A Kabbalistic Understanding of Good and Evil


         

A Kabbalistic Understanding of Good and Evil

 
 
 
 

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The Theology of Good and Evil

By Leonard Glotzer

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The Shells (Klipot)

The creation of empty space with only limited divine light allowed a degree of free will to exist and made evil possible. It enabled evil, but it did not directly cause it.

Evil is not independent of good. Without good there can be no evil. Evil comes from the remains of good, when good fades, or breaks, but still persists. If there is no good at all, there is no life. Evil, like a parasite, can only live off the lifeblood of goodness.

Evil in Kabbala is called Klipot (shells). Shells are the least preferable part of the fruit. They would not exist if not for the fruit, the good, nourishing part. The world was not created in a perfected state. What function would man have if the world was already perfect? Imperfection and perfection intertwine in our world, the holy and the profane. Separate them somewhat, and the evil can be seen in the parts with the least good. Completely separate them and evil dies, not having the good to nourish it.

The Evil Hierarchy

The world of evil, we are taught, parallels the world of holiness. Each has a similar structure. Kabbala believes that there are ten emanation (sfirot) that encompasses the holy side of existence. Likewise, there are ten sfirot of evil. This is in accord to the words in Ecclesiastes 7:14, "This to the level of this the Lord created." (7) The rabbis interpret this to mean "evil to the level of good God created." Good and evil are two sides of a coin; one side is holiness, the other side uncleanliness.

Just as there are male and female aspects of the holy side, so these exist on the evil side.

The arch male representative of evil is known as Samael, and his wife is Lillith. These are just anthropomorphic ways of thinking about the various aspects of evil. Samael, which literally means the poison of God, is male in that he is evil in a "giving" way. That which he gives, like poison, causes death. Lillith, on the other hand, takes. She is often pictured as stealing newborn babies. Traditionally, Kabbalistic amulets (kvitlach) were placed in the cribs of babies to protect them against her.

There are parts of Kabbalistic literature that seem to sound like sheer superstition. This is not the main body of Kabbala, and is very ancillary. While Kabbala sometimes deals with demons and such, this is very peripheral to its main thrust. Much of it is meant allegorically. While in the popular conception, magic and demonology are an important part of Kabbala, in truth they play very minor roles.

God and Fairness

Now we return to our original question – why do we see the righteous suffer and evil prosper?

It is unlikely that anybody can give a satisfactory answer to this question. We must admit, like Rabbi Yanai, that we just are unable to explain why the world sometimes seems so unfair.

The Torah repeatedly promises good will befall the righteous, and bad the wicked. The promises of the Torah are for a better, longer life here on earth. It does not promise paradise or threaten hell, at least not explicitly.

For instance, the consequences for doing good or evil are given in Deuteronomy (Chapter 11) as follows:

    "It will be if you obey my commandments which I command you today, to love the Lord thy God and to worship him with all your hearts and all your souls. I will give you rain for your land in its proper time, the early and late rains, and you will gather your wheat and your wine and your oil, and I will provide grass in your fields for your animals and you will eat and be satisfied."

The penalty for evil action is stated as follows:

    "I will shut the heavens, and there will be no rain, and the earth will not give its produce, and you will perish speedily from upon the good land that God is giving you."

Despite such explicit statements, we find a statement by Rabbi Tarfun in Pirkai Avot that says:

    "Know that the reward for the righteous will come in the future." (Avot, Chapter 2 Mishna 21)

In other words, Rabbi Tarfun is advising us not to give up on justice even though it is not available in the present. But this is problematic if you believe in the truth of the Torah, which seems to state that reward and punishment will occur during one's lifetime, and not in a future life.

What caused the rabbis to accept a belief in heaven and hell is easily understood. It was a direct result of observing that in this world not everybody gets his due.

The thirteenth century sage, Nachmonides, has an interesting approach to this theological dilemma. He says in his "Commentary on the Torah" (Exodus 6:2-5) that the connection between reward and punishment in the next world is natural, but in our world is supernatural. It is not a part of nature that rains should fall and fruits should grow as a result of meritorious acts. There is no scientific, physical connection between the two. Only by a supernatural act, by divine intercession, can good acts be made to result in a material reward for the doer. It is for this reason that the Torah felt it necessary to mention this type of reward, because it does not naturally exist.

There is another type of reward - a spiritual reward in the next world. The connection between doing meritorious spiritual deeds and spiritual reward is natural. It does not take special divine intervention. Therefore, the Torah does not speak about it because the connection is within nature. So reasoned Nachmonides.

This reasoning results in the hypothesis that there are two types of rewards, the material ones of this world and the spiritual ones. The spiritual rewards are often in the next world. The punishments and rewards for good and bad deeds can be in this world, the next world, or both. Thus, while the Torah is correct that rewards happen in this world, it is not exclusively in this world. Therefore, we see what appears as injustice, but we only see part of the picture. That is what Rabbi Yanai meant when he said we do not understand how there is justice. He would never deny that there is justice; he is merely stating that we do not understand because we do not see the whole picture.

Lurian Kabbala broadens the picture even more. Luria believed that reward and punishment are not only in one's lifetime or in heaven or hell, but can be in other incarnations as well. Things can happen now, according to Luria, as a result of events in different lifetimes.

None of the attempted explanations for good and evil is sufficient, yet it is impossible for human beings not to try to understand. The attempt to comprehend as much as possible is an essential part of human spirituality. It is part of the mystic quest; a struggle to approach the divine even though we know full well that we can never quite completes the trip.


Leonard Glotzer recently published his second book on Jewish Mysticism, The Kabbalistic system of The Ari. It provides the essentials of the kabbalistic system of the famous 16th Century mystic Rabbi Isaac Luria. More information is available on his website www.outskirtspress.com/glotzer and on www.Amazon.com.

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For more articles on Mysticism, see our Mysticism Archives

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from the January 2008 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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