Dear Rabbi Fried,
I am a convert, working on a doctorate in Spertus College’s distance learning program, right now doing a paper on Jewish mysticism, learning and hearing about things I never heard of before. Last night as I was reading about the sitra ahara, it seemed to me that some power is set up contrary to G-d. I have read one author who indicated that, in Judaism, it was possible to view free will as ultimately an illusion, but usually when I’ve tried to discuss it with people they just freak out, like you’ve uttered the worst heresy possible, like the whole enterprise would come tumbling down without that concept. I don’t know if I’m being heretical or if they are confused.
Thanks for your help.
Whew, that’s some question!
First, let’s discuss the meaning of “sitra ahara,” which literally means “the other side.” This is the term used in Kabbalistic literature referring to the spiritual “forces of evil” in the world. These are not forces which G-d created directly. They are, rather, a manifestation of the free will which G-d allowed to have room to exist when He created the world at large. G-d purposely created the world imperfect, as we have discussed in this column in the past, to leave room for us to perfect the world. By the same token, we have the choice to use those imperfections in the wrong way. Instead of using those imperfections as a vehicle for our growth and perfecting the world (tikkun olam), often man has developed them in their own right, giving the imperfections a life of their own, and turning the “potential for evil” into “forces of evil.”
Now that these forces have a life of their own, exercising our free will for the good becomes more difficult; now we need to defeat the forces of evil that we, ourselves, created.
We must always remember, however, that our ability to create these forces is G-d-given, part of our ultimate ability to exercise our G-d-granted free will. We are G-d-like in being “creators” as G-d is a Creator. Our ability to do so, and these forces, exist only to the extent that G-d wants them to. Neither we, nor these forces, have any power whatsoever against G-d Al-mighty Himself. That is implicit in the very name by which we refer to G-d, “All Mighty.”
According to Mysticism/Kabbalah, even the forces of evil are allowed by G-d to exist, as they ultimately fit into His master plan. Thus they actually are, in a hidden way, serving the will of G-d.
I’ll offer a short parable as food for thought: A group of people were locked in a room, for a long time, with little light. A second group was locked in a room that was totally dark. When they were finally released, the first group didn’t rejoice so much at being in the light, as they had artificial light all along. The second group, however, rejoiced greatly in the brilliance of the newly-found light.
In a way, the stronger the forces of evil are in this world, the deeper the world resides in darkness. Eventually the Al-mighty will release us from the darkness and reveal the awesome light of His Presence. The darker the backdrop of darkness/evil, the more we will exult in the revelation of that great luminescence. Although we don’t desire evil and are commanded to eradicate evil (i.e. the mitzvah to destroy Amalek, which is the epitome of evil in this world), to the extent it does exist it is not in contradiction or competition with G-d.
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dear Rabbi Fried,