Why Is There Evil in the World?

“It is the function of the righteous, the saintly ones in the world, to recognize that the pure light is too strong for the world to endure. Yet it must somehow illuminate the world. Therefore it is necessary for there to be many veils to soften the light, and these veils are what we know as evil and its causes….we who possess a limited perception of the light, do not have the ability to see that all evil is but a veil needed in order to adjust the flow of light.”

-from Lights of Return (Orot HaTeshuva) by Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook

Rav Zvi Yehuda Kook showed the above passage, taken from his father’s Lights of Return, to Rabbi Herbert Weiner, when the latter asked him about evil in the world.

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook was the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of British controlled Mandatory Palestine. Sadly, he never lived to see the foundation of the State of Israel. In Religious Zionist circles in Israel, he is commonly referred to as HaRav, or simply, “the Rabbi”. A passionate genius, he was expert in Talmud, Halakha, Jewish mysticism and philosophy, and was well versed in many areas of secular culture and thought. Unusually, his writings on all of these topics are often in poetry, as opposed to prose.

How can we reconcile apparent evil with an all-powerful and all-good God?

This is one suggested answer.

Notice, as Rabbi Weiner points out in his fascinating 9 1/2 Mystics, that according to this understanding, evil is not really bad. Rather, what seems to be evil is really a veil which allows good into the world. It is an integral part of the divine plan, and it accomplishes a good thing.

It only seems bad from a limited human perspective.

What do you think of this?

I’ve often heard students of R. Soloveitchik say that their attraction to his teachings came from the fact that he considered evil real.

On the other hand, it’s very difficult to account for evil in the world when it comes from a good God. Kol Dodi Dofek, the Rav’s  famous essay on the value of contemporary Zionism, emphasizes that we should react to evil and try and repair the damage from it. However, in his opinion, we should not focus on the “why” of evil, since it is beyond us. He therefore doesn’t really deal with the question that Rav Kook seeks to answer. This being the case, perhaps he would ultimately agree.


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Related Posts: Does God Protect Us? The Boy Who Fell from the Tree




by | June 10, 2013 · 8:35 am

14 responses to “Why Is There Evil in the World?

  1. Mordechai Robertson

    The best review (and resolution?) of this issue is IMHO to be found in “God and Evil” by David Birnbaum. The weakness of the kabbalistic opinion expressed by Rav Kook is: If evil is really concealed good, or a necessary concealment of good, without which good cannot exist, why are we commanded by the Torah to combat it?

    • Yitzchak Sprung

      It’s on my reading list. Would you like to post some solutions from it?

      It’s a strong question, but he might just answer that we’re commanded to act according to our general perspective, for whatever reason. It might be that Zaddikim see evil isn’t really so bad, but the Torah commands them to combat evil since most people cannot accept it. Or, we might say “combating evil” means that Zaddikim should help the light come into the world with less apparent evil, since, although it is good, it is painful.

      Anyway, I don’t know. I just wanted to share this since I thought it was very thought provoking.

      • Mordechai Robertson

        Efforts to see evil as concealed good “because we cannot see the big picture” hit a brick wall we when are, for example, confronted with the death and suffering of children. There are, of course, authorities who say that (i) they suffer and die because of their parents’ acts, or (ii) because they do not merit Divine protection as they do not perform mitzvot. Others find a way out of this cul-de-sac via recourse to concepts of tikkun and gilgul, with the argument that the innocent are paying their dues for sins committed in a previous incarnation. (See Saadia HaGaon, Rav Yosef Albo and the Sforno on the erroneous nature of these concepts.)

        Birnbaum suggests in “God and Evil” that Evil really is evil, that it is a precondition of free will and that our mission as Hashem’s partners in Creation is to combat it. This approach seems also to be adopted by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan.

        The problem then posed those, who believe in strict hashgacha pratit, is that they are are confronted with a Good God who “does” Evil.

        The Rambam says that there are 3 kinds of Evil in the world (Moreh III, 12):

        1. Natural evils that occur because we are made of matter and are subject to generation and corruption.
        2. The evils that humans inflict on one another.
        3. The evils that people inflict on themselves.

        • Madel

          Rabbi Jonathan Sacks takes the view that evil occurs by chance (indiscriminately) when G-d turns His face from us when we fail to observe the mitzvot, resulting in the Tochaicha. This makes sense of why bad things happen to innocents such as children. The novel I mentioned in this thread, HAAZINU (LISTEN UP), judiciously identifies the cause of our 2000 year Tochaicha leading to the 1948 founding of the State of Israel. It’s an amazing read…one I highly recommend.

          • Mordechai Robertson

            Madel, I think you misrepresent what Rabbi Sacks. He says: 1. Hashem exists, therefore life has a purpose. 2. Evil exists, therefore we have not achieved that purpose. Hester panim and the concept of hashgacha pratit on which it is based has no part in his argument.

            • Mordechai Robertson

              BTW there is a debate in TB Shabat 55a whether is suffering without sin. This question is often quoted as an axiom. However the debate concludes that there is death without sin. It seems to me that it follows, kal vachomer, that if there is death without sin then there must be suffering without sin.

            • Madel

              Mordechai…see Rabbi Sacks’s Covenant and Conversation on the Blessings and Curses. There he says: “Exilic history is not providence but the loss of providence, what Maimonides calls ‘being left to chance’.”

              • Mordechai Robertson

                But see “Radical Then Radical Now” pp 54-58. So he says in Covenant and Conversation there was providence once, but no longer, Hashem is now “limited” to the 4 amot of halacha; NB Rav Sacks is not talking about hashgacha pratit but general providence. According to the Rambam all, except a very few, are left to chance and he even hints in the Moreh that the HP of the tzaddikim is merely acceptance of chance. Has there ever been a time in history that the innocent did not suffer?

              • Madel

                Yes, Mordechai, there’s at least one time (in Neviim) innocents did not suffer…see Joshua 23 and specifically its verse 14, and that’s because the requisite precedent (diligently observing the mitzvot) occurred. Also, note verse 6 of the same chapter, which sort of throws into question whether there ever was a Torah She’beal Peh before Chazal created it.

  2. Madel

    In creating human free will, G-d permitted an evil inclination in this world and the opportunity in humanity to subdue it and serve G-d’s will instead. This is stated early on in the Torah with the narratives of Eden and Cain and Abel. In fact, while the Torah has been mischaracterized in our tradition as a Tree of Life, we would be well-advised to see it as a Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil…the positive mitzvot being the absolute good to be done in this world, and the negative mitzvot as the absolute evil in it. For a brilliant rendition on evil in this world and G-d’s turning His face from humanity (and specifically the Jews) to permit it, I urge you to read the novel HAAZINU (LISTEN UP) by Yerachmiel ben-Yishye, published by Gefen Publishing House of Jerusalem. By metaphorically incorporating elements of Tanach and Zohar, the author has weaved an amazing story of love, despair, and adventure.

  3. Mordechai Robertson

    Reply to Madal’s comment at 4:56: Joshua 23:14 refers to covenantal promises to Bnei Israel as a whole, not to individual hashgacha pratit. Was there not still undeserved death and suffering?

    • Madel

      Come on, Mordechai. That’s NOT the P’shat! G-d promises the Israelites health, peace, and prosperity (as a nation FOR its individual Israelites) if they follow His laws. Except for the incident at AI, where they experienced strict justice and learned from it, the Israelites followed the mitzvot to the letter under Joshua, which Joshua acknowledges in 23:14 in order to strengthen the Israelites to continue in their diligent observance after his death. Look at the blessing of health in Shemot 23:25 and 26 and note specifically: “There shall be NO woman who loses her young or is infertile in your land, and I shall fulfill the number of your days.” There’s no point in defending the indefensible. Read HAAZINU (LISTEN UP), and your eyes will be opened.

  4. Mordechai Robertson

    I am not being obtuse, but I do not read it that way. The natural order was not suspended, people still died and became ill, but they did have health, peace and prosperity, we are not dealing with absolutes but comparatives. BTW is it also the “p’shat” that the sun really did stand still? (see the Ralbag on that).

  5. Madel

    You have bought into the rabbinic construct that the ONLY perfect world will arrive with the Messianic Age, and that Olam HaBa remedies why bad things happen to good people. However, there’s nothing of EITHER moshiach or olam haba in the Torah, and the rabbis have convinced us that a Heaven on Earth/a Return to Eden is not within our control. But the very essence of the Torah, its fundamental theme, is the Blessings and Curses and the Jewish people’s ability to bring health, peace and prosperity to the whole world by doing what’s right in the eyes of G-d…i.e., by diligently observing the mitzvot. Everything else is foolish commentary.

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