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    Evil in Man: The Jewish Point of View

    Paper delivered by Rabbi Raymond Apple
    Senior Rabbi of the Great Synagogue, Sydney
    At the Fourth Australasian Pacific Forensic Sciences Congress
    August 1982
    (Also published in the Australian Journal of Forensic Sciences, Vol. 15, Issue 3, March 1983, pp. 125–132.)

    australian journal forensic sciencesThere is a great deal that Judaism has to say on the subject to which this paper addresses itself. There is however one major problem of methodology. Jewish theology is not tightly organised or systematically presented. It accommodates widely divergent attitudes and assertions; all are Jewish, and none is automatically authoritative. Yet it is still possible to speak of the Jewish point of view in terms of recurring value concepts which have shown themselves as representative of mainstream rabbinic thinking. Thus the writer or speaker whose task it is to present the view of Judaism finds himself faced with a whole range of statements and must use an educated instinct to discriminate between that which is typical and that which is less typical of the tradition. [1]

    What then is the typical Jewish view of evil in man?

    Judaism cannot entirely endorse the view that evil is the fault of one’s circumstances, though it agrees that Divine judgment takes account of the individual sinner and his special situation. [2] It insists on the reality of sin and man’s large measure of responsibility for it. It believes that human beings may not attempt to shift in the direction of external circumstances the blame for their own failures.

    A seminal passage in the Talmud relates the story of Eleazar Ben Durdaya, who had lived a life of debauchery. When he repudiated his former ways he proceeded to blame the elements and the climate and the environment for his misdeeds. None would accept his accusations, and finally he had to admit, “The matter then depends on me alone!” Upon which, Rabbi Judah the Prince, spiritual leader of that generation, declared, “Some take many years to earn eternal life, but some acquire immortality in one hour!” The implication of Rabbi Judah’s words is that a person who blames himself and not the environment or other external forces has, in a flash of insight, discovered a fundamental truth. [3]

    Evil, then, arises from within the human being, from the evil inclination or yetzer hara. The term derives from two passages in Genesis: “Every imagination (yetzer) of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” [4] and “The imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth”. [5] Both passages will be examined later in this paper in more detail.

    According to the Talmud, the evil inclination is known by several names; in Genesis it is called evil, in Psalms unclean, in Proverbs a fiend, in Isaiah a stumbling block, in Joel a hidden object in the heart of man. [6] Together with the yetzer hara, man also has a good inclination, the yetzer hatov; there is ongoing tension between them, a veritable “civil war in the breast”.[7]

    Both come from God. Rejecting the dualistic theory which believes in two antagonistic powers, the god of light and goodness and the god of darkness and evil, Judaism quotes the words of Isaiah:

    “I form the light, and create darkness;
    I make peace, and create evil;
    I am the Lord, that doeth all these things.” [8]

    Both good and evil inclinations are logically necessary if man is to have free will. (Despite the many difficulties of the doctrine, Judaism maintains that man has moral freedom; the Biblical formulation of the belief clearly states, “Behold, I set before you this day a blessing and a curse” [9]). There is no way in which man can have free will unless the Creator provides the two options. The creation of evil is not therefore an act of Divine savagery or mischief, though in the light of events God is stated by the rabbis as sometimes having regretted what He had done. [10] The logical necessity of the existence of evil is described by Louis Jacobs in these words:

    “We can obtain some glimmer of understanding concerning why God allows man to do evil, for only by being free to choose evil can he be free to choose good. If, for example, every time a man tried to stab his fellow the knife became blunt; every time he fired a revolver to harm another the weapon misfired; every time he put his hand into his neighbour’s pocket to steal he could not withdraw it; every time he endeavoured to be cruel to others his designs were miraculously frustrated; then the sheer impossibility of committing evil actions would inevitably propel men in the direction of the good and there would be little or no merit in doing good… Conceivably, God could have created men without freedom of choice but, in the religious view, it is this freedom which is man’s pride and glory, without which he cannot be God-like. God, evidently, does not wish to be served by automata but by freely responding creatures who can reach out for His goodness by the free action of their wills.” [11]

    From time immemorial, men’s mind have been baffled by the problem of pain: summed up in Judaism by statements like, “There is death without sin, and suffering without transgression” [12] and “There is a righteous man who suffers and a wicked man who prospers”. [13] For Jews the question has assumed particular poignancy after the twentieth-century Holocaust with its indignant challenge, “Where was God at Auschwitz?” The fact that God has given man free will and thus taken the risk that he will choose evil suggests that the correct question should perhaps be, “Where was man at Auschwitz?” [14] Yet, asks one contemporary writer, “What role does God play here? Is His permissiveness morally justifiable? If the monumental catastrophe belongs to man, what relevance does God have if He washed His hands of the whole matter and sets himself apart as a spectator?” [15] It is this type of question which much of the Holocaust literature in recent decades has sought to handle. [16]

    Returning to the question of the evil inclination as against the good, we must now consider which of the two inclinations is regarded by Judaism as the stronger; in other words, does Judaism believe that man has a greater predisposition towards evil or towards good? Two diametrically opposed theories, those of Original Sin and Original Virtue (the latter term apparently coined early this century by Solomon Levy [17]), provide a convenient “parallelism of opposition”. [18]

    In Jewish thinking there is no normative doctrine of Original Sin, deriving from the Genesis narrative of Adam’s transgression interpreted as causing his descendants to be morally tainted. There are odd folkloristic suggestions of this kind in Jewish literature, and resentment against Adam for what he did, [19] but no doctrinal significance is attached thereto. The Bible does not refer to Adam’s lapse anywhere else, and the rabbinic tradition does not teach that man’s moral constitution was changed by reason of Adam’s actions. Indeed, Genesis itself emphasises that man is a free moral agent. God says to Adam’s son Cain: “If you do well, you will be exalted; but if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door: its desire is for you, but you can master it!” [20]

    As George Foot Moore puts it,

    “Jewish imagination, increasingly in later times, invested Adam before the fall with many extraordinary physical qualities – lofty stature, radiant skin, and the like – but he was not conceived as being mentally and morally otherwise constituted than his posterity. That he possessed free will in another sense than they, or that in his nature as it came from the hand of God with its integerrimae vires there were no desires that could incline his uncorrupted good will to disobedience – to such speculations, which have been rife in the Christian theology of the West since Augustine, there is no parallel in Judaism. Correspondingly, there is no notion that the original constitution of Adam underwent any change in consequence of the fall, so that he transmitted to his descendants a vitiated nature in which the appetites and passions necessarily prevail over reason and virtue, while the will to good is enfeebled or wholly impotent.” [21]

    Judaism has thus no doctrine that man after Adam’s time is innately predisposed to evil, nor does it believe that Adam himself – as the prototype of mankind – had an inherently evil nature.

    Two Biblical verses already briefly referred to are often quoted as proving the contrary. Upon examination neither verse requires any such interpretation. The first refers to the period before the Flood, when “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” [22] This is not a statement of dogma, but an historical observation on the sinful tendencies of one particular generation.

    The second verse deals with the period after the Flood when the “The Lord said in His heart: ‘I will not again curse the ground any more for man’s sake; for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth’.” [23] This is not a statement of dogma either but a comment that mine’urav, because of man’s youth – that is, his moral immaturity – he is prone to sin. The phrase usually translated “from his youth” does not have to mean “from his inception”; the particle rendered “from” can also denote “because of”, as in Exodus where the Israelites sighed “from – i.e. because of – their enslavement”. [24]

    There is no Original Sin in Judaism. Nor is there Original Virtue, at least in the unqualified sense of Solomon Levy’s phrase; he himself admits it is a good phrase but not to be taken completely literally. [25] None of the Biblical heroes is depicted as perfect; and several times the Scriptures affirm that “there is no righteous man on earth who doeth only good and never sins”. [26] Men do sin, and sin is too much a reality to be brushed aside. However, there is a fundamentally optimistic streak in Judaism which proclaims that because man is a rational being he knows that following the good inclination is better for him than it is to succumb to the yetzer hara; and because he recognises that God created him he has a greater yearning towards the Creator than away from Him.

    The naturalness of the urge to do good is illustrated in Moses Maimonides’ Code, in the section dealing with the laws of divorce. Jewish divorce, like marriage, requires religious procedures over and above any prescribed by the state. A husband who divorces his wife must act freely and without constraint. But what happens if the court determines that the woman is entitled to a divorce and he refuses to cooperate? “They compel him,” says the law, “until he says, ‘I agree!’” But what is the value of this agreement under apparent duress? Maimonides explains that it does not invalidate the cooperation. “Where a person was induced by his evil inclination to disregard a positive command or to commit a transgression, and he was beaten until he performed the deed he was obligated to perform or abstained from the deed forbidden to him, he cannot be considered as having acted under duress.” [27] To do the right thing thus corresponds with the true nature of a human being, from which he was deflected by temporary irresponsibility. The beating administered to him brings him back to his senses, so to speak, and his true nature can assert itself again.

    The naturalness of doing good is reinforced by the apparently paradoxical fact that when a person chooses to do evil, he does so not because it is evil but because he perceives it as good. We might question his judgment, regard him as having a warped view of what is good, and reject his probably subjective criteria of goodness – but what he believes is nonetheless that what he is doing is good in some sense.

    The Jewish view clearly prefers and advocates the choice of the good inclination. At the same time it sees a value in the evil inclination, and not only in the sense referred to earlier of the logical necessity of an evil option in a world in which man has the privilege of free will. It sees the evil inclination as having an essential role to play in the world. According to Talmudic legend, Ezra and his colleagues sought to kill the yetzer hara. It warned them that if they succeeded, “the world would go down”. So instead of killing it, they curbed its power by blinding its eyes. [28]

    Rabbinic thinking identifies the evil inclination with the passions: “Were it not for the evil inclination a man would not build a house for himself or get married; he would neither beget children, nor ply a trade or pursue a profession.” [29] Eliezer Berkovits comments:

    “The evil inclination is here recognised as a necessary ingredient of life itself, the Jewish concept of the elan vital, the individual’s desire to live and survive. It is the affirmation of one’s personal existence and the drive for self-fulfilment. It is not evil in itself, but only the potential cause of evil. The vital forces of individual existence which maintain man in the world are the same which may carry a man against the world.” [30]

    Hence the yetzer hara represents impulses natural to man and not in themselves evil. They are evil only when misused or out of control. Commenting on the command, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart,” [31] Jewish teachers stress that a person should serve God with both impulses of his heart, the good and the evil. [32]

    Only the rare super-human saintly being can do without an active yetzer hara, say some of the pietistic Chassidim who declare that the tzaddik gamur, the perfectly righteous man, has no evil inclination because he has killed it by his fasting. [33] But men in general are not angels and indeed neither are the righteous. “As long as the tzaddikim live, they struggle with their yetzer. When they die, they are at rest.” [34]

    The evil inclination is not to be deified nor is it to be denied. It is to be disciplined and directed. Man attempts this in three main ways. The first is the use of the yetzer hatov, the good inclination. Interestingly, the term is used very frequently but not defined very elaborately. It is certainly represented by the conscience; but this should not be taken to imply that it is spiritual as against the supposedly sinful physical frame of a human being. Judaism allows no dichotomy between the spirit and the flesh. “Sin,” says George Foot Moore, “however it may be analysed, is the sin of the man. Not of either half of his nature.” [35] The point is made in a parable told by the rabbis but paralleled in the literatures of other peoples:

    “A human king had a fine park in which were fine new fruits, and he stationed in it two keepers, one lame and the other blind. The lame man said to the blind man, ‘Fine early fruits I see in the park; let me mount you and we will get them and eat them.’ So the lame man rode on the back of the blind man and hey got the fruits and at them. After a while the owner of the park came and said to them, ‘Where are the fine early fruits?’ The lame man said, “Have I then any legs to get to them?’ The blind man said to him, ‘Have I then any legs to see?’ What did he do? He made the lame man mount on the back of the blind man and judged them together. So God will bring the soul and inject it into the body and judge them together.” [36]

    The second means of controlling the yetzer hara is the study and practice of God’s word in the Torah; the term Torah in the narrower sense denotes the Five Books of Moses, but it is usually understood as the whole corpus of traditional religious teaching. Job is said to have wondered why God did not create all men righteous; Eliphaz answered that the same God who created the evil inclination also created the Torah as a remedy. [37] According to another passage, “If you are met by the hideous one, drag him to the house of study. If he is stone he will crumble; if he is iron he will melt.” [38]

    The third way to handle the evil inclination is Divine assistance. “Daily man’s evil inclination threatens to overwhelm and destroy him. Were it not for God’s help, man would not be able to stand up to it.” [39] One who makes an effort to control the yetzer discovers that God is strengthening his hand; the verse in Malachi is quoted, “Return unto Me, and I will return unto you,” [40] with the interpretation that a person who sets out to return to God will find God setting out to meet him.

    It is clear from what has been said that the evil inclination is frequently personified in rabbinic literature as an actual being capable, for instance, of seducing a human being, and able to be blinded or killed. The question must therefore be asked, is this mere poetic imagery or is evil understood by Judaism as being a reality? The question has been debated throughout the history of philosophy. What is the nature of evil – is it an independent reality or merely the absence of the good?

    The Jewish philosophic tradition generally takes a different approach to that of the mystical tradition enshrined in the Zohar. The classical Jewish philosophers tended towards a Neo-Platonist doctrine; to Maimonides, for example, evil as such was non-existent; what appears to be evil is merely the absence of good, just as darkness is the absence of light, sickness the absence of health, and poverty the absence of riches. [41]

    The contrasting mystical approach is summed up by Gershom Scholem:

    “The fact of the existence of evil in the world is the main touchstone of this difference between the philosophic and the Kabbalistic outlook. On the whole, the philosophers of Judaism treat the existence of evil as something meaningless in itself. Some of them have shown themselves only too proud of this negation of evil as one of the fundamentals of what they call rational Judaism. Hermann Cohen has said with great clarity and much conviction: ‘Evil is non-existent. It is nothing but a concept derived from the concept of freedom. A power of evil exists only in myth.’ One may doubt the philosophical truth of this statement, but assuming its truth it is obvious that something can be said for ‘myth’ in its struggle with ‘philosophy’. To most Kabbalists, as true soul-bearers of the world of myth, the existence of evil is, at any rate, one of the most pressing problems, and one which keeps them continuously occupied with attempts to solve it. They have a strong sense of the reality of evil and the dark horror that is about everything living. They do not, like the philosophers, seek to evade its existence with the aid of a convenient formula; rather do they try to penetrate into its depth.” [42]

    The Kabbalah sees evil as an independent manifestation called the sitra achra, or “other side”, the domain of dark emanations and demonic powers with a hierarchy of aspects. Within the Kabbalah there is also a suggestion that evil is an entity which is not in its rightful place: “Every act of God, when it is in the place accorded to it at creation, is good; but if it turns and leaves its place it is evil.” [43]

    A modern Jewish thinker – admittedly not entirely approved of within Judaism – who seems to have taken up something of an intermediate position is Martin Buber. To him, good and evil are usually thought of as “two structurally similar qualities situated at opposite poles.” But this is because they are treated as ethical abstractions, rather than dissimilar states of reality. Good and evil are fundamentally dissimilar. “Good” is the movement in the direction of God and conscience; “evil” is the aimless whirl of human potentialities where everything goes awry. The evil inclination is identical with passion, “that is, the power peculiar to man, without which he can neither beget nor bring forth, but which, left to itself, remains without direction and leads astray.” [44]

    But there are two stages in evil. The first is a lack of direction, lack of relationship, indecision. The second is the actual decision to evil, bringing evil to a “radical” stage where it possesses a substantial quality. This does not mean that evil is necessarily independent or absolute or that it is ultimately unredeemable, but it has crystallised into a settled opposition by the individual to becoming that which he is meant to become. [45] Writing on Buber’s view of evil, Maurice Friedman speaks of “its concrete base in human existence which makes understandable such extreme phenomena as Hitler and the Nazis without resorting to the dogma of original sin or agreeing with the assertion of Jean-Paul Sartre that the events of recent years make it necessary to recognise evil as absolute and unredeemable.” [46]

    1. The nature of rabbinic thinking is investigated, in truly seminal fashion by Max Kadushin in works such as Organic Thinking: A Study in Rabbinic Thought, 1938, and The Rabbinic Mind, 3rd ed., 1972.
    2. Yoma 36b, etc.
    3. AZ 17a.
    4. Gen 6:5.
    5. Gen. 8:21.
    6. Sukkah 52a.
    7. Crane Brinton, A History of Western Morals, 1959, pp.169, 299.
    8. Isa. 45:7.
    9. Deut. 11:26, 30:19.
    10. Sukkah 52b; J. Taanit 66b.
    11. Louis Jacobs, We Have Reason to Believe, 1957, pp.49-50.
    12. Shab. 55b.
    13. Ber. 7a.
    14. Cf. Eliezer Berkovits, Faith After the Holocaust, 1973.
    15. Harold M Schulweis, “Suffering and Evil”, in AE Millgram (ed.), Great Jewish Ideas, 1964, p.217.
    16. Cf. Steven T Katz, Jewish Philosophers, 1975, part IV.
    17. Solomon Levy, Original Virtue and Other Short Studies, 1907.
    18. Ibid., p.2.
    19. George Foot Moore, Judaism in the First Centuries of the Christian Era, vol. 1, 1927, part III, chapter 3.
    20. Gen. 4:7.
    21. Moore, op.cit., p.479.
    22. Gen. 6:5.
    23. Gen. 8:21.
    24. Ex. 2:3; cf. Francis Brown, SR Driver and CA Briggs, A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament, 1957, pp.579-80, s.v. min, secs. (e), (f); Robert Gordis, A Faith for Moderns, rev. ed., 1971, pp.197-8.
    25. Levy, op. cit.
    26. I Kings 8:46; II Chron. 6:36; Eccl. 7:20.
    27. Moses Maimonides, Laws of Divorce, 2:19.
    28. Yoma 69b.
    29. Gen. R. 9:9.
    30. Eliezer Berkovits, “When Man Fails God”, in Millgram, op. cit., p.187.
    31. Deut. 6:5.
    32. Sifre Deut. 6:5.
    33. Shneur Zalman of Liady, Likkutei Amarim: Tanya, “Sefer Shel Benonim”, chap. 1.
    34. Gen. R. 9:7.
    35. Moore, op. cit., pp.486-7.
    36. Ibid., pp.487-8; Sanh. 91a-b.
    37. BB 16a.
    38. Kidd. 30b.
    39. Ibid.
    40. Mal. 3:7.
    41. Moses Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed, III:10.
    42. Gershom Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, 1954, pp.35-6.
    43. Gershom Scholem, Kabbalah, 1974, pp.122-28.
    44. Maurice S Friedman, “Martin Buber’s New View of Evil”, in R Gordis and RB Waxman (eds.), Faith and Reason: Essays in Judaism, 1973, pp.178-85.
    45. Ibid., p.246.
    46. Ibid.

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