The Rabbis and Their Conception of Evil as a Challenge


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

The conception of evil is not so much an abstract philosophical problem as it is a practical challenge confronting those afflicted by it. Evil is something that people meet in their hearts and lives every day. It could be on the road when they’re driving to work and someone cuts them off or vice versa.

An image of a rabbi.
The rabbis believe that evil is a challenge that must be faced on a daily basis. (Image: greiss design/Shutterstock)

Facing Evil as a Challenge to Be Overcome

Evil should be faced as a challenge whose successful overcoming on a daily basis will strengthen and deepen the person in their wisdom and their faith. The conviction the rabbis had that governed their philosophy was that evil in this sense was a challenge and a gift sent by God to mature humans in certain ways, not entirely unlike Irenaeus. 

This is part of a larger understanding of the nature of Jewish suffering that the rabbis held to. Evil would serve as a challenge to people, but it would not overwhelm the people of Israel. In particular, the Jewish people would suffer repeated persecutions but, they thought, such persecutions would never become so extreme as to threaten the people’s existence.

This is a transcript from the video series Why Evil Exists. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

The Christian vs. the Non-Christian Conception of Evil

In seeing all this, what can really be seen is one rich and profound challenge to an over-Christianized conception of evil in light of sin. Even secular people today have a fairly thoroughly Christian conception of evil and sin; but they don’t have to, there are other viable and plausible accounts out there. 

And there are interestingly non-Christian, non-religious ways of conceiving evil; ways that make evil less melodramatic and more ordinary in a way parallel to the Rabbinic account as well. But this Rabbinic tradition offers a very sober religious view of malice. It’s, again, profoundly non-dramatic. It doesn’t play into any attempt to over-dramatize the struggles people have, which would, in a certain way, reinforce egotism.

Evil, even though it is not dramatic, it is a powerful, mundane, and worldly reality—there’s no ‘Satan’ of any kind of vast metaphysical density here—but there’s a realism about how evil can, over time, come to shape, grip, and powerfully wrap someone’s inner soul.

Learn more about post-WWII Jewish thought on evil.

Halakhic View of Evil Impulse

Indeed, some Jewish scholars think it’s inappropriate to call this a picture of ‘evil’ at all. These thinkers argue that Rabbinic Judaism doesn’t have a picture of ‘evil’, it just has a picture of ‘badness’. The category of ‘evil’ itself, they say, already rhetorically gives the game away to Christianity. 

An image of a judge hammer and the Star of David.
Jewish law teaches that evil is a human issue—a challenge that humans must struggle to overcome. (Image: Ms. Li/Shutterstock)

Instead, the ra, the yetzer ha-ra, should be thought of as an impulse to badness, not an impulse to evil. This tradition emphasizes human responsibility and struggle, and especially struggle in living according to the Halakha, to Jewish law, in order to govern human behavior. 

In this halakhic view, suffering, then, is kept within human dimensions. Jewish law teaches that suffering and evil is a human issue—a challenge that humans deal with and that they must struggle to overcome. Again, this is in contrast to Christianity where suffering always threatens to overwhelm a creature’s capacities to resist it; suffering always threatens to become a theological problem, and divine reality.

Learn more about the enlightenment and its discontents.

Rabbinic Perspective of the Evil Impulse

From a Rabbinic Jewish perspective, evil in Christianity always threatens to become melodrama, and it always seems to want to escape individual responsibility. Rabbinic Judaism believes that’s a very large-scale way of evading the real moral challenges that are faced. 

Admittedly, they say, not all evil may thus be understandable—sometimes psychopaths happen—but in general, the shape of human evil is such, the rabbis thought, that it can be confronted through the practices of Halakha and the behavior of traditional Jewish religious practice.

Learn more about Freud—the death drive and the inexplicable.

Practice of Evil in the Holocaust

The account of evil is not without its own problems, especially, for Jews living today after the Holocaust, the Shoah. The problem here is simply put: is this picture of evil too mundane and too ordinary to handle the Shoah? Ironically, the Shoah may seem to be something that threatens any account of evil that is not vastly dramatic. 

An image of shoes belonging to victims of the Holocaust on the banks of the Danube .
The Jewish conception of evil was fundamentally challenged by the Holocaust. (Image: Davor Flam/Shutterstock)

The evil for the rabbis is about greed, jealously, and envy. This is a happy and relatively small-scale picture of evil.

It’s a picture of evil based on the context of nasty, brutal people but not really continuous with the evil that was experienced in the Holocaust. 

That kind of evil seems completely out of proportion to the character of the moral challenges that an ordinary person in an ordinary town in the eighth century somewhere in Mesopotamia, Palestine, North Africa, or any of the diasporic Jewish communities might have faced. Nothing like the challenge or evil of industrialized slaughter represented by the Holocaust.

Learn more about the Hebrew Bible and wisdom and the fear of God.

Effects of the Holocaust on the Jewish Conception of Evil

After the Holocaust, traditional Jewish understandings of evil were quite radically challenged. It seemed that the old agreement with God, the longest standing covenant between God and God’s people, had fallen apart and that the persecution of the Jews had reached beyond traditional pogroms/massacres, to become metaphysically eliminationist in character. 

Somehow, God had let it happen that a people, the Germans, got it in their minds completely to annihilate the entire ethos, the entire people, of Israel. Post-Holocaust Jewish thought has struggled mightily with this challenge, and the struggle shows no signs of ceasing anytime soon. Indeed, the attempt to understand the meaning of the Shoah has been one of the most powerful inducements to Jewish thought since 1945.

Common Questions the Rabbis and Their Conception of Evil as a Challenge

Q: Why should evil be considered a challenge?

The rabbis believe evil is a challenge that must be overcome. If people can overcome their inner evil on a daily basis, then they can deepen their wisdom.

Q: What is the Halakhic view of suffering and evil?

According to the Halakhic conception of evil, the concepts of suffering and evil are considered human issues—challenges that humans deal with and that they must struggle to overcome.

Q: How did the Holocaust challenge the Jewish conception of evil?

The evil of the Holocaust could not be defined by the traditional definition of evil spoken of by rabbis, which is about greed, jealously, and envy. This is not really continuous with the evil that was experienced in the Holocaust, and after the Holocaust, traditional Jewish understandings of evil were quite radically challenged.

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