Suffering–a Catholic|Jewish Perspective*


Whether we will or not, we must suffer…There are two ways of suffering — to suffer with love, and to suffer without love. The saints suffered everything with joy, patience, and perseverance, because they loved. As for us, we suffer with anger, vexation, and weariness, because we do not love. If we loved God, we should love crosses, we should wish for them, we should take pleasure in them.” -St. John Vianney, Catechism on Suffering

“One must not think that a person who is suffering is not praying. He is offering up his sufferings to God, and many a time he is praying much more truly than one who goes away by himself and meditates his head off, and, if he has squeezed out a few tears, thinks that is prayer.” -St. Teresa of Avila

“Our people have experienced suffering in its many forms, as a nation as well as individually. Every so often, someone suggests a reason for suffering. This is presumptuous, because while there may be various reasons for suffering, they are largely unknown to us.” Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski, The Mystery of Suffering

Lent soon will be over, and Good Friday, which celebrates the Passion of Our Lord, will be upon us. A comment on Catholic Answers Forum to the effect that Christians and Jews have different perspectives on suffering has given me cause to ponder. Is this true, and if so, what are the differences and what are the similarities?

I have to add that I was a cultural, not a religious Jew, so some of my knowledge was acquired after my conversion to Catholicism (and partially through my wife, a cradle Catholic and historian of all things Judaica).

Let\’s start off by considering the differences. The most important, I believe, is the notion (not accepted by all Jewish faithful) stated in Rabbi Dr. Twerski\’s quote above, and much earlier in the book of Job: the reason for suffering is mysterious, because we cannot know the mind of G-d. To this must be added historical evidence that “Schverzer sein a Yid” (Yiddish for “It is hard to be a Jew”). Even in the happiest of occasions, a Jewish wedding, the groom smashes the glass cup under his feet as a commemoration of the destruction of the Second Temple.

Historical testimony to Jewish suffering is given by the persecutions and massacres culminating in the Holocaust–indeed, the terms “ghetto”, “pogrom”, “holocaust” have gained a usage for more universal suffering than just Jewish. I refer readers to an article by Marc Krell, Suffering and the Problem of Evil, which gives a much better account of the history of Jewish suffering and the several theodicies engendered in response than I could in this brief article.

One point I will add to his article: no explanation other than that given in the parable of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-31), namely, that the arms of Abraham await those who have greatly suffered in their earthly life, can possibly suffice to justify God\’s allowing the Holocaust to occur.

In fact, there is a strain of Jewish Talmudic teaching that does credit heaven (as a Garden of Eden) as recompense for earthly suffering:

“Rabbi Ya’akov taught: This world is compared to an ante-chamber that leads to Olam Ha-Ba, (the World-to-Come)” (Pirkei Avot 4:21). That is, while a righteous person might suffer in this lifetime, he or she will certainly be rewarded in the next world, and that reward will be much greater. In fact, in some cases, the rabbis claim that the righteous are made to suffer in this world so that their reward will be that much greater in the next (Leviticus Rabbah 27:1).” (See Heaven and Hell in Jewish Tradition)

This compensation theodicy and the notion of suffering found in the writings of Deutero-Isaiah, the hymns on The Suffering Servant, are links, a commonality between the Jewish and Catholic concepts of suffering:

” Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all. …for he was cut off out of the land of the living: for the transgression of my people was he stricken…Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise him; he hath put him to grief: when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin…by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many; for he shall bear their iniquities.” Isaiah 53:3-11 (KJV)

A theodicy proposed by the Medieval sage, rebbe Rashi, after the massacres of the Crusades, held that the Jews, not Jesus, suffered for the sins of the world. To the extent that all of us to a degree suffer for the sins of the world, that may be true, but it omits a very important part of the suffering of Jesus: it was by this that He procured our salvation, and thus fulfilled the prophecy of Deutero-Isaiah.

Therein is one great difference between Jewish and Catholic interpretations of suffering. To discuss others I\’m going to rely on the thoughts of Bl. John Paul II in his Apostolic Letter Salvici Doloriand of C.S. Lewis in The Problem of Pain.

One view of suffering in the Old Testament was as a punishment for sins, but this explanation is only partially successful, and recognized thus in Job. In Salvici Doloris, John Paul acknowledges the punishment aspect of suffering, but adds another dimension:

 “Suffering must serve for conversion, that is, for the rebuilding of goodness in the subject, who can recognize the divine mercy in this call to repentance. The purpose of penance is to overcome evil, which under different forms lies dormant in man. Its purpose is also to strengthen goodness both in man himself and in his relationships with others and especially with God. ” Bl. John Paul II, Salvici Doloris

In more homely terms, C.S. Lewis echoes this:

“While what we call ‘our own life’ remains agreeable we will not surrender it to Him. What then can God do in our own interests but make ‘our own life’ less agreeable to us and take away the sources of false happiness (emphasis added)? It is just here, where God\’s providence seems at first to be most cruel, that the Divine humility…deserves most praise.” C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain

On a personal note, I can testify to this: it was through suffering that I came to a Twelve-Step Program and thence to the Catholic Church.

As said in Salvici Doloris, Christ\’s love for us saves us from that most extreme suffering, of an eternity without God — damnation. We are called, therefore, to participate in the suffering of the Passion, to “offer it up” continually and happily.

When I recite the Fourth Sorrowful Mystery, I preface it with a prayer, offering up my sins, faults and failures that they might make the Cross less burdensome. For the Passion exists always, not just at an instant in time. St. Teresa, in the quote given above, acknowledged that suffering is a form of prayer.

Suffering is a necessary consequence of Free Will. If we are not automatons, constrained to do good only, then we must have the capacity to do evil and thereby to suffer from evil done by others. And even with inanimate non-sentient entities, God so chooses to set a framework of physical laws that will ultimately be for our good, but may entail natural catastrophe.

Voltaire, when he gloated over the deaths of tens of thousands in the Lisbon earthquake (to contradict Leibniz’s best of all possible worlds), did not consider that many of those dead would be eventually in heaven. It is by the vision of an eternal paradise that we are enabled to endure earthly suffering.

“In the Cross He showed us how to bear suffering.  In His resurrection He showed us what we are to hope for.”  St. Augustine, On the Creed 9

*Note: The notation Catholic|Jewish has a special meaning for me; a conditional probability is denoted as P(B|A), that is the probability of event B given that event A occurs.

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6 thoughts on “Suffering–a Catholic|Jewish Perspective*”

  1. Pingback: Lent: Join Our Suffering to That of Christ - Catholic Stand : Catholic Stand

  2. Bob, this is an excellent presentation on the problem of suffering. I had not seen a comparison of the views from the two traditions before, and you presented both extremely well. I love your thoughts at the end on what Voltaire missed, and the quote of St. Augustine. God bless.

  3. And don’t forget – they always do – the third way to understand – desire, the eastern
    theology that so very very simply points out that we bring life into this world KNOWING
    the evil, suffering and state of existence our progeny will inherit. All this, with the real possibility that some life will fail miserably and after all that still be relegated to hell.

  4. Pingback: Conjugal Fidelity Is Creative Fidelity -

  5. This is a well written and presented internal dialogue respecting theodicy. I am not sure many people are aware of theodicy and let me provide a simple explanation. Theodicy is an examination of the existence of evil and suffering in the world in the presence of a loving, benevolent and merciful God. Theodicies allow one to to rise above and transcend self; to answer sometimes unanswerable questions. The UN estimates that 1.5 million children starve to death each year; how does a benevolent God allow this inhumanity…theodicy

    From the Jewish perspective, in 1988, a Jewish theologian, Braiterman posited an anti-theodicy. Anti-theodicy, both in the biblical and post Holocaust context rejects the idea that there is a meaningful relationship between the problem of evil and suffering and God. The response is to protest and refuse to investigate the problem of evil and God…akin to Job’s protest.

    The Holocaust led to a reconsideration in Jewish of theodicy. Levinas argues that the[ problem is not to justify God’s existence during the Holocaust, but rather to focus on living in a godly fashion and to build a world where goodness will prevail.

    Of course, we must add the perspective of Eli Wiesel who I believe expresses anti-theodicy.

    “I rarely speak about God. To God yes. I protest against Him. I shout at Him. But open discourse about the qualities of God, about the problems that God imposes,theodicy, no. And yet He is there, in silence, in filigree.”
    In a 1978 interview with John S. Friedman, published in The Paris Review 26 (Spring 1984); and in Elie Wiesel : Conversations (2002) edited by Robert Franciosi, p. 87

    A very, very difficult discourse and you did a fine job.

    1. thank you Phil for your kind words. I have read some of the material on the post-holocaust “anti-theodicy” philosophers/theologians(?), but felt it would distract from the main themes I wanted to present in a short post. I greatly appreciate that you added this.
      Bob Kurland

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