The new Harry Potter film opens later this month. The series revolves around the struggle between good and evil. How far does our faith allow us to go in the fight against evil?
I think it is important first to define what you mean by ‘evil’. Since you ask the question in the context of the Harry Potter series, I’m guessing you are thinking of ‘evil’ in terms of forces that are attacking you, your country, your society, in order to destroy them. In this understanding of ‘evil’, Judaism does not give a direct answer to this question, but we can look to related issues and extrapolate from there. If we look at Jewish teachings about war, we can approach an understanding about how to fight against evil. There are two kinds of war – compulsory war and discretionary war. Compulsory wars were those fought against enemies who attacked the Jews. Amalek is included among the nations against whom such a war should be fought. The Amalekites are said to have attacked the Israelites who were escaping Egyptian slavery. The Amalekites attacked the Israelites from the rear, where the women, children, old and infirm would have been, and therefore are especially accounted in Jewish tradition as the embodiment of evil. Thus war against them was obligatory, to the point that God commanded that they be wiped off the face of the earth, every last one of them. On the other hand, there are discretionary wars – wars of conquest to increase land and power. These are permitted, but not encouraged. Rather, we are commanded to pursue peace (Psalm 34:15), and kings had to appear before the Sanhedrin and make the case for war and get their assent before war could be waged. Indeed, King David was denied the right to build the Temple in Jerusalem because he was a man of war (I Chronicles 22:8). However, defensive wars may be fought, even to the extent of preemptive wars to prevent attack, as long as it is clear and proven that such an attack is imminent. In any case, even in commanded war, we must try all means of diplomacy first to try to avoid war, and if war cannot be avoided, we must exercise mercy whenever possible, minimize as much as possible danger to civilian populations, and fight only in self-defense or for legitimate military purposes. (See CCAR Responsum “Preventive War” at http://data.ccarnet.org/cgi-bin/respdisp.pl?file=8&year=5762).
If, however, you are thinking of ‘evil’ in terms of an individual who is evil, then we have to look at the Jewish concepts of the yetzer ha-tov and yetzer ha-ra – the good inclination and the evil inclination. Every human being is born with both of these aspects to his or her personality. The yetzer ha-ra is not really ‘evil’ in the sense we tend to think of ‘evil’ in Christian theology – as something dark and wicked, violent, dangerous, and depraved. Rather, the yetzer ha-ra is that part of us that drives us to creativity, procreation, ambition, success in life. If you allow the yetzer ha-ra to get out of control and dominate the yetzer ha-tov, than that can lead to greed, jealousy, violence. It is up to each one of us to overcome and control our yetzer ha-ra and maintain the appropriate balance between it and the yetzer ha-tov. This is a life-long struggle and the major occupation of every human being to do for him/herself. (See The Birth of the Good Inclination by Jeffrey Spitzer, )
a) Setting up absolutes, i.e. declaring that there are at least some means that no end can justify. The extreme version of this approach, known as deontology and generally associated with Immanuel Kant, holds that ends are irrelevant to the admissibility of means; one chooses actions entirely based on whether they are the intrinsically right thing to do, regardless of their consequences. For example, one must return a gun to the person one borrowed it from, even if s/he has in the interim become a homicidal lunatic, because stealing is wrong.
b) Declaring everything a matter of proportion. In other words, very important ends may be able to justify very unsavory means. The extreme version of this approach, known as utilitarianism and generally associated with Jeremy Bentham, believes that the only end that matters is human pleasure, and that any means that has the overall effect of maximizing the overall human pleasure/pain ratio is legitimate. For example, torturing someone else should be permitted if it gives you more additional pleasure than it causes pain to the tortured.
Where does Judaism stand?
Judaism probably has only one absolute, called in Hebrew “avodah zarah”, which encompasses both worship of putative divinities other than G-d and certain extremely improper ways of worshiping G-d. The other members of what are sometimes called “the big three”, which are the sins Jews should die before committing, are murder and certain sexual offenses, but killing is permitted in self-defense and in war, and adultery may be permitted to save large groups of people.
So in general, Judaism takes the position that the ends may justify the means. But it does not take anything like the extreme Benthamite position. Here are three key differences:
a) Judaism recognizes a complex and pluralistic system of values, including worship of G-d, maintenance of social order, development of personal virtue, and others, in addition to maximizing human happiness.
b) Much of the system of Jewish law (Halakhah) is intended to carefully and in detail regulate the interactions of means and ends, and prescribe exactly which means are justified by which ends. Adhering to this system is itself seen as a critically important end. This means that it is almost never the case that “fighting evil” justifies actions that would ordinarily be forbidden.
c) Even where Halakhah acknowledges its own limitations, and that particular situations may require case-by-case rather than rule-based decisionmaking, there is a very clear demarcation between “evil for the sake of good” and intrinsic good. “Evil for the sake of good”, even when permitted, does not mean that the evil is cancelled out by the good, and it may require formal atonement or be punishable by human courts.
Now the Harry Potter series presents a situation in which the future of the world is regularly at stake. It is, in a sense, as series of “ticking bomb” scenarios; Voldemort achieving full power is the equivalent of a nuclear weapon in Times Square. Such scenarios are often very poor guides for real-life behavior, as in the American saying “hard cases make bad law”; in real life the consequences of action or inaction are never so clearcut. In the artificial universe of J.K. Rowling, therefore, Halakhah might easily acknowledge the legitimacy of deceiving goblins, stealing clothes, and the like; in real life, Halakhah-based Judaism has a strong (but not insurmountable) bias against fighting evil with lesser evils.
In Judaism, it is my contention, that good and evil are not simply objects. We don’t only fight for good or against evil, how we “fight” is part of what determines whether we are promoting one or the other. Therefore, in theory, we can and should go as far as we can to “battle evil”. Yet, the way I see it that means that whatever method or process we use to do so has to necessarily be ethical and good in order to qualify as being helpful in our battle for good. In fact, “waging the battle” in an ethical way, in and of itself, helps us win the war. Using evil methods will, therefore, accomplish the opposite. We do not believe that the end justifies the means.
Popular culture throws all sorts of good vs. evil images at us. On balance, I think it is a positive that most of them, like Harry Potter, promote the importance of the triumph of good over evil, of community over individual and of compassion over cruelty. I do think though that too many of them forget that while it is important to send the message that we must be “tough with evil”, they often forget that how we conduct ourselves when fighting it, goes a long way in determining who will win the war.
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