Dealing With The Problem Of Evil

Perhaps more so than any other topic, the “Problem of Evil,” as it has been dubbed by theologians, threatens to compromise one’s faith.

In the United States alone close to 600,000 people die annually of cancer, 33,000 as a result of firearms, and a third of all women in the workplace report some form of sexual assault. Equally disturbing are the stories which consume a majority of the news we read: disease wiping out entire communities and inflicting pain and suffering on individuals; genocide maliciously targeting mostly peaceful groups of people; hate crimes based on old prejudice preventing new communal developments; discrimination baselessly dismissing individuals because of who they are; extremists commandeering governments and nations subjecting those within its domain to regulation and ideology which revoke their own; wars tearing families and people apart, all too often for unnecessary reasons; natural disasters wiping out homes and entire ways of life in the blink of an eye. The list, sadly, goes on.

These events, then, pose a tremendous question for those of us who trust with conviction the eternal and complete truth of the Torah, and thus by extension the verse that reads “the Lord is righteous in all his ways (Psalms 145:17).” Most clearly, R. Jonathan Sacks poses our dilemma thus:

Either God cannot prevent evil, or He chooses not to. If He cannot, He is not all-powerful. If He can, but chooses not to, then He is not all good.

Left unanswered, particularly against such dramatic spikes in evil occurrences worldwide, we can expect nothing short of both a defamation of God’s name, as well as a deep psychological dissonance for thinking Man. Therefore, to truly believe in a God that is good, we must reconcile the implicit challenge of evil that stands before us. To do this, an unapologetic treatment of the Problem of Evil is in order.

In Our Lexicon

The Jewish people are no strangers to evil. Both within the Biblical narrative, as well as since the formal sealing of the canon, throughout history the Jewish people have experienced more evil than any other nation. On a national front, suffering as slaves in Egypt, Jews were subjected to cruel labor, the attempted genocidal elimination of all its male babies, and more. In other instances, Biblical characters like Dina experienced a more personal confrontation with evil when she was disturbingly sexually assaulted. Unfortunately, with the sealing of the Tanach, evil has not ceased to stalk the Jewish people. Taking the form of pogroms, blood libels, and most recently the greatest crime against humanity — the Holocaust — evil remains a strong and almost never ceasing force, always confronting our nation.

This theme, though, is not just observable in retrospect. Many rabbinic figures and theologians point out that several narratives in the Torah make no attempt to ignore this reality. Many suggest that it recognizes the implicit dilemma created by the Problem of Evil, pointing to endless examples within the lexicon of our tradition that underscores evil as an existential question of faith. Some even suggest that the Problem of Evil is the core theme of the entire Biblical narrative.

The confrontation of evil makes bold and dramatic appearances in all three section of Tanach. To name just a few examples: in the Torah itself Moses confronts and cries out to God (Exodus 5:22), and as we journey through Nach, our topic appears in major ways in the books of Jeremiah and Habakkuk; King David recognizes the issue as well, and finally the Book of Job provides us with what has become the most explicit paradigm of evil in the world, particular as it is experienced on the individual front. At its apex, and in a dramatic demonstration of celestial encounter, it is revealed to Job that his questioning of justice was correct, and those who attempted to defend God by turning a blind eye were wrong for so doing.

Still, though, we are left unsettled. Far from treating the issue, the strong presence of the Problem of Evil in our lexicon does little more than reinforce its existence. Thus, we are left uncomfortable. Returning to our original question, we might be tempted to conclude, as we stated above, that either God cannot prevent evil, or that He simply chooses not to.

Attempts at Treating the Issue

In expanded treatment of our dilemma in his book The Great Partnership, R. Dr. Jonathan Sacks submits that in attempting to resolve this issue, people usually deal with this question in one of three ways:

  1. The otherworldly response: In heaven we will encounter eternal peace. There, the evil which fills us with fear will be barred from entry; and although this world is bad, God is to be found in the next world, not this one. The evil of this world is merely a façade, and all will be made clear and fair in the World to Come.

  2. Suffering, and by extension evil, is an invitation to do good; a call to action to become a more charitable person, and care for others.

  3. With so much suffering in the world around us, there simply must be no God.

Each of these approaches offers what they can to help resolve the Problem of Evil. However, one cannot help but walk away feeling as if there is merely a band-aid over the issue rather than a resolution to the true underlying theological dilemma. This is because the first two of the aforementioned suggestions are certainly apologetic, and circumvent dealing with the issue at hand, and the last is blatantly anti-religious. How can our issue therefore be resolved?

Confronting the Issue

Maimonides, in The Guide For The Perplexed (3:12), offers what is perhaps the most compelling response to our questions. He begins by dividing all evil into three categories:

  1. The evil we do unto ourselves.

  2. The evil that humans commit to other humans.

  3. The evil that follows necessarily from the fact that we are physical beings living in a physical world.

The evil we do unto ourselves: In his view, this manifestation of evil is most widespread. It comes into being when, for whatever reason, we, either passively or actively, engage in behavior that is detrimental to our health. Take, for example, the middle-aged woman whom, in her jammed-packed day at the top of Corporate America, cannot find the time to maintain a steady cardiac regiment. This is unhealthy, because in addition to everyone needing the proper amount of exercise, her genetic pre-disposition to heart conditions requires even more upkeep. Years later she finds herself waking up in a hospital wing. Scared and worried she cries out to God and wonders why He remained passive in matters of her health.

As simple as it might sound, this form of evil categorically falls away as any theological issue at all. This is because at the core of her struggle, ironic as it may be, it is her very own — and not God’s — passivity that brought her to this place of danger and suffering. Thus, when we take the time to take care of ourselves we can combat and categorically remove this form of evil.

The evil that humans commit to other humans: This form of evil finds its way to the front pages of the news all too often. It starts from a dispute, or perhaps even a mere miscommunication. Yet, in the blink of an eye, the difference between two views on any given issue can spiral out of control. Like the first in a long sequence of dominos that has been pushed over, we look up and in only an instant find a person, a people, a city, a region, or in serval instances over the course of history, a majority of the world enveloped in raging conflict.

Chazal, in Midrash Bereishis Rabbah, offer the most compelling response by way of parable. We shall paraphrase as follows, following the reading of R. Jonathan Sacks: Abraham sees a palace. It is a metaphorical projection of order in this world. Like the palace, the world itself has a builder/creator of sorts, but the palace Abraham sees is in flames. Thus, the world, full of disorder, is depicted by the flames. Now, no one builds a building — let alone a palace — and deserts it to be consumed by fire. If there is a fire then there must be someone to put it out; the building must have an owner! But where is he? Where is God amidst the flames?

Traditional resolutions to this problem often take one of the following two directions:

  1. Morality/order, and thus the flames, are objective. In this view, to be moral is to conform.

  2. Morality/order, and thus the flames, are subjective. In this view, to be moral is to be true to yourself.

Nazi Germany embodied both these perspectives. German citizens took to the first answer because their leaders took to the second; for them, to be moral was to conform. The Nazis — specifically Hitler — trusted with conviction that morality is subjective; for the Nazis to be moral was to be true to themselves. R. Dr. Jonathan Sacks was right when he said that “adherence to either of these views has yielded disastrous results.” It is, of course, no wonder then that Nazi Germany’s adherence to both these views was responsible for the worst crime against humanity in the history of civilization.

Unlike the two aforementioned perspectives, though, Judaism offers a third possibility: It suggests that morality, and thus order, are the result of a covenantal partnership — even marriage, if you will — between God and Man. When returning to our midrash, we understand it as follows: God created order which is symbolized by the palace. God, seeking a relationship, created a being capable of self-consciousness, and the freedom and ability to choose. Man, having this ability, uses it. He sets fire to the palace, setting the world aflame. God, in His infinite power, can, but might not, put out that fire, for if He does then Man is no longer free. A finite being — Man — is not free in a world in which an infinite power intervenes to prevent him acting and later facing the consequences of said actions. Only Man can put out the fire, but we are not alone. God speaks to Man through the Torah and tells us how to extinguish the flames.

Morality is not factual (how things are), nor subjective (how we desire them to be), but covenantal. This is as if to say: God gives his word to Man, and together we begin in the task of tikkun olam, repairing the world; taking a stand against inhumane acts, as well as setting a never-changing standard and reinforcing it by registering protest against trespasses against it. Although often neither easy nor popular, Judaism’s values and convictions — and, by extension, its practices — were, are, and will always be the revolutionary point at which Man refuses to accept the world that is.

This belief is a fundamental pillar of our faith; its echoes are found throughout our lexicon. So often do such ideas surface in Jewish liturgy that we may ironically forget to recognize their presence in our regular religious practice. R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik understood this well and suggested that we connect to this theme on a weekly basis. Each week, at the start of Shabbos, we recite kiddush and bear witness to the original act of Creation stating “ויכלו השמים והארץ וכל צבאם,” or “Then the heavens and the Earth were completed in all their array.” R. Soloveitchik points out that, interestingly, Targum Onkelos translates the word “ויכלו” — most commonly rendered as “finished” — as “perfected.” In this observation lies a priceless insight: Creation is never complete. Like the original Creation, we must strive to perfect the world. In our imperfect world, we find meaning in the potential perfection of every imperfection.

As noble as it may be, however, this pursuit is not without risk. In his classic work God, Man, and History, R. Eliezer Berkovits points out that with each possibility for improvement, and each step towards perfection, comes the potential to fail. It is there, tucked away in the potential to fail, that the seed of evil rests, waiting to be watered.

This, then, in the most straightforward sense, is a fundamental task of our lives; that is, to move towards perfection and extinguish the flames of evil. It is here that we resolve the challenge of evil with the understanding and empowerment of free will. The journey to our destination is a long one, unattainable by rushing or taking shortcuts, instead requiring us to lead by example, always oriented and led by the one and ultimate Truth. In R. Jonathan Sacks’ words: “It is here that the world that is begins to look like the world that ought to be.”

The evil that follows necessarily from the fact that we are physical beings living in a physical world: It was but a short while ago that a massive storm swept through the islands of the Caribbean and up the coast of the United States. The result: tragedy. The storm took thousands of lives, and displaced and disoriented far more. Hurricanes and other natural disasters are a tremendous calamity. Earthquakes, tsunamis, and landslides can be just as severe, and the list of such disasters goes on. Like everything, though, such events must be taken in context.

In his elucidation of Maimonides’ comments regarding this type of evil, R. Jonathan Sacks presents an extraordinary insight: Far from being some sort of precise Divine act, it may very well just be that tsunamis and the like occur because the land mass of earth rests on moving tectonic plates. Sometimes, as a product of their constant motion, they shift and/or collide with one another creating earthquakes and giant waves. In a similar vein, hurricanes are part of a series of weather patterns. Occasionally, time and circumstance stimulate these patterns to create “the perfect storm.” Had such conditions never existed, though, we would never have developed as a human race. Regions would not rest in the parts of the globe that they do. Perhaps moisture, and by extension rain, would never reach those who need it.

The paradox of such evil collapses upon itself, because it is not evil at all — it is a product of the very same aspects of our lives that are responsible for the most elementary parts of our day: the water we drink and the air that we breath. Indeed, with some thought, it becomes apparent that much of what is apparent evil is rather a necessary byproduct of a physical and finite world.


Religious leaders are often all too quick to dismiss the question of the Problem of Evil by traditionally explaining that we simply cannot understand God, and that if we could we would be God. As such, they explain, we must simply accept the evil in the world as that which we do not understand.

This, though, is not Judaism’s answer to the Problem of Evil. Arguably the greatest leader in the history of all of mankind, Moses, did not take this view. Instead, he famously argued with God, asking “Why have you done evil to this people? Why did you send me? (Exodus 5:22)” His successors Jeremiah, Habakkuk, and Job expressed similar sentiments hundreds of years later. Today, the struggle to understand evil is no less real or important.

We suggested herein that in response to the evil that we do unto ourselves, each other, and experience from living in the physical world in which we find ourselves, Maimonides’ response is most relevant. In short, he suggests taking better care of ourselves, demanding a standard of morality which originates from the Torah, registering protest against those who attempt to refute its morality, and finally recognizing the fact that, whether we like it or not, our physical world is made of up of many necessary components, not all of them wholly positive.

Here, then, one final point made by R. Jonathan Sacks becomes relevant. In one of his books he recalls an old Jewish joke…

The time: 1938. The place: a travel agency in Germany. A Jew enters the store and tells the woman at the desk he would like to purchase a ticket to a foreign country. “Where to?” the travel agent asks. “What are you offering?” replies the Jew. The travel agent passes the Jew a globe. He turns the globe slowly, looking at country after country, knowing that each has closed its doors to people of his faith. He pushes the globe back the clerk and says “Don’t you have another world?”

Perhaps ours is not always the world we would have chosen, but it is the only one that we have. Either we resign ourselves to the evil it contains, or we register a protest against it. Here we meet faith, our guide in response to the Problem of Evil.

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