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God and Evil: A Unified Theodicy/Theology/Philosophy by David Birnbaum
God and Evil: A Unified Theodicy/Theology/Philosophy by David Birnbaum
Volume 3 , Issue 3

God and Evil: A Unified Theodicy/Theology/Philosophy by David Birnbaum. Hoboken: Ktav Publishing House, 1989. Hard Cover, 266 pp. Index.

David Birnbaum's God and Evil is a bold and highly original synthesis which attempts to provide a metaphysical solution to the vexing problem of radical evil in a world created and sustained by an all powerful, all knowing, benevolent God. Birnbaum's treatment of the highly intimidating and emotionally wrenching problem of a Jewish theodicy in a postoHolocaust world is audacious yet sensitive, traditional and yet highly innovative. The work ranges over a multitude of traditional and contemporary (Orthodox and nonoOrthodox) Jewish sources, draws inspiration from the likes of Gersonides, Isaac Luria, Rav Kook and Rav Soloveitchik, but also from such unexpected quarters as Aquinas and Irenaeus, and yet somehow manages to stay within the parameters of an authentically Jewish, halakhic point of view. Birnbaum's book is an intellectual odyssey, yet it is also, as becomes very clear as one reads on, a highly passionate and emotional quest. The author is himself deeply troubled (as we all should be) by the stark contrast between his abiding faith in a God who is betrothed to (Hosea 2:21o22) and promises to guard, the Jewish people in all their ways (Psalms 91:11), and who keeps kindness and mercy to the thousandth generation (Exodus 34:6o7), and the realities of newborn infants "immersed" unto death, and children being thrown alive into fires and having chemicals injected into their eyes, spines and brains, to name but a fraction of the atrocities experienced by God's people in Nazi Europe.

Birnbaum begins his essay with a review of the traditional theological responses to the problem of evil. He shows respect for the notion that the ways of the infinite God are unknowable to finite man, but ultimately rejects this on the grounds that a ?leap of faith? with respect to the problem of God and evil cannot be appropriate for the rational religious perspective embodied in halakhic Judaism. The notion that radical evil is a punishment for man's sins is seen by Birnbaum (quoting Norman Lamm) as ?massively irrelevant, impudent, and insensitive,? and indeed a form of blasphemy against our Holocaust martyrs. Birnbaum recognizes the verity in the exhausted cry that there is currently no answer to the problem, but he questions whether an intellectual and educated Jew can adhere to a theology that does not provide a solution to a fundamental crisis in religious belief. Birnbaum, himself, seeks to provide such a solution, and he attempts to do so through an integration of several traditional responses which are, in his view, completely inadequate in themselves, but which, when integrated, form the basis of a unified theodicy/theology. These responses include the notion that in certain historical eras God hides His face and temporarily abandons His surveillance of the world (hester panim); that God must withdraw his protection of the world in order to achieve the higher goal of man's freedom; that the world is, indeed, imperfect, and that man as a partner in creation and is provided with the task to mend it; and that the possibility of evil is necessary for man's moral and spiritual development, and, indeed, a necessary condition for the existence of the ultimate Good.

The originality of Birnbaum's approach is evident in his philosophical point of departure. Instead of first focusing on God's attributes, and the possibility of reconciling these attributes with manifest evil, Birnbaum begins with the question of the ?purpose of man,? a query he believes can only be answered by conducting a far more radical inquiry into the ultimate purpose and, indeed, the origin of God. Birnbaum, like the kabbalist's of old, dares to raise the question of the origins of the Creator of the universe, a question which, in his view, must be raised on the grounds that its correct solution is a necessary propadeutic to genuine inquiry into the problem of evil.

Birnbaum's solution to the question of divine origins, to the mystery of the kabbalists' En Sof (the infinite theistic principle giving rise to the God of Israel) is that ?Holy Potential is at the epicenter of the Divine,? that God is, by His very nature, potential and possibility, ?transcending, space, time and cosmos,? and everosurging towards greater actuality. Birnbaum bases his thesis, in part, on the name by which God first became known to Moses and Israel: Eheyeh Asher Eheyeh, ?IowillobeothatowhichoIowill be? (Exodus 3:13o14) which he sees as a prooftext for his claim that potential is the holiest state of the Divine. Birnbaum sees the kabbalists' sefirot as ?primal quests for potentiality? which bridge the gap from ?emptiness? to ?somethingness,? and thereby become the vehicles of creation.

The significance of ?Holy Potential? as the primal thrust of the universe is that man, created in the image of God, has as his cosmic purpose the fulfillment of his own potential, encapsulated in the first Biblical command, peru u'rivu, ?be fruitful and multiply? (Genesis 1:26). Birnbaum sees mankind's potential displayed in two possible, but mutually exclusive, sets of dynamics that were laid out in the Garden of Eden. The first of these, the dynamic of the ?Tree of Life/Bliss? promises a gilded cage existence, dependence upon God, eternal life, tamed evil but a limited potential for growth; the second, the dynamic of the ?Tree of Knowledge/Potential? promises a life of challenge, freedom, privacy, responsibility, independence, untamed evil and mortality, but an infinite potential for growth. The two of these dynamics are, according to Birnbaum, mutually exclusive, in that insofar as one participates in the first he cannot participate in the second, and vice versa. A life of infinite freedom/potential is logically incompatible with dependence on God and personal immortality.

Given the fact that man, like God, has as his core essence, the realization of his potential,it is an essentially foregone conclusion, written into the very act of creation, that man would eat of the fruit, be banished from Eden, and fulfill the dynamic of the Tree of Knowledge. As such, both natural and moral evil would forevermore both plague and challenge mankind. Indeed, the very possibility of man's fulfilling his potential for good, both on the individual and collective levels, is predicated on the possibility of both natural evil (as a challenge to man's resources) and moral evil (as a challenge to his freedom).

The closer mankind comes to fulfilling his spiritual, intellectual and other potentials, the closer he comes to fulfilling his purpose on earth via his role as a partner with God in creation. In doing so, however, man must maximize his privacy, independence and freedom, and as mankind moves closer to its own selfoactualization, God must, of necessity, retreat further and further into ?eclipse.? Mankind has, over the centuries, indeed ascended greatly in knowledge, implicitly demanding greater and greater freedom. For God to intervene directly in human affairs at this late stage in mankind's development, as he did, for example, for the Jews in Egypt, would reverse the very development of both His and mankind's essence, and in Birnbaum's terms, threaten to ?unravel the cosmos.?

Unlike other authors (Soloveitchik, Berkovitz) who see hester panim (the hiding of the divine countenance described by the prophet Isaiah) as a temporary suspension of God's surveillance, Birnbaum sees it as a necessary and inexorable development in the cosmic plan. There is according to Birnbaum a primary form of hester panim in which God contracts his ?realotime consciousness? and curtails individual providence in order to further the realization of mankind's full creative potential via his ascent in knowledge and freedom. Like a parent who has the power to watch over his child when he is away from home, even without the child's knowledge, yet who refrains from doing so in the interests of the child's own growth and development, God must (though it is painful both for us and Himself) curtail His own realotime surveillance and suspend individual and historical providence, for the greater interest and providence of humanity as a whole.

Birnbaum recognizes that his theodicy may not be of enormous comfort to those who have experienced a loss and are in the throes of their bereavement (and this is not in his view the purpose of theodicy), but he is confident, perhaps even arrogantly so, that his ?Unified Formulation? unites the best aspects of traditional Jewish theodicy into a systematic metaphysics which is both intellectually rigorous and theologically acceptable. His theodicy, he tells us, maintains God's omniscience and omnipotence without sacrificing His benevolence, for it is, indeed, out of true benevolence for his creation that God contracts Himself and does not interfere in human affairs.

Yet in spite of its ingenuity, in spite of the inspiring vision which Birnbaum offers, some haunting questions remain. Birnbaum himself acknowledges that ?should mankind become enslaved beyond an unknown threshold, or should the evil or its consequences penetrate the veil of cosmic consciousness, a decontraction is not entirely precluded, regardless of the damage to human freedom. For freedom is of limited value if there are no living players left to practice.? (p.145) Does not the Holocaust raise this very issue? Were not the atrocities at the hands of the Nazi butchers sufficient to meet the threshold of a divine decontraction? Were not the cries of the six million sufficient to penetrate the Divine veil?

And if not, why not? Birnbaum himself graphically points out that the concentration camps (inverse of the primeval Garden in every way) threatened to and, indeed, succeeded in perverting and inverting the essence of creation. As a parent, I may give my children tether in the interests of their privacy and freedom, but even if they are fully grown adults and I hear a cry in the night that one brother is mutilating the other's children, do I stand by and do nothing? Do I not, on the contrary, do everything in my power to rob the evil one of his ?freedom? and ?privacy? in the interests of protecting the rest of my family?

Birnbaum's analysis, while ingenious and profound, in the end simply forces the question of theodicy into a new arena: Why didn't God answer that desperate call in the night, or if, as some maintain, He did, why did He wait so long?

There is a curious lacuna in God and Evil which, at least from this reviewer's perspective, holds the key to the problem, or at least the incompleteness,of Birnbaum's entire account: for all his consideration of traditional theodicies, there is nary a reference in the whole work, to haolam habah, the world to come. True, Birnbaum casually mentions the traditional Jewish view that the suffering of the righteous will be recompensed in the world to come, but he completely fails to pursue this theme: he neither accepts it; rejects it; nor critiques it. Birnbaum's theodicy is a totally thisoworldly solution, and, I believe, intentionally so. He borrows from the kabbalists, but falls far short of giving a philosophical exposition of their conception of ?higher worlds,? presumably on the grounds that they, in their religious fervor, ?pressed way beyond areas of mortal competence and objective conjecture, and found themselves in the elusive arena of mysticism.? (p.155) Indeed, Birnbaum is so thisoworldly in his metaphysics that he tells us (in a footnote at the conclusion of his work) that his core concept, ?the quest for potential,? can be used as the basis of a powerful secular philosophy without altering any of the basic features of his thought.

Birnbaum, in seeking a satisfactory solution to the problem of theodicy in haolam hazeh, pushes this world about as far as it will go in providing us with the proverbial ?answer to Job.? In the end, he arrives at a position which (while this is antithetical to his own purposes) is ultimately akin to deism, the doctrine that God created the world and then left it to operate on its own. Looked at another way, Birnbaum's metaphysics is a teleological Hegelianism in which mankind, and (through man) the universe, is evolving towards the realization of an impersonal and thoroughly imminent ?Absolute Spirit.? In either case, Birnbaum sacrifices the Jews' personal, individual relationship with God in order to presumably maintain God's omnipotence and justice. Given the Jewish view that one individual has the value of an entire world, it is not even clear that Birnbaum's scheme, (which in effect permits the sacrifice of many individuals for the greater good of the cosmos), is even just. In short, God and Evil simply pushes the paradox of its own title into a new arena. To accommodate evil, God can no longer be my God. God loses his personal connection with His people and, from this reviewer's perspective, can no longer be God at all.

Our only viable alternative, it would seem, is to admit the possibility of haolam habah, the world to come <197> to acknowledge that the paradoxes and antinomies inherent in our own world, point us inexorably, as the kabbalists', themselves, intuited, to higher worlds, in which the conundrums we experience in haolam hazeh are resolved. In such higher worlds, for example, the mutual exclusivity of Eden and freedom which Birnbaum rests so much of his argument upon, dissolves. For behind the veil of asiyah (the material world), we discover that in our greatest acts of freedom we are most dependent upon God. We see that in the deepest, truest sense, we and God are indeed one. Such higher worlds are, we may note, not thoroughly inaccessible to earthly man (witness these who retained their bitachon, their trust in God even throughout their experiences in the Holocaust), but they are veiled from our view by the ?husks? of materiality which constitute this veil of tears. Perhaps the only satisfying theodicy is from the vantage point of a realm in which virtue is its own and the only reward, and from which the crimes and pain inflicted by the Nazi perpetrators are, to use the kabbalistic metaphor, black dross and empty shells receding from the magnificently colored background of eternal life.



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