Thursday, November 30, 2006

God is good to all - is this a joke?

ט טוֹב-יְהוָה לַכֹּל; וְרַחֲמָיו, עַל-כָּל-מַעֲשָׂיו.
9 The LORD is good to all; and His tender mercies are over all His works.

Is David Hamelech joking? Are there not enough calamities out there? Will a victim of the holocaust, Tsunamis, earthquakes, pandemics not to mention personal illnesses, losses and other such catastrophes agree with this statement? How can David say that God is good to ALL? His tender mercies over ALL his works?

The answer to the above is at the crux of Theodicy and Providence. It is a complicated and lengthy discussion that will require more than one post. I will try to break down the issue into its components and address each one separately.

The question that one needs to ask first is whether any component of the universe is more important than another. If let us say everything exists so that humanity may come into being and thrive then anything that works towards that goal is good and anything that tries to thwart it is evil. If however every component of the universe is equally important, we can envision a conflict where an action that promotes one component threatens another and we can still consider it as good.

We have to distinguish between the most advanced organism, which is humankind, and seeing man as the goal of creation. Although it so happens that man has unique attributes that does not make him more important. In fact, as I have mentioned in an earlier post, he may be just a necessary component of the whole universe working in tandem with its other parts to maintain it and at its service.

If we see existence as a natural occurrence clearly there is no room for seeing even a possibility of a goal. Everything just exists and man is part of it. If we attribute existence to God, His will is the cause for everything. We cannot decipher what His wish is other than for everything to just exist. There is no reason to believe that the existence of man is the goal He wishes for more than the existence of any other component of the universe. Whichever of the two positions we chose, clearly good is anything that perpetuates existence and evil is whatever destroys it. That is of course from the perspective of existence and not from the individual component.

What we are left with is that events that are detrimental to humankind are good as long as they promote the perpetuation of the whole. Man’s tribulations are insignificant when seen in that context. With this in mind we now can try to understand and categorize what we consider as calamities and see if God’s role in them is good or evil.

The first category is composed of natural disasters. Starting from the personal and individual, illnesses caused by genetic defects are part of nature. It is a biological imperative for the survival of a species that genetic mutations occur. It is inherent in the system that some are not successful. Of course it does not mitigate the suffering of the individual that is smitten, nor his close ones, but it is unavoidable and is good in a macro sense. Rambam being a keen observer of diseases, although unaware of genetics puts it in remarkably modern words:

The first kind of evil is that which is caused to man by the circumstance that he is subject to genesis and destruction, or that he possesses a body. It is on account of the body that some persons happen to have great deformities or paralysis of some of the organs. This evil may be part of the natural constitution of these persons, or may have developed subsequently in consequence of changes in the elements, e.g., through bad air, or thunderstorms or landslips. We have already shown that, in accordance with the divine wisdom, genesis can only take place through destruction, and without the destruction of the individual members of the species the species themselves would not exist permanently. Thus the true kindness, and beneficence, and goodness of God is clear. He, who thinks that he can have flesh and bones without being subject to any external influence, or any of the accidents of matter, unconsciously wishes to reconcile two opposites, viz., to be at the same time subject and not subject to change. If man were never subject to change there could be no generation”. (MN 3:12)

(I am quoting just the pertinent segment. If one reads the whole piece it is clear that Rambam was basing this on Galen’s understanding of medicine not modern genetics.)

Of course the same argument applies to other natural events such as earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, storms and so on. In a macro sense they are all necessary as part of a system that perpetuates the existence of the earth. I do not think I have to elaborate further.
Coming back to our opening question natural disasters can be seen as good. They may be destructive to their immediate surroundings and those caught up in them. They are however necessary and an integral part of the survival of the whole and therefore inherently good.

That leaves us with wars, holocausts and individual illnesses. I will address it in a future post.

(MN 3: 10 thru 14 is an interesting read on this issue).


  1. I think that an important point of the pasuq, not quite connected to the issue of Theodicy, is that God cares for *everyone* — and not only Jews, for instance.

  2. if you define good as something that serves it's purpose then you are right. in that case the holocaust was good too. but most people understand "tov hashem lakol verachamav al kol ma'asav" differently.

  3. Steg, al kol ma'asov includes all His deeds Chai Tzomeach Domem etc... The word Rachum has to be defined too.

    Gamzu, you are of course right and that is the point here. What people normally understand is the cause of much perplexity.

  4. that's the pretzel part

  5. No, that is the reality. If you read carefully it is the same whether there is a creator or not.

  6. what is rachum? have some rachmanut. i can't maintain this position forever.

  7. MN 1:54 tells us what is Rachum:

    We see, e.g., how well He provides for the life of the embryo of living beings; how He endows with certain faculties both the embryo itself and those who have to rear it after its birth, in order that it may be protected from death and destruction, guarded against all harm, and assisted in the performance of all that is required [for its development]. Similar acts, when performed by us, are due to a certain emotion and tenderness called mercy and pity. God is, therefore, said to be merciful: e.g., "Like as a father is merciful to his children, so the Lord is merciful to them that fear Him" (Ps. ciii. 13); "And I will spare them, as a man spareth (yaḥamol) his own son that serveth him" (Mal. iii. 17). Such instances do not imply that God is influenced by a feeling of mercy, but that acts similar to those which a father performs for his son, out of pity, mercy and real affection, emanate from God solely for the benefit of His pious men,

    Gamzu, the simplicity you are looking for does not exist. This world is quite complex as you can see just from the scientific evidence. Do you think relativity is not like a "pretzel" using your term? Or the human cell? A complex world needs complex thinking. Torah is the same too, one has to be sophisticated to really understand it.

  8. i understand and understood that hashem does tov and is a rachum but that is a different use of those words as we were and are taught.
    shabbat shalom.

  9. One is taught according to his level of understanding. We cannot stay with what we were taught as children when we get older. At every stage in life things take on different connotations as we grow and learn new things. A friend of mine who is no longer alive used to say that we have to change our opinions, ideas and even tastes every moment otherwise we stopped learning and are dead.

    Shabbat Shalom to you too.

  10. "Is David Hamelech joking?"

    Are you? David Hamelech didn't write tehillim.

  11. >Are you? David Hamelech didn't write tehillim.

    The chapter starts Tehila ledavid. He may not have authored every chapter in tehillim but some are definitely attributed to him.

  12. "He may not have authored every chapter in tehillim but some are definitely attributed to him."

    So what? The Zohar's attributed to the Rashbi and the Torah to Moshe, neither of which is true. Pre-modern attribution is virtually useless in determining authorship.

  13. does it matter who authored it?

  14. The chapter does start tehilla ledavid though so my comment is correct.

    This obsession with authorship though is kind of childish as it is irrelevant in the context of things. We use our sechel to decide if something makes sense not anything else. The problem is to have sechel!

  15. "The chapter does start tehilla ledavid though so my comment is correct."

    Only that it starts with those two words. You have no idea what they mean, nor does it make any sense for the real David to have written any of it.

    "This obsession with authorship though is kind of childish as it is irrelevant in the context of things."

    Curious that such a critical issue (excuse the pun) is "irrelevant." If I was a psychologist I'd, naaah...

    "We use our sechel to decide if something makes sense not anything else."

    Uh huh. "Makes sense" is exactly what comes to mind when I think about Orthodox Judaism.

  16. >Curious that such a critical issue

    Please explain why it is a critical issue? Let us say a later group of Rabbis cannonized a collection of theological tracts because they felt it was written under such great inspiration because it contained such truths that it must have been divinely inspired, would it take away from the validity of the statement?

    We are not even dealing with Torah just Ketuvim!

  17. >Orthodox Judaism.

    Please define.

    I do not recognize that term. I only recognize Jews that are religious (i.e. searching for God) and/or practicing Jews ( who keep halacha). The two are not necessarilly extant in the same person nor to the same degree.