Review: Thinking About Good and Evil - Word&Way

Review: Thinking About Good and Evil

THINKING ABOUT GOOD AND EVIL: Jewish Views from Antiquity to Modernity. By Rabbi Wayne Allen. Philadelphia, PA: Jewish Publication Society, 2021. Xxvi + 399 pages.

Theodicy (the defense of God in the face of evil) remains a central concern of religious folk, no matter their religious tradition. The question of the existence of evil, whether natural or not, is perhaps the biggest reason for people to reject the idea of the divine. Each religious tradition offers its own answers, which may or may not resolve questions. Theologians and philosophers have devoted significant ink to explaining the existence of evil and how that might fit a particular theological position. Interestingly, it doesn’t seem that people are concerned about the good. It’s the evil that they’re concerned about.

Robert D. Cornwall

As a Christian, I have read my share of Christian engagements with the question. Some people suggest that what we consider evil is simply a working out of God’s ultimate plan for the world. Others suggest that we will need to adjust our thinking about the nature of God. Perhaps God is not all-powerful and thus can’t prevent evil from happening. Instead, God is a fellow sufferer, offering comfort to us as we experience tragedy, suffering, and the reality of evil. While it is good to hear from our own traditions, it can be helpful to hear other ways of thinking. What do other faith traditions offer as explanations for the way things are?

As is true of most religious traditions that have longevity, there will be more than one way of answering the question of the nature of good and evil. That is true for Christianity, and it is true for Judaism. We see this reality present in Rabbi Wayne Allen’s book Thinking about Good and Evil.  Rabbi Allen is the co-chair of the Rabbinics Department at the Anne and Max Tanenbaum Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto. He is the author of several books besides the one under review.

Thinking About Good and Evil is Allen’s contribution to the JPS Essential Judaism Series.  As Allen notes in his preface, this series is designed to cover “essential topics in Judaism for a general yet sophisticated readership” (p. xi). The emphasis needs to be placed on the word sophisticated. Allen writes for a lay audience, but this is a deep and comprehensive look at one of the most challenging issues faced by every religious tradition. Since this is written from a Jewish perspective, the reality of the Holocaust is a central part of modern Jewish thinking on this issue. It’s not just a scholarly exercise, it is an existential area of concern. Having noted that in his earlier studies what he encountered largely failed to satisfy his questions. Therefore, in this book, he wants to help the reader (primarily Jewish readers) pursue their questions.

He recognizes that he cannot offer an exhaustive presentation or a “conclusive solution to the problem.” That is because “the problem of good and evil in Judaism has proved to be both intractable and insoluble. Therefore, he offers here “a guided tour through selected important sources in the Jewish tradition that explore good and evil” (p. xvii). The goal then is to provide resources to the reader so they can better understand the reality of good and evil in the world. With that in mind, he also notes that his focus isn’t on the writings of Jewish philosophers, but on ideas and then the sources in which these ideas are discussed. So, the figures and sources he draws into the conversation are meant to be representative and inclusive when it comes to modern thinkers — thus, he draws on thinkers from Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, and Reconstructionist movements.

With this in mind, Allen begins the tour. He does so chronologically, beginning with Genesis and moving forward through time. He covers all the major biblical areas, as well as the apocryphal writers, and then a wide variety of Jewish thinkers who have contemplated these questions down through the centuries. Thus, chapter one focuses on the biblical and apocryphal texts. Chapter 2 explores Rabbinic approaches. Included in this chapter is a discussion of the approaches found in the Dead Sea Scrolls and Philo. Moving forward from there, in chapter 3, Allen looks at how the subject of good and evil was dealt with by medieval philosophy. This section includes discussions of figures such as Abraham ibn Daud, Maimonides, and others, most of whom were previously unknown to me. If chapter three focuses on medieval philosophy, the next chapter focuses on mystical traditions, including Kabbalah. From there, Allen moves to the Hasidic Masters. Chapter 6 takes a look at early modern thinkers such as Spinoza and Mendelssohn. Finally, in chapter seven we come to the modern thinkers such as Martin Buber, Hannah Arendt, and Judith Plaskow, among others. With each step forward in time, we see how diverse the perspectives really are. Some writers emphasize God’s sovereignty while others question it.

When we get to chapter seven, we’ve come to the modern age, but Allen is not finished with the conversation. Chapter 8 focuses on “The Special Problem of the Shoah.” He writes of the Shoah that it “has profoundly affected the Jewish understanding of the nature of evil. Likewise, the Shoah presents the problem of reconciling that revised understanding of the nature of evil with the traditional conception of God” (p. 273). This is a chapter that Christians will want to pay close attention to because it raises questions that are bigger than ones we often consider. After all, the Holocaust/Shoah/Hurban involved an attempt to exterminate a particular people. Should it surprise us that even the vocabulary used to describe and define this reality is contested? Allen helps us understand why the terms and labels used are contested. Besides the labels used and the difficulty determining which one fits. Besides the question of labels, there is the question of exceptionality. How is the Jewish experience of genocide different from other forms of oppression experienced by Jews throughout history? What is perhaps most interesting here is the difference in perspectives. There are traditionalists, some of whom perished in the camps, who defended the traditional view of God’s sovereignty. Then there are the radical revisionists such as Richard Rubenstein who found it necessary to rethink the nature of God and even whether God exists. Finally, there are what Allen calls the Deflectors, those who found it impossible to continue embracing traditional views of God but at the same time not willing to follow the Radicals.

Allen concludes his thorough study of Jewish perspectives on the challenge of holding together belief in “an all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good God and the simultaneous existence of evil in the world” (p. 323) Jews as the same questions we all ask, why do the righteous suffer and the wicked seem to prosper. If God is expected to protect the innocent and punish the wicked, why do we see evil continue to be with us? How does one believe in God in light of reality? That is the question being asked down through the ages. There is no consensus when it comes to answers. So, in the conclusion, he lists thirty-five Jewish answers to the question of why there is evil in the world and twenty-two reasons why we suffer which summarizes what we encounter throughout the book. As for a definitive answer, that is still not forthcoming. But, as Allen notes, “the plethora of theodicies demonstrate that thinkers past and present fixate on two quintessential Jewish values: justice and goodness” (p. 332).

The two values Allen speaks of — justice and goodness — along with a Jewish commitment to holding God accountable to these values is enlightening and instructive not just for Jews but for others, especially Christians who see themselves rooted in the Jewish tradition. We draw from the same biblical texts for guidance. We affirm the message of Micah 6:8, that God expects of us that we do justice, love goodness, and walk humbly before God. So, here we have a rather comprehensive look at how our Jewish friends and neighbors have wrestled with this principle of justice and goodness even as they and we struggle with the reality of evil in the world. Thus, Rabbi Allen’s Thinking about Good and Evil is a most fruitful resource to be consulted whether one is Jewish or not.



This review originally appeared on

Robert D. Cornwall is an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Now retired from his ministry at Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Troy, Michigan, he serves as Minister-at-Large in Troy. He holds a Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary and is the author of numerous books including his latest “Second Thoughts about the Second Coming: Understanding the End Times, Our Future, and Christian Hope” coauthored with Ronald J. Allen. His blog Ponderings on a Faith Journey can be found at