in the Bible, occurring more times than one can easily count, and that indeed entire books in the Bible are preoccupied with the theme, where the prophets of Israel and Judah argue with God on these matters. See for example Habakkuk, and again, Job. The Bible takes the issue very seriously and has extensive discussion which I cannot summarize now.
  4. The arc of God’s dealings with humankind is different from what we normally imagine or encounter. The righteous live forever, but the wicked, no. The sufferings of the righteous, as egregious as they are, will be seen to be a bare blip on the screen of everlasting life. This is why Paul can say in Romans Chapter eight, “I hold that the sufferings of the present time are not worthy to be compared with the glories that shall be revealed.”
  5. No one gets away with anything: the wicked will face judgment, and the righteous will in the end not only be satisfied with God’s justice: they will adore Him for it.
  6. Rabbi Shimon Kraft, of Los Angeles, was a close friend of one of the men who was killed in the synagogue in Har Nof, Rabbi Kalman Levine, of Blessed Memory. When interviewed by the Los Angeles Times, this is part of what he said about what Kalman Levine would advise about responding to such atrocities: “He would say when you observe this type of act, you need to increase the force of good in the world. Do something good you wouldn’t have done otherwise. . . It’s the only way we’ll defeat the forces of evil.”
  7. As the ending of the Book of Job teaches us, God is not obliged to give us an explanation for what he does and does not do, and generally, when we approach him insistently on this matter, we will discover that we have for a time forgotten Who we are dealing with, the One to whom we owe life, and breath, and everything, who owes us no explanation, and to whom we owe everything. This is a hard nut for us to crack, but is a theme in the Bible. See Job Chapter 38 to the end of the book. See esp. in chapter 40, “And the Lord said to Job: “Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty? He who argues with God, let him answer it.”Then Job answered the Lord and said: “Behold, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth. I have spoken bonce, and I will not answer; twice, but I will proceed no further.” See also Romans 9, where Paul reminds us, “But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? (Romans 9:20-21 ESV).
  8. Jewish theologizing posits clearly that the sufferings of the righteous have an expiatory function in the world–somehow the sins of the world are offset by the sufferings of the righteous. Michael Brown points us to some statements by Rabbi Berel Wein, who writes:

    It was an old Jewish tradition dating back to biblical times that the death of the righteous and innocent served as an expiation for the sins of the nation or the world. . . .  [that] the death of the righteous [is] an atonement for the sins of other men.. . . Jews nurtured this classic idea of death as an atonement, and this attitude toward their own tragedies was their constant companion throughout their turbulent exile.

    Wein quotes as well from an old and revered midrashic source:

    Would the Holy One, Blessed ia He, dispense judgment without justice? We may say that he home God loves will be chastised. For since the day the Holy Temple was destroyed, the righteous are seized by death for the iniquities of the generation. . . .

    The great Solomon Schechter [1847-1915], the Founder of Conservative Judaism, reminds us,

    The atonement of suffering and death is not limited to the suffering person. Their atoning effect extends to all the generation. This is especially the case with such sufferers as cannot either by reason of the righteous life or by their youth possibly have merited the afflictions which have come upon them. The death of the righteous atones just as well as certain sacrifices [with reference to the Babylonian Talmud, Moed Katan 28a].

  9. God took the experience of the suffering of the righteous to the most personal extreme in the Incarnation, where the Divine Messiah himself suffered and died in a cruel, prolonged manner, of whom the Prophet wrote, “he did no sin nor was iniquity found in his mouth” (Isaiah 53). The Bible’s extensive testimony reveals that the problem of the suffering of the righteous is indeed a serious matter, and one that God takes seriously as well—he is not unmindful of the agonies this issue causes us, and in fact, He took suffering very personally. In some way, the sufferings of the righteous are due to the fact that there is something askew in the cosmos, something of which the Bible speaks from its first pages to its last.

None of this makes the pain of suffering go away. In some ways, God is like someone who comes and sits shivah with us, that is, sitting silently and attentively with a mourner. There is nothing He can say that will make the pain go away, and he will not explain things to us, in fact, we might not understand if He did explain. But he is there, our companion, and as the Prophet Isaiah said of Israel, “b’chol tzratam lo tzar—in all their afflictions he was afflicted” (63:9).

And near the close of Torah we read “hanistarim l’Adoshem Elokenu, v’haniglot lanu ul’vanenu ad olam, la’asot et kol divrei hatorah hazot”—the secret things belong the the Lord our God, but the revealed things belong to us and to our children that we might do all matters of this Torah” (Dt. 29:28/29). This is a religious Jewish epistemology: there are things that only God knows, and there are things that we can know, which lead us to our responsibility to obey all that God requires of us.

The four remarkable, learned, and saintly men who were murdered at Har Nof lived and died in service to this truth and to this God. Whether we live or die, let is live likewise, trusting in the God who knows, who accompanies us, but who doesn’t always explain what we want explained. Yet he gives to us life and breath and everything. Even when that life is taken away, we should say like righteous Job, “HaShem gave, and HaShem took away: blessed be the Name of HaShem”


These four murdered men left behind 24 children, and their wives, grandchildren, family members and friends.

May Hashem comfort all who mourn in Zion and Jerusalem.



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