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Does Evil Exist?

01/31/2011 11:34:10 AM


Rabbi George Gittleman

I just returned from an IJS (Institute for Jewish Spirituality) retreat on the Brandeis-Bardin Campus of the American Jewish University in Los Angeles. As an alumnus of the institute, I have access to two retreats every year. The retreats are a rich mix of prayer, meditation, study and small group discussion. The focus this year was the challenging subject of “evil”, its place in Jewish Tradition, as well as in our own experience. The exceptional scholar of Jewish Mysticism, Melila Helner-Eshed, was our teacher and she brought with her readings from the Zohar, the central piece of the Jewish mystical cannon.

Judaism does not speak with one voice when it comes to “evil”,or most theological concepts. Here is a very brief and far from exhaustive outline of Jewish approaches to “evil” over time:
The Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) has two main views:

  1. Evil is a part of the world, co-existent with Creation (note the tohu v’ vohu in the first creation myth in Genesis, the evil that flourishes before The Flood, etc.).
  2. God is subsumed under everything including “evil”. (Note: Isaiah, chapter 47; “I create light and dark, good and evil…”)

The Rabbis of the Talmud offer a number of views, the most prominent being the concept of the yetzer rah and the yetzer tov. This view suggests that we are born a-moral, a tabla rasa, but with two inclinations: one for the good. the yetzer tov; and one for the bad or evil, the yetzer rah. The goal of life is to have our “good inclination” rule over or control our “bad/evil inclination”. Seems simple enough but in fact, the translation is misleading because, as the Rabbis note, without the “bad/evil inclination”, no babies would be born, no business would be built, in essence, nothing would happen. Thus, the “bad”or“evil” inclination is really more like an energy source (think sexuality or the drive to compete) which, uncontrolled can lead to bad/immoral/”evil” behavior.

The Middle Ages saw a turn toward Greek thought and the rise of the Jewish philosophic traditions. The most prominent rabbi of that time was Maimonides and he tends to down play evil suggesting that most evils are either a product of our material nature (anything that comes in and out of “Being” must by definition be subject to injury, disease, decay, and death), or of what we do to ourselves and to each other among other things, idolatry (making something of ultimate concern that is not of ultimate value), or a lack of wisdom.

But what about the mystical canon of Judaism? What does it have to say? This is where Melila’s teaching was so helpful. Jewish mysticism flowered at the end of the Middle Ages in part in reaction to rational, philosophic approaches of the Middle Ages. For the mystics of the Zohar, evil was a real and constant force in creation. Melila joked that if a child of a mystic from 16th Castile, Spain ran to her father complaining of dragons under the bed, he would be most concerned and interested, wondering what they want, what they need and how to persuade them to go away! Not only is the evil and demonic real, to live life fully one must engage,even delve, into “the dark side”, know it intimately enough to be able to work with it, and possibly transform it into something good.

There were two conceptions of evil from the Zohar that I found particularly compelling. One was the idea that evil is the result of imbalance in the universe between din (judgment) and hessed (loving kindness). The other was more image than concept – “The world is balanced on the fin of the Leviathan…”, the Leviathan being one of a number of symbols for the malevolent forces in creation….

What do I believe about the existence of evil? My rational brain sides with Maimonides; most things that we call “evil” are human in origin; we’ve brought them upon ourselves. That is to say that I generally do not think there are malevolent forces lurking in creation that can posses, take over or influence humanity. I am also very concerned about the binary affect the use of the word has on any discourse. As Jean Paul Sartre taught in his seminal work, Anti-Semite and Jew, the ability to label the “other” as categorically bad (evil) automatically ascribes “goodness” to you. However, my gut feels differently; some things, actions, people do on a gut level seem evil to me and at times I really wonder about whether evil exists as a force to be reckoned with in the universe.

In truth, “evil” for me is a conceptual work in progress; I struggle like most to come to terms with “the horror” of reality sometimes. One comforting Jewish approach is that of Hassidism which, in general, believes that nothing is completely devoid of the holy and thus the chance for redemption exists in almost any situation. Personally, that approach gives me courage to face my own shadow while inspiring me to believe and live for the promise of the future even in the darkest of times.

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