Good and Evil – Yom Kippur Evening 5779

This post was originally delivered as a Yom Kippur Evening sermon at Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in 2018/5779 as part of a series entitled “Either/And.”  You can hear audio of the sermon through the Kol Hadash Podcast.


Sarajevo Haggadah A+E

Sarajevo Haggadah, c. 1350

In the mythical Garden of Eden, are Adam and Eve fully human? For starters, they do not have belly buttons. More important, they are not subject to the basic conditions of human existence. They do not die; they do not work; they are alone with no generations before or after them; and they are a-moral – they do not know good from evil. When the snake promises they will be like gods, he does not promise they will know everything or be able to do anything. The divinity the snake promises is to know good from evil. Later it is god who is concerned they will eat from the tree of life and live forever; they have already eaten from the tree that makes them human – the knowledge of good and evil. The Garden of Eden is an origin story, imagining how we became what we are. The true promise, the true journey of every human, is to become our fullest humanity, to learn good and evil. Each of us eats from a tree of knowledge, discovers good and evil, and, we hope, learns how to choose. Cain and Abel show how hard that can be. In the beginning, Adam and Eve are really in the Kinder-Garden of Eden – the human story is what’s next.


This High Holidays, we are going beyond black and white. It is very easy to categorize our needs into “me or we,” or to divide up the world into “us or them”. Our messy reality is shades of gray, more accurate and nuanced and flexible than absolutes. The Kinder-Garden of Eden makes it very simple – knowledge of tov va’ra Good and Evil. Either/or, no ambiguity. Ever since that beginning, the stereotype of religious morality has been just as simplistic – obey clear divine commandments or commit sin. Thou shalt, and thou shalt not, and never the twain shall meet. If you have any questions, do not rely in your own understanding – rely on religious authority. In Judaism the law was the path, the halakha, from the word halakh, to walk; in Islam, Shari’a also means “path”, as does the Tao in Taoism. And if religious laws seem to conflict or create problems, that must be your limited perspective. If some Torah passages say that children suffer for their parents’ sins, and other Torah passages say that children do NOT suffer for their parents’ sins, the job of the clever rabbi is to let you THINK for a moment that there is a contradiction, and then to show you how these apply to different circumstances, or depend on different types of sin, or something else. After all, the United States managed to harmonize “All men are created equal” and brutal slavery for its first four-score and seven years.

Some may remember an example of “Talmudic” logic: two men fall down a chimney, one gets dirty and the other does not. Which one goes to wash up? Obviously the clean one – each looks at the other, and the dirty one sees his clean fellow and assumes he is clean, while the clean one sees the dirty one and assumes he is dirty. Two men fall down a chimney, one gets dirty and the other doesn’t – which one washes up? Obviously the dirty one – they look in the mirror across the hall and see which one is dirty and which one is not. Two men fall down a chimney; is it really possible to fall down a chimney and NOT get dirty?

As this story shows, a black and white stereotype of religious morality does not hold up to strict scrutiny. Early rabbis did deviate from Torah law far to the right or to the left, even though they did it through commentary rather than direct amendment. The mis-translated “Thou shalt not kill” is really lo tirtzakh – do not MURDER, which means distinguishing among capital punishment, warfare, self-defense, the defense of others, accidental manslaughter, death by rampaging oxen that belong to you, etc. The Rabbis knew that people’s motivations can be varied, that there are gradations in behavior, that good or evil as the only options is just too simple. For example, from Pirke Avot 5:11, the Sayings of the Fathers:

There are four types of temperaments. One who is easily angered and easily appeased—his virtue cancels his flaw. One whom it is hard to anger but hard to appease—his flaw cancels his virtue. One whom it is hard to anger and is easily appeased, is righteous. One who is easily angered and hard to appease, is wicked.

Which one are you? It might depend on the day, or the person you’re dealing with. The rabbis preferred hard to anger and easy to appease. All four are recognizably human, and only one of the 4 is called “wicked”. One is righteous, one wicked, and two are somewhere in between, like most of us most of the time. On Yom Kippur, we are encouraged to forgive others, to forgive ourselves, to allow ourselves to be appeased in the interests of shalom, peace. If our natural character is to be hard to appease? Let us try to be more forgiving. If we tend to be easy to anger, let us work to be more patient. The very concept of Yom Kippur indicates that it is not all or nothing, black or white, one strike you’re out, righteous or wicked. If we all seek forgiveness, that means that we all fail, we are all a complex composition of good and evil and middling and marvelous.

Religion is a reflection of the human experience, so it makes sense that there are provisions for failure and repair, and some recognition of ethical reality. Traditional religions may project reward & punishment to a cosmic level or an afterlife, while we see reward and punishment as human responsibilities. And we disagree that religion is a necessarily precondition for morality. Put simply, you can be good with or without a God. This August, we learned that over seventy years, 300 Catholic priests in Pennsylvania sexually abused over 1000 victims. These priests devoted their lives to their religion, motivated by their faith. We presume they thought about the sermons they delivered, they read the scripture they cited, they believed in some kind of a god. I am NOT AT ALL saying that all priests are like this – 300 is a fraction of the number of priests who worked in those dioceses over 70 years. What I AM saying is that their example shows that religion is no guarantee for the problem of good or evil. All their faith and study and good works did not keep them from doing heinous evil.

So we are beyond simplistic good & evil. We know that people are complicated, that life is complicated, and that religion is no guarantee. But maybe we have muddied the waters too much. What do we mean by good or evil? Eve eats from the tree of knowledge when she sees that the fruit is desired to make one wise. God & tradition condemn her for breaking the rules, but we might celebrate her for seeking knowledge, rules be damned! When I mentioned child abuse, did you think “those men were evil”, or did you think “those men were sick”? We live in an understanding yet cynical era – accusations of evil draw rebuttals of explanation, claims of virtue spur us to find hypocrisy. Do a few moral or legal failings cancel any past or prohibit any future good deeds? Or does it matter what those failings were? If I as a rabbi were fined for income tax evasion or had a drunk driving infraction, I would likely keep my job. If I had lied on my resume & never attended Yale Univ., I might survive with a deep apology & public repentance. You can imagine what might get me fired, the abuses that have brought down rabbis and professors and sparked a Jewish parallel to #MeToo called #GamAni. In such cases, no mitigating explanations would save me. Please remember these examples are all hypothetical!

There are gradations of good & evil, a spectrum and not a dichotomy. And yet, there is a black line at the end of that spectrum. There is evil. A Holocaust is Evil. Child sexual abuse is evil. Not every wrong is absolute evil, but there is evil. Adam and Eve may receive the knowledge of good & evil, but their sons quickly demonstrate the power of freedom with the first murder. You may have heard a recent story of two 20-somethings who wanted to bike around the world to show that people are basically good. One of them was quoted as saying,

“People, the narrative goes, are not to be trusted. People are bad. People are evil.”
I don’t buy it. Evil is a make-believe concept we’ve invented to deal with the complexities of fellow humans holding values and beliefs and perspectives different than our own… By and large, humans are kind. Self-interested sometimes, myopic sometimes, but kind. Generous and wonderful and kind.

And that may well be true, by and large we are kind. But by and large is not everyone everywhere – on their bikes in Tajikistan, this couple was rammed by a car and then stabbed to death by five men who later pledged themselves to ISIS and vowed to kill nonbelievers. Evil is not make-believe – we may throw the word around too easily, but it is part of the human experience and we are naïve to pretend otherwise.

Knowing the difference between good and evil is basic to humanity; AGREEING on what evil is divides us like nothing else. For some people, cheaters taking advantage of the system is worse than allowing people to go hungry. For others, allowing people to go hungry is worse than a few people cheating. Both sides have a point – agreed-upon rules helps society function, and rules alone are not responsive to every human need. In general, we like to define what is good by its consequences – is it good for us and others, or does it harm them? This summer, I participated in a public conversation with Bishop Gene Robinson, who caused a schism in the global Anglican communion when he was chosen to be an Episcopal Bishop because he is gay. Too many of his church relied on ancient rules alone to decide good and evil, and I said to him that if those objecting to him had based their sense of right and wrong on real-life consequences for real people and not just on ancient rules, they might have seen the real harm they were doing to real people. Can we violate the ethical value of group loyalty to protest something wrong by, say, kneeling for the national anthem or challenging Israel’s treatment of Palestinians? Some see a moral violation in undermining the group, others see keeping silent to preserve the group as immoral. Those who believe life begins at conception see thousands of murders; those who disagree believe the rights of women as full human beings supersede the rights of a potential person in utero. Can we really split the difference and compromise somewhere in the middle?

9780307455772_p0_v1_s550x406We need to be cautious with the evil label, to distinguish between honest disagreement and evil. Human knowledge is limited, and just as we should never assume that we are always factually right, we should avoid the absolute self-confidence that we are always morally right. We have self-serving reasoning, we are inconsistent in our own values, we do not always consider the full consequences of our choices, and our opponents are not always evil, neither in their motivations nor in the results of their ideas. I loved moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. If you want to argue effectively, do NOT to start from the assumption that your opponent is evil, with evil intentions using evil methods towards evil goals. Very few people look in a mirror with an evil laugh as they plan to do what they themselves know is evil. They are fighting for their family; they are defending their religious tradition; they are trying to save the world. My advice: figure out WHY they think what they are doing is right, and then you have a better chance to move the needle. Even those thugs in Tajikistan who rammed and stabbed the “unbelievers” had a motivation – I do not have to agree with their motivation to understand where it came from, and my understanding does not prevent me from condemning the action, resisting it, working to stop it.

Let us accept that we are post-Eden, and even post-post-Eden. For us, the consequentialists, the good enhances our humanity, the good has positive results for ourselves and for others, good creates happiness and meaning and dignity. Evil degrades and undermines humanity, ours and that of others; evil creates suffering and sadness and dependence and degradation. We know Good from Evil, and we know how to tell what good and evil are even without divine revelation and regulation. We will never all agree on the best route through this narrow passage, the policies and behaviors and beliefs best suited to this path. But we can agree that the only power we know that will enforce these rules of good and evil is our own power.

The Biblical Psalm 34 encompasses both extremes. On one side, it says that those who fear god lack nothing, the eyes of god are on the righteous and his face is set against evildoers, to erase their names from the earth. The human and the Jewish experience are very articulate showing this is not reality – the pious suffer plenty, and the wicked can get away like Nazi doctor Joseph Mengele who was not found until 1985, six years after he had died! On the other side, a popular Israeli song takes two verses from Psalm 34 to make a Humanistic message instead:

מִי-הָאִישׁ, הֶחָפֵץ חַיִּים;
אֹהֵב יָמִים, לִרְאוֹת טוֹב.
נְצֹר לְשׁוֹנְךָ מֵרָע;
וּשְׂפָתֶיךָ, מִדַּבֵּר מִרְמָה.
סוּר מֵרָע, וַעֲשֵׂה-טוֹב;
בַּקֵּשׁ שָׁלוֹם וְרָדְפֵהוּ.
Who is the person
Who desires life,
Who loves all his days
To see good?
Guard your tongue
From evil,
And your lips
From speaking deceit.
Turn away from bad
And do good.
Seek peace
And pursue it.

Why do we turn from evil and do good? Not because of cosmic reward or fear of punishment. We turn from evil and do good because it is good for us, for me and for we, for us and for them, here, there and everywhere.

We humans are not gods; if anything, the gods were made in our image. But we might ask: why a tree of the knowledge of good and evil – why not just the good? Some say that you need the opposite to know what you want – what is light without dark? Any origin myth must end where we are – and we are not only good. We can be good and we can be evil. We can be good to our people and evil to others. We can do evil things while thinking we are doing what is right. And every shade of grey in between. Most of what we do is neither all good nor evil – it is the best that we can do. And that is why we can forgive – we will need forgiveness too.

We live in an era of absolutes – to stand for nuance and dialogue and responsibility to facts is to stand apart. For us, it is to stand together. One of our closing songs for our High Holiday celebrations wishes each other L’shana Tova, a good year, Shana shel ratson tov – a year of good resolve, Shana shel shalom – a year of peace. If we can accomplish that, it will be good. Or, at least, good enough.

About Rabbi Adam Chalom

Adam Chalom is the Rabbi of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in north suburban Chicago. He is also the Dean for North America of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism.
This entry was posted in High Holidays and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Good and Evil – Yom Kippur Evening 5779

  1. Pingback: Either/And – High Holidays 5779/2018 | Shalom from Rabbi Chalom

Your thoughts?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s