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The Jewish Calculus of suffering

© 2010 Daniel Eidensohn

I have spent much time researching and analyzing the issue of abuse and reaction to
suffering. The issue that keeps reoccurring is why is so little being done to alleviate or
even give comfort to abuse victims. Originally I assumed that the issue was a simple
halachic issue - the problem of mesira or chillul hashem or the complicated halachos of
lashon harah.
While these reasons obviously play a part I have come to the conclusion that what is
at work in our community is a theological attitude or value. This issue is stated clearly in
Sanhedrin (73a) concerning the issue of stopping a rodef (someone pursuing someone to
kill or rape). The Mishna says "these are those who are saved by their lives". This is an
ambiguous statement. Who is saved? There are commentaries that say the reference is to
the pursuer - we kill this pursuer to save his soul from sin. Others says that it means we
save the potential victim by killing the pursuer.
It seems that we have two alternative lenses for evaluating these events. Are we
preventing someone from sinning or are we saving a person from attack. As I have used
these two lenses over a wide variety of issues - it seems in fact that this is the answer to
my original question. Are we concerning with stopping sin and thus we are concerned
with maximizing the spiritual content of our universe? Or alternatively am I concerned
with the human suffering of the victim.
A clear example of the orthogonality of these views is the well known story of Rabbi
Akiva. He died a horrible death of his skin being shredded with iron combs. Rabbi Akiva
was ecstatic that he could die such a horrible painful death because of its spiritual
significance. In contrast his students and even the angels didn't understand this. They
were bothered by the human element that he was suffering a horrible death.
Another example is Sma (C.M. 421:13) who mentions that a person is allowed to
save another person from being beaten - even if it entails beating the assailant. He says
that is because we need to stop the assailant from sinning. However he says if a person
normally ignores such events and in general doesn't stop assailants from beating other
people it shows he is not concerned about stopping sinning. Therefore he says he can not
intervene or rather if he intervenes he needs to pay because his motivation was not to stop
sin but rather he hated the assailant. (The Taz comments on the Sema and says he doesn't
understand what relevancy the intent is. As long as the victim is saved from beating -
that is sufficient to allow the rescuer to beat the assailant.)
Correspondingly the Chofetz Chaim says that even though lashon harah can be said
if it brings benefit - but even if there is a beneficial outcome to speaking lashon harah - it
is prohibited to say lashon harah. The Klausenberger explains that the evilness of lashon
harah is dependent on the intent of the speaker - not the consequences. This would mean
that if a woman is raped and she is driven by hatred to destroy the reputation of her rapist
- she is not allowed to tell others what happened to her!

There are many other situations which are seem puzzling which become clear once
the question is asked - are you focusing on the net spiritual consequences or on stopping
One final example - A young lady once came to me for a theological consultation.
This poised cheerful woman told me that when she was 10 she had been raped by two
young yeshiva students at a religious summer camp. As a result of this incident she went
into severe depression, became suicidal, and was finally placed in a mental hospital for an
extended time. She said that baruch hashem, she had recovered and was no longer
depressed or obsessed with revenge. Her visit was precipitated by having just seen her
assailants walking down the street in Geula in Jerusalem with their wives and children -
as if they had never done anything evil. She said there was only one issue left from her
experience which she couldn't come to grips with - Why did G-d want her to be raped?"
All the rabbis she had consulted with told her that it was G-d's will and that while they
couldn't explain it that it must have been good and necessary. She just had to accept it as
G-d's will. Her problem was that she couldn't accept that she worshipped a G-d that
wanted this horrible thing to happen. I answered her that she was being told the dominant
chassidic/kabbalistic view. However I told her that the Rishonim had a different view,
i.e., that it is possible for a man to chose to hurt another - even though G-d doesn't want it
to happen. That she will be compensated in the Next World for her suffering but that G-d
didn't cause it to happen. She was able to accept that view.
If you focus on the net spiritual gain of an event - it is not hard to ignore human
suffering. After all there is a reason that the person is suffering. The Ramchal says not to
pray to stop your suffering. He says that it is equivalent to pay a surgeon not to do a
lifesaving operation. G-d he says is the ultimate doctor and has prescribed this suffering
for your own good. Why would you want to stop it? If the sufferer only accepted his
situation he gets tremendous spiritual reward. On the other hand if you focus on the
Torah command of "don't stand idly by the blood of your fellow" and "love your fellow
as yourself" then it is critical to not only stop suffering but prevent it.
My point is that both views are totally legitimate Torah views but they lead to
strongly divergent actions towards suffering. What I am saying is not really a chiddush -
everybody knows these things as the Mesilas Yeshorim says - but they are not aware of
the consequences on our families and communities.
A final point is that there is an inverse relationship between maximizing the spiritual
content of the universe and yashrus. The Malbim says that yashrus is taking the straight
path from point A to B. If you don't see the events as they are but reinterpret them
through theology lenses - that might be a true interpretation but it is not yashar. Similarly
that while both pshat and derash are true - but derash is not pshat. The immediacy of
outrage at suffering and desire to help is numbed by the indirect path and indirect nature
of perceptions. This is probably also related to the kabalistic dispute as to whether
tzimtum - the original creation - was literally true or only figuratively. Is the world real
or is it some illusionary video game?