Theodicy is the technical term applied to the philosophical justification of evil in the world. The fundamental question of theodicy is how can an all good and all-powerful God allow the existence of evil in the world? This question impacts directly on our perception of God: If God is indifferent to evil or worse, tolerates evil, then how can God be good? And if God is unable to dispatch evil, how can He be all-powerful? Rabbis, philosophers, and theologians have wrestled with the problem of theodicy for millennia.
One solution is to consider pain and suffering – what most people would see as evil – to be actual benefits. This is the approach of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, using the symbol of maror (bitter herbs) as support for his view.
In one of his essays on the Jewish holidays, Hirsch argues that trouble, pain and anxiety are normal components of life. While they are hardly welcome, they can be positively life altering. Pain and suffering can be “healing medicine” that strengthen and fortify the victim. Hirsch bases his view on a verse in the Book of Ezekiel that is actually invoked at every Jewish circumcision ceremony, “Through your blood you shall live” (Ezekiel 16:6). Indeed, the rabbis of the Talmud had much earlier taught that God bestowed the gifts of Torah, the Land of Israel, and the afterlife through suffering (Berakhot 5a). And Hirsch notes wistfully that since the time of Abraham the Patriarch no Jew has evaded suffering and bitter trials.
The bitter herbs represent the root of this idea. Pain and suffering are not only part of life and part of Jewish history; they are often the precursors of all desirable ends, just as slavery in Egypt was succeeded by freedom and self-determination. Moreover, those who endure pain and suffering are often transformed for the better. Important to keep in mind, though, is that Hirsch does not argue that pain and suffering are ideal. Rather, he argues that pain and suffering have some positive value. One day, however, pain and suffering will be replaced entirely by joy.
It is difficult to know if Hirsch would maintain this view had he lived through the Holocaust. Even so, Hirsch offers an approach to coping with life’s inevitable hurts.