Many people wonder why if God created the world, God didn’t make the world a better place. Wouldn’t God have wanted a world in which there was not so much suffering? I don’t have an answer to this age-old question, but here I would like to offer a re-framing.
Jewish thought has always had a strand that enabled us to look at creation as an ongoing process. As I learned from my teacher Steven Kepnes, one can understand Jewish theology best by turning to the siddur, our traditional prayer book. Here, I’ll examine its most intense meditation on creation, the extended blessing known as Yotzer Or that is recited in our daily morning service in preparation for the declaration of God’s oneness, the Sh’ma. (I recommend that readers with access to a siddur read the blessing for themselves to follow my commentary.)
The opening line is already a blunt admission that God’s creation is imperfect. We bless the God of the Universe who “form[s] light and create[s] darkness, who makes peace and creates all.” This is a crib from Isaiah 45:7: “I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things.” But there, God specifically creates “evil”, not “all”. (Evidently, our sages wanted to spare us from daily early-morning acknowledgment that there is so much evil in the world.) But after accepting the imperfection of creation as it stands, we are reassured in the next line that God “In His goodness renews every day continually the work of creation.” God knows that things could be better, but S/He is working on it.
Evidence that God is concerned about what it feels like to live in an incomplete creation is the frequent acknowledgment throughout our liturgy that God feels compassion for God’s creatures. Here in this blessing, we promptly acknowledge God’s compassionate supplying of light to the earth and the creatures on it, and then we pray that God, in God’s compassion, will have compassion on us. Then, we creatures praise God as stronghold, rock, refuge, and shield from the harsh aspects of life in an imperfect creation.
The middle section of the blessing praises God for having created holy beings of various forms: Ministering Angels, Seraphim, Ofanim, and Holy Hayyot. It is far from clear what these various beings are, but we praise them for what they do: they stand in the Universe’s heights, proclaim the words of the living God, do the wishes of their Creator, and bless the name of God. They do all this together, as one. They also interact in joy, accepting from one another the yoke of the kingdom of heaven, and giving permission to each other to sanctify the One who made them.
The contrast between these two planes of existence is striking. While creatures like us need God’s compassion as we struggle with the difficulties of created life, the holy beings see the whole of existence as joyful. Perhaps they represent the future, perfected versions of ourselves, what our distant descendants will become after evolution has reached its fulfillment?
The description of the holy beings concludes with what they praise God for: God alone does mighty deeds and creates new things, is Master of battles and sows righteousness, grows salvation and creates cures. This is quite a contrast to our own praises of God’s compassion and protection! Without physical suffering themselves, the holy beings see how the long arc of history bends through continual struggles toward ultimate perfection.
The blessing wraps up with a reminder that, every day continually, the good God is newly creating the world, and concludes with a vision that God will someday shine a “new light,” and with a plea that we soon be worthy to receive that light. It is left to us to ponder what this new light will be, but it seems to be another kind of promise of a world to come in which existence will be as joyful as that seen by the holy beings. Would that it were so, and soon!
I wouldn’t want to suggest that the sages who composed our prayer book were anticipating the theology of the 20th century Catholic thinker Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. (discussed in my previous blog post) in any specific way. But at least in outline, its essential ideas:
- creation is ongoing,
- thus the world we live in is imperfect,
- but we can confidently look forward to its eventual perfection
We do have a right to recognize (and complain to God about!) the world’s many imperfections. But rather than considering them the finished result of a botched creation, we should think of them as how it feels to live during an ongoing process of creation.
The most famous complaints to God on this score are those of Job. Job absolutely rejected his comforters’ rationalizations of his sufferings as being in any way deserved. Instead, Job insisted that a just God would not punish him in this way. Job’s challenge was so profound that he merited a direct answer from God. (This answer is given in Chapters 38 – 41 of the book of Job). But the answer that Job received from the Voice in the Whirlwind has puzzled most readers. Rather than a direct response to the question of when and how suffering might be deserved (and whether Job did indeed deserve his suffering,) God instead vividly describes the awesomeness of creation, and challenges Job to admit that he doesn’t understand anything about how God created the world. Strikingly, God emphasizes that power of God’s creation most strongly by lauding his mightiest individual creations on land and sea, Behemoth and Leviathan. Why does God emphasize power and splendor in God’s answer to Job, rather than justice or holiness?
In spite of how it looks at first, God’s answer to Job is not a non sequitur. Rather, God is saying that there is one great mystery to existence, the mystery of Creation. Only God knows what it takes to bring the Universe into being. Since neither Job nor anyone else (especially Job’s smug comforters) understands Creation, no finite being can understand why the created world, as we experience it today, is so imperfect.
We know so much more today about the natural world than did the writers of the book of Job, but our knowledge is very far from complete. Some questions we don’t know the answers to: Can we understand where the Big Bang comes from? How did life arise from non-living matter, and why did it take 13.8 billion years since the Big Bang for it to appear on Earth? Is Earth the sole inhabited planet, or is life common in the Universe? This list goes on and on.
What we do know, much more clearly than in Job’s time, is that creation is ongoing. Recognizing that, we can see that it might be expected that our unfinished Universe is imperfect. We can only pray that perfection will come speedily.
(This post is part of Sinai and Synapses’ project Scientists in Synagogues, a grass-roots program to offer Jews opportunities to explore the most interesting and pressing questions surrounding Judaism and science. Dr. Peter Saulson is Martin A. Pomerantz ’37 Professor of Physics at Syracuse University, and is also a member of Congregation Beth Sholom-Chevra Shas in Jamesville, NY).