Introduction to Jewish Philosophy (PHL 412)
January 8, 2012
Evil, Suffering, and the Human Condition according to the Philosophies of Rambam and Rabbi Artson.
It is impossible to look at the world and not see tremendous suffering, evil, and injustice. The existence of despotic rulers depriving millions of life and liberty, massive acts of natural destruction, untimely deaths, debilitating and deadly diseases, and more, must beg the religious person to question how this can be in a world created and ruled by a just and loving God. This study will investigate the philosophies of two great Jewish thinkers; Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam) of the 12th century, and the modern process theologist, Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, comparing and contrasting their attempts to reconcile the suffering that seems to be inextricably part of the world in which we live, and their respective understandings and beliefs in God. We will begin with Rambam and his views on the nature of evil itself. Rambam views creation as only the production of something positive. Accordingly, his treatment of evil follows the neo-Platonic tradition seeing evil not as something that is created, but rather as a lack or privation.1 Creation is
constructive, not destructive. “The action of an agent cannot be directly connected with a thing that does not exist; only indirectly is non-existence described as the result of the action of an agent.”2 So when
God created light, at that moment, it replaced previous darkness. Darkness is the absence of light and did not need to be created. If I blow out a candle, I have not created darkness, but rather, I have destroyed the light. The same holds true for good and evil. As Rambam states: “…it cannot be said of God that He directly creates evil, or He has the direct intention to produce evil; that is impossible. His works are all perfectly good. He only produces existence, and all existence is good; whilst evils are of a negative character, and cannot be acted upon. Evil can only be attributed to Him in the way we have mentioned. 1 2
“Evil and Suffering in Jewish Philosophy” by Oliver Leaman, Cambridge University Press, 1995. Pg. 58 “The Guide of the Perplexed of Maimonides”, translated and annotated by M. Friedlander, PH. D., Hebrew Publishing Company, New York, 1885. Book III, chapter X, pg. 43.
He creates evil only in so far as He produces the corporeal element such as it actually is; it is always connected with negatives, and on that account the source of all destruction and evil.”3 By this line of thinking, what we perceive as evil is a lack of something else, not a creation of God. Rambam also points out that evil is a subjective concept. “Evils are evils only in relation to a certain thing, [and] either includes the non-existence of that thing or the non-existence of some of the good conditions.”4 For
Rambam, all things that are perceived as evil are actually negations or the non-existence of positive qualities of creation. So from the perspective of human existence, death is the absence of life, the pain of sickness is the absence of health, and the harshness of blindness is the lack of sight. Moving forward with the understanding that evil is not created, Rambam gives three main causes for the suffering and evils that we perceive in the world. The first reason for suffering is directly related to our physical makeup. In describing the nature of the universe, Rambam explains that “some creatures are composed of matter and form that are subject to perpetual generation and decay, such as human and animal bodies, plants and metals.”5 It is precisely this material component that is at the heart of what we may perceive as suffering. “Whatever is formed of any matter receives the most perfect form possible in that species of matter; in each individual case the defects are in accordance with the defects of that individual matter. The best and most perfect being that can be formed of the...
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