The Dilemma of Evil

Evil -- its source and the means to its eradication -- occupy the thoughts and minds of people throughout the world whose religion inclinations steer them to consider how to bring goodness and righteousness to the world. For Jews, evil in an inevitable consequence of human free will: In order to be able to freely choose goodness and righteousness, we must have the freedom to choose evil, as well. In a sense, God’s Creation of humanity with free will was a risk: If we obey God and live according to God’s will, we will chose what is good and right, but if we disobey God and ignore God’s will, we will chose what is evil and perpetrate more suffering in the world. The choice is ours -- blessing or curse.

The early accounts in the Book of Genesis make clear that evil is an ever-present struggle for humanity. The story of the flood is about God’s attempt to eradicate evil. The world is so filled with corruption that God determines to wipe out most of the Creation, preserving only a remnant for the purposes of reproduction. God commands Noah -- the best of his generation, but by no means perfect -- to build an ark to preserve life and to secure aboard a male and female of each species to reproduce after the flood. (To be precise: Noah was commanded to take aboard the ark seven pairs of kosher species and one pair of non-kosher species; the additional pairs were presumably for the purposes of sacrifice.) The ensuing flood wiped clean the slate of the world, killing all other people and animals (though we might wonder about the sea creatures). When the flood waters subside and Noah emerges from the ark, nearly a year later, the world is empty and ripe for repopulation. God looks upon the devastation and realizes that evil has not be removed from the world despite the devastation. Evil resides in the hearts and minds of people who must learn to control their impulses and use them to good purposes. God promises to never again wreak such destruction on the earth and makes a covenant with Noah, as the representative of humanity, establishing the rainbow as a sign of the covenant. As if to prove the point, the very next passage sees Noah’s family engaged in transgressions deriving from human choice.

Judaism has never subscribed to the notion that Good and Evil are separate and competing powers in the universe. Quite to the contrary: God is the one source of Creation, power, and ultimate authority in the universe. There is no Satan or Devil who exists outside God and operates on its own; such notions are quite outside Judaism. Similarly, Judaism does not subscribe to the Christian idea of “original sin.” Humans are not inherently sinful or evil, but rather possessed with the capacities for both good and evil, and endowed with the responsibility to choose good over evil. The problem of evil in our world results for failure to make the right choices.

Throughout Hebrew Scripture, evil is seen as arising from human beings disobedience to God. The result is always pain and suffering brought. The Rabbis explained that each human being is born with two urges: the yetzer tov is the urge to do good and the yetzer ra is the temptation to do evil. Both reside within each of us and battle one another each time we are presented with choices. Each choice is an opportunity to give the yetzer tov a victory over the yetzer ra. For the Rabbis, the sexual urge was the source of much of the destructive power of the yetzer ra, yet they pointed out that were it not for the yetzer ra, no one would build a house, marry, and raise a family. Hence, even evil inclinations can be harnessed for their passion and strength and put to good purposes. This is a valuable lesson that can serve us well.

In a sense, Judaism is obsessed with the notion of evil because it is obsessed with the idea of righteousness. Obliterating evil and promoting righteousness is the most apt description of the Jewish enterprise. The mitzvot (commandments) train one to goodness and promote compassion and justice in the world. The long-range goal of Judaism -- the messianic age -- is seen as a time in which righteousness will finally prevail, and the pain and suffering brought on by human evil will be ended.

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