A Rationalist Approach to Suffering

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February 17, 2012

Julie Blattberg

When Jews search for texts that give meaning to suffering and address healing in the midst of physical, spiritual, and psychic pain, we commonly seek answers in the traditional texts of Torah, Talmud, and Eastern European Jewish spiritual writings of the 18th and 19th centuries. Medieval Jewish philosophical sources, however, are mostly overlooked, perhaps because they never achieved the same popular currency in the Ashkenazic Diaspora. This is a mistake, however, because medieval writings offer important lessons about the nature of loss and its counterpart, healing. Suffering and healing, for the medieval Jewish philosopher, take place in the context of a close interrelationship between the physical and the spiritual, the material and eternal.

The medieval philosophical approach can be broadly categorized as rational, presenting a naturalistic understanding of God and humanity, and is less reliant on mystical and traditional notions of how the divine directly engages the individual or human collective. Perhaps because a number of medieval Jewish philosophers were also mathematicians and astronomers, the guidance they offer might have a particular resonance with those of us today who are of a less supernaturalist bent. There is a quality of practicality in their writings that transcends centuries and serves as a common sense reminder of what is conducive to the well-being of the individual.

Maimonides as Comfort: The Golden Mean While medieval Jewish philosophy is not monolithic in its approach, nor unified in its agreement about the nature of God, humans, and the nature of the soul, many thinkers in this tradition emphasize the importance of what they termed “the rational faculty” as a means to understanding eternal truths. For Moses Maimonides (1135–1204), also known by the acronym Rambam, the study of natural sciences, mathematics, and metaphysics are important for comprehending creation and God as fully as possible, and fundamental to ensuring the eternality of the soul. That which continues on after death, according to the Rambam, is the individual’s perfected intellect having comprehended the “intelligibles” — eternal and unalterable truths.

The advice that Maimonides and others offer to medieval Jewish communities does not come down to us in a form that we would now normally recognize as nurturing or comforting. Yet Maimonides saw himself as offering prescriptions for that which spiritually ails the individual. These prescriptions are both clinical and holisitic; the remedies themselves are not developed by observing the malady in isolation, but by considering an entire cosmological system when bringing healing to the person. For Maimonides, all that exists is interconnected in what we moderns could rightly regard as a medieval version of a “grand unified theory” of how the One relates to the many. As is well known, this view denied a God closely involved in human affairs, and was thus seen as extremely controversial, in its day and our own. For this reason, Maimonides often disguised his teachings, and often contradicted himself.

For example, a traditional Jewish theological notion is that suffering is a result of diving punishment for misdeeds the sufferer has committed. Maimonides actually seems to articulate the same idea at one point in The Guide:

I, for one, believe that in this lowly world… divine providence watches only over the individuals belonging to the human species, and that in this species alone all the circumstances of the individuals and the good and evil that befall them are consequent upon the desserts. (Trans. by Shlomo Pines)

This statement, prima facie, appears to accord with a traditional Jewish belief that observing the commandments leads one to earn rewards, and disobeying the commandments invites punishment. But if this were the sum of his opinion, Maimonides would hardly merit the renown he achieved as a philosopher. Elsewhere in The Guide, Maimonides offers a different perspective on “providence” that gives additional meaning to the passage above. Maimonides writes:

The greater the proportion which a person has obtained of this intellectual emanation, by reason of his material disposition and his training, the greater must also be the protection given him by providence, if it is true, as I have stated, that providence is dependent upon intellect. (Trans. by Alvin Reines in Maimonides Concepts of Providence and Theodicy).

What does Maimonides mean? One interpretation is that the more we develop our intellectual capacity, the more able we will be to make appropriate choices in life. That is, if we are discerning enough to make good decisions, we will be proportionally rewarded, but if we allow ourselves to go through the world in ignorance, we will likely make bad choices and suffer, or cause others to suffer.

Importantly, a prerequisite to a perfected intellect, a level of cognition at which the individual perceives the world as it is and can also therefore better guard against harm, is a perfected body: “A man should aim to maintain physical health and vigor, in order that his soul may be upright, in a condition to know God. For it is impossible for one to understand sciences and meditate upon them when he is hungry or sick, or when any of his limbs ache” (Trans. by Isadore Twersky).

If the body is destroyed through neglect, or worse through abuse and unregulated pursuit of corporeal pleasures like excesses of food or drink, the mind is unable to function according to its full capacity. The body is the material medium to which the soul and the intellect are connected. If that medium is weakened, the part of us which can become eternal after death and which also helps us improve throughout life is also and consequently undermined. Maimonides therefore recommends a middle way: “We are bidden to walk in the middle paths which are the right and proper ways…” Extremes of emotion, as emphasized in the Mishneh Torah, also can be detrimental to the body, leading it to act in ways which are counterproductive to the ultimate goal of intellectual perfection:

The right way is the mean in each group of dispositions common to humanity; namely, that disposition which is equally distant from the two extremes, not being nearer to the one than to the other. Hence, our ancient sages exhorted us that a person should always evaluate his dispositions and so adjust them that they shall be at the mean between the extremes, and this will secure his physical health. Thus a man should not be choleric, easily moved to anger, nor be like the dead without feeling; but should aim at the happy medium. (Trans. by Isadore Twersky).

The mitzvot, or commandments, themselves were considered by Maimonides to be a corrective, or even cure, for many spiritual maladies. A person who is penurious, for example, benefits from the commandment, or prescription in this case, to leave the gleanings of the field for the poor. This compels the person to act in a way contradictory to an ingrained pernicious disposition, and over time habituates the individual to more moderate forms of behavior, thus benefitting himself and others.

Job, Upright but Suffering
But what of those who, despite making good and moral choices, still experience misfortune and consequently suffer? Maimonides addresses this question through his examination of the case of Job, who was “blameless and upright,” faithful to his God, and yet still experienced the most calamitous misfortunes — the loss of his house, his wealth, his physical well-being, and even his children.

For Maimonides, the answer to Job’s suffering does not lie in some hidden realm of divine knowledge; rather, Maimonides suggests Job errs by subscribing to a mistaken notion of reward and punishment. Upending the conventional religious wisdom Maimonides himself seemingly expressed in that first passage we looked at from The Guide, he demonstrates that moral rectitude does not automatically lead to reward. It is a necessary but not sufficient requirement for a good life.

If moral rectitude does not prevent suffering, what does? According to Professor Alvin Reines:

Maimonides’ point is that ultimately suffering is a state of mind. Hence, the mere fact that someone loses his possessions or undergoes other evils is not necessarily evidence of suffering. If the person continues intellectual contemplation, he will come under … providence and will not suffer regardless of his material circumstances. Hence, only a person who forsakes his intellectual contemplation will suffer, and this is justice… Maimonides thus demonstrates a rational cause and effect between evil and suffering. (Reines, Maimonides’ Concepts of Providence and Theodicy)

Maimonides, as well as other Muslim and Jewish philosophers of the Middle Ages, noted that happiness cannot be contingent on the material and transitory. In their view, prosperity and even family, by virtue of their impermanent nature, are not the places where true and enduring happiness can ultimately be found. In fact, because of their fleeting quality, they often can lead to profound misery. Rather it is transcendent and eternal truths that are the proper focus of one’s attention.

Ultimately, a person may have it within her own capability to reward or punish herself depending on the level to which she chooses to perfect her knowledge. This, according to Maimonides, is a central message of Job, and it is a theme upon which we’re called to reflect. Maimonides in fact understands the name of Job’s home, Uz, as meaning to “reflect” and “meditate.” We are encouraged by Maimonides to meditate and reflect “upon this parable, grasp its meaning and see what the true opinion is.”

Maimonides validates, within a Jewish context, an empowering and naturalistic approach to healing that can accord with practical modern sensibilities. Intelligent choices, knowledge, and properly regulated behavior are key to well-being and long life. But there should be no expectation of conventional reward and suffering. Maimonides also advocates for a form of contemplation in which we might direct our thoughts toward an ultimate perfect simplicity — a single, unchanging, source of existence. By directing our contemplation in these areas, we come to greater understanding and attach our thoughts to eternal principles. In so doing, we can recognize that true happiness exists in the realm of the transcendent. Through this meditation, we can better endure the inevitable privations we experience.

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