On Faith Column: What Is Evil And What Can We Do About It?

Reverend Heather Interviews Rabbi Mitch Hurvitz

Reverend: In Jewish tradition, what is the understanding of evil?

Rabbi: Jewish tradition says that Adam and Eve were created morally neutral. The Talmud says that humans wired with two inclinations, yetzer ha tov – to good, and the other yetzer ha ra – the bad inclination. The Rabbis believe yetzer ha ra is the animal inclination, the yetzer ha tov is the part of us created in the image of God. As human beings we need both. Promiscuous behavior needs to be properly mitigated by the good inclination so you will desire to find a partner in life and to procreate.  There is a midrash, teaching, that says a rabbi captured the bad inclination and threw it in a well. In his community, the husbands and wives stopped being together and “even the chickens stopped laying eggs.” Evil happens when you take out the cultivation of the good inclination properly mitigated by God’s law. Our covenantal relationship with God allows us to balance the bad inclination. You have to protect yourself in a moral way. We can’t attack someone, unless God forbid, it is a just war. Some things are bad but can be made good.

Humans are pleasure-seekers. It may sound like hedonism, but God made us that way. We want the ultimate pleasure possible, which is from the ultimate source of pleasure –God.  We are wired to want to pursue mitzpahs (God’s Commandments) so we can get closer to God. 

Sounds like Blaise Pascal, the Christian philosopher’s quote, “within each person is a God-shaped vacuum only fillable by him.”

I haven’t heard that before but like it. Rabbis describe being able to act your way into good or bad behaviors.  In Exodus, Pharoah is acting in a bad way.  In front of the burning bush, Moses is told, God will harden Pharoah’s heart.  This is challenging because it seems to imply Pharoah didn’t have free will.  If you read the story carefully, in the first few plagues God didn’t harden his heart.  After that Pharoah’s heart becomes hardened.  God didn’t harden his heart but there is a tipping point for us as humans, when we act in a certain way, it becomes very hard to undo that. Evil is that slow movement down the mountain that picks up speed, like a slippery slope. 

In Judaism, there is no concept of original sin or the devil.  There is Satan in the book of Job, the prosecuting angel.  He levies the charges against us and tries to prove we weren’t worth being created.  God is happy with Job but the angel says he is only righteous because of the all good things in Job’s life.

What about Genesis 3?

The serpent is highly intelligent, jealous of humans and wanted to rule in the state of nature.  Some see it as the worst of who we are.  God says to Adam, not Eve, “don’t eat from this forbidden tree.” Adam reported to her not to touch the tree which wasn’t God’s command. So the serpent tells her nothing will happen if you touch the tree.  And it doesn’t. Then she eats it, and even there nothing happens until she gives it to Adam, the one told not to eat it, that the sin occurs. This is the slippery slope of how sin occurs.  Adam and Eve were meant to be helpmates to build one another up, not tear one another down. Elie Wiesel said the greatest sin is silence.  History can change if we speak up.

What do we do about evil?

Some people say, look at how much religion has caused bad things so let’s throw the baby out with the bathwater.  You have no ability to define something as evil unless you believe in ethical monotheism – there is a truth, right and wrong. That is the Judeo-Christian moral code given to the world. When we take our actions seriously, there is a right and wrong, that helps to mitigate the world’s evil.  You can’t be silent, indifferent or have apathy.  You also know that God is Truth but we don’t know all truth as humans.  You have to have discipline before you rush to judge and listen carefully.  “Argue for the sake of heaven” as the Rabbis say, you are discussing and dialoguing for holy purposes.  You need to step back, listen and sometimes you have to act.  Moses acted when he saw the man being beaten by the slave master.  The Rabbinic tradition says that Moses looked to the left and then to the right to see if there was anyone else who could do something better than him, not seeing anyone he was obliged to act.  We are encouraged to take 10 seconds, look right and left, breath, and then have that dialogue.  The world is often grey, not black and white.  There may be two truths. 

Is that what defines wisdom that we hope to gain over time?

One could hope with time and maturity.  Sometimes as we age, we get more locked in our ways because we have trained ourselves over time to be a certain way.  We have to purposely retrain our brains to rewire them to keep learning and growing.  In the Jewish tradition, that’s prayer, which is first and foremost a form of self-examination.   It is how we take these principles to myself and then those prayers go out to God.  It starts first with examining one’s own heart and mind. 

When I think of how to counteract evil, what comes to mind is a powerful musical, “Come from Away”.  It is about the town in Newfoundland that hosted 16K people, stranded when US airspace was closed.  This story is about those who ended up in that town and the relationship that developed between the townspeople and the “plane people.”  The show makes you cry because of the kindness of strangers.  The good didn’t overshadow the evil but inoculated the evil not taking away from the horror.  Something in the human spirit desires to make things better in the midst of tragedy. 

Empathy is key.