Good v Evil

My gentile friend wishes to launch a discussion on good and evil, and so he has asked me to present the Jewish view of Evil.  However, this I cannot do.  With Evil, as with many things, there is no THE Jewish view.  I could present A Jewish view, but will content myself with presenting a Jew’s, more specifically This Jew’s, view of Evil.

Let’s start with the source of Evil.  While there are some Jewish writings which discuss an external, personified source of Evil (i.e. Satan or other fallen angels), “Mainstream” Judaism does hold to this view.  The idea of Satan, Mephistopheles, or some other grand source of Evil is a Christian (and relatively modern) concept.  Christianity has removed Evil as a characteristic of G-d and has attributed its presence in the world to other forces.  This cannot happen in Judaism, for G-d is the entirety of all that exists.  Furthermore, G-d is not an amalgamation of characteristics.  G-d is not made up of all things; G-d is all things.  If this sounds like philosophical hair-splitting, then you are beginning to grasp the difficulty of ever trying to present THE Jewish view of anything!

So, if G-d is the source of all things that exist in the world, then G-d must be the source of Evil.  Not exactly.  It is an oversimplification to say that because evil may be one of the characteristics of G-d, that therefore G-d is evil and does evil things in the world.  It is an ontological impossibility to ever say G-d is one thing: G-d is all things.  And, while it is true that everything in the world exists because all of creation is a reflection of the Creator, does not mean that evil exists solely at G-d’s will.  So how does Evil operate in the world if not at G-d’s will?  Man.

According to Rambam, there are three evils in the world, the source of all three being Man.  The first of these evils comes from our failure to recognize that all which has been brought into being must, naturally, pass away.  “He who thinks that he can have flesh and bones,” Rambam points out, “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” Guide for the Perplexed, pt.III, ch. XII).  This contradiction blinds Man from his place in the natural world.  When natural forces act against him, he blames some external, evil force determined to destroy him, rather than recognizing that life and death are both part of the natural world.

The second class of evil is the evil we inflict on each other.  “These evils are more numerous than those of the first kind,” Rambam tells us, “their causes are numerous and known; they likewise originate in ourselves, though the sufferer himself cannot avert them” (ibid, pt. III, ch. XII).

“The third class of evils,” Rambam declares, “comprises those which everyone causes to himself by his own action. This is the largest class, and is far more numerous than the second class” (ibid, pt. III, ch. XII).  This evil manifests when our desires go beyond what is necessary for life.  When we begin to desire more than we need, we can never be satisfied.  Consequently, in our futile attempt to sate these desires we,

complain of the decrees and judgments of God; they begin to blame the time, and wonder at the want of justice in its changes . . . as if the whole Universe existed exclusively for the purpose of giving pleasure to these low people. The error of the ignorant goes so far as to say that G-d’s power is insufficient, because He has given to this Universe the properties which they imagine cause these great evils, and which do not help all evil-disposed persons to obtain the evil which they seek, and to bring their evil souls to the aim of their desires, though these, as we have shown, are really without limit. (ibid, pt. III, ch. XII)

Therefore, if there is Evil in the world, which I believe there is, we are the cause.  We bring evils upon ourselves when we blame nature for acting according to Natural law, allow people to do evil to others, or blame G-d, life, fate, or the Universe for all that is wrong with our lives.  So, the next time there is a natural disaster or a Newton-like shooting, don’t ask “How could G-d allow this to happen,” ask rather, “How could we allow this happen.”

6 responses to “Good v Evil

  1. I agree with Rambam’s assesment of the origins of evil, and would further state that I
    believe that the idea of evil that appears in Judaism is the dialectical interaction of good and evil. While it would be easy to view good and evil as being in binary opposition, such as in the Zoroastrian tradition, Judaism recognizes that good and evil are not mutually exclusive. This goes further than just asserting evil’s necessity as opposition to good.
    An Aggadic (legendary) story in the Talmud (Yoma 69b) relates an instance of the rabbis
    capturing the Yetzer Har’a (the evil inclination). The rabbis are warned that destroying the Yetzer Har’a would bring about the destruction of the world. (Already we see the idea that evil is necessary). So, instead the rabbis trapped the inclination. Three days later they went out and could not find a single fresh egg in all the land. At this point the rabbis realize that without the Yetzer Har’a there would be no procreation. So here we have a good (both religiously and evolutionarily) that is predicated on an evil inclination, i.e. promiscuity.
    This idea still persisted at the turn of the twentieth century. Rav Abraham Isaac Kook
    remarks that since teshuva is the ultimate action (an idea for a later discussion) any evil that leads one to teshuva is transformed into good (Lights of Penitence, 1978 [published posthumously]). An action can be evil only in so much as we do not engage in teshuva, if we do, then it becomes a kind of good. Evil then can only exist if we allow it to be evil.
    Therefore the questions we should be asking ourselves are not “how could this evil
    happen?” or “why did this happen to me?” but rather “how could I allow this evil to happen?” and “how can I transform this evil into good?” which restores our agency (sometimes rather uncomfortably).

    Liked by 1 person

  2. So, I was doing a word-study for a future article, as I am prone to do… Thoughts? The word “perfect” is misunderstood and misused. Christians tend to have it mean “without flaw” or “without error” or put it into other absolute categories. The Hebrew word (tamim?) does not mean “without flaw” as “perfect” does in English.  The Hebrew is best understood as “complete,” “mature,” or “healthy.” That meaning of mature dominates most use of the equivalent Greek term (telos) in the Second Testament. Something, or someone, can be complete or mature yet not be “without flaw.” The term “perfect” is only “biblical” in English and is problematic since it has a different range of meaning than the biblical words it translates. From the biblical perspective, “perfect” describes something that functions as it was intended to function or of someone who acts appropriately. Considering the previous, how might Christians have misinterpreted/misrepresented the nature of G-d as being perfect within discussions of theodicy. Was G-d ever “perfect” and when did people connect that adjective that does not appear in scripture?

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    • Funny you should mention this. I had started the following post a while ago:
      How do we get to Carnegie Hall?

      We live in a society which places a lot of emphasis on perfection: perfect bodies, perfect jobs, perfect children, perfect lives. From advertising to TV, to movies, we are constantly bombarded with messages (and messengers) telling us we need to be perfect. Even when they reject the current idea of Western beauty, they still us we are “perfect” the way we are. The message is still the pursuit of perfection regardless of the definition. And, what happens we find ourselves falling short of this goal? Anxiety, low self-esteem, and depression,

      For many, what should be a refuge, Faith, only adds to this anxiety. “Perfect” is often translated into “without flaw.”

      What we need is a different definition of “perfect.” I prefer the grammatical definition – completion. This seems like a simple semantic trick, but shifting the definition can have tremendous benefit. Think about it: the goal in life is no longer to be without flaw (a human impossibility), but rather to be complete, whole, one.

      The central tenant of Judaism, The Shema, declares that יי אחד (G-d is One). The Shema does not declare that G-d is without flaw; G-d is one, complete, whole. The idea of completion over perfection is carried over to our biblical heroes. Often criticized for their imperfections, Biblical figures such as Abraham, Jacob, David, and even Moses are accused of being poor role models. What is overlooked is that it is precisely because they are eminently flawed in their humanity that they are the perfect (no pun intended) role models; for they remind us that we are all flawed in some way(s). This is what makes us human.

      We are created in the “image” of G-d. In the Western, neo-platonic thinking, if G-d resides in the realm of the Ideal, and if we are images of that Ideal, we are by definition (and indeed by nature) flawed. Furthermore, we can never be the Ideal. So, we can never achieve perfection.

      If, however, we view G-d not as perfection but as completeness, we can move much closer to that state. When we strive for completeness rather than perfection, we also do one other important thing: we shift our focus from the goal to the process. We acknowledge that achieving completeness is an ongoing human process. It is in this process that we find both our humanity and our divinity. There is a reason we call it “practicing” Judaism.


  3. Exactly! By expanding the understanding of “perfect” one is not placed in the dilema of theodicy of not being able to cite an imperfect G-d. Kushner did as much in his “Why Bad Things Happen to Good People.” Yes…most helpful.

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  4. Thank you for the invitation to join this blog.

    I do not think that “perfection / imperfection” is the biblical-rabbinic way to focus this discussion, nor is it the best way. The rabbis — and I mean of the midrash, the prayerbook, the poetry, Jewish mysticism, etc., not the philosophers — do not know of a systematic, rational way of thinking about life or God. Rather, one deals with life as it is: irregular, not always rational. What, then, is the structure, the framework, for thinking about life and God? It is the human personality.

    The human personality is the most complex model of reality possible; computers are fast, but dumb, lacking is so many human attributes. The Bible and the rabbis use human personality as their structure for seeing the universe. Of course, in their world, personality is present in us BECAUSE it is present in God first. We are created in God’s image, not the other way around. Personality precedes rationality, ontology, and all other categories.

    This gives us “personalist / anthropopathic theology” which is very different from intellectualist / philosophical theology. Take the issue of humor: Does God have a sense of humor? The answer is “yes.” How do we know? Because we have it, and we are created in God’s image. Is having a sense of humor good? Yes; computers don’t have it. Neither do psychopaths. They aren’t human; they are not fully in the image.

    As to evil: We have evil in us, both in the sense of impulsive evil and in the sense of compulsive evil. That means that God, too, must have evil in Godself; otherwise, we wouldn’t have it. Now that may sound heretical to most people and it is certainly contrary to Freud’s view that God is a projection of only the good in us. But, that IS the view of the rabbis — sometimes more clearly expressed, sometimes only implied, and sometimes just denied; but always present. Jewish mysticism says it most clearly. We don’t teach this openly because it is potentially very dangerous, but the teaching is there. And it should not be surprising: impulsive, and even compulsive, behavior is structural to human existence, i.e.,, to the way God created the world. Good and evil are the warp and woof of reality; they are not, as Aristotle and Maimonides claim, absences, or lapses, of good. We may not like this view — and there are deep reasons for that — but we would be better off realizing that God is “imperfect,” i.e., capable of some pretty strange things.

    Hope this is helpful. In “Facing the Abusing God: A Theology of Protest,” I’ve written extensively about the theological issue of evil. In “The Banality of Good and Evil: Moral Lessons from the Shoah and Jewish Tradition,” I’ve dealt with the anthropological issue of evil.

    David Blumenthal

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: My Heart Beats, but I Cannot Feel my Pulse | A Jew and A Gentile walk into a Bar . . . Mitzvah·

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