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Good & Evil

In the Bible

A major corollary of the Jewish belief in the One God is that, seen in its totality, life is good. Viewing the cosmos as it emerged from chaos, God said, "It is good" (Gen. 1:10). In a monotheistic world view, a persistent problem is to account for the existence of evil in its many forms – natural catastrophes, pain and anguish in human life, moral evil, and sin. These facts must be fitted somehow within the design of the Creator as it is realized in the course of human history.

The problem of the existence of evil in the world was not given great prominence in the earlier books of the Bible, which are mainly concerned with positing general ethical-religious norms. In the later books, however, when the status of the individual vis-à-vis God gains in importance, it becomes necessary to account for the existence of evil in a world governed by a benevolent and omnipotent God. Jeremiah asks the perennial question concerning the prosperity of the wicked and the adversity of the righteous. This problem appears also in the Books of Isaiah, Job, and the Psalms. Various answers were given, which were later elaborated by the talmudists and the philosophers, but it should be noted that the idea of a heavenly reward is never mentioned in the biblical writings as a possible solution.

In Talmudic Literature

For the rabbis of the talmudic period the existence of evil in a world created by a merciful and loving God posed a number of theological problems, which they attempted to solve in a variety of ways. Although these solutions do not add up to a coherent theodicy, some of the more representative discussions indicate the general lines of rabbinic thought on the matter. First there is the issue of the existence of evil itself. The rabbis insisted that as good derives from God so, ultimately, does evil. This insistence was intended to discount any implications of duality, the idea of a separate deity from whom evil springs being complete anathema to the rabbis, who even say, "Man should bless God for the evil which occurs in the same way that he blesses Him for the good" (Ber. 33b). The same antidualistic motif is contained in the verse, "I am the Lord, there is none else; I form the light, and create darkness; I make peace, and create evil" (Isa. 45:6–7). (In the liturgy this is changed to "makes peace and creates all that exists," implying that evil itself is perhaps not a positive phenomenon at all, but mainly the absence of good.) Another vexing problem is why there is no just distribution of good and evil to the righteous and wicked respectively. This problem is dealt with in a number of different ways. On the one hand one finds the view that the issue is beyond the grasp of man's intellect, in support of which the verse, "I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy" (Ex. 33:19) is quoted (cf. Ber. 7a). On the other hand, a series of more partial solutions is proffered: the righteous man who suffers in this world is not wholly righteous, and the wicked man who prospers is not wholly wicked; or alternately the former is perhaps not a descendant of righteous ancestors, while the latter prospers because of the merit of his fathers (Ber. 7a); or evil is blamed on Satan and various malicious demons who are at the root of the trouble caused to the righteous (Ber. 6a; Gen. R. 84:3).

Perhaps the most widespread explanation of suffering in this world is that what the righteous undergo is punishment for every small sin they may have committed so that they will enjoy their full reward in paradise, while the wicked are rewarded in this world for any small amount of good they have to their credit so that in the world to come they will reap the full measure of the punishment they deserve (Ber. 4a; Eruv. 19a; Ta'an. 11a; Kid. 39b; Avot 2:16; Gen. R. 33:1; Yal., Eccles. 978). The sufferings of the righteous are also seen as a form of trial, "afflictions of love," enabling them to develop virtues such as patience and faith (Ber. 5a; BM 85a; Gen. R. 9:8; Tannade-Vei Eliyahu Zuta 11). Support for this view is found in biblical verses such as "Happy is the man whom Thou disciplineth, O Lord, And teacheth out of Thy Law" (Ps. 94:12) and "It is good for me that I have been afflicted, in order that I might learn Thy statutes" (ibid. 119:71).

Another aspect concerning the evil caused by man himself is dealt with by viewing evil as the product of, if not identical with, the evil inclination (Ḥag. 16a). The evil inclination is a necessary factor in the continued existence of the world, for without it no man would build a house, marry, raise a family, or engage in trade (Gen. R. 9:9). Nevertheless, it is within man's grasp to control his evil inclination, against whose power the Torah was seen as an antidote (Kid. 30b). This control enables man to serve God with both his good and evil urges (Ber. 9:5); the one enabling him to continue in his this-worldly pursuits and the other helping him to grow in holiness. Despite an acute awareness of the extent of evil and suffering, both in the natural world and in the world of interhuman relations, and notwithstanding the limitations of the explanations they were able to offer by way of theodicy, the rabbis continually reaffirm the ultimate goodness of God and of His creation. This affirmation is even contained in the burial service, in a series of refrains emphasizing the perfection of God's world (Hertz, Prayer, 1074). The rabbis advise man to accustom himself to say, "All that the Merciful One does is for the good" (Ber. 60b); and they assure him that the measure of God's reward exceeds that of His punishment (Yoma 76a). One tanna *Nahum of Gimzo (Ish Gamzu) – was even renowned for his response to every occurrence: "This too is for the best" (Ta'an. 21a).

In Medieval Jewish Philosophy

The answers given by *Philo to the problem of evil correspond, in certain respects, to those of the rabbis. If some righteous men suffer, he states, it is because they are not really perfect in their righteousness. Furthermore, the good which befalls the wicked is not a real good. Also, the suffering of the righteous may come from God as a trial or test, or because of the sins of their ancestors.

The need to account for the existence of evil in the world became even more acute with the manifestation of dualistic movements. Saadiah Gaon strongly rejects these dualist doctrines and affirms God's unity. Steeped as he was in the *Kalām tradition, he states that God conducts the world with infinite justice and wisdom. God, according to Saadiah, would not have created evil because evil does not have a separate existence sui generis but is nothing more than the absence of good. The sufferings of the righteous are either a requital for the few sins which they have committed, or they serve as an instrument of chastisement or trial, for which reward will be given in the afterlife. Saadiah thus upholds the doctrine of "afflictions of love."

The answer of Joseph al-*Basir , the 11th-century Karaite, is that the infliction of pain may, under certain circumstances, be a good instead of an evil, for it may ultimately result in a greater advantage. Thus, disease and suffering are either punishment for offenses committed, or are imposed with a view to later reward. Similarly, *Abraham b. Ḥiyya expresses the view that the righteous suffer in this world in order to try them and to increase their ultimate reward (Meditation of the Sad Soul (1969), 117ff.). Joseph ibn *Ẓaddik sees the evil which happens to the righteous as often being a natural occurrence without reference to reward and punishment. Sometimes, too, this evil is inflicted upon the good man for his sins, but ultimate reward and punishment are in the future life. Abraham *Ibn Ezra sees the whole world as good. From God, he states, comes only good. Evil is due to the defect of the object receiving higher influence. To argue that because of a small part of evil the whole world, which is good, should not have been created, is foolish. Abraham *Ibn Daud argues that it is impossible either according to reason or according to the Bible and tradition that evil or defect should come from God. If both good and evil come from God, He would have to be a composite. Besides, the majority of evils are negations, and cannot have been produced by any agent.

*Maimonides also views evil as a nonexistence, namely the absence of good, which could not have been produced by God. He distinguishes between three different kinds of evil. The first category is that of natural evils which befall man, such as landslides, earthquakes, and floods, or his having been born with certain deformities. The cause of this type of evil is the fact that man has a body which is subject to corruption and destruction. This is in accordance with natural law and is necessary for the continuance and permanence of the species. The second kind of evil is within the social realm, such as wars. This type of evil, Maimonides says, occurs infrequently and, of course, being wholly within the control of man, could not have been caused by God. Though difficult, its remedy is within the hands of man. The third class of evil, the largest and most frequent class, is the evil which the individual brings upon himself through his vices and excessive desires. Again the remedy is within man's power. Maimonides rejects the notion of "afflictions of love," holding instead that even the minutest pain is a punishment for some previous transgression. He explains that the tests mentioned in the Bible, such as God's request to Abraham to offer up his son, have a didactic purpose, to teach the truth of God's commandments and how far one must go in obeying them.

Joseph *Albo holds that perfect saints may have to endure agonies in order to atone for their people or for the entire world.

[Jacob Bernard Agus]

In Modern Jewish Philosophy

For Hermann *Cohen suffering stirs man's conscience and prods him to ethical action. Israel's election by God is tied up with the idea of Israel as the "suffering servant," i.e., the eternal prod of mankind's conscience. Evil in a metaphysical sense did not interest Cohen. He castigated metaphysical speculation about evil as an attempt to cover the existence of evil in society and as perverting the intent of suffering which should be to arouse sympathy in men.

The problem of evil played an important role in the philosophy of Martin *Buber . For Buber the source of evil was the failure to enter into relation, and conversely evil can be redeemed by the reestablishment of relations. "Good and evil, then, cannot be a pair of opposites like right and left or above and beneath, 'good' is the movement in the direction of home, 'evil' is the aimless whirl of human potentialities without which nothing can be achieved and by which, if they take no direction but remain trapped in themselves, everything goes awry" (Between Man and Man (19664), 103). Man is not evil by nature, but his misuse of his nature generates evil. Some men can carry evil so far as to give it a kind of independent quality. However, evil is never an independent entity but such men crystallize it into a perverse resistance to the individual's self-fulfillment in relation. After World War II Buber did question the possibility of addressing God as "kind and merciful" in the light of what had happened to the Jews in Europe, but he nevertheless maintained the possibility of man redeeming evil. He denied the gnostic dualistic approach and maintained that man had it in his power to sanctify the world.

Abraham J. *Heschel , referring to a midrash about Abraham seeing a castle in flames (Gen. R. 39:1), asks: "The world is in flames, consumed by evil. Is it possible that there is no one who cares?" (God in Search of Man (19613), 367). After considering the horrors of Auschwitz he questions: "What have we done to make such crimes possible? What are we doing to make such crimes impossible?" (ibid., 369). According to him nothing in the world is wholly good or wholly evil, everything is a mixture. Man's nature, his ego, and the relative rewards of evil in this world help evil to prevail. Fortunately, God is concerned about man's separating the good from the evil. God commands man and gives him the mitzvot, which are the tools by which man can overcome evil. "Evil is not man's ultimate problem. Man's ultimate problem is his relation to God.… The biblical answer to evil is not the good but the holy. It is an attempt to raise man to a higher level of existence, where man is not alone when confronted with evil" (ibid., 376).

For Mordecai *Kaplan God is identical with certain principles in the universe whose analogues in human society lead to salvation, i.e., the achievement of the good for all mankind. The existence of evil in the world is due to the failure of man to act in accord with God, i.e., those principles. "When the conscience operates simultaneously through creativity, responsibility, honesty, and loyalty or love, it is the source of Divine Revelation.… The function of conscience is not to philosophize or theologize concerning the problem of evil in the world. Conscience is the pain of the human spirit. The function of spiritual pain is not to have us speculate about it but to eliminate the cause … it is rather to impel us to make a religion of combating the man-made evils that mar human life …" (M.M. Kaplan, in The Reconstructionist, May 1963).

[Michael J. Graetz]



K. Kohler, Jewish Theology (1918); A. Marmorstein, The Doctrine of Merits in Old Rabbinical Literature (1920); A. Buechler, Studies in Sin and Atonement (1928); E.E. Urbach, Ḥazal, Pirkei Emunot ve-De'ot (1969). IN ANCIENT AND MEDIEVAL JEWISH PHILOSOPHY: Guttmann, Philosophies, index, S.V. evil; Husik, Philosophy, index, S.V. Evil, Problem of; H.A. Wolfson, Philo … (1947), index, S.V. Evil. IN MODERN JEWISH PHILOSOPHY: J.B. Agus, Modern Philosophies of Judaism (1941), 94–6, 108ff.; M.S. Friedman, Martin Buber (19602), 11–15, 101–58; F.A. Rothschild, Between God and Man (1959), 191–7.

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.