Bookstore Glossary Library Links News Publications Timeline Virtual Israel Experience
Anti-Semitism Biography History Holocaust Israel Israel Education Myths & Facts Politics Religion Travel US & Israel Vital Stats Women
donate subscribe Contact About Home


DUALISM, the religious or philosophical doctrine which holds that reality consists, or is the outcome, of two ultimate principles which cannot be reduced to one more ultimate first cause. Dualistic systems have appeared in philosophical (metaphysical) as well as moral forms, both of which have exerted considerable influence on the history of religions, including the history of Judaism.

Philosophical Dualism

In the history of Western thought, philosophical dualism goes back to *Platonism and *neoplatonism which developed and spread the idea of an opposition between spirit and matter, spirit being the higher, purer, and eternal principle, whereas matter was the lower and imperfect form of being, subject to change and corruption. Applied to the understanding of the nature of man, this meant that man was composed of a lower, material part (the body), and a higher, spiritual part (the soul). This dualism could, and not infrequently did, lead to a contempt for the body and for "this world" in general, and encouraged a moral outlook which held *asceticism (or, in its more extreme forms, total renunciation of the world) to be the way by which the soul could liberate itself from the hold of the body and, purifying itself of the bodily passions, render itself worthy again of returning to its celestial and spiritual home. This view exerted considerable influence on Jewish thinking in the Hellenistic period (see *Philo) and in the philosophy and *Musar literature of the middle ages, though its more radical forms were partly inhibited by the rabbinic tradition which considered the physical universe and its enjoyment as essentially good, provided they were hallowed in the service of God.

Moral Dualism

Although moral dualism generally tended to express itself in the forms of a thoroughgoing metaphysical dualism, the term is justified inasmuch as it reflects the basic doctrine that good and evil were the outcome or product of two distinct and ultimate first causes. The best known form of this dualism is the ancient religion of Persia (Zoroastrianism), according to which history is a cosmic struggle between the powers of good, i.e., light, and evil, i.e., darkness. This system has the logical advantage of accounting for evil in terms of a separate, independent principle, and thus exonerating the "good" creator and God from responsibility for the existence, in the world, of evil and sin. On the other hand it raises many other problems and was unacceptable to any form of *monotheism. Some commentators see in the declaration that God "formed the light and created darkness, is the maker of peace and the creator of evil" (Isa. 45:7) the prophet's polemic against this dualism (a polemic, the harshness of which is mitigated by the wording in which this verse appears in the daily morning prayer: "the maker of peace and creator of all" Hertz, Prayer 109). The two types of "philosophical" and "moral" dualism were capable of fusing and merging in various combinations. The body, matter, and "this world" could become identified, or at least associated, with darkness and evil, and the soul, with goodness and light. Another pair of opposites, "spirit" and "flesh," though not identical with Platonic dualism, was yet sufficiently similar to combine with it in various ways. It is this dualism which underlies the theology and anthropology of the *Dead Sea (*Qumran) sect, and of the epistles of Paul in the New Testament. *Gnosticism presents a peculiar combination of the two types of dualism: this world and our bodily existence, being characterized by evil, are the work of a lower, imperfect deity (the "demiurge" or creator), above whom there is a completely distinct, more transcendent and spiritual, good and "true" god. This higher deity intervenes and "saves" the elect from the power of the evil creator who holds them imprisoned in matter and in this world. Some of the gnostic sects equated this lower and evil demiurge with the god of the Hebrew Bible, i.e., with the Jewish God and giver of the law. Gnostic dualism has therefore been described as a metaphysical antisemitism. The gnostic rejection of creation and the cosmos, as well as of the biblical law, as the work of a lower, evil, or at least imperfect, power led in some cases to manifestations of *antinomianism, and in others to a very rigorous asceticism and rejection of this world.

Dualism in Jewish History

Whether or not Isaiah 45:7 is a polemical reference to Persian dualism (see above), it is evident that dualistic tendencies asserted themselves in the Second Temple period and in the first centuries of the common era. These were of a neo-platonic, later also of a gnostic, character. In a general way it can be said that apart from the "heretical" dualistic doctrines of some gnostic sectarians (see *Minim), Judaism could accommodate a "mitigated dualism," i.e., doctrines and attitudes which express metaphysical or moral contrasts in a dualistic manner, but without attributing to them an ultimate character or calling in question the sovereignty of the one omnipotent and good Creator God. This mitigated dualism can be found in some of the biblical *Apocrypha (e.g., *Jubilees or the Testaments of the *Patriarchs) and especially in the writings of the Dead Sea sect, whose doctrines of the spirit and the flesh, of the spirits (or angels), of purity and impurity, i.e., of light and darkness, come as near to a dualistic system as Judaism could tolerate. Yet even these beliefs can be characterized as a "dualism under God," since the spirits of light and darkness were held to exist through God's inscrutable will and to be subject to him. The Platonic dualistic spirit-matter (i.e., the realm of ideas as against the material world) penetrated rabbinic Judaism in the form of the soul-body dualism (cf. Plato's Phaedo, 67), and the belief in the preexistence of the soul. The doctrine of the immortality of the (spiritual) soul reflects, in this respect, a more dualistic anthropology than the doctrine of the resurrection of the body (see *Eschatology, Immortality of *Soul, *Resurrection). Rabbinic theology in general tended to reject or at least to mitigate dualistic tendencies. Thus the doctrine of the good and evil yeẓer (see Good and Evil *Inclination) is a transposition onto a more psychological (and hence theologically more harmless) level of what, for the Qumran covenanters and others, were metaphysical opposites. Talmudic literature has many polemical references to those who believe in shetei reshuyyot ("two powers"). Other polemical references are directed at the gnostic distinction between the supreme God on the one hand, and the Creator-Lawgiver on the other. Thus the kofer ba-ikkar (one who denies the essence of the faith) is said to be one who denies his creator and the giver of the Law (cf. Tosef. Shav. 3:7).

Dualism in Jewish Mysticism

The esoteric discipline and ecstatic visionary practices of the early *Merkabah mystics, while exhibiting certain gnostic traits, certainly did not share the basic dualism of the great gnostic systems. Dualistic elements, however, were not absent, as, e.g., in the doctrine of *Metatron (originally Javel) as the "lesser YHWH." In fact, the term yoẓer bereshit ("Creator") was deprived of any possible gnostic connotation by being used, in the *Shi'ur Komah literature, for the manifestation of God on the Throne of Glory. Another kind of dualism is involved in the radical distinction made by the kabbalists between the hidden, inaccessible deus absconditus (the Ein Sof), and the godhead as manifested in the *Sefirot. The latter two are occasionally described in a dualistic manner (right-left, male-female), but the essential point of the kabbalists was precisely the ultimate mystical unity behind the multiple manifestations.

The dualistic tendency is, perhaps, most marked in the kabbalistic treatment of the problem of evil. The profound sense of the reality of evil brought many kabbalists to posit a realm of the demonic, the sitra aḥra (or "aẓilut of the left"), a kind of negative mirror image of the "side of holiness" with which it was locked in combat. Nevertheless, here too it is necessary to distinguish between dualistic tendency and dualistic theory. It is precisely because kabbalistic doctrine does not know an ultimate dualism, that it is forced to seek the origin of the demonic realm of the kelippot somewhere in the sphere of divine emanation – whether in the sefirah gevurah (din) or (as in Lurianic kabbalism) in even more hidden aspects of the godhead. More than anything else, it is this awareness of the reality of evil, coupled with an essentially monotheistic rather than dualistic theology of the Zoroastrian type, which gives kabbalistic speculation such an audacious and indeed all but "heretical" quality. In medieval philosophy, the solution proposed for the problem of evil and its possible dualistic implications was the theory that evil had no substantial existence of its own but was a negation of good, even as darkness was the absence of light (cf. *Maimonides, Guide, 3:8; see also *Good and Evil). The first Jewish philosopher to argue systematically and at length against dualistic notions was *Saadiah Gaon in his Beliefs and Opinions (treatise 2).

Prophetic Dualism

While Judaism can thus be said to have been consistently anti-dualistic in the sense of recognizing only one ultimate cause and source of all being – including the opposites characteristic of being – there is another sense in which biblical and prophetic religion can be said to be dualistic. It assumes a radical distinction between the absolute being of God and the contingent being of all other (i.e., created) things. Contact and communion with God is possible in love, obedience, or mystical contemplation, but no identity of the creature with the creator is possible. Systems of thought which assert that all being is ultimately one and that the duality of God and the world (or God and the soul) can be transcended in a more profound unity have not been able to maintain themselves in any significant measure in Judaism. Pantheism and other forms of metaphysical or mystical monism (see *God, Conceptions of) have never been dominant Jewish philosophies.


S. Pétrement, Le dualisme chez Platon, les gnostiques et les manichéens (1947); Guttmann, Philosophies, index; D. Flusser, in: Scripta Hierosolymitana, 4 (1958), 215–66; G.R. Driver, The Judean Scrolls (1965), 550–62; A.C. Leaney, The Rule of Qumran and its Meaning (1966), index; M. Burrows, More Light on the Dead Sea Scrolls (1958), index; I. Tishby, Mishnat ha-Zohar, 1 (1949), 285–343.