The Jewish Experience of Suffering
Wisdom House, Oct. 27, 2002
Ronald C. Kiener


            Good morning. First of all, I want to thank you for inviting me here to Wisdom House, and more importantly, I thank you for granting me the exclusive right to simply breeze in here, after you have heard from nearly all your other speakers, to place before you one man’s understanding of the Jewish experience of suffering. Because of the Sabbath religious observances of my faith community, I was unable to be here from the start of this remarkable gathering. Therefore, I thank you for the kindness and tolerance you have afforded me, so that this morning you would hear my words.

            The prospect of this morning has been a very difficult challenge for me. To be quite honest with you, I have experienced a certain amount of intellectual suffering in trying to construct this morning’s presentation. I am not a clergyman, nor do I ever play the role of theologian. Even though I am a professor of Religion in a place called Trinity College, I rarely talk about matters of faith, other than in the dispassionate voice of the cynical academician and historian. There is a reason that I have a secular Ph.D. from an Ivy League university and not a rabbinical ordination. I am dumbfounded when asked about faith, and I have neither the talent nor the capacity to advise other Jews about what they ought and ought not to believe when it comes to the God of Israel. And sadly for them, it is typically in moments of despair and mourning when my poor students might mistakenly come to me to ask their profound and sincere questions about God and suffering. I can recite for them a litany of classical philosophical responses, but I don’t know what to say to alleviate their pain, other than to clumsily empathize with their grief and provide a tissue. So I hope you can understand why this assignment this morning is such a challenge for me, and why I am telling you upfront that I am not up to the task.

            If you were to ask me: what is the Jewish experience of suffering? I would first have to respond this way: the Jewish experience of suffering is ever present, a kind of mathematical constant embedded in the entire history of my people. Of course, there is the ordinary experience of suffering common to the human condition: loss of a loved one, setbacks in making a better life for family and friends, personal tragedies and ironic dénouements. But added to this list of personal tragedies is a Jewish multiplication factor which makes the suffering all the more painful – there is the undeniable fact that wherever Jews have lived throughout their long history, they have been on the receiving end of what some have called “the longest hatred” and what today is called anti-Semitism. It is not that Jews want to suffer; it is rather that Jews have constantly been made to suffer.

            Take today. Or go back 60 years, or go back 100 years, or go back 500 years, or go back a thousand, two thousand, three thousand years – the Jews have been the subject of secular Western hatred, of triumphal Christian loathing, of zealous Islamic distrust, and of pagan Hellenistic revulsion. Even before they were Jews, the biblical Children of Israel were despised by Cannanite and Moabite, by Egyptian and Amalekite. The sum total of this long legacy of hatred has produced an ironic Yiddish aphorism which seems to encapsulate the sense of exhausted acceptance of the Jewish fate: Schverzer sein a Yid, “It is hard to be a Jew.” Indeed, this concatenation of bitter historical suffering at the hands of others has led some to believe that that is all there is to the Jewish experience. Some call it the lachrymose history of the Jews, a sad and tearful litany of persecution and oppression. It is as if Jewish history is nothing more than a history of anti-Semitism.

            When it comes to the experience of suffering, many Jews and Christians believe that the Jews have come to embody the exemplar of suffering and victimization. As professional debunkers, we academic Jewish historians have argued that the lachrymose self-narrative is misleading, if not false. Jews were not always miserable, nor were they always the target of hatred. In particular, the evidence of social mobility accorded to Jews in the cosmopolitan environment of medieval Islam has done much to undermine the lachrymose myth. But I suspect that our professional attempt to recover Jewish history as a tale of achievement and accomplishment has fallen on deaf ears. Jews remain the quintessential victims and the timeless sufferers. It can still be reasonably argued that no other faith community has suffered like the Jews.

There is even a special vocabulary of words, now appropriated by non-Jews, which captures much of the unique Jewish experience of suffering: pogrom, ghetto, Inquisition, expulsion, and Holocaust. Now these terms slip easily off the tongue of many a non-Jew in order to depict the suffering of others – there is the rhetorical Holocaust of the unborn fetus for anti-abortionists; the race-driven and economic-prompted ghettos of urban America; the inhumane forced expulsion of millions of human beings in numerous conflicts from India/Pakistan to Africa to Southern Europe; even the appropriation of the very term anti-Semitism by aggrieved Muslims in the intolerant West. In a global civilization, the uniqueness of Jewish suffering has certainly been diminished. But even as we acknowledge the genocides of Cambodia and Bosnia, the suffering of Palestinians, Sri Lankans, and Irish Catholics, there is something original and primal – note that I do not say unique – in the experience of suffering for the Jews.

            If I am correct that even with a more balanced appreciation of Jewish history, there is still something original and primal about the Jewish experience of suffering, it stands to reason that this faith-people might have something noteworthy to say about all this suffering. And I will go one step further – if the experience of suffering and victimization is original and primal, this Jewish response to suffering will prove to be equally original and primal. At least in the monotheistic faiths, I would argue that it was the original Jewish responses to suffering which exemplifies all subsequent monotheistic responses to suffering.

In other words, whatever the Christian and Islamic responses to suffering that have emerged, their first iteration came in a Jewish voice. Is suffering ultimately redemptive? The Jews were the first to teach so. Is suffering a divine punishment? The Jews had already worked out that trope. Is suffering inexplicable? The Hebrew book of Job was the first to make such a claim. Has God abandoned the sufferer? It was a Jew who first made that radical claim, in asserting that God occasionally hides his Face from His people. In the shadow of unbearable suffering, is it the case that God is dead, or that there is no divine justice? A renegade Jewish sage reached such a despondent conclusion 1850 years ago, when he proclaimed: leyt din ve-leyt dayyan, “There is no divine Judge, and there is no divine judgment.”

            Let me give one clear example from the shared Scriptural repository of Jews and Christians, what Jews call the TaNaKh and Christians call the Old Testament. The ancient prophet Second Isaiah (who lived in the 6th c. bce), preached of an enigmatic metaphor in the 53rd chapter of the Isaiah anthology:


Who can believe our report? And upon whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed? For he has grown forth as a sapling, and as a tree trunk out of arid ground; he had no form nor beauty, that we should look upon him: no charm, that we should delight in him. He was despised, and shunned by men, a man of suffering, and acquainted with disease, and as one who hid his face from us: he was despised, and we held him of no account. Surely our diseases he did bear, and our pains he carried; whereas we did accounted him plagued, smitten and afflicted by God. But he was wounded because of our transgressions; he was crushed because of our iniquities: he bore the chastisement that made us whole, and by his bruises we were healed. We all went astray like sheep, each going his own way; and the LORD visited upon him the guilt of us all. He was maltreated, yet he was submissive, He did not open his mouth; as a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and as a sheep that before her shearers is dumb, He did not open his mouth. By oppression and judgment he was taken away, and with his generation who did reason? for he was cut off from the land of the living, for the transgression of my people to whom the punishment was due. And his grave was set among the wicked, and with the rich his tomb; although he had done no violence, neither was any deceit in his mouth. Yet it pleased the LORD to crush him by disease; to see if his soul would offer itself in restitution, that he might see his seed, prolong his days, and that the purpose of the LORD might prosper by his hand: Of the anguish of his soul he shall see to the full, even My servant, who by his knowledge did justify the Righteous One to the many, and their iniquities he did bear. Therefore I will give him the many as a portion, and he shall receive the multitude as his spoil; For he exposed himself to death, and was numbered among the sinners; yet he bore the guilt of many, and made intercession for sinners.


There isn’t a person in this room who doesn’t recognize this as the passage of the Suffering Servant. In the Christian hermeneutical tradition, from the 2nd century forward, the Suffering Servant was understood a blessed foretelling of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion and his salvational suffering. This idea, already manifest in the letters of Paul the Apostle, became a cornerstone of Christian thought. In fact, this passage has long been used by supersessionists as proof that the Old Testament explicitly predicts the events of the New. I myself have been subjected to the assured invocation of this passage by those seeking to give witness of Christ to Jews. Even young collegiate Jews upon hearing this passage for the first time are hard-pressed to think of it otherwise. The medieval rabbis were so wary of this passage that while most of the chapters preceding and following chapter 53 are used in the weekly lectionary in the synagogue, you will conspicuously not find Isaiah chapter 53 anywhere thusly employed.

            Yet when we ask of the Jewish religious tradition, who is this suffering Servant of which Second Isaiah speaks? The answer is two-fold – first, it is the faith-people Israel who suffers for the sake of each other and for the glory of God. The suffering servants are the men and women, the hapless leaders and the pious followers, the Judenrate and the ghetto dwellers, the spoiled prince Moses and the slaves of Goshen – every one who is corporately and individually a Jew.

But a second answer to the question: who is the suffering Servant? is also found, even in pre-Christian Judaism: he is the suffering Messiah, yet to arrive. No wonder the early Jewish-Christians were drawn to the poetry of Isaiah chapter 53. Here was a thoroughly Jewish concept, the concept that suffering brings healing and salvation, what the Rabbis of 2000 years ago called yissurin shel ahavah, “afflictions of love.”  Combine this with a pre-Christian Jewish notion of a Messiah who suffers, and one can readily observe that this now-classic and supposedly distinctive Christian teaching has plenty of Jewish antecedents.

            Let me try another analogue to indicate what I am trying to contend. I often shock Jewish audiences by equating the suffering theology of Shi’ite Islam to the Jewish theology of election and national suffering. Obviously, in this age of ours, that comparison strikes most people as rather bizarre. After all, before Usama bin Laden came along, the most vilified sub-group of the Islamic world in Western eyes was the zealous, fanatical Shi’ites. The Shi’ites included the suicide bombers of Hizbollah (who killed 241 Marines in Beirut in 1983), and the turbaned boogeyman known as the Ayatollah Khomeini, who created a fiercely anti-American theocracy and railed against the “Great Satan.” So when I call the Shi’ites the Jews of Islam, I often get strange looks.

            But think about it for a moment. The ethos of Shi’ite Islam is that of suffering and pious martyrdom. The suffering comes from the conviction that Allah has dealt the partisans of `Ali, the most excellent of Muslims, a crushing series of unfathomable and unjust setbacks. Shi’a Islam is rooted in a sense of divine mission for the community of believers under the sanctified leadership of `Ali and his descendants; and yet at every turn, at every intersection in Islamic history, the Shi’ites have been murdered, poisoned, tortured, and persecuted by their enemies. They see themselves as both chosen to bring divine justice to this corrupt and oppressive world, and as tragic victims of the cunning of history. How easy is it now to see that the Jewish doctrine of divine election, and the Jewish accommodation to a state of ongoing suffering in a presently unjust world, is repeated step-for-step in the esoteric doctrines of Shi’ite Islam. To paraphrase the aphorism: “Schverzer sein a Shi’ite.

            So the Jewish experience of suffering is in fact the monotheist experience of suffering. And not even the unspeakable and incommensurate horror of the Shoah, as Jews call the Holocaust, has moved the Jews away from the answers given in 586 bce, when the First Temple was destroyed; or 70 ce, when the Second Temple was laid waste; or 1096, when Crusaders marauded through central Germany and wiped out whole communities of Jews; or 1492, when the Golden Age of Spain came to an end with Expulsion, after a bitter century of Inquisition; or 1649, when 200,000 Jews were murdered in the Ukraine by Cossack murderers. The horrifying murder of a million children, the methodical and efficient liquidation of 80% of Eastern European Jewry in just under 4 years as the civilized world looked on – has any of this caused a crisis in Jewish faith? Is this suffering so overwhelming that all the venerable answers of the past have been rendered meaningless? Since I am not a theologian, I won’t even try to answer these questions. I can report that in the struggling collective genius of contemporary Jewish theology, be it in the thought of Emil Fackenheim, or Martin Buber, or Richard Rubenstein, I have found nothing new. Cast in new garb, be it the garb of German idealism for Fackenheim, or continental existentialism for Buber, or Freudian naturalism for Rubenstein, the Jewish experience of suffering is still as it always was. Certainly, the sheer numbers of the Shoah, the new form of hatred it fed, the unprecedented cruelty of it, leave an indelible mark. Some Jews lost their faith, some Jews found their faith, but most surviving Jews worldwide who live in the shadow of the Holocaust keep plodding on, scarred but still hopeful.

            If there is anything new in the Jewish experience of suffering, it is the emergence out of the ashes of the Shoah of a new Jewish commonwealth, set on breaking the old algorithm of passive acceptance of the perennial Jewish fate. Expressed in the Jewish prayer rite, the most common form of this passive acquiescence to suffering has been the mantra: mipney chata’eynu gillinu me-artzeynu, “Because of our sins we have been exiled from our land.” Suffering is humiliating exile and physical alienation; for Jewish mystics, suffering is not only the drudgery of physical exile from the Holy Land, but alienation from God’s divine presence. It should come as no surprise then that for many contemporary Jewish thinkers, the return of the Jews to the land of Israel is a kind of cosmic reparation for the decimation of the Shoah.

Monotheistic theology, which the Jews originated, tries to justify God in the face of injustice and suffering. The nationalist movement of Zionism sought to take the matter out of God’s purview. Inadvertently, the defiant new Jewish response to suffering – the creation of a modern nation-state for a faith-people – has created a new dynamic with which Jews are singularly unfamiliar. Jews have rarely before been the perpetrators, however unintentionally, of suffering.  The Jews have been only the unending accumulators of suffering.  For the first time in over 2000 years, some Jews – in the name of security, in the name of self-survival – have reluctantly become the dispensers of suffering to others. It is a role more suited to the imperial religions of Christianity and Islam, which have functioned in the political realm for centuries. The wielding of political power is a new experience for Jews. There is very little in the Jewish religious tradition which can assist and direct the new Jewish politicians and generals of Israel. Having learned from the Jews how monotheists cope with suffering, maybe the 2 latter-day faiths, Islam and Christianity, which each have been the cause of enormous suffering for others, can now speak to the Jews on a level playing field, as we all have sadly become both dispensers and victims of suffering.