Introduction The study of evil in Creation requires a clear and unambiguous definition of evil as a concept and an act (actualization).
Despite the abundance of philosophical and theological works covering the problem of evil to this day, there is no clear definition of evil.
There is a trend in contemporary philosophy described as skepticism of evil, the proponents of which advocate for discarding the very notion of evil due to the lack of a precise definition. Their opponents argue that, if so, the notion of Good should then also be discarded for the same reason. Plotinus, the progenitor of the philosophical thought system known as Neoplatonism, writes, “those embarking upon the study of evil must begin by giving an accurate definition of what evil is.” Contemporary philosopher Eve Garrard puts it this way: “The general obscurity surrounding the term makes some thinkers very reluctant to appeal to the idea of evil.”
In this paper, we will consider the existing definitions of evil and its various categories. The author will venture his own definition of evil which, in the author’s view, is the only correct definition and one that is devoid of ambiguity.
Existing definitions of evil
All extant definitions of evil are imprecise, obscure, and subjective. Let us take a close look at them.
1 - The Cambridge Dictionary defines evil as “something that is very bad and harmful.”
The Merriam-Webster definition of evil is “the fact of suffering, misfortune, and wrongdoing,” or “something that brings sorrow, distress, or calamity.”
2 - The Collins English Dictionary states that “Evil is a powerful force that some people believe to exist, and which causes wicked and bad things to happen,” or “Evil is used to refer to all the wicked and bad things that happen in the world.”
3 - In the ancient Greek philosophy of Plato, Aristotle, and the Neoplatonists, the prevailing thought was that evil is ‘the absence or privation of good.’
4 - Some other frequently encountered thoughts on evil are that evil equals any limitation of the human being’s freedom of choice, and whether something is or is not evil is relative and entirely conditional on the observer.
4 - All the above definitions are blurred, ambivalent, incomplete, subjective, and easy to refute.Speaking of the definition of evil, it is important to distinguish between evil as an informational concept and evil as an act that actualizes that concept in the world.
Definition of evil
I believe that the following system of statements gives a clear, straightforward, and all-encompassing definition of evil and its actualizations:
1 - Evil (and any actualization of evil) is constituted by the transgression of at least one of the 613 commandments of the Torah (or of those commandments of the Torah that can be observed today).
2 - There are no evil acts (actualizations of evil) that do not involve the transgression of at least one of the 613 commandments of the Torah.
3 - Therefore, the transgression of at least one commandment of the Torah is the requisite and necessary condition for the actualization of evil.
The above system of statements is succinct, conclusive, and impartial.
First, reductio ad absurdum.
If we assumed that there exist evil deeds or acts unrelated to the transgression of any commandment of the Torah, we would necessarily have to infer that such evil deeds can be committed with impunity, that the list of commandments is incomplete, and that, by giving us the commandments, the Lord had failed in the task of restraining us from actualizing evil. All the above conclusions are absurd and, therefore, the assumption is also absurd.
Explanation: The commandments of the Torah are of a ‘higher’ provenance than the Torah proper. The commandments are a manifestation of Divine Will associated with the first Sefirah ‘Keter,’ while the Torah is the manifestation of the Creator’s Wisdom associated with the second Sefirah ‘Chokhmah.’
Adam was not aware of evil before original sin. After original sin, Adam was aware of evil and had already committed an evil act (an actualization). Therefore, we, descendants of Adam, are informed of the concept of evil, but we have a choice—whether or not to actualize it. In order to rule out the actualization of evil, the system of commandments is given to us, inter alia, to define how we should live. Thus, a person who observes all of the commandments of the Torah will not actualize any evil.
Lucas Cranach the Elder, Adam and Eve (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
In order to gain a deeper understanding of the above statements, let us defer to what two outstanding thinkers have had to say on the matter: Rabbi Moses ben Maimon (Maimonides), an exponent of the philosophy of Judaism, and Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi (Alter Rebbe), the founder of Chabad, and an exponent of Kabbalah
1. In his work The Guide for the Perplexed, Maimonides writes:
“The general object of the Law is twofold: the well-being of the soul, and the well-being of the body. The well-being of the soul is promoted by correct opinions communicated to the people according to their capacity... The well-being of the body is established by a proper management of the relations in which we live one to another. This we can attain in two ways: first, by removing all violence from our midst... Secondly, by teaching every one of us such good morals as must produce a good social state.
Of these two objects, the one, the well-being of the soul...comes undoubtedly first in rank, but the other, the well-being of the body... is anterior in nature...”
In the same work, Maimonides further writes: “The Law... has for its purpose to give us the twofold perfection. It aims first at the establishment of good mutual relations among men by removing injustice and creating the noblest feelings.”
Maimonides then quotes from the Book of Deuteronomy: “And the Lord commanded us to do all these statutes... for our good always, that he might preserve us alive…” (Deut.vi.24).
In conclusion, Maimonides writes: “The reason of a commandment... is clear... if it directly tends to remove injustice, or to teach good conduct that furthers the well-being of society, or to impart a truth which ought to be believed... as being indispensable for facilitating the removal of injustice or the teaching of good morals.”
It follows from these reflections that a person who observes all the 613 commandments will have correct opinions and views, high moral qualities, a commitment to justice and wisdom not to commit evil deeds.
It is obvious that this elevated state of the soul is incompatible with the existence of any other evil deeds that are not expressly prohibited by the commandments.
2. In his work Torah Ohr, the Alter Rebbe writes: “...From the observation of the properties of the human body, it is well known that when vitality circulates properly from the heart to the organs and back, one feels perfectly healthy. But once the circulation of blood is disrupted, whether on account of the insufficient capacity of the blood vessels or the mutilation of an organ, the connection of the organs to the heart will weaken, and the person, G-d forbid, may begin to feel ill and in need of treatment.
The same holds true for man’s spiritual life: his spiritual pursuits through the day draw vitality to him like blood is drawn from the heart to the organs of the body. Thus the commandments correlate with the body in the following way: the 365 negative commandments correspond to the 365 blood vessels, and the 248 positive commandments correspond to the 248 body parts... Torah study, prayer, and various other positive pursuits are often ascribed with the power to suffuse the heart with divine vitality... But when a commandment is transgressed, this exerts the same effect upon the vital soul as the mutilation of an organ would upon the body, restraining the blood flow and impeding the inflow of blood to the heart. In this eventuality, one falls ill with a disease of the soul.”
It follows from the Alter Rebbe’s thoughts that the status of a man who observes all precepts of the Torah cannot countenance any evil act that is not categorized as ‘sin,’ that is to say, does not transgress any precept of the Torah. The presence of any such evil act would, perish the thought, render all precepts of the Torah useless.
The second piece of evidence
The Creator of a concept knows His concept.Explanation:
To us, the notion of knowledge means external identification with the object we study. Its depth may vary, yet it is never full. We get to know every object and phenomenon by its manifestation, its interaction with ourselves. However, we will never be able to comprehend the absolute essence of things. To us, they are as things-in-themselves of which Maimonides and the German philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote.
The Creator’s knowledge is qualitatively different from our knowledge. Maimonides writes of the Creator that “He is Knowledge, He is the Knower, and He is the Known.” In The Guide for the Perplexed, Maimonides gives the example of a clock: examining a clock, one will receive fresh knowledge of its form, color, and movements, but one will never acquire the same knowledge of the clock as the artisan who crafted it.
In his commentary to the Torah verse (in Bereshit), “And he rested on the seventh day,” Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, the Tannaitic sage who was a disciple of Rabbi Akiva, contends that we will never be able to determine the exact time when Sabbath arrives. Only He (the Lord) Who Knows His Time can know that.
We can and ought to generalize this statement: He (the Lord) Who Knows His Plan.
Collating all of the above, we can state that any concept and any information only exists insofar as it is known by the Creator. The concept of evil, also created by the Creator, naturally belongs in that category. Therefore, it would be logical to conclude that the Creator of the concept knows what restraints to put in place in order to prevent evil from being actualized.
Let us consider the categories of evil acts and deeds.
Contemporary philosophy has two views on the concept of evil: a broad one and a narrow one.
The broad view recognizes two categories: natural evils and moral evils. Evils that do not spring from the intent or negligence of a moral agent are categorized as natural evils. Moral evils, on the other hand, depend upon the intent or negligence of a moral agent.
The narrow view on evil only recognizes such evils that spring from the action or inaction of a moral agent.
Maimonides gives the following categorization of evil in The Guide for the Perplexed:
1. Evil related to the materiality of the world we live in (disease, death...)
2. Evil that man brings upon himself.
3. Evil that men do one to another.
Saadia ben Yosef (Saadia Gaon) names the following categories of evil:
1. Economic damage
2. Physical (bodily) damage
3. Moral damage (to the soul)
It is important to stress that the definition of evil given in this paper pertains solely to the action or inaction of moral agents. This writer believes that the above gradation of the forms of evil should be expanded.
With that in mind, let us consider the question of a putative opponent, which goes like this: ‘If a Jew ingests non-kosher food, thus transgressing a commandment of the Torah, is he thereby committing an evil act against any person, and if he is, then which person and how?’
The answer might presumably sound something like this: ‘By transgressing a commandment of the Torah (about ingesting impure foods), the Jew is bringing evil upon himself (and will be punished for it) but is not committing an evil act against any other person.’
This answer is wrong.
To present the right answer to the question posed, we will need to augment the above categorizations of evil with the following concept:
Evil that a person brings upon himself or others through action or inaction that changes the nature of information flows in Creation.
To clarify this statement, it will be necessary to examine the structure and key operating principles of the information space, review certain questions pertaining to the origins of the concept of evil and the purposes and functions of the various created worlds, and explain the notion of Hishtalshelut (the sequence of the informational evolution of Creation).
These matters will be examined in detail in the following chapters.
In concluding this paper, let us dwell on two points.
1 - Rabbi Tankhum Matusov of Monte Carlo drew my attention to a certain ma’amar, or teaching of the Seventh Lubavitch Rebbe. In this teaching, the Rebbe draws an analogy between our mission in life and the mission of the astronauts aboard the Apollo spaceship. The point the Rebbe is making is very plain. Three astronauts go on a space mission with strict instructions on how to make the mission a success. If one of the astronauts violates even one of the instructions, the entire mission will be disrupted even though the other two astronauts followed their instructions to a T. From this analogy, it becomes patently obvious that our mission in this world is to advance the Creator’s plan. We have been issued mission instructions to that end—the Torah and its commandments. Transgression by a Jew of a single commandment could threaten the entire mission. And the consequences will be felt by everyone, all Jewish people.
2 - The above is best illustrated by one episode from the Book of Joshua which relates to the taking of Jericho. Let us review it briefly.
Joshua said unto the people, “...the city shall be accursed, even it, and all that are therein, to the Lord... And ye, in any wise keep yourselves from the accursed thing, lest ye make yourselves accursed, when ye take of the accursed thing, and make the camp of Israel a curse, and trouble it.”
Further on, we read: “But the children of Israel committed a trespass in the accursed thing. Achan, the son of Carmi, the son of Zabdi, the son of Zerah, of the tribe of Judah, took of the accursed thing: and the anger of the Lord was kindled against the children of Israel.”
Then it came to pass that Joshua sent a troop of three thousand men to take the town of Ai, but the Jews suffered a defeat, and thirty-six people were killed. Joshua rent his clothes and prayed to the Lord. “And the Lord said unto Joshua, Get thee up; wherefore liest thou thus upon thy face? Israel hath sinned, and they have also transgressed my covenant which I commanded them: for they have even taken of the accursed thing, and have also stolen, and dissembled also, and they have put it even among their own stuff. Therefore, the children of Israel could not stand before their enemies but turned their backs before their enemies, because they were accursed. Neither will I be with you anymore, except ye destroy the accursed from among you. Up, sanctify the people, and say, Sanctify yourselves against tomorrow: for thus saith the Lord God of Israel, There is an accursed thing in the midst of thee, O Israel: thou canst not stand before thine enemies, until ye take away the accursed thing from among you.”
Joshua does the Lord’s will: “And Joshua, and all Israel with him, took Achan the son of Zerah, and the silver, and the garment, and the wedge of gold, and his sons, and his daughters, and his oxen, and his asses, and his sheep, and his tent, and all that he had: and they brought them unto the valley of Achor. And Joshua said, Why hast thou troubled us? The Lord shall trouble thee this day. And all Israel stoned him with stones, and burned them with fire, after they had stoned them with stones... So the Lord turned from the fierceness of his anger.”
An example as chilling as it is illuminating. I would only add the following: The fact that I have defined evil as something that a person brings upon himself or others through action or inaction in no way indicates that I consider myself to be on a higher moral or spiritual plane than others.
In conclusion, let me say that this paper is only concerned with the precepts of Judaism. What Christianity and Islam, the other Abrahamic religions – for which I have profound esteem –have to say on these matters is beyond the scope of this piece (to be continued).
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