Defeating Evil


Our time is one saturated with talk about confronting evil, resisting evil, fighting evil and defeating evil. On one hand, we are all united by overwhelming and passionate calls to combat evil. But, on the other hand, in an atmosphere poisoned by intense partisanship, we are cruelly divided, for we passionately differ as to who is really evil and what evil really is. And sometimes we argue about which evil, out of many evils, we should choose to battle. And then, if anyone disagrees with our established hierarchy of evils and chooses to focus on a different one, that person is also labeled as evil! Nor do we agree about the means we should employ to fight and subdue evil.

It happens that this is the very theme of the blessing in the Amidah prayer that we have reached in our monthly discussions of our prayers. It is a blessing that prays for the defeat of evil. This blessing has an interesting history. It was not one of the original blessings comprising the Amidah. The weekday Amidah originally had eighteen blessings (- hence one of its names is “Sh’moneh `Esreh – the Eighteen [Blessings]”). But this nineteenth blessing was added around the start of the second century CE. Its text has variations of wording that reflect the struggles we have had regarding how to think about – and pray about – this issue:

“And may the slanderers/informers have no hope. And may all evil be defeated in an instant! And may all Your enemies (- or, in some versions: “all the enemies of Your people) be speedily cut down, and the evil ones  (- or, in some versions: “the regime of evil”) may You speedily uproot, break and humble and subdue, speedily in our day. You abound in blessings, Eternal One, Who smashes enemies and subdues the willfully evil.”

Why was this blessing added to our set prayers? Some scholars used to speculate that this was a prayer directed against the first Christians, who were seen as traitors to the Jewish people. But that theory has been debunked. Rather, the problem was within the Jewish community itself. The struggle was against those who wished to collaborate with the Roman authorities who were trying to oppress the Jews remaining in Israel after the Temple had been destroyed.

That history has influenced the translation of this blessing, as found in our Sim Shalom prayerbook. The first sentence reads: “”Frustrate the hopes of all those who malign us.” This statement focuses on those who wish to speak and do evil to us. But the Hebrew does not say that. It simply says that all “maligners, slanderers, informers” should be deprived of hope. This is a more general prayer that can apply anywhere, to anyone who engages in such insidious behavior. It is not directed against the outside enemies of the Jewish people, but against anyone guilty of such crimes, including Jews, themselves.

We see a similar tension operating in the variant versions of another sentence. Are we praying that “all Your enemies be speedily cut down,” or are we praying that “all the enemies of Your people be speedily cut down”? The second version focuses on enemies of the Jewish people. The first version looks at anyone who is an enemy of God, Jew or non-Jew. And the next set of variant readings is tied to this question, as well. One reading prays for the defeat of “the evil regime.” This refers to governments or authorities who oppress us. But a great sage of the 19th century, Rabbi Abraham Danzig, in his code of Jewish law, writes: “One should not say ‘the evil regime’ but, rather, ‘the evil ones,’ for they are Jewish traitors.”

In other words, we struggle with identifying evil. Is it an outside force, attacking “us”? Or is it a force that can arise within anyone, even within ourselves? Do we only condemn evil and pray for it to be crushed when we feel it as a direct attack against our own safety or interests, ignoring any other evil in the world? And, even more discomfiting – are we willing to condemn evil that issues from our own camp, evil that threatens not ourselves, but others’ safety or interests? Despite the Sim Shalom translation, the consensus has developed to phrase and understand this blessing as referring to any and all evil, including the evil that we, ourselves, are guilty of committing.

This has been an ongoing effort on the part of the Jewish people throughout the ages. In our tradition we go out of our way to accuse ourselves of sins that have brought about the catastrophes we have suffered. Instead of only blaming our evil oppressors, we say “we have been exiled from our land because of our own sins.” (Festival Mussaf) This is not meant to whitewash the crimes committed against us, whether by the Egyptians, the Babylonians, Romans, etc. Those crimes are clearly described and remembered. But it is a superhuman effort that we have undertaken for thousands of years, to include ourselves in the picture of human sinfulness. Although we have to often been victims of evil, we cannot deny that we are also capable of committing evil. What is at stake in acknowledging our own capacity for evil?

There are at least two important reasons why we have felt compelled to shift our focus from merely condemning our oppressors to dwelling on our own sins. One reason is the requirement to accept every single human being as a child of God. Yes, evil is, well, evil. And it must be opposed and defeated. But we must be on guard against investing all evil with an inhuman identity. The Sages tell a story about Rabbi Meir, who prayed that God smite the neighborhood thugs who were terrorizing him. But his wife, B’ruriah, admonished him: “Our Scripture does not say that sinners should perish. It says that sin, itself should perish!” Rabbi Meir took her teaching to heart and prayed that the thugs change their ways. And they did. (BTBerakhot 10a)

It is all too tempting to demonize and dehumanize others when we feel hurt or threatened by them. This leads to the result that we lose the ability to differentiate between degrees of evil and we are not able to wisely choose when evil must be absolutely opposed and when it may be turned around and transformed. Instead, we are led to adopt oppressive and evil policies against those others, because we are so convinced of their lack of basic humanity. But the thugs tormenting Rabbi Meir would never have changed had Rabbi Meir persisted in praying for their demise. Only because he forced himself to acknowledge that they were just as human as he, was he able to change the dynamic between them.

Recognizing that we are all included in the diversity of humanity allows us to avoid stereotyping a thug as an irredeemably evil individual. B’ruriah had to remind Rabbi Meir of this truth during his moment of fear and distress. If we work hard at learning this lesson we may also be saved from the temptation to see as “just another thug” anyone who happens to look like that first thug. Events in the past few weeks have challenged the insular theory of defeating evil. We are rightly concerned with numerous recent anti-Semitic attacks. We expect them to be condemned and we want the perpetrators brought to justice. Some in our community feel more secure by supporting policies that demonize all Muslims as enemies and threats. But such an approach blinds us to the richer reality we live in. Demonizing an entire community cannot help us appreciate the fact that, for instance, the Muslim community has spontaneously raised over $100, 000 to help restore the Jewish cemetery that was desecrated in St. Louis. Such caring support does not merit our suspicion or sullen silence. We need to celebrate it and learn from it.

There is another reason we must resist the notion that evil resides “out there,” only with “them” and not also with us. The other reason is not out of worry of what we might hypothetically do to others. It is out of worry that we will use the evil of others to blind us to the very real sins that we are already committing. Too often, by putting all our energies into outrage at others, we deflect criticism about wrongful actions that we have complete control over avoiding, but that we commit, nonetheless. We tell ourselves that, since evil is not human, then we – who are all too human – cannot possibly be guilty of it.

Our Tradition has called us to a herculean task, to resist the temptation to dehumanize others by failing to acknowledge the full, flawed humanity that is the condition of all of us. We are all unified in our hope that evil will be defeated. By honestly grappling with this blessing as we recite it daily, we might go a long way toward achieving our goal.


Image(s): “Broken Reflection”  ©  Ryan McGilchrist used with permission via Creative Commons License

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