Rabbinic Judaism: The View of Good & Evil in the Jewish Tradition


By Charles Mathewes, Ph.D., University of Virginia

Rabbinic Judaism’s view of evil is distinct and shadowed by the metaphysical Christian conceptions of evil. But it bears within itself a certain level of psychological and moral acuity and self-knowledge about the challenges and the quality of the difficulties that meet ordinary humans in their normal everyday lives.

An image of burning candles on a flag of Israel.
Rabbinic Judaism emerged out of a moment of crisis: the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the creation of the Diaspora. (Image: New Africa/Shutterstock)

The Concept of Rabbinic Judaism

‘Rabbinic Judaism’ is the form of Jewish faith and practice that arose after the fall of Jerusalem in the first century and the scattering of Jews, known as the Diaspora, across the Mediterranean and Near East in the following two centuries. It flourished from the third century all the way to the 20th century. In some ways, it’s still flourishing today.

Image of a Jewish boy reading the Torah.
The Talmud is the body of literature that comments and interprets the Torah. (Image: Katy Lozano/Shutterstock)

The third century of the Common Era is effectively the era of Talmud’s composition; the Talmud is the body of literature that comments and interprets the Torah, Jewish religious law, in general.

Rabbinic Jewish tradition takes the Talmud to be a text of near-scriptural authority for interpreting the Torah; indeed, the Talmud is the textual fixing in this tradition of the ‘Oral Law’ in comparison to the ‘Written Law’ of the Torah.

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Rabbis and Their Torah Knowledge 

An open Torah and a burning candle.
The rabbis understood the height of their religious duty to be the study of the Torah and Talmud. (Image: Emma Grimberg/Shutterstock)

The rabbis were the Jewish community’s teachers and ministers. They were scholars who knew the Torah very well and the debates surrounding it in the Talmud. They were effectively walking repositories of the tradition. 

They understood the height of their religious duty to be the study of Torah and Talmud, the enormously complicated sets of argumentative commentaries that previous rabbis had created to understand how to live faithfully as Jews in this very complicated world. 

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The Wake of the Shoah or Holocaust

In the wake of the Shoah or Holocaust, there’s been a huge wave of Jewish rethinking of the faith, but there have been events of similar existential crises in Judaism at different moments in Jewish history. One of them is the famous Babylonian Captivity where the remnants of Israel, or a large part of them, were exiled to Babylon in the sixth-century B.C.E. 

Rabbinic Judaism emerges out of another one of those moments of crisis: the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the creation of the Diaspora. This was a revolution in Jewish thinking on the scale of the Shoah (Holocaust) with enormous ongoing effects. 

In the Diaspora, the Jews effectively lost the Promised Land, and they lost the central ritual place of worshipping God (namely the Temple in Jerusalem). They did not return to Israel as a people for almost 2,000 years. A new kind of religion had to be built out of the rubble and the ashes of the old, and that’s what the rabbis essentially did.

Alternative Moral Psychologies of Human Malice

In terms of evil, in particular, rabbis explored a series of alternative moral psychologies of human malice; but much of their discussion centered around the ‘evil’ and the ‘good’ impulses in the human heart. The evil impulse is called yetzer ha-ra and the good impulse is called yetzer ha-tov

Adam and Eve ate of the tree of the knowledge of tov and ra, good and evil. The rabbis saw God creating in humans two different and rival sources of energy, inclinations, or ‘impulses’. In fact, for the rabbis, the condition of the human, as driven by these two impulses, is signified in the scriptures themselves. 

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Different Ways of Thinking about Good and Evil

Jewish people view good and evil differently than Christians. It is rooted in the idea that the behavior of good or evil is anchored in basic human impulses existing essentially from the creation. 

For Christ to have been so good, something must have been awful (that he came to remedy). The Jewish conception of these two impulses suggests an entirely different picture of how humans are organized and what motivations and struggles they’re dealing with internally.

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The Good  vs. the Evil Impulse

The yetzer ha-tov, the good impulse, is basically ‘conscience’; it’s an inner sense that alerts the person when he/she is considering violating God’s law. It warns the person, and it develops around age 12–13 when the young Jewish boy or girl first begins to become an adult. 

At a boy’s Bar Mitzvah or a girl’s Bat Mitzvah for example, when the child first begins to struggle with God’s word in the Torah and the observance of the Commandments, for the rabbis, that is the true mark of a maturing Jew. 

In contrast to the yetzer ha-tov, the yetzer ha-ra—‘the evil impulse’—is a far more murky concept. It doesn’t emerge when the person is 12–13, and it’s part of human nature. Genesis, for example, says: “The yetzer of the human heart is ra from youth”, “The impulse of the human heart is bad from youth” (Genesis 8:21).

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The Evil Impulse: Is It Really Evil?

The evil impulse is not demonic, and it’s not an utterly unnatural violation of creation expressing some sort of anarchic hostility to God’s creation. The rabbis believe this is a paranoid kind of self-interest. In their view, a young child or infant sees the world as a threatening and dangerous place. 

For example, think about how small children react when their parents introduce them to a stranger, often they’ll hide behind their parents; in other words, the rabbis have a great deal of empirical evidence they can point to. Children are sometimes terrified of strangers, and they are scared of the world, and this seems accurate as to how children behave (at least part of the time).

Common Questions about Rabbinic Judaism and the View of Good and Evil in the Jewish Tradition

Q: What is Rabbinic Judaism?

After the fall of Jerusalem in the first century, a different kind of Jewish tradition arose called Rabbinic Judaism. This tradition flourished from the third century onward.

Q: What is the ‘good impulse’?

According to Rabbinic Judaism, Yetzer ha-tov, or the good impulse, is an inner sense that warns people when they are considering violating God’s law. This innate sense is also known as conscience.

Q: What is the ‘evil impulse’?

According to Rabbinic Judaism, the evil impulse is part of human nature (self-interest). The evil impulse is called yetzer ha-ra in the Jewish tradition.

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