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The Nature of Evil

Remarks by Eugen Schoenfeld, PhD
Kol Nidre 5765
Shema Yisrael - The Open Synagogue

"Professor, given all the evil you experienced in the concentrations camp, did it have any affect on your beliefs?" This question was directed to me by a young female student in a local university where I delivered a lecture on the holocaust. The question is a legitimate one. This and similar questions have been asked for millennia, namely, how can a God, who is supposed to be merciful and forgiving permit, if not directly ordain, that ultimate of all evils, the Holocaust, the destruction of Jews who according to traditional belief are His people?

The problem is founded in the Jewish conception of God (as a matter of fact similarly the Christian perspective} that God as the king of the universe is the cause of all causes. Nothing, we are taught, occurs outside of his will. This view is, for instance, central in our Holy Day prayers. In the orthodox and conservative synagogues we recite during the Mussaf services the prayer composed by Rabbi Amnon (Netane Tokef) in which the author proclaims that on this day (i.e. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) God decides who shall live and who shall die and in what manner the person will die. On that day we also recite in front of an open ark: Our Father our King inscribe us in the book of good life. All these prayers clearly indicate a belief that God determines our fate individually and collectively. Surely, therefore, the holocaust could have not existed outside of His will.

We are also taught that God is not only a merciful God but also a just and moral who rewards righteousness and punishes the wicked. In Psalm 145 (known as Ashrei) we recite that God is just and righteous in all his acts, that God guards all those who love him and destroys all the evil doers. Of course one could cite many more verses in which these views are repeated. If this is what God is, how come, some may have asked in the last two millennia, why has evil flourished and why have the just suffered? Why has God departed from the moral requirements that He seeks in us? How could He have permitted, if not decreed, the existence of the Holocaust?

Because evil continues to exist and its existence seemingly stands in a diametric opposition to what we believe and hope to be Godís nature, tradition has offered explanations for this seeming paradox. These explanations center around following themes: first, that what we perceive as evil, is the way God tests us, second, that evil is a punishment for wrong doing, and, third because of our ignorance of Godís ways we are unable to put it into a proper perspective.

Let us begin with the explanation that is centered around and rooted in the idea of being tested (Nisayon). In Genesis we are told that God wished to test Abrahamís faith and thus asked him to sacrifice Isaac. Similarly God also tested Jobís steadfastness of faith. Evil things happen as Godís design to test of our faith. Therefore, one whose faith is strong and unwavering will pass the imposed test and will merit future reward. What is difficult to understand is, why does God need to impose tests? As a teacher I have tested students because I didnít know what they knew. But isnít God an all knowing entity? Does He not know oneís innermost recesses of our hearts (chadrey kílayoth)? Is He not aware of each personís degree and sincerity of faith? Is He not aware whether oneís religion and faith is genuine and intrinsic or false and extrinsic? Does He require proof by placing in front of us temptations and stumbling blocks?

In our legal system, when the prosecution deliberately confronts a person with temptation or any other jeopardy designed to lead one astray, the law considers it entrapment and hence illegal. Does God need to resort to the type of action which we humans consider not only illegal but also immoral? Of course while this type of explanation was perhaps adequate for earlier times it is quite inadequate today and thus I believe does not apply to the holocaust. I cannot believe or accept that the holocaust was a nissayon ---a test.

Another common theological explanation for evil is that it is a punishment for sins. When Job, for instance, lost his family, wealth and health was told by his friends confess you sins and God will perhaps forgive you and you will be spared all the evil that has befallen him . How often do we read in the prophets that the destruction of Israel, Judea and the Temple were punishments for the sins committed by the nation. We are also told, however, that God doesnít punish the righteous with the transgressors. Yet, the holocaust was an event where the righteous and the sinful, the young and innocent together with older and the guilty died in the same gas chamber. Clearly, the concept of Godís punishment is inappropriate to explain the holocaust.

Then, of course, there is the argument of faith. Traditionally Jews have responded to personal tragedies by saying "this too is for the best." This reflects the perspective that we cannot understand Godís intent and purpose and hence we must accept suffering as being essentially good, even though, at the moment we cannot ascertain itís goodness. This view is founded in Godís response to Job when he sought tp make sense and give reason for his suffering; where God declares that His reasons are not known to humans, and, that we must accept what ever happens in our life in the belief that, although unknown to us, God that has His reason and purpose.

The problem associated with these perspectives is that it relieves the evil doer from the responsibility of his deeds. After all, if what has happened has been foreordained by God, then, the evil doer cannot be blamed, after all, he merely fulfills his ordained destiny. As my grandmother would have said "vuss ist beshert is beshert," namely what has been foreordained is foreordained. If we accept any of the above modes of explanation for evil then we must also accept the notion that Hitler was merely Godís instrument. Just as Pharaohís heart was hardened by God in order to serve His own purposes, so one could argue, Hitlerís heart too was hardened by God and he had no other recourse than fulfill his preordained destiny.

This clearly is not an acceptable view. There is a difference between accepting God as a universal force and a source of wisdom that helps us to distinguish between good and evil and an anthropomorphic God who is a micro manager of the human world. I can understand the human desire for the latter. After all if one accepts the micro managerial view of God then it follows that God can change that what which he has ordained. Again, as we state on the High Holy Days: Repentance, prayer and charity will alter the evil decree. We can change Godís mind.

Such a view reduces God to an entity much like a human being who can be manipulated, persuaded, cajoled, in short, we humanize God and make Him less than the eternal and transcendental entity He/She is. While an anthropomorphic view of God is comforting, it is not, however, a view that reflects His transcendental nature. Rabbi Kushner in his now famous book (When bad things happen to good people) has elaborated his reasons why such a view does not conform with both reality and true theology.

I would like, to propose, that the reason for evil can be ascertained if we accept the idea that the human world, namely, the social world in which we exist has neither been established nor foreordained by God. It is purely a human construct. This view is not contrary to Biblical and traditional teachings. To the contrary, it is rooted in it. We are told in Genesis that after God has created mankind He proclaimed: be fruitful, multiply and have dominion over the earth. This passage fits very well with the rabbinical concept "tzimtzum" Godís shrinkage. Legend holds that when God decided to create the universe it was filled with His presence and there wasnít room into which create a world. God, therefore, shrunk and withdrew Him/Herself from the space which then left a void into which He/She created a world. Having removed Him/Herself from the space in which a human world was created He/She then turned it over to mankind to have dominion over it. Once we have acquired dominion, it becomes our task to rule and make the world a human world. It is in such a world - a world ruled by humans - that the concept "tikun" makes sense. Since it is our world, a human world, we and not God are responsible for all that occurs in it -- whether good or bad.

Of course we were not left without some guidance how to live in this world. We were given the two principles for a moral world. They are justice and mercy. When we violate these two principles we create evil. Adherence to or rejection of these principles is not predetermined, it is the consequence of free will. . God has nothing to do whether a person or a nation is righteous or evil. The righteous persons are those who accept and observe the rights of others, namely adheres to the principle of justice. By and large the principle of justice requires that all people be given equal access to life the deprivation of such access is therefore injustice or evil. Mercy is love in action, it is our ability to love another as ourselves to emphasize with others, to be able to place ourselves in the otherís place and understand his action from his point of view. It is this that the Torah really means when it declares Godís word: Behold I give you today good and evil life and death therefore chose life. In this sense the actions that constitute the holocaust were the consequence of free choices of a man and his nation. .Both he and his actions are evil because he rejected the foundation of morality Godís principles of justice and mercy. We cannot blame God for its occurrence. It was purely the result of decisions and choices of people. Therefore, it is incumbent on us to learn to distinguish between right and wrong and between just and unjust. I hope that we parents will not delegate the responsibility of teaching our children moral precepts to others but do as the Torah commends us - víhigadta lbinchah - that we shall tell our children that we assume the responsibility of transmitting to our children our beliefs and our moral ideals.

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