Book Review: Good and Evil

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Spoiler alert: Rabbi Wayne Allen’s “Thinking about Good and Evil: Jewish Views from Antiquity to Modernity” (The Jewish Publication Society) does not solve the theological problem of good and evil. In fact, Allen notes that’s not even the purpose of his book. Instead, he offers “readers a guided tour through selected important sources in the Jewish tradition that explore good and evil.” That includes critiques on each, noting the difficulties other scholars and philosophers have with every suggestion.

According to Allen, underlying these discussion is the problem of theodicy, which he defines as “a response to what theists – believers in God – see as the flaw in the operation of the universe.” This flaw occurs because Jewish theology is based on three premises: a) an entity known as God exists, b) that this God is all-powerful and all-knowing and c) that this God is perfectly good. Since Judaism has only one deity – rather than one deity who is the source of good and another who is the source of evil – the question becomes “how can God and evil exist in the same world?” Theologians and philosophers over the centuries have tried to solve this conundrum, but no one solution has satisfied all spiritual seekers.

“Thinking about Good and Evil” offers a mostly chronological look at Jewish thought, presenting ideas from the biblical text before showing the changes that occurred during the rabbinic period. Medieval philosophers built on rabbinic ideas, while early modern and modern philosophers went in different directions, sometimes dismissing one or more of the original premises about God. The work also looks at how Kabbalah and Chasidic masters viewed the subject. The final section discusses three different approaches philosophers have taken to explain the Holocaust.
The Bible contains several different ideas about good and evil. Some books state that evil as a rejection of God and God’s laws, and note that evil doers will be punished for their sins. Other books, such as Job, question whether God can be called just if good people suffer for no reason. The writers of Psalms suggest that suffering is not always evil because it builds character. There is no one resolution, although the suggestion offered in the book of Daniel – that there is an afterlife – was built on during the rabbinic period.

The ancient rabbis offered new ideas to explain away the problem of theodicy. According to Allen, the rabbis introduced such ideas as “an immortal and immaterial soul, an afterlife, chastisements of love, and the evil inclination” to explain good and evil. The rabbis might say they were not doing anything new, but merely mining the biblical text for what it could teach them. However, the idea that people will be rewarded in an afterlife is a radical one not found in the laws of the first five books of the Bible.

Medieval philosophers offer many different opinions, but most seemed to agree that “God protects the innocent and punishes the wicked. If that does not seem to be true, then it is not because of divine failing, but because of human misperception.” While mystics were generally interested in explaining the origin of good and evil, they also offered a new idea: transmigration of the soul, meaning that someone could be punished in this life for something their soul had done in a previous life. The Chasidic movement suggested that suffering could be a test of a person’s character and that an individual’s suffering might be for the good of the community, ultimately leading to national redemption.
Early modern and modern philosophers offer a wide variety of ideas, including the radical suggestion that the original premises about God are false. Their thoughts include the idea that God does not act in history (and therefore isn’t responsible for what happens to us); that there is no such thing as evil, just humans incorrectly viewing natural events as evil; that one must live with the unsatisfying reality that evil exists; or that God is powerless to help humans. 

Allen notes that there have been three general responses to the Holocaust. The first is the most traditional, claiming that the Holocaust was the result of “the sins of the people, from personal sins to the sins of intermarriage to the failed moral leadership of the rabbis and scholars who did not do enough to keep the people committed to upholding God’s law.” Some members of this group also feel that the Holocaust was no different from other Jewish disasters, except in scope. Radical revisionists see traditional theology as invalid. They suggest either new definitions of God (limiting the scope of what God can do) or rejecting God, suggesting it’s impossible to worship a deity who would allow this to happen. Allen called the third group “deflectors,” noting they accept there is no answer. For them, what matters are the actions humanity now takes as it lives in the shadow of that evil. 

While there are no final answers offered in “”Thinking about Good and Evil,” Allen believes it’s important to understand Jewish philosophical thought about good and evil in order to better realize the importance of what he calls the “two quintessential Jewish values: justice and goodness.” He challenges readers to see where they agree or disagree with each philosopher, which may help them to devise their own personal theology. His book would work well in a classroom setting or for a discussion group about theology. Anyone interested in the subject of good and evil should enjoy this interesting and provocative work.