A Jewish Response to Evil

Recently, a confirmation student asked me, “How can you possibly believe that the prayers you are praying are being heard, when there is so much evidence to show us that sick people sometimes stay sick, bad things continue to happen to good people, and God does not intervene in our day to day affairs.”  I am paraphrasing, but he is a brilliant tenth grader.

And we talked for a few minutes about personal theology and the nature of prayer.  I explained how the word in Hebrew for prayer is a reflexive verb, something that changes within ourselves; not a conversation we have with some external being but with ourselves.  But I knew that I wasn’t really answering his larger questions, I could not satisfy the debate raging in his youth and restless mind.  What I tried to do, instead, was to encourage it.  All of it.  Encourage the questions, encourage the doubt, and to show him, through my example, that those questions are not a threat to faith but the only true path to faith.

Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “The moment we become oblivious to ultimate questions, religion becomes irrelevant.”  He meant that a religious life is not one full of answers and definitely not one in which we claim to have the only answer.  But rather we push ourselves to ask better and larger questions, to explore the world with an open and inquisitive mind, and to avoid closing ourselves off to limited answers.

This becomes harder and harder to do as we grow up, and as we ask ever larger questions.  Why am I here?  What am I supposed to do with my life?  What happens when I die?  We desperately crave the concrete assurance of response – we send out our prayers on this Shabbat and every day and then crane our necks to hear what the universe might allow us to understand in reply.

And yet full understanding never comes.  We learn acceptance and find meaning in life anyways, but it does not come through self-help books and online gurus who offer “answers.”  Our tradition teaches us to question, to challenge, to ask, and to begin to see that the journey of searching is the whole point, and not a means to an end.

In our day, there is one glaring example which seems to underlie current events and the news nearly every night.  We wrestle, all of us, with how to make meaning out of these stories, and grow more and frustrated as answers to do readily appear.  Today, right now, terror reigns in Syria, an oppressive regime that has taken action against its own people and threatens the stability of the Middle East and the world, that regime is becoming ever more unstable, leaving thousands of refugees with no safe haven.  North Korea challenges every value we hold dear in the west, leaving its own population in poverty while attempting an arms race with the United States.  ISIS continues to unveil its unprecedented viciousness and cruelty.  Closer to home, mass shootings are threatening to become the “new norm” in America, racial tensions grow in major cities from coast to coast – our country and our world is reeling with feelings of vulnerability and fear.

Some would phrase the question this way: why can’t we learn to get along with each other?  Why can’t we understand that there are two sides to every story, and that without acknowledging the truth in another narrative, we can never hope for peace in our streets, in our government, and with our neighbors?

But the rabbis ask the question another way – it begins by labelling these atrocities something complicated – we call it “evil.”  Does evil exist?  Are there sinister people who, by their very nature are destined to break laws and oppress others?  Or is “evil” an over-simplified excuse not to understand but to close ourselves off from accountability?  It is much simpler to blame our spouse, our boss, our neighbor, that dictator over there, rather than trying to understand the role we played in creating a situation.

What does Judaism say about the existence of “evil?”  and more importantly, what does Judaism say about our response to it?

Shema Yisrael, hear O Israel, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad.  If there is One God, who unifies all of Creation, then we imagine that God is all good.  God declares each day of creation that those things that came from God’s words are good, they are very good.  And yet we know that pain and anguish exist, there is sin, wrongdoing, and natural catastrophe.  How do we account for these realities, without indicting God?

In the Talmud, the rabbis argue, “we should bless God for the evil which occurs in the same way we bless God for the good (Berachot 33b).  In Isaiah we read, “I am God, there is none else, I form the light and create darkness, I make peace, and create evil.”  This phrase may sound a bit familiar, 1500 years ago the liturgists changed this line as they added it to our prayer service, to read, “I make peace, and create all things.”  This text suggests that somehow, for some reason, all our negative experiences, even the existence of evil, are a part of God, somehow to be understood as inherent in the structure, necessary to provide us with free will, perhaps even a part of God’s larger plan.

A solution is never proposed to this inherent contradiction.  Some sages argue that God is simply limited in what is under Divine control.  The Kabbalists understood the existence of evil as proof positive that we live in an incomplete Creation, broken pieces of the Divine have not yet been brought back together to make the world whole, and wholly good.

Some choose to blame Satan, an identified member of God’s heavenly court, for the existence of evil.  The most powerful example of this is the Book of Job, in which Satan appears as a heavenly prosecutor in God’s courtroom.  The terrible things which befall Job are attributed not to God but to due process, and interesting if anachronistic response to the question.

For me, none of these responses suffice.  We know what we know, and there are limits to what human beings can understand.  Those who remain unsatisfied and discomforted by our human limitations sometimes find other spiritual homes.  As difficult as this truth feels, we focus on questions, and not answers.  Have you heard the one about the man who asked the rabbi, “rabbi, why do rabbis always seem to answer a question with another question?”  The rabbi replied, “What do you mean?”

When we focus on the question, without rushing too quickly to simple answers, we learn all sorts of interesting things along the way.  How much of Sandy Hook could have been averted with better gun laws, more thorough background checks?  That conversation is an important one to have, regardless.  How much could have been averted with more emphasis placed in our society on mental health, and ensuring our most vulnerable populations have access to the care they need?  That too, is a valuable conversation we need to have.  How much responsibility do we, as privileged Americans have to ensure inner-city youth feel hopeful about their futures, and start to build relationships with law enforcement?  Another important conversation.  What role might we play in shaping Middle East policy for the next hundred years?  What will Syria, or Iran, or North Korea look like, in ten years, not to mention next month?

The answers matter far, far less, than our ability to have these conversations in honest ways.  Does evil exist?  I know that it does.  But I also know that it lies in the actions of men and women, and countries who could have, and might have made a different choice, in a different circumstance.

Consider the following text.  In Genesis Rabbah, an imaginative commentary on the original stories of family intrigue, murder, adultery and sin in Genesis, the rabbis write, “Our inclination to evil is a necessary factor in the continued existence in the world, for without it no one would build a house, marry, raise a family, or start a new business.” (GR 9:9)  To start any of these new initiatives, the text suggests, we have to first look out at the world and see dissatisfaction, incompleteness, something left for us to do that is so important we embrace the task with our full heart.  This is why we build a house, start relationships or businesses.  We believe our broken world, which is very broken, can be made better by our efforts.  There is evil, it is inside each of us, and yet also build within each of us is its remedy.

Abraham Joshua Heschel phrased his response this way, “the world is in flames, consumed by evil,” he wrote.  After witnessing the horrors of the world, we might ask, “what have we done to make such crimes possible.”  But a better question, he suggests, is to ask ourselves, “What are we doing to make such crimes impossible?” (God In Search of Man, p 369)

Rabbi David Wolpe, in a recent column in Time magazine, wrote that our frustration with the world comes larger from living in, “an age of unlimited expectation when atrocities and injustice are constantly paraded before our eyes.”  Yes, injustice and atrocities exist.  But it is our anger and frustration that limit our ability to see a path forward.  Rabbah the son of Rav Huna said, “When one loses his temper, even the Divine Presence is unimportant in his eyes.”  Rather than debating the presence of evil in the world, we are much better served at working together to alleviate it.  May we embrace this task together, and may this work bring us, all of us, closer together, and closer to God.