Tuesday, July 24, 2007


The ninth of Av always brings my mind to the problem of evil. How can God countenance evil? More importantly, how can evil even exist? God is, after all, the supreme good; how can anything but good emanate from Him?

This question has plagued philosophers throughout the ages. It has led many to deny God's absolute goodness, and even to question His existence. Let us begin a cursory review of some Jewish responses to the problem of evil*. This is a work in progress, and any suggestions or corrections are welcome.

The Ra'avad (R Avraham Ibn David) writes in Emunah Ramah that evil comes from matter. The spiritual abstraction that spawned the world (God and the spark of truth that is the Torah) is perfectly good. However, when they become realized in creation, in physical matter, they immediately lose aspects of their goodness. In the transition to physical creation, elements of good are lost, and to the extent that something is physical, it contains evil. Evil is essentially the shadow of the material upon the landscape that was illuminated by God. Thus, when God created matter, he, in effect created evil. However, this evil is more negative existence than actual creation. Ra'avad ends by saying that, taken in context of the universe, evil is really good, only disguised.

This last point is interestingly echoed in the poetic writings of Augustine. He states that we consider some things evil because 'they are at variance with other things.' Ultimately, God should be praised for everything, even things we perceive to be bad, because they all contribute to a harmonious whole. This view does away with the work of theodicy by denying the essential existence of evil. This is hard to take, especially in light of my previous post. While it may be true, it fundamentally takes away our right to examine the world we live in critically.

The Kuzari also does this. He reminds us that all God does is good, and wryly points out that human ability to understand the workings of the world are surely at the bottom of the scale of goodness in this world. Evil and good are rewarded and punished most truly in the realm of the spirit world, that waiting room to the world to come. Thus, we are enjoined to complete our work in this world, and allow the problem of evil to be solved by He who allowed it to (seem to) exist.

Rambam agrees that evil is rooted in matter. The human soul is completely good. Evil is a function of the marriage of matter and spirit. However, the closer Mankind gets to wisdom and study, and the further Humanity moves from passion and emotion, the less will matter hold sway, and the less will this accidental evil presist.

Kabbalistic writings agree with the Kuzarian premise that all activity is ultimately good. Evil is punishment for evil in deed and thought. The concept of the Gilgul, or reincarnation is introduced to solve the problems stemming from the suffering of obvious innocents, such as children. Souls are cast into new lives that receive punishment for past lives' offenses.

The view I find most satisfying (perhaps because I thought of it before researching the subject) is R Sa'adia's. He states (Emunoth V'deoth 2) that evil is simply a product of Man not fulfilling God's will. When humans go against the divine right or do not fulfill it completely, they by negation commit evil. Of course, these results of human activity may be to punish or teach, but they are products of our actions. God has given Man the free will to go against His rule, but ultimately, He is in control of the world's destiny, and evil will be punished. The suffering of the good will also not be in vain.

This may be best left for another post, but I find it particularly interesting to consider the talmudic dictum, 'he who is merciful to the wicked will end up wicked to the merciful'. It is precisely when we veer from divine morality, and attempt to be more moral than God towards enemies of His Kingdom, that we sow the seeds of evil towards those who cling to His ways. It is not always clear how, but the ripple effect is always there. And so, that profoundly Jewish essence of mercy, when mis-applied, will lead to the most perverted and warped injustice against those who demonstrate that very trait of loving-kindness.

* I found an article at JewishEncyclopedia.com helpful in sourcing some of the following ideas. Also, Rabbi Carmy has a book relating to suffering that I hope will shed more light on this topic.