The problem of evil may be religion’s fundamental challenge. The presence of suffering — which in mythical, theological and philosophical discourse becomes aligned with evil — is arguably the reason why religion exists in the first place. Possibly even reflective thought at all; Franz Rosenzweig, the great Jewish philosopher of the last century, argues that philosophy is born from the reality of death, and from the fear of death. Coming to know the finitude of human life, the reflective person asks: what matters? What does anything mean?
Western religion’s most general answer — that there is some meaning inherent in the universe, and a way to relate to it — is, for many people, the most satisfying reply. But it comes with a price: if the universe has a meaning, why does it also contain so much suffering? Put in the terms of religion itself, if there is a God who is both good and all-powerful, why does this God allow innocent people to suffer?
Theologically, Western religions have offered a number of different answers. The most obvious one is that evil is punishment for disobedience. The Torah, for example, states quite clearly that if you do not follow the commandments — if you do not uphold your end of the covenant — then God will either cause or allow misfortune to rain upon you. Your crops will wither; your livelihood will disappear. Since it was apparent to everyone that bad things happen to good people, the Torah also explains that punishments may be meted out generally (i.e. on the whole Jewish people, for the sins of a few) and over generations (the sins of the fathers are visited upon the sons).
Naturally, this obvious answer has come under withering attack over the centuries, although it still provides solace and explanation to many people today. It’s interesting, actually, to notice how most of us, I think, recoil from this seemingly too tidy explanation of the world’s ills. I know when I introduce theodicy — how God metes out justice — my students can’t abide it, evoking the Holocaust and angrily doubting that there is any justice at all in the way the universe operates. Whereas, clearly these ideas once provided comfort; otherwise, they would not have endured.
There are, to be sure, many other answers to the “problem of evil.” Some deny that evil exists at all, once you look at the big picture. On a micro level, you may experience the loss of a job as evil, but then your next job might be even better; “God had a plan.” On a macro level, most people today still use the Holocaust as a touchstone for evil, but a few also say that without the Holocaust, there would be no State of Israel, so, again, maybe God has a plan. At times, we can’t figure out this plan — why this child has to die, or why this tidal wave has to hit here — but, well, we can’t know the mind of God.
As you can perhaps tell from how I’ve presented these answers, I find them profoundly unsatisfying. Evil is experienced as evil — to say that it’s actually good seems, to me, disrespectful to the reality of our own experience. I think it short-circuits what should be our righteous outrage at what is taking place, as well as our psychological processes of grieving. The way I have chosen to live, I prefer to feel the wide range of human emotions, not avoid some of them with a story of “plan” or “wider meaning.” But then again, that’s just my taste.
A third type of answer to the problem of evil accepts that bad things happen, but focuses on what our response to such events should be. In contemplative traditions, for example, there may or may not be a concept of “evil,” but there is certainly the knowledge that suffering exists — this is the first noble truth of Buddhism. Our task, then, is to work with suffering in a skillful way, to lessen it, and perhaps even to eliminate it. One Buddhist-Jewish teacher, Sylvia Boorstein, likes to say that “pain is mandatory, but suffering is optional.”
More pietistic versions of the same idea is that pain (or evil) is a test. Perhaps God is testing your faith. Or perhaps this is the trial by fire through which you must pass along your spiritual path. Or perhaps there is no real explanation at all, but you’re still left with your pain and the challenge of how to work with it. All of these responses have in common a kind of psychologization of the problem of evil. Ontologically, it’s out there and we don’t really know why. But psychologically, spiritually, what matters is how you work with it.
Finally, there is a theological answer which, although not really monotheistic, is surprisingly popular today: namely, that there is an evil power in the universe. One of the most popular books on evil, Harold Kushner’s “Why Bad Things Happen to Good People,” is actually a shockingly heretical book, when read closely. Faced with the reality and arbitrariness of evil, Kushner posits that God can be neither all-good and all-powerful, and so he decides that while God is good, God does not actually have the power to prevent evil. This allows Kushner to save his notion of God as good, and explain his own and his family’s immense suffering — but at the price of monotheism itself. The idea that there is a Devil, or Satan, or some other evil being that has its own power, apart from God — this is Jewish heresy, and the Christian heresy of Manicheanism. The Manicheans believed that there were, in fact, two powers, one good and one evil, neither more powerful than the other. It falls to us to follow the good, and to sift out the aspects of evil from our lives. (The Manicheans also held that the good was non-material; in a gnostic vein, the material world itself was seen as the domain of evil.)
Manicheanism was rejected by church authorities as early as the fourth century C.E. — but its flavor endures to this day. Many people, for example, believe that Satan is a real force, a personality separate from the Divine, whom God is either unable or unwilling to fully vanquish. Myths of Satan’s origin may vary, but the situation in which we find ourselves today is one in which he operates as an independent force, tempting us, and causing all sorts of evil. Of course, many people understand Satan’s “temptation” as necessary for God’s plan: we have to be tempted by evil in order to choose good. But many others seem to see Satan as his own being, crafty, devious, and strong.
I have spent this time on non-Kabbalistic answers to the problem of evil to situate the radical, Kabbalistic approach in context. Of course, a richer context would also focus on the Jewish approaches to evil specifically, rather than on the general typologies I have provided. But I do not want to go too far afield. As we shall see on the next page, the Kabbalah’s approach to evil brings together some of these threads, rejects others, and invents other aspects from its own system of theosophy. The Kabbalah’s treatment of evil also crosses the lines of theosophical and practical Kabbalah, bringing together the sefirotic myth with accounts of angels and demons. Let’s turn to it now.
The primary Kabbalistic term for evil is sitra achra, which means “the Other side.” In the subtle depth of this term alone lies some of the most transformative wisdom of the Kabbalah. Although often mythologized in terms of demons and devils, the “Other Side,” at its root, is not separate from the Divine. Coins have two sides; papers have two sides; God has two sides, at least from our perspective. All are essentially one thing; what we experience as evil is as Divine as what we experience as good.
Naturally, no one wants to believe this. It’s fine to think “everything is God” on a warm summer’s day, when the birds are singing tunes of Heaven. But what about in a hospital, where a child is dying of cancer? What about in the gas chambers? For that matter, what about any situation in which our moral faculties are aroused, and the presence of evil is as palpable as the sunlight?
To say that evil is part of God is not to say it doesn’t exist. Everything is part of God: the self, objects in the world, this computer. “Exist” is a property we ascribe to these objects, and which we do not ascribe to, say, dragons or unicorns. That is because this computer does things that a unicorn does not — it appears, it reliably functions as an object, and so on. Likewise, to say that evil is “only” part of God and is not “ultimately real” does not alter its significance in our daily lives.
But it does alter how we relate to it. Many texts in the Kabbalah, including the Zohar, say that the task is not to destroy evil but to return it to its source — to “include the left within the right,” in the Zoharic metaphor, “to uplift the fallen sparks” in the Lurianic one. In Chabad Hasidism, it is stated that evil exists as part of the Divine revelation itself. Indeed, to think that evil really is separate from God is, itself, the essence of evil, which is precisely the illusion of separation.
The most common form of this evil is something we all do all the time: assume that we are separate from God. The natural consequence of this belief is that “good” and “bad” are best evaluated according to how they benefit or harm the self. Thus, enriching the ego, making ourselves feel good (materially, usually, but also spiritually) — all these quintessentially human endeavors stem from the illusion of separation. The yetzer hara, conventionally known as the “evil inclination,” might be better thought of as the “selfish inclination” or the “separating inclination.” It is that which grounds all experience in the separate self, and does its best to enlarge, enrich, and empower that self above others.
Conventional morality posits a dualistic psychology, in which a yetzer tov, a good inclination, balances out the evil one. For the Kabbalah, however, there is only truth and falsity: the truth that only God truly exists, and the falsity that all of our own conventional existence is real. Truth leads to those acts which benefit God — for traditional Kabbalists, that includes ritual as well as ethical behavior. Falsity leads to those which seem to benefit the separate self.
This is hardly the end of the story. Some heretical Kabbalists believed that “acts which benefit God” include deliberate forays into the world of “sin,” where the illusory nature of evil can be more readily exposed, and the sparks thereby elevated to their Source. Traditional Kabbalists and Hasidim, however, maintained the opposite: that the Torah provides the blueprint for right action, and that once the selfish inclination is abnegated, what remains are the commandments. The fundamental cosmology is the same, but the consequences are completely different.
Letting go of the reality of separate evil, and really accepting that the sitra achra is a side of Divinity, is easy on paper and very difficult in reality. Sitting in a cozy armchair, it’s possible to meditate on the unity of all being, even those which are horrible. But when one is in the midst of the horror, I suppose, it becomes a rather different enterprise, and much closer to the ideal of the saint.
Still, to the extent it is possible to do so, the notion is indeed life-changing. Everything is a flavor of Divinity — we may naturally want more hesed and less gevurah, and indeed, the Kabbalah contains thousands of incantations, intentions, and actions to shift the balance in just that way. But even the dinim, the harsh judgments which we experience, are a side of the Divine manifestation. I think all of us can find the edge of tolerance in this area. Some endure life-threatening traumas and yet are able to maintain the wider view. Personally, I can lose my proper perspective after only mild physical violence. Perhaps the right work on the self is to find the edge and expand it, gradually allowing more of God to exist without forgetting. This does not remove the imperative to fight against evil, of course — only the constriction and delusion which can sometimes accompany it.