The Problem of Evil

  • Rav Chaim Navon
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Theological Issues In Sefer Bereishit

Yeshivat Har Etzion


By Rav Chaim Navon


The problem of evil or the apparent lack of justice in the world is a very ancient issue. General culture refers to "theodicy," the attempt to vindicate divine justice that allows evil to exist. Traditional Jewish sources talk about the problem of "a righteous man who is in adversity, a wicked man who prospers." Though unfamiliar with either formulation, already Avraham Avinu, the first believer, rose up against what he perceived as injustice in the world:

And the Lord said, Because the cry of Sedom and Amora is great, and because their sin is very grievous… And Avraham drew near, and said, Will You also destroy the righteous with the wicked? Perhaps there are fifty righteous within the city: will You also destroy and not spare the place for the fifty righteous that are therein? Far be it from You to do after this manner, to slay the righteous with the wicked: and that the righteous should be as the wicked, far be it from You: Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right? And the Lord said, If I find in Sedom fifty just men within the city, then I will spare all the place for their sakes. (Bereishit 18:20-26)

It is important to note that Avraham did not question the fate awaiting the righteous in and of itself, but only in comparison to that which awaited the wicked. This is a fundamental characteristic of the problem of evil in this world: If everyone faced adversity, we might understand that this is God's system of justice. What is particularly upsetting is the apparent lack of justice and absence of equality.

The prophets also struggled with this issue:

Right would You be, O Lord, if I were to contend with You, yet I will reason these points of justice with You: Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why are all they happy that deal very treacherously? (Yirmiyahu 12:1)

We have not yet even mentioned the book of Iyov, the whole of which addresses this very issue. In fact, the problem of evil is the only conceptual issue to have merited an entire book of Scripture. It may be surmised that this is because we are dealing here not with an abstract philosophical issue, but with a disturbing existential matter.

It is important to know that the question of evil in this world is grounded upon some of the most fundamental assumptions of Judaism: The two main things that we know about God are: 1) God is the ultimate in goodness and truth; 2) God enjoys ultimate power and strength. Taken together these two assumptions give rise to the problem of evil in this world: If God is both good and all-powerful, why hasn't He fashioned a world that is good and just?

The Irish historian, Arnold Toynbee, once said that the fact that the Jews are so proud of their having been the first to adopt a monotheistic creed, teaches that even in the religious arena, numbers are the only thing that matters to Jews. Truth be said, what is the fundamental difference between believing in three or even in twenty gods, and believing in one God? One answer is that a single God combines morality and power in a single Being. When there are several gods, power may be divided up between them. Morality, however, is indivisible. One half-justice and another half-justice add up to one great injustice. It is for this reason that the pagan gods were utterly immoral. This is evident from the stories of Greek mythology, the moral value of which was already held in contempt by the Greek philosophers.

The Gnostics, an ancient idolatrous Christian-philosophic sect, believed (following Persian religious beliefs) in two gods: a good but weak god, and a powerful but evil god who rules the world ("demiurge"). This takes the idolatrous tendency to separate between power and goodness to its extreme. Judaism believes in the unity of power and goodness, and therefore expects that the world should operate according to the dictates of morality.

There is another thing that we may learn from this. Einstein's general theory of relativity revolutionized modern science. Several years following its publication, a solar eclipse took place, the measurements of which could have confirmed or refuted the entire theory. Scientists all around the world stayed awake that night testing the validity of the revolutionary theory of relativity. All but one: Einstein himself went to sleep at his usual hour. Early the next morning, one of Einstein's colleagues burst into his house, crying out with excitement: "Albert, you were right! Your theory of relativity is correct!" Einstein sluggishly opened his eyes, and said: "Had you really understood the theory, you wouldn't have had to stay up all night to test its validity."

Einstein assumed that the validity of his theory of relativity did not need empirical proof: the theory's validity is evident from the equations themselves. There are certain beliefs that stem not from an analysis of empirical reality, but from pure logic. And for that very reason, reality can neither confirm nor refute them.

There are those who have argued that following the Holocaust it is no longer possible to believe in God's justice. Emotionally, this is indeed a difficult task, especially for the survivors themselves. Essentially, however, no historic event, even a cruel and monstrous catastrophe like the Holocaust, can undermine our faith in God's justice. This is for a simple reason: Our belief in divine justice does not follow from an analysis of God's actions in history, and therefore it cannot be undermined by history. As we saw in the words of Einstein, a definitive conclusion arrived at through theoretical intellection cannot be refuted by reality. What does not follow from reality, cannot be refuted by it.

We believe that God is just and righteous, abundant in love and truth, not because these traits have been impressed upon us by His actions in history; but rather because our most primal notion about God is that God is just and righteous. "He is the Rock, His work is perfect, for all His ways are justice; a God of truth and without iniquity, just and right is He" (Devarim 32:4). Our religious experience embraces the conviction that morality constitutes one of God's basic traits. Since this conviction follows from our basic experience as servants of God, it precedes our analysis of reality, and so reality will have difficulty undermining it. As was stated above, the problem of evil in the world arises precisely because of this axiom. Thus, we are left with a serious question that awaits a fitting answer.


According to one common answer, there is really no injustice whatsoever in the world, because all injustices will be resolved by God in the world-to-come. We see only a small part of the picture, and therefore our reckoning is also partial and imprecise.

This is what follows from a story related in the Talmud Yerushalmi about the life of Elisha ben Avuya, one of the greatest Tannaim, who became an apostate. The Yerushalmi raises the question: What brought Elisha ben Avuya to become an apostate?

Once he was sitting and studying in the Ginosar valley, when he saw someone climb to the top of a date-palm, remove the dam from its chicks, and then climb down in peace. The next day he saw another person climb to the top of the palm, take the chicks and send off the dam, and then climb back down, only to be bitten by a snake and die. He said: "It is written: 'You shall surely let the mother go, and take the young to you; that it may be good with you, and that you may prolong your days' (Devarim 22:7). Where is this one's good, where is this one's prolonged days?" And he was unaware that Rabbi Ya'akov had already interpreted the verse: "'That it may be good with you' – in the world-to-come, which is entirely good; 'and that you may prolong your days' – in the future that is entirely prolonged." (Yerushalmi, Chagiga 2:1)

The Babylonian Talmud also brings the words of Rabbi Ya'akov:

Rabbi Ya'akov says: There is no command in the Torah accompanied by a promise of reward to which resurrection is not appended. Regarding honoring one's father and mother it is written: "That your days may be prolonged, and that it may go well you" (Devarim 5:15). Regarding sending away the mother-bird it is written: "That it may be good with you, and that you may prolong your days" (Devarim 22:7). If his father said to him: "Climb up to the castle, and bring me pigeons," and he climbed up to the castle, and sent away the mother-bird, and took the chicks, and on his way down, he fell and died – where is the good of his days, and where is the prolongation of his days? Rather, "That it may go well with you" – in a world that is entirely good; "and that your days may be prolonged" – in a world that is entirely prolonged. (Kiddushin 39b)[1]

The point of departure in the Babylonian Talmud is not the gap between the righteous and the wicked, but rather the gap between the reward described in the relevant verses and the reward actually dispensed: the principle, however, is one and the same.


Rambam provides a different answer, one having a more philosophical inclination:

Often it occurs to the imagination of the multitude that there are more evils in the world than there are good things. As a consequence, this thought is contained in many sermons and poems of all the religious communities, which say that it is surprising if good exists in the temporal, whereas the evils of the temporal are numerous and constant. This error is not found only among the multitude, but also among those who deem that they know something…

The explanation of this lies in the fact that all the evils that befall man fall under one of three species. The first species of evil is that which befalls man because of the nature of coming-to-be and passing-away, I mean to say because of his being endowed with matter. Because of this, infirmities and paralytic afflictions befall some individuals either in consequence of their original natural disposition, or they supervene because of changes occurring in the elements, such as corruption of the air or a fire from heaven and a landslide. We have already explained that divine wisdom has made it obligatory that there should be no coming-to-be except through passing-away. Were it not for the passing-away of the individuals, the coming-to-be relating to the species would not continue…

The evils of the second kind are those that men inflict upon one another, such as tyrannical domination of some of them over others. These evils are more numerous than those belonging to the first kind…

The evils of the third kind are those that are inflicted upon any individual among us by his own action; this is what happens in the majority of cases, and these evils are much more numerous than those of the second kind. All men lament over the evils of this kind… This kind is consequent upon all vices, I mean concupiscence for eating, drinking and copulation, and doing these things with excess in regard to quantity or irregularly or when the quality of the foodstuffs is bad. For this is the case of all corporeal and psychical diseases and ailments… Thus every ignoramus who thinks worthless thoughts is always sad and despondent because he is not able to achieve the luxury attained by someone else. In most cases such a man exposes himself to great dangers, such as arise in sea voyages and the service of kings; his aim therein being to obtain these unnecessary luxuries. When, however, he is stricken by misfortunes in these courses he has pursued, he complains about God's decree and predestinations. (Morei Nevukhim III, 12)

Rambam, in effect, offers several answers. First of all, it is incorrect to say that the world is so evil. Overall, the world is good and just, and the exceptional instances of evil can easily be accounted for. Rambam divides the evil occurrences in the world into various categories:

1. Evils stemming from the very fact that we are material beings. In effect, Rambam argues that there is a certain randomness in the world, about which there is nothing to be done. From the moment that God decided to create a material world, all created beings have, of necessity, been subject to the laws of nature. We already saw in one of our earlier lectures that according to Rambam, God does not intervene in the laws of nature, but only oversees the human intellect. Hence, God is not guilty for the fact that nature has its problems; this is inevitable. Leibnitz referred to this position as "the best of possible worlds": our world may not be perfect, but it is the best world that God could have created.[2]

We have noted that the problem of evil arises from a combination of two assumptions: God is good and God is all-powerful. Rambam's first answer diminishes the force of the second assumption.

2. There are evils that men inflict upon each other; God's intervention with their regard is also limited. I once heard someone say that just as we ask God how the Holocaust could have occurred, He too asks us the very same question. In the final analysis it was men of flesh and blood who murdered human beings.

3. There are evils that men inflict upon themselves; according to Rambam, these constitute the majority of evils and injustices. A person smokes cigarettes for thirty years and then complains to God that he has developed lung cancer. A person drives recklessly, and then complains that he was injured in a traffic accident. Rambam believed that if a wise man conducts his affairs in accordance with reason, he will for the most part be spared injury and harm.

There are a number of weaknesses in Rambam's position: 1) It is based on Rambam's assumption that God does not intervene in the laws and affairs of nature. 2) The moral question still remains - why doesn't God intervene in what happens in the world, if He sees that the world in and of itself is unjust? 3) Rambam assumes that our world is the best of possible worlds. This is a statement about the world, that overall it is good and just, as well as a statement about God, that He could not have fashioned a better world. Is this indeed true? At least from an experiential perspective, we are not always convinced.


A third school of thought maintains that the problem of evil in the world has no answer. Chazal already expressed themselves in this direction:

Three things did Moshe ask of the Holy One, blessed be He, and they were granted to him. He asked that the Divine Presence should rest upon Israel, and it was granted to him… He asked that the Divine Presence should not rest upon the idolaters, and it was granted to him… He asked that He should show him the ways of the Holy One, blessed be He, and it was granted to him. For it is said: "Show me now Your ways" (Shemot 33:13).  Moshe said before Him: "Lord of the Universe, why is it that some righteous men prosper and others are in adversity, some wicked men prosper and others are in adversity?"… The righteous man who prospers is a perfectly righteous man; the righteous man who is in adversity is not a perfectly righteous man. The wicked man who prospers is not a perfectly wicked man; the wicked man who is in adversity is a perfectly wicked man. Now this is in opposition to the saying of Rabbi Meir. For Rabbi Meir said: Only two [requests] were granted to him, and one was not granted to him. For it is said: "And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious" (Shemot 33:19) - although he may not deserve it; "And I will show mercy on whom I will show mercy" - although he may not deserve it. (Berakhot 7a)

According to Rabbi Meir, even Moshe Rabbenu was denied an answer to this troubling question, the question of the adversity of the righteous and the prosperity of the wicked. Moreover, Avraham Avinu was also denied an answer to this question. When Avraham expressed his astonishment at God's decree to destroy Sedom, God did not answer: "Be silent, they will receive their reward in the world-to-come." The questions posed by Avraham and Yirmiyahu testify to the fact that they did not accept the answers suggested above, for were this not the case, there would have been no room for their questions. Our forefathers apparently were not convinced that this is "the best of possible worlds," and as for the world-to-come, they seem to have expected, as inhabitants of this world, an answer within the bounds of this world. Their questions remained unanswered.

And furthermore, a philosophical answer does not resolve existential distress. Rabbi Soloveitchik noted this point:

On the one hand, I know that this metaphysics of evil has done wonders, effecting miracles for our nation, the historical Jewish community, whose history is a continuous saga of suffering and affliction. In this metaphysics of suffering the Jewish community has found relief, hope and spiritual strength. Nevertheless, it is possible that what seemed evident and simple to our forefathers, who were inspired by mighty faith and ardently transcendent mystical experiences, will prove to be a very complicated matter for contemporary man, who is focused upon himself, detached from his roots, and wandering in the mazes of spiritual remoteness… I admit in full candor that I personally have never succeeded in my efforts to bring this metaphysical tiding to people in distress. (Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Ha-Adam Ve-olamo, pp. 262-263)

Rabbi Soloveitchik notes that existentially, modern man is not satisfied with answers that push him off with a denial of the reality of evil and suffering. Modern man seeks more existential answers. He feels the reality of suffering and is unable to deny his immediate experiences.

The French-Jewish philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas argues that there is a theological problem with the demand always to understand God's ways:

What is the meaning of the suffering of the innocent? Does it not testify to a world void of God, a universe in which man is the sole measure of good and evil? The simplest and most common reaction is atheism. This would also be the most logical reaction of all those who until now have perceived God as a kindergarten God, who gives out prizes, imposes punishments or pardons mistakes, and in the abundance of His goodness, relates to people as eternal children. I, however, must ask these people: With what kind of demon of narrow horizons, with what type of strange magician have you populated your heavens, you who have decided today that these heavens are in fact empty? And why do you continue to search, under these empty heavens, a world that is logical and good? (Emmanuel Levinas, To Love the Torah more than God)[3]

Levinas argues that when we are conscious of the suffering that abounds in the world and the absence of justice, the emphasis moves to man himself. Man no longer seeks help and support from above, but rather he assumes responsibility for the world.

Rabbi Soloveitchik follows in the same direction and develops this idea further. He does not condemn reliance upon God. He too, however, emphasizes the obligation that suffering imposes upon man. In his eyes, this is the key to our confrontation with evil:

Judaism, with its realistic attitude towards man and his position in the universe, understood that evil cannot be blurred or covered up, and that any attempt to diminish the value of the contrasts and divisions in the world will not bring man to spiritual rest or to an understanding of the existential mystery. Evil is a fact that cannot be denied. There is evil, there is suffering, and there are hellish afflictions in the world. Someone who wishes to fool himself by diverting his attention from the breach in reality and by romanticizing human life, is nothing but a fool and dreamer. It is impossible to overcome the monster of evil with philosophical-speculative thought.[4] Judaism, therefore, decided that man, immersed in the depths of frozen destiny, will seek in vain a solution to the problem of evil within the framework of speculative thought, for he will never find it. The Torah's testimony regarding a being who is very good, is undoubtedly true. This, however, was only stated from the perspective of the infinite glance of the Creator. From the partial outlook of finite man, the absolute good in creation is not revealed… To what may this be likened? To a person who looks at a carpet, a work of art, on which a splendid picture is embroidered – from the reverse side. Will such contemplation lead to a lofty aesthetic experience?…

When a man of destiny suffers, he says to himself: "There exists evil, which I do not deny or cover up with fallacious argumentation; I am interested in it from a halakhic perspective, like a person who wishes to know what to do; I ask a simple question: What should a person do who suffers and lives with his suffering? On this level, the center of gravity moves from the perspective of causation and purpose… to the practical aspect. The problem is now formulated in the language of simple Halakha, and revolves around a daily mission. The most important question is: What obligations do afflictions impose upon man? Judaism cherished this question and set it in the center of its conceptual world… We do not question God's wondrous ways, but only the path to be taken by man when suffering befalls him. We do not seek the cause of evil nor its objective, but only its repair and elevation; how should man conduct himself in times of trouble? What should man do so as not to drown in his afflictions?

Rabbi Soloveitchik says: There is no theoretical answer to the question of evil in the world. The matter is beyond our comprehension. We must therefore reformulate the question: Instead of asking why a certain thing occurs, we must ask how are we to deal with it. It is important to note that at this point the philosophical question of injustice turns into an existential question of suffering. It is not the injustice that is troubling, but the suffering.

The halakhic response to this question is very simple. Afflictions come to elevate man, to purify his spirit and sanctify him, to clean his thought and refine it of all dregs of superficiality and crudeness; to ennoble his soul and broaden the horizons of his life. To summarize: The role of afflictions is to perfect what is blemished in man's personality…[5] Woe to man if afflictions do not bring him to a spiritual crisis, and his soul remains frozen and without pardon! Woe to the sufferer if his soul is not heated by the flame of affliction, and his suffering does not ignite the fire of God within him! When pain wanders through the world as sealed forces to no end, a great accusation rises against the man who wastes his suffering. (Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Kol Dodi Dofek, pp. 67-70)

This is a powerful expression: "the man who wastes his suffering." We must not waste our suffering; rather, we must exploit it for spiritual elevation and ennoblement.


[1] The Gemara explains that Rabbi Ya'akov witnessed such a case, which brought him to the conclusion that there is no reward in this world for the performance of a mitzva.

[2] Leibnitz acknowledged his debt to Rambam, speaking his praises with great enthusiasm.

[3] In the book, "Cherut Kasha." Printed in "Yosel Rakover Medaber el Elokim" (Israel, 2000), pp. 68-69.

[4] There is a great difference between what Rabbi Soloveitchik says here and what we says in the passage cited earlier from the book "Ha-Adam Ve-olamo." There, Rabbi Soloveitchik described modern man's inability to be satisfied with a metaphysical answer as a weakness; here he argues that a philosophical-metaphysical answer to the question of evil in the world is beyond man's reach.

[5] Rabbi Soloveitchik's formulation notwithstanding, it is clear from the context that he does not mean to say that God imposes afflictions in order to purify us, for he himself said earlier that we do not understand the reason for human suffering. We are dealing here with an existential outlook that focuses upon man's obligations, rather than upon God's intentions.

(Translated by David Strauss)