Talking about moral absolutes is a challenge. It’s especially tricky in the modern era, when everything is up for discussion. But are some things beyond argument?
Evil was introduced the moment God looked at Creation and “saw that it was good!” For the existence of good implies the existence of evil, just as big implies small and cold implies hot. Everything implies its opposite. So, yes, absolute evil exists, no less than absolute good.
Today, absolute evil flourishes in clever guises: for instance, distorted versions of social equality, or the officially sanctioned proliferation of outright lies and their costly consequences for the economic and physical well-being of entire communities. This form of evil is of the worst sort, since it is deceptively camouflaged by rhetoric disguised as humanitarian concern and compassion. Even the serpent in the Garden of Eden could not match the evil of draping the wool over the eyes of an entire population and allowing it to slip-slide into passive naiveté. Dishonesty and deception have time and again caused the fall of great civilizations.
Rabbi Gershon Winkler
Walking Stick Foundation
As a humanist, I don’t believe in absolute anything. Nor do I see evil as a metaphysical reality that is somehow outside our own actions. Only behavior can be judged as good or evil. Motivations are irrelevant. Hitler is considered the embodiment of evil, so let’s apply this to him. Was he driven by evil? Not according to him or his followers. As difficult as it is for us to understand, they believed he was doing good. I don’t think it matters. He and his followers allowed their beliefs to silence their empathy and moral senses. They turned off their consciences.
There certainly exist a small number of people whose brains are damaged so that they have little or no empathy and no path to moral decision-making. But most evildoers think they’re doing the right thing. They’re not partaking in some metaphysical realm of “pure evil.” They’re surrendering their consciences to damaging dogmas and ideologies. Fortunately, as a social species, humankind comes equipped with the ability to oppose evil by doing good. Doing so requires us to examine what motivates our behaviors, to reject any beliefs that foster hate and harm and to actively engage our sense of right and wrong. In other words, it demands that we develop our consciences.
Rabbi Jeffrey L. Falick
Birmingham Temple Congregation for Humanistic Judaism
Farmington Hills, MI
Our rabbis condemned relatively few individuals as completely unworthy. Only three kings of ancient Israel and four prominent commoners are identified by name as having no place in the World to Come. Almost 2,000 years later, we surely have many more eligible candidates. Evil today looks much like evil in the past—we know it when we experience or witness murderous, malicious, dominance-seeking behavior. The traditional Jewish notion is that each individual faces a constant choice between an internal yetzer ha-tov (good inclination) and yetzer ha-ra (evil inclination).
Interestingly, modern neuroscience echoes this in describing the constant interaction between our frontal cortex (do the right thing) and our amygdala (fear! danger! lash out!).
But there are some differences from the past. We have vastly expanded our notions of whose lives matter and greatly reduced our tolerance for evil. And we are savvier about how evil comes about: how traumatic brain injuries and abuse at an early age can impede the development of the frontal cortex and prevent people from being able to choose right over wrong; how religions and cultures can foster an “us vs. them” attitude, and how hormones can intensify those attitudes in the brain. Responsibility for evil rests not just on the individual but on the society that either nurtures or harms its children, that broadcasts messages of compassion to its young folk or incites them to hatred, that upholds or undercuts human dignity in the workplace and public sphere. More than ever we can appreciate why the Yom Kippur recitation of evil acts is a communal confession.
Rabbi Gilah Langner
Congregation Kol Ami
In the words of Lady Blanche Balfour, as quoted by Kabbalah scholar Gershom Scholem: “Lord, preserve us from the dangers of metaphysical hair-splitting and unnecessary brooding on the origin of evil.” Indeed, philosophers and theologians have often split hairs on this question. And yet we continue to ask it because the pain and suffering that result from evil are all too real. And for Jews living after the Holocaust, the reality of absolute evil lives deep in our psyches.
For me the insights of Jewish mysticism provide a helpful framework for understanding evil. According to Gershom Scholem, “the nature of evil [in Kabbalah] is therefore the separation and isolation of those things that should be united.” Symbolically, this is represented as the separation between the “tree of life” and the “tree of knowledge.” Everything we do, create and believe as humans who reside within the sphere of “tree of knowledge” must also be connected to the sphere of “tree of life.” When the spheres are radically disconnected, there is the potential for evil.
“Although the human mind inclines toward evil, we are not inherently evil.”
Another way of expressing this is that evil exists where there is absolutely no empathy and no teshuvah. We see such evil where people who are under the absolute power of others are severely harmed in body, psyche and soul. This includes the torture of those held in captivity as well as the severe abuse and exploitation of children and other vulnerable beings such as animals. When we see the connection between our souls and the souls of other beings, as well as the divine soul, the potential for evil is diminished.
Rabbi Caryn Broitman
Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center
Vineyard Haven, MA
After more than a year floating in the ark with his family and all the animals, Noah emerges and builds an altar in honor of Adonai. Upon receiving the gifts of the altar, the Torah recounts, “Adonai thought: Never again will I bring doom upon the world on account of what people do, since the human mind inclines to evil from youth onward…” (Genesis 8:21). This verse tells us that although the human mind inclines toward evil—and may actually lead toward evil deeds or behaviors—we are not inherently evil. Absolute evil does not exist. Rather, human beings have free will.
So, if we have the inclination to do good or evil, then why would someone choose evil? That is a much harder question to answer. Our sources say the evil inclination is the root of our creativity, ambition to succeed and sex drive. Yet those who succumb to their evil inclination may lose their moral compass, turning away from God. This is why so much of the Torah and Jewish tradition contain the structures, commandments and instructions that will lead us toward choosing goodness, justice and righteousness.
Rabbi Dr. Laura Novak Winer
This question can be addressed conceptually or practically. I think it wise to leave the conceptual side to the philosophers. Rabbis have to address practical issues. I would ask: “Are there people so absolutely evil that they are irredeemable?”
Jewish tradition has long debated this question. We are taught that God will forgive us for all of our sins, if only we repent. And yet something inside us may tell us that some people’s sins are so egregious that they should never be forgiven. This perspective can be harmful to all parties involved. As a rabbi I believe my role is to open my heart and match din, judgment, with hesed, kindness or compassion, to create a path toward teshuvah, repentance. The very idea of teshuvah insists that human beings are capable of repenting. People have the capacity to change, if they are so inclined. Teshuvah can help guide the penitent through the journey of full repentance and atonement.
The prophet Isaiah reminds us:
“For this to Me is like the waters of Noah:
As I swore that the waters of Noah
Nevermore would flood the earth,
So I swear that I will not
Be angry with you or rebuke you.
For the mountains may move
And the hills be shaken,
But my loyalty shall never move from you,
Nor my Covenant of friendship be shaken
Said the Lord, who takes you back in love.”
Rabbi Amy Wallk Katz
Temple Beth El
After the Shoah, we know that absolute evil exists, not as an independent force (like a Satan) but as a system created and carried out by human beings. After the Shoah, I hesitate to use this label too freely, lest I cheapen it and undermine the taboo.
Yet upon consideration, where Hamas wants to commit genocide on Jewry, where its adherents primarily target civilians, where they elevate suicide and life-undermining terror as good things, they are close to absolute evil. The Chinese genocide of the Uighurs and the Myanmar military’s throttling of society through killing and intimidation are up there, too. The quiet grinding down of life and dignity in Russia by Vladimir Putin gives me many of the same vibes. All of us need to consciously review the globe, identify incipient evil and fight it as much as we can.
Rabbi Yitz Greenberg
J.J. Greenberg Center for Jewish Life/Hadar Institute
New York, NY
I’m not sure absolute evil exists, but two insights can help us at least approach the concept. One, from the world of mussar, or ethics, says that before Adam and Eve ate from the forbidden tree—that is, before man’s separation from God—we could see good and evil clearly and they did represent absolutes. But after the tree, there would always be a murkiness: Everything in our experience would have good and evil intermingled.
The kabbalists teach that there are 49 levels of holiness, culminating in a 50th level, the highest, which is largely inaccessible to human beings. Likewise, there are 49 levels of degradation, but some kabbalists say that unlike with holiness, there is no 50th level, because without some spark of the presence of God, nothing could exist.
Putting these two ideas together, and envisioning absolute evil as a sort of asymptote—where you can get infinitely close to a certain point but never reach it—I would say absolute evil would have to be completely devoid of God’s presence or consciousness or of any possible saving grace. You would have to imagine acts of truly despicable and wanton cruelty of human beings toward other human beings, held as such by virtually all of mankind at the time when they are committed. Some gang wars might qualify, or some actions by governments against their own people. Maybe ISIS, though some people argue that even ISIS acted partly out of some warped belief in God. (That’s been debunked—most ISIS members weren’t religious.) But people who think that absolute evil is voting Republican or voting Democratic are hyperventilating.
Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein
Los Angeles, CA
Absolute or close to absolute evil does exist, and although it might wear different clothes, it has remained essentially the same since the dawn of human civilization. The root of all evil is the lack of empathy. Indifference to the emotions, needs and suffering of others could lead to violent crimes, torture, enslavement, wars, corruption and more.
J.K. Rowling captured this concept in her novels when she pitted Lord Voldemort against Harry Potter. One was incapable not only of loving but of understanding how people love, while the other was the boy who survived because of his mother’s love.
We cannot defeat or annihilate absolute evil, but we can chip away at its power by teaching ourselves and others to love. The Torah tells us to love others as we love ourselves. We have to appreciate and acknowledge our special place in the world and our unique talents, yet those should not drive us to arrogance and a sense of superiority. Rather, we should strive to realize our potential and be the best we can in order to help others do the same. We must find what we have in common and not what sets us apart, and we should be able to say, every single day, that we contributed to making this world a little better.
Rabbi Haim Ovadia
I was just five years old when I came home to discover that my mother had been assaulted and murdered in our Crown Heights home. Since that moment, when I came face to face with evil of the worst kind, I have grappled with it. How could I move forward after experiencing the human cruelty that tore my innocent life apart?
To write large chunks of our world off as absolute evil may be tempting, as it means walking away without even attempting to uplift it. But what purpose does that leave for us, G-d’s ambassadors for good in His world?
As I matured, I gained perspective and took comfort in the Hasidic teaching that virtually nothing in this world is entirely evil or good. We are thus given the opportunity, and indeed the obligation, to uplift everything we encounter by uncovering and elevating the sparks of G-dliness that are at the core of everything
As empowering and enlightening as that is, I acknowledge that the painful and traumatic loss of my mother was caused by evil that continues to bring pain and suffering to so many, and I pine for the day when the Almighty will remove evil from the world—with the coming of Moshiach, and may it be soon.
Rabbi Avraham Lapine
Chabad-Lubavitch at University of Missouri