Rabbi Sacks on God and Evil

JInsider (March 2010)

The greatest challenge to faith is, if God exists, how is it that evil exists? Why do bad things happen to good people?

Now in most religions, that is a challenge to faith. In Judaism, it’s exactly the opposite because it is the people with the greatest faith who ask this question most powerfully and most passionately. Abraham says, “Shall the Judge of all the earth not do justice.” Moses says, “Why have You done evil, God, to these people?” Jeremiah says, “God, I know you always win when we have an argument about justice but tell me, why do the wicked prosper?” The entire book of Job is dedicated to this question.

So why is it then in every other religion, evil is a threat to faith. Whereas in Judaism, the question of evil is in the very heart of faith. And that led to my definition of faith as protest. God created a world, a physical world that obeys physical laws. And because it obeys physical laws, there are such things as earthquakes and tsunamis, and natural catastrophes. You couldn’t have a physical universe without these disasters happening. It was only because matter coalesced and formed stars, and those stars eventually exploded, spreading stardust throughout the world, that they ever coalesced to become planets, one of which was the earth, on one of which life began. Without these natural disasters, there couldn’t be a physical universe.

Secondly, without giving space for human beings to commit acts of evil, we wouldn’t have freedom and therefore we couldn’t even do good. And therefore, God turns to human beings and says, “Look, I gave you freedom. I gave you a physical world. In such a world, bad things are going to happen. I cannot solve those bad things on My own because I gave you freedom and I gave you responsibility, and now let us confront evil together.”

So in Judaism, the problem of evil is the simple statement of the human condition. That the world that is, is not the world that ought to be. And in that cognitive dissonance, faith is born, not faith as acceptance, faith as protest.

And the answer to “Why does evil exist?” is not a philosophical answer, it’s an action. If I do one good deed, feeding the hungry, healing the sick, righting an injustice anywhere in the world, I make the world that is a little closer to the world that ought to be. And that is why the existence of evil and protest against that evil and the human responsibility that God has charged us with to fight that evil is not the grit in the machine that wrecks faith.

In Judaism, it is the machine that drives faith. We stand up and protest against evil by creating just societies, compassionate communities, and loving human relationships. Judaism is God’s call to our responsibility.