The word 'evil' has lost much of its currency. Sometimes the word is used in public in connection with a systematic campaign of abuse against women or children, in extreme cases where experienced police officers are shocked and sickened. Politicians use the word to describe regimes that oppose their dearest values. It retains some meaning among Hollywood scriptwriters.

The difficulty with a word like 'evil' is that it can be used in the same way as "red", or "wet" or "pregnant". It sounds like an observation, based on an internal moral compass that points infallibly to the poles of good and evil.  This kind of absolute determination or judgement now seems dated, intellectually lazy or bigotted, perhaps even ignorant. Absolute judgements are anathema to the literate and rational, who understand  that meaning is subjective, judgements are contextual and relative, and valuations are a matter for the marketplace. There are no absolutes (apart from this viewpoint).

An influential element in the community see behaviour as a product of nature, nurture and environment. Criminals are victims of a collective failure - the abused become the abusers etc. Criminal - that is, anti-social - behaviour is a consequence of a failure of society to provide what is required in the way of material goods, education or medical intervention.   Evil is a convenient label to slap on people when one is too lazy or indifferent to analyze the complexity of cause and effect, or listen to many and various moral viewpoints. 'Evil' sounds irrational, rooted in feeling, like swearing. In the calm world of  the intellect it can be reasoned away, as it was by Plato and his many successors: evil is a lack of function, a lack of integration, a lack of socialisation, a lack of intervention, a lack of care and nurture - always, always an absence of something good.

In opposition to this view is the observation that the sum total of human misery is greatly increased by individuals and organisations that are not in any way lacking in ingenuity, perseverance, creativity or financial resources. Two examples will suffice. The first is the theft of land from indigenous people the world over to make way for highly-profitable, industrial-scale enterprises. The displaced populations are forced into slums and then - second example - sold drugs, tobacco and alcohol by highly-profitable, industrial-scale enterprises. In time, it is easy to forget what caused the poverty and the slums and the various addictions and health issues.

The history of Jews in Europe is a tale of woe. There were sporadic islands of tolerance, but for most of the period from the destruction of the Second Temple to the 20th century, Jews were denied legal rights of citizenship and excluded from most forms of economic activity. They were subject to the whims of princes, which meant arbitrary expulsions and seizures of property. Sacred books were burned in public, and synagogues sacked. There were terrifying outbreaks of mob violence which were as lethal and murderous as the advance of the Nazi SS into Russia. From the time of the Venice Ghetto in the early 16th. century Jews were often forced to live in restricted areas, and identify themselves with a mark on their clothing.  There were programmes of enforced conversion to Christianity, and institutions such as the Inquisition to ensure that there was no backsliding.

The catalogue of massacres, slanders and humiliations is difficult to comprehend. One incident encapsulates the brutality (see Graetz vol. 3). In 1290 several families of Jews were forced to buy passage on a ship out of England following the seizure of their property by the crown. They were marooned on a sandbank by the ship's captain and left to drown in the rising tide, while the crew mocked them and urged them to call on Moses to part the sea.

It is against this background that Kabbalists struggled to understand why God's chosen people were so targeted and persecuted. Was it punishment for sinfulness? Was it a consequence of Adam and Eve's original disobedience? Would an unbending devotion to Torah and commandments alleviate God's wrath?  Or was the creation in some sense structurally defective? Every possibility consistent with the unity of God was examined. Jews bent over backwards to blame themselves. In time it was the last possibility - a structurally defective creation -  that began to dominate, and was explored in mythological images of great power. As Scholem observes: " ... genuine evil, the evil that can be experienced, cannot be broken down and explained by speculation. From the myth of the Tree of Knowledge to the present day, evil imposes itself upon us in mythical images".

Traditional Views

Four positions on the nature of evil were influential in traditional literature:
  • Philosophical. This view, which derives from Hellenistic philosophy, envisages God as entirely good, and the source of all being. The material world contains the imprint of divine ideas in matter, and it is matter that adulterates and obfusticates the divine goodness. Matter is the antithesis of being, and so has no reality - no quality, including evil, can be ascribed to it. Evil is privation, alienation from the good, and is founded in human ignorance. A difficulty with this view is the logical nonsense associated with definitions of matter that deprive it of any meaningful ontological status. These problems can only be solved by outright dualism, or by discarding the fundamental notion of divine goodness.

  • Structural. Evil is a potential that is realised in human action. If human beings did not act on the possibility of evil, there would be no evil. This view goes further than the philosophical by acknowledging the potential for evil within God's creation, but justifies it by observing that unless God provided the structural possibility of evil in the creation there would be no choice and no freewill - the creation would be an automaton. The archetypal example of the exercise of freewill and its consequences was the disobedience of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

  • Instrumentalist. Evil is an instrument of God's governance, characterised in the Bahir as God's Left Hand. The powers of the left side have no autonomy, but act according to God's decrees. One function of evil is to punish evil-doing. Another is to test humankind, in the belief that righteousness has no substance unless it is tested against temptation.

  • Dualist. Evil has an autonomous existence within the God's creation, and is activated by a primordial catastrophic event that brings it into a parasitic existence. Evil derives its sustenance from divine energy that is diverted from its proper place by human perversity: this can be defined as "separating that which should be joined, and joining that which should be separate." Evil may be eradicated at some time in the future.
The default traditional position was the Instrumentalist, and a dramatisation of this can be found in the Book of Job. Early Kabbalah, up to the Zohar, moved sharply in the direction of Dualism, but the next few hundred years were much influenced by philosophy and the Philosophical and Structuralist views became popular, giving rise to a view characterised by Joseph Dan as "No Evil Descends from Heaven". Following Isaac Luria in the sixteenth century and the subsequent Sabbatian heresy, Kabbalah moved strongly towards the Dualist position, to an extent that scholars have compared it with the gnosticism of Late Antiquity. It is not uncommon to find some or all of these positions muddled together.

Destroyed Worlds

One of the most extraordinary ideas in Kabbalah comes from an ancient midrash attributed to R. Abbahu of Caesarea: "The Holy One, blessed be He, created worlds and destroyed them, until he created this [present] one, and said: 'This one gives Me pleasure, they did not give Me pleasure'"

Why did the Holy One make worlds and destroy them? There are various clues that centre on the concept of righteousness. God agreed not to destroy Sodom if Abraham could find fifty righteous men in the city. Abraham bargained God down to ten righteous men, but could not find even ten, and Sodom was destroyed.

The Talmud contains the opinion that the world is only sustained for the benefit of thirty six righteous men and women in every generation - these are the mysterious Lamed Vav, the Tzadikim Nistarim.

The Bahir continues this idea as follows:

"There is a single pillar extending from heaven to earth, and its name is Righteous (Tzadik). This pillar is named after the righteous. When there are righteous people in the world, then it becomes strong, and when there are not, it becomes weak. It supports the entire world, as it is written, 'And Righteous is the foundation of the world'. If it becomes weak, then the world cannot endure. Therefore, even if there is only one righteous person in the world, it is he who supports the world. It is therefore written, 'And a righteous one is the foundation of the world.'"

Complementing these ideas are speculations by a famous medieval mystic, R. Eleazar of Worms. He wondered why God made worlds and destroyed them, and concluded that it was an experiment. The quality of righteousness can only be exhibited in an environment where it is tested against evil, and so God made worlds of pure evil to see if any righteousness would manifest. None did, and he destroyed them. The present world is a compromise, a mixture of good and evil where only modest levels of righteousness are possible.

This is an amazing theory. It has God engaging in what, in the language of modern science, would be called Monte Carlo simulation methods,a computational technique for understanding the macroscopic behaviour of complex systems by repeated sampling.

According to Joseph Dan, these ideas may have been a stimulus for one of the most influential documents in Kabbalah, the Treatise on the Emanations of the Left, written by the Castilian Kabbalist R. Isaac ha-Kohen. R. Isaac not only accepts that the destroyed worlds were pure evil, he gives details of their demonic nature. He also suggests that the Tree of Life splits into two below the sefira Binah, so there are seven lower sefira of good, and seven lower sefira of evil - these are the emanations of the left and of the right. The worlds of evil are accorded a similar ontological status to the worlds of good.

It is this dualist view that influenced the Zohar. The destroyed worlds of pure evil are identified with the seven Kings of Edom who ruled before the kings of Israel (see Genesis 36). They are kingdoms of unbalanced force, of strict judgement (din), and they were destroyed.

It was the elaborate mythological dualism of the Zohar that provided the basic elements for R. Isaac Luria's concept of the shevirat ha-kelim, the breaking of the vessels, the primordial catastrophe that provided the physical basis for the powers of evil.

The idea that we live frail lives against the backdrop of ancient realms of evil aligns Kabbalah with perennial myths of great power. One can cite Egyptian cultic rituals to preserve the sun on its nightly journey through the demonic realms, Norse mythology, H.P. Blavatsky's story of the evil magics that destroyed Atlantis, H.P. Lovecraft's fictional Old Ones of chaotic evil banished to an adjacent dimension, and the extraordinary themes of the related television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel.
A synthetic, homogenised, "standard model"of evil in traditional Kabbalah has the following features. The creative impulse that the Holy One emanates into the Cosmos is entirely good, but contains in a latent form a duality that does not manifest until after the sefira Binah. This duality manifests as two complementary  "kinds of energy", characterised as chesed and din. Chesed is the quality of loving-kindness, mercy, and blessing. Din is the quality of strictness, judgment, and punishment. The right-hand pillar of the Tree of Life conveys the attribute of chesed, the left-hand pillar conveys the attribute of din. The central pillar of the Tree mediates between chesed and din, but partakes primarily of the quality of chesed, except for the sefira Malkhut, in which the attribute din dominates.

In an anthropomorphic view of God-as-Father, chesed is the right hand that brings benevolance, blessings, love, nurture and abundance. Din is the left hand that defines limits, commands, judges action, delivers judgements, and enacts punishments.

The short traditional, 1000-metre view on evil in Kabbalah is that it derives from the quality of din.

From a conceptual viewpoint, chesed is an outpouring of vivifying energy, while din is the definition, constraint, limitation, restriction that gives structure to energy and enables the emergence of complexity. Because din restricts or holds-back the light of God, it is often represented by a covering, a veil, a husk, or the bark of a tree. This dead covering is usually referred to as klippah, meaning just that - a husk.

Each sefira in the Tree of Life retains and restricts some of the divine light (as do all the sefirot that exist within it in potentia), and even though the sefirot are holy emanations of God, their character is determined by holding-back, by din. The Bahir characterises chesed by silver and din by the more valuable gold, because the light that God holds back is more valuable than the light that God reveals.

In an ideal condition there is dynamic balance between chesed and din, with energy flowing into appropriate structures, neither dominating. It is a natural and intuitive idea with resonances as far afield as the dynamic duality of Love and Strife in the philosophy of Empedocles, and the well-known duality of Yin and Yang in Chinese philosophy.

Two catastrophes disrupt the pleasingly abstract see-saw dynamic between chesed and din. The first catastrophe is the cosmic catastrophe of the Destroyed Worlds (see right). The Destroyed Worlds were kingdoms of pure evil, and their remains weigh the nature of existence heavily on the side of evil. The shells (klippot) of the Destroyed Worlds form a demonic mirror to the Tree of Life, with averse sefirot, palaces, and a hierarchy of evil led by the archdemon Samael and his consort Lilith, who are the evil mirror image of Adam and Eve. Lilith is the enemy of women and childbirth, delighting in strangling babies. Samael is identified with Esau, the planet Mars, and the violent, oppressive, warlike power of Rome (although any warlike, totalitarian, gangster regime would be appropriate). The realms of evil possess some remnant of primordial life force, derived from sparks of divine light that fell into the abyss during the shattering, but gain much of their parasitic sustenance from human evil, which feeds energy directly to them.

The second catastrophe is the disobedience of Adam and Eve. By eating the apple from the Tree of Knowledge Adam "cut the shoots"; he separated the Tree of Life from the Tree of Knowledge. There are many ways one can interpret this. One interpretation runs as follows: knowledge presupposes subject and object. It also presupposes representation, in the form of concept, symbol, sign, narrative and fundamentally, language. Knowledge comes at the expense of a privileged viewpoint that is always on the outside. We live in a world of surfaces, of exteriors. Each human being we encounter is another surface, another exterior, and we contact the unknowable interior through shared representations. We know the other-as-phenomenon, not the other-in-itself. Adam chose to fall out of a direct apprehension of the divine into a state characterised by duality.

In his introduction to the Zohar, Daniel Matt comments:

"Once, as Adam, Humanity was wedded to God. The original sin lies in losing intimacy with the divine, thereby constricting unbounded awareness. The loss follows inevitable from tasting the fruit of discursive knowledge; it is the price we pay for maturity and culture. The spiritual challenge is to search for that lost treasure - without renouncing the self or the world."

Adam's sin was the primordial separation within human consciousness, a rupture of comprehension creating the appearance of self and other, and it is the asymmetry between self and other that opens up the possibility of moral evil.

R. Yehuda Ashlag's insights into this are both simple and profound. He describes the nature of God as entirely giving. God wishes to give benefits and blessings to all beings. In order to do so, all beings must possess a proportionate capacity to receive. As God has no need of anything, this capacity to receive is something new and must be created. One can read this in the context of Isaiah 45:7: "I form the light and I create darkness; I make peace and create evil"  - that is, both evil and darkness were created, and are related to the capacity to receive for oneself alone. The capacity to receive is necessary (otherwise there could be no relationship with God, or relationship of any kind) but is also the root of that exaggerated sense of self-entitlement that leads to moral evil. The mutual competition between people (each being the centre of a universe of personal need) leads to conflict, and often results in a spiritual gluttony that demands unlimited space, money, honour, status, freedom, whatever.

The ethic of reciprocity is one of the oldest and culturally most pervasive principles that attempts to regulate selfishness and narcissism. A Jewish version of this principle is attributed to R. Hillel in the Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat 31a):

"Once there was a gentile who came before Shammai, and said to him: Convert me on the condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot. Shammai pushed him aside with the measuring stick he was holding. The same fellow came before Hillel, and Hillel converted him, saying: "That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow. This is the whole Torah, and the rest is commentary, go and learn it."

A Christian version of this principle is "Love your neighbour as yourself". A well-known philosophical rendition of the idea can be found in the various formulations of Kant's Categorical Imperative: "Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end and never merely as a means to an end." In other words, people are not resources to be used in the attainment of personal goals.

Returning to R. Ashlag, he characterises moral evil as arising from the desire to receive-for-oneself-alone. In its distilled form this desire is pure selfishness and egotism, where the balance between self and other is entirely weighted towards the self. He characterises an ideal situation as receiving-to-give-benefit, where energy is directed outwards and the balance shifts from self to other. If we stand in the divine light and fail to pass it on, we create a shadow. This idea links to traditions concerning the sefirot. Each sefira receives light and passes on some of it. Only Keter is entirely giving, and only Malkhut is entirely receiving (the speculum that does not shine). The symmetry is restored by the active participation of created beings, who turn the light around so that a current travels from Malkhut back to Keter. This cannot be achieved when beings are receiving only for themselves: it is in giving benefit to others that one creates the return link back to Keter.

A turning point in the Kabbalistic understanding of evil took place in the Galilean hilltown of Safed during the sixteenth century, during a period contemporary with the English scientist and occultist Dr. John Dee, and the playwright William Shakespeare. Safed was under a relatively tolerant Turkish rule, and the thriving wool industry was able to absorb and support large numbers of European Jewish families fleeing from near-universal European persecution. Two outstanding figures form the hinge on which the understanding of evil swung from philosophical to radically dual.

R. Moses Cordovero ("Ramak") was influenced by rational philosophy, and sought to unify nearly four hundred years of Kabbalistic speculative thought within a unifying framework. He reflects the 'mild' philosophic understanding of evil: "the truth is that above, in the world of the divine emanations, no evil thing descends from Heaven, for up there everything is absolutely spiritual". He interprets the "destroyed worlds" of the Zohar as the first evanescent flickerings of divine will - an idea strikingly reminscent of  quantum virtual particles in quantum field theory.

A pupil of the Ramak, R. Isaac Luria ("Arizal") turned this on its head by developing and elaborating the Zohar's treatment of the "destroyed worlds". As the Vilna Gaon commented:  "where philosophy ends, kabbalah begins, and where the kabbalah of the Ramak ends, the kabbalah of the Ari begins." Luria located the origin of evil in the first moment of creation when Ein Soph withdrew His light in an act of self-contraction (tzimtzum), creating a "space" in which some part of God's being and holiness had been withdrawn, leaving behind an excess of the quality of din. The first attempt to emanate a system of sefirot resulted in a catastrophe, the shattering of the vessels, or shevirat ha-kelim. Like a series of explosions from a firework, sparks (nitzotzot), fragments of divinity fell into the dark to provide the activating power for the klippot, the powers of din. This irreducible, primordial, cosmic evil is the backdrop to all created existence.

A significant part of Luria's system is the integration of his cosmogony with traditional Jewish religious practices. The Mosaic law, the halakhah, the divine commandments and prohibitions that had governed Jewish religious life for millenia, were interpreted in the light of an ontological duality: a realm of holiness and a realm of impurity. In his commentary on the Tanya, R. Adin Steinsaltz observes: 

"Sitra achra is the Kabbalistic term for evil. But the words literally mean "the other side", that is, not the side of holiness. In other words, on the most basic level, there are two aspects to reality: the side of holiness and the other side. The domain of halakhah ("Torah law") contains a broad realm known as reshut ("the optional"), which is neither virtuous or sinful, that lies here between the divinely commanded mitzvot and the divinely proscribed averot ("transgressions"). However, in the Kabbalistic division of reality, there is no middle ground. Nothing is neutral; anything that does not actively relate to God is automatically on the other side. For there cannot be anything that does not relate, positively or negatively, to God."

"The world of holiness is a world of unity, a world that manifests the truth that "There is none else besides Him". The conception of God as "the Infinite" (Ein Soph) does not merely imply that He is Infinite Being: being without limit and definition, being that embraces everything so that there can be nothing else. In contrast, the other side is rooted in the world of disunity, in which the light of the Infinite is not manifest, the exclusive unity of God is not recognized. Thus the essence of sitra achra is that there is (so to speak) something else besides Him. In its initial, most basic form, the other side does not deny the existence of holiness, nor is it hostile to it. It merely deigns to define holiness, to confine it within a set of parameters. It is willing to accept the existence of a lofty and superior realm of holiness, based on the assumption that there are other things as well."

There are many apparent logical difficulties in reconciling the unity and absolute sovereignty of God with this kind of dualism. It forces one to rethink and reframe many traditional interpretations and assumptions. Nathan of Gaza, prophet and apologist for the messianic Sabbatai Tzevi, and strongly influence by Lurianic kabbalah, was not completely misguided in postulating two contrary impulses within Ein Soph, pushing back the source of duality to its only plausible source - the ontological buck stops there. The interested reader might like refer to Kabbalah and the Art of Being by Prof. Simon Shokek for a sympathetic treatment of the difficulties and unrevealed consequences of the Lurianic view of creation.

Despite the Lurianic view that life in the world is dominated - almost overwhelmed - by the powers of evil, the outlook is not world-denying as in many dualist gnostic systems. Far from it; the Chassidic outlook is joyful, as Steinsaltz explains:

"A cardinal principle in the service of God is that it must be done with joy. It is said in the name of many Hasidic masters that there is something that is not listed in the Torah as a sin yet is worse than any sin and something that is technically not a mitzvah [commandment] yet is greater than all mitzvot. Nowhere does the Torah expressly forbid sadness and depression, yet this is the most virulent of sins, for it stifles the heart and mind, closing them to the service of God. Joy is not an express mitzvah but it is the greatest of all mitzvot, for it opens a persons heart and mind, enabling him to perform all the mitzvot and make a mitzvah of everything."

Far from denying the world, Luria's Kabbalah emphasises the role of human beings in tikkun olam, the repair or rectification of the world. The divine sparks that fell into the realm of the shells can be reconnected with the world of holiness; that which should not have been separated can be reintegrated and unified.

Chaim Vital, Luria's student, offered the opinion that in the period of time between the Ramban (Rabbi Moses ben Nachman) and the Arizal, no Kabbalah of consequence had been produced. He implies that classic Spanish Kabbalah, with the production of the Zohar at its peak, was divinely inspired, as were the insights of the Ari. What lay between was little more than intellectual speculation. Luria's views spread rapidly through the Jewish community and have prevailed to this day.

Hermetic Views

Ancient Greece had an ascetic tendency that derived from the Pythagoreans. The philosophic ideal was (strangely enough!) the philosopher, who lived a simple and virtuous life. Materialism was not so much evil as irrelevant. There was no reality, no truth in it. Reality was accessible via the capacity within the human soul to apprehend the divine in contemplation. There was nothing in the material world of sustaining interest (it was here that Aristotle, a keen biologist, diverged from a general opinion that lasted until the scientific reformation in the 17 century).

In the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle advocated the Doctrine of the Mean, a middle ground between the extremes of human behaviour. Virtue emerged as moderation and regulation of one's behaviour to self and others, an intuitive and influential view that was encoded as the four cardinal virtues: temperance, wisdom or prudence, strength or fortitude, and justice.

The cardinal virtues are to be found in the trump cards of the Tarot pack, and despite some absurdly fanciful interpretations, the imagery and meaning is traditional and well-understood. Wisdom/Prudence appears to be missing from the deck, but as Robert Place has argued, The World card is probably a mutation of the traditional image.

There are two virtues that refer to oneself, and two virtues that refer to others. Temperance is the moderation of appetite and expression, avoiding excessive, obsessive, addictive or harmful patterns of behaviour. Strength or Fortitude is moderation of self-concern, an avoidance of exaggerated reactions to life's inevitable problems and difficulties (i.e. "don't be a drama queen"). Justice is fair-dealing with others, the ethic of reciprocity discussed above. Wisdom or Prudence is perhaps the most elusive until one places it in a social context. In the original context, it meant dealing with situations rationally, not impulsively (or imprudently): taking councel, soliciting advice, weighing options, bringing experience to bear, and part of what we might now consider "leadership" and "consensus building". One may be arrogant by oneself, but one cannot be wise by oneself.

There is a correspondence between the doctrine of the mean and a related concept of balance (methekla) in Kabbalah. The middle pillar of the Tree of Life expresses the dynamic balance between the extremes of mercy and severity, and the triadic structure of the Tree diagram illustrates this idea of mean or balance.

Sefira Virtue Vice Shell
Malkhut Discrimination Avarice, Inertia Stasis
Yesod Independence Idleness Vegetative state
Hod Honesty Dishonesty Rigid Order
Netzach Unselfishness Selfishness Habit, routine, sentimentality
Tiferet Devotion to the Work Pride Hollowness
Gevurah Courage and Energy Cruely Bureaucracy
Chesed Humility Tyranny, Bigotry, Hypocrisy, Gluttony Ideology
Binah Silence Avarice Fatalism
Chokhmah Good Evil Arbitrariness
Keter -- -- Futility

Evil on the Tree: Virtues, Vices and Klippot
Hermetic Kabbalah, perhaps more so than traditional, sees vice not just in the interplay between the energy of the right side and the left side, but as excess. The Biblical account of Moses on the mountain has it that Moses could not look upon the face of God and live. In the Zohar various sages die in divine rapture. Like the shattering of the vessels, one can have too much of a good thing. Too much form or structure imprisons divine energy, but too much energy shatters the structure that contains it. This is developed into the idea that every sephira has a good and bad side.

Aleister Crowley's 777, a compilation of Kabbalistic correspondences, has a table labelled "Transcendental Morality", and this table is further developed in Dion Fortune's The Mystical Qabalah into a duality of virtue and vice for each sefira. One can also view the Klippot not only as an evil, the opposite of a good quality, but also its original sense of the dead husk or shell of a sefira, empty, lifeless structure, form without force (see left).

Dion Fortune's understanding of Kabbalah was heavily influenced by her initiation into the Alpha and Omega lodge of the Golden Dawn, and she is a useful counterbalance to Crowley, providing in The Mystical Qabalah a comprehensive, systematic and accessible explanation of its principles. Fortune's presentation on the klippot and the nature of evil is influenced by the Zohar, and the "destroyed worlds" legend in the Sefer Dzeniuta, which she quotes from S.L.Mather's The Kabbalah Unveiled:

"... these emanations [klippot] took place during critical periods of evolution when the Sephiroth were not in equilibrium. For this reason they are referred to as the Kings of Unbalanced Force, the Kings of Edom "who ruled before there was a king in Israel", as the Bible puts it, and in the words of the Siphra Dzeniutha, the Book of Concealed Mystery, "For before there was equilibrium, countenance beheld not countenance. And the kings of ancient time were dead, and their crowns were found no more; and the earth was desolate.""

She explains evil primarily in terms of unbalanced force. There is a primordial component of evil, the 'Kings of Unbalanced Force', and there is an additional component caused by human activity, according to the idea that "each thing evokes its opposite": we cannot manifest any quality without necessarily balancing it with its opposite. Too much kindness permits evil to flourish; too much severity punishes guilty and innocent.  Each person is endowed with the faults of their strengths. A driven, energetic person my push others too hard and become overbearing, an overkind parent may spoil a child and fail to imbue discipline.
Da'at and the Abyss

Da'at means "knowledge", and in the Zohar it is treated as a product of the union of wisdom and understanding. It is placed on the Tree of Life on the central pillar above Tiferet. It is not normally considered a sefira, but in some interpretations of Kabbalah, Keter is considered remote from any kind of conceptual understanding, and Da'at replaces it as a "proxy".

A good example of this usage comes from the Chabad tradition of Chassidism (ChBD = Chokhmah, Binah Da'at), where (approximately) Chokhmah represents inception, Binah conception, and Da'at, actualisation. The first three sefirot (sefirot mochin) are considered the "intellectual attributes", and the following six (sefirot middot), "emotional attributes". There is a qualitative gap between the first three sefirot  and the following seven that can be found, with varying interpretations, as far back as the Bahir.

In the late 19th and early 20th century members of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn dramatised the nature of this "gap" so that it became "the Abyss". The Tree of Emanation (see Tree of Life) has no path connecting Chesed to Binah via Da'at, and so the spiritual ascent of the Tree (see Ascent) required the aspirant to travel off-piste when transitioning from Chesed to Binah. This was combined with ideas, current during the period, of a Guardian (Dweller) of the Threshold, an encounter with a quasi-demonic entity that would confront the aspirant at a critical point in the spiritual ascent. The (unknown) Secret Chiefs of the Golden Dawn were those rare individuals who had survived the encounter with the Dweller, and the transition to the spiritual plane of Binah ("crossing the Abyss"), and were regarded as virtually superhuman. S. L. Mathers described a supposed encounter with one of these beings as if he had met a god.

A member of the Golden Dawn who claimed to have "crossed the Abyss" was Aleister Crowley. He used the Enochian Keys to skry into the spiritual nature of each sefira, and documented these experiences in The Vision and the Voice. Crowley provides fascinating insights into his conception of the meaning of the Abyss and the Dweller, whom he names Choronzon, after a "mighty demon" that is named once in Dr. John Dee's angelic communications.

Choronzon can perhaps be characterised as the zero-point energy of consciousness, the random eruptions of cognitive coherence that self-assemble into an ego that believes itself the divine and autonomous centre of a personal universe - the Most High. Choronzon and the Most High are duals, the Most High being ego at its most unselfconscious, arrogant, and self-centred, while Choronzon is the ego decomposing back into its constituent whirls of awareness. Crowley describes the situation of the ego in starkly dualist terms, the battlements and angelic legions of the Most High standing guard against the terror of the chaotic Abyss.

For Crowley, crossing the Abyss was an encounter with the fundamental nature of ego. The ego is a composite of parts whose interrelationships are tuned (in a multitude of possible ways) for survival in human society. When the ego loses coherence (which feels like a descent into madness) the consituent parts have the potential to turn into obsessive forces. Crowley described and documented this process in considerable detail.

A significant event in the development of these ideas was Kenneth Grant's Nightside of Eden. Grant developed the ancient idea of an averse Tree of klippot using notes left behind by Crowley, who had obviously done a little work along these lines. Nightside of Eden is nothing less than a counterpart to the thirty-two paths of Wisdom, using Da'at as an entrypoint into the reflected averse Tree and the thirty-two paths ... of Ignorance.  The paths of ignorance are the obsessive and addictive kinds of false reality sustained by the klippot. In today's consumer society, with its obsessive cravings for handbags, shoes, pornography, food, drugs and celebrity, these paths are easily explored without an arcane catalogue of demonic names.

Fortune echoes the ancient tradition that the worlds of evil are a mirror of the worlds of good, the flip side of the coin, and uses the image of two trees reflected across the surface of a sphere. Too much movement in the direction of severity or mercy takes one round the surface of the sphere into the averse, klippotic tree on the other side.

The idea that each sefira has a potential for imbalance that can manifest as too much (an excess of force without balancing form) or too little (an excess of form without vivifying force) is not novel to Fortune, and can be found in traditional sources, but it is a distinctive part of her outlook. It links strongly to ideas of physical health, to psychology, to ecology, to biology, to society, to any model of organism in which the function of the whole is dependent on the balanced and harmonious function of parts. Examples of this failure of balance in the context of health would be cancer, where a group of cells escape from the body's regulatory system and grow out of control (corresponding to the sephira Chesed), and auto-immune diseases, where the body's regulatory framework misidentifies and attacks its own organs (corresponding to the sephira Gevurah). In social terms, Gevurah might correspond to brutal police and corrupt courts (an excess of force leading to cruelty), or the dead hand of an oppressive and pointless bureaucracy (an excess of form).

Her view on moral evil is based on an idea that the divine expresses itself in an outward current of emanation that is embodied in matter, and that there is a point at which all beings begin a journey (which she calls evolution) in which they acquire progressive knowledge of their divine origin, and eventually, a reunion with their divine source. This current of transcendent evolution (this is, a cognitive and spiritual evolution) defines an absolute direction: one may work with the flow, or against it. In her Esoteric Philosophy of Love and Marriage she states:

"White Magic is distinguished as that exploitation of knowledge which aims at harmonising and uplifting existence along the lines of advancing evolution, and which, though it may concentrate its efforts upon a particular point, excludes from its benefits nothing which by its nature is capable of receiving them. Black Magic may be define as that use of superior knowledge which endeavors to cause any section of existence to return to a phase of evolution below that to which it has attained, or which attempts to benefit any special section of manifestation at the expense of the rest."

In other words, evil is not subjective, contextual, relative or non-existent. It exists, and it exists absolutely.

Another aspect of Dion Fortune's teachings on evil can be found in a channelled work, The Cosmic Doctrine, communicated during 1923 and 1924. She makes a distinction between Negative and Positive Evil. Negative Evil is structural, and appears almost identical to Cordovero's definition of din (quoted from Scholem):

"It must be remembered that to the Kabbalist, judgement [Din - judgement, a title of Gevurah] means the imposition of limits and the correct determination of things. According to Cordovero the quality of judgement is inherent in everything insofar as everything wishes to remain what it is, to stay within its bounderies."

Positive Evil is the outcome of human beings employing Negative Evil to achieve their own goals. An example may clarify this. A boiler is designed to confine steam. The boiler without steam is just an empty shell, but with energy and water, the steam and pressure it creates can be used in an engine. A balance is required - too much energy and the boiler shatters, too little and nothing happens. In abstract, energy is confined and directed, and is put to use. In a much more sophisticated way our bodies live because of a similar balance between energy and confinement (in this case the confinement is the production of highly reactive molecules of adenosine triphosphate).

Guns and explosives exploit the same principles as a boiler. A car bomb exploits confinement of energy on a grand scale. The principle of confinement for the generation of useful work is an example of Negative Evil. The car bomb would be an example of Positive Evil. Better, but more complex examples of Positive Evil can be found in the realm of human society and behaviour. Every society has the means to regulate and administer the behaviour of its members. This was the traditional value of the succession of kings - better a bad king than no king, and the collapse of civil order. A key issue in every human society is the extent to which the mechanism of the state exists to serve all equally, or whether it has been perverted to serve the interests of a privileged few at the expense of the many.

Fortune's abstract concept of Positive Evil appears to be very similar to the traditional Kabbalistic notion that human action can feed energy to the powers of the Left Side, and it is this energy that sustains the klippot. Evil arises from the combination of an inherent structural possibility within the divine, combined with immoral choice, and the intention to serve oneself.

A student in Fortune's tradition, William Gray, devoted an entire book titled The Tree of Evil to exploring these ideas. He contrasts two different outlooks. One outlook is directed outwards to material existence as the totality of existence, and the deification of the ego (what he calls the pseudo-self) within that context, with a focus on acquisition according to temperament: material resources and power, honour and status, knowledge and its utilisation. The other outlook is directed towards relationship - reality is not "things", it is constructed out of the connections and relationships that we choose to make, and the connections we make can be entirely self-serving, or can serve others. The ultimate relationship is with the totality of all being:

"Good may fairly be defined as the intention or will to achieve identity or true self in the living spirit of cosmic creation. Evil can be contra-defined as the intention or will of remaining retarded in a state of pseudo-self for the sake of its own automatic aggrandisment."

and evil is the

"Deliberate or willed isolation of egoic autonomy at the material end of the self-spectrum for the sake of establishing an apparently independent condition of entity apart from the life-spirit of cosmos itself whereto we properly belong. In old-fashioned language, Man trying to set up apart from God in a state of self-sufficiency."


Joseph Dan has observed that a Kabbalist's position on the nature of evil is a litmus test for the rest. It is one of the defining subjects, and this survey has done little more than cherry-pick some views that seem representative of important positions. The influence of the Zohar has been paramount. Over time Kabbalists have zigged and zagged between various philosophical, structural, instrumentalist and dualist positions ... but they have returned to the Zohar. It is the mythical dualism of the Zohar, amplified by the teachings of R. Isaac Luria, that has prevailed: due to catastrophe and choice the worlds have descended into the realm of a primordial evil that manifested duiring the earliest moments of the creation. Scholem uses the metaphor of childbirth: evil is the placenta, the afterbirth, the support system, the other occupant of the womb, the second birth hidden from the mother and taken away for disposal.

But there was nowhere for it to go. It dominates perception so that nothing of the divine is visible, so that the appearance of "stuff" - matter, material, substance, in every kind of appearance - is all that presents to the human mind. From our privileged interior viewpoint we look out on a world of surfaces and coverings, and it is coverings and surfaces all the way down ... until quantum mechanics, at which point, the perceptual ledgerdemain vanishes and we are exposed to an underlying unity of mechanism where there is no more naive materialist "stuff" ... only structure and relationship, embodied in abstractions like fermions and bosons.

It is the duality of structure and relationship, under the guise of din and chesed, that dominates Kabbalistic ideas of evil and good. From a moral persective, evil is a product of focusing our relationships on structure, building relationships with "stuff". If all our aspirations relate to "stuff", and we treat other people as further manifestations of "stuff" (that is, means, not ends - see above), then we are creating personal empires of "stuff" in which we are de-facto deities. This is materialism in the fullest sense. It is a partially-manufactured culture that attributes the highest values to manufactured goods, to tokens of wealth, and tokens of status.

The Zohar suggests that the powers of the Left Side derive their energy from human action. Everywhere people are trying to actualise their ideal lifestyle, bringing stuff to life by diverting life force into it, trying to behave like gods while simultaneously denying their fragility, mortality and God. There is nothing wrong in trying to achieve some level of material comfort, security, safety, and control over one's circumstances. It is the exclusive devotion to the arbitrary obsessions of an ego dominated by aggrandisement that feeds the Left Side, and creates the readily comprehensible forms of evil discussed in the Introduction.

There is substantial agreement between traditional views (e.g. as understood by R. Yehuda Ashlag) and Hermetic traditions (e.g. deriving from the Golden Dawn through Dion Fortune and her students).  Both Ashlag and Gray identify two fundamental positions: receiving for oneself alone, and receiving to give benefit. Relationship with stuff versus relationship with others and, through others, with God. In the Hermetic tradition the rectification of the world, tikkun olam, is relabelled as the Great Work, but it is the same process expressed using the language of alchemy: the refining of persons and situations to reconnect with the spiritual gold amidst the dross.

This is the nub of it: being able to see past coverings and surfaces to recognise the spark of the divine, and building a relationship with it, thus freeing it to transcend its identification with stuff. R. Moshe Cordovero puts it exceedingly well:

"The essence of divinity is found in every single thing — nothing but it exists.... Do not attribute duality to God. Let God be solely God. If you suppose that [Ein Sof] emanates until a certain point, and that from that point on is outside of it, you have dualized. God forbid! Realize, rather, that Ein Sof exists in each existent. Do not say, “This is a stone and not God.” God forbid! Rather, all existence is God, and the stone is a thing pervaded by divinity."

Further Reading

The following essays in Jewish Mysticism: The Modern Period by Joseph Dan:
  • Samael, Lilith and and the Concept of Evil in the Early Kabbalah
  • "No Evil Descends from Heaven": Sixteenth Century Jewish Concepts of Evil
  • Manasseh ben Israel's Nishmat Hayyim and the Concept of Evil in Jewish Thought 
  • Samael and the Problem of Jewish Gnosticism
  • Nachmanides and the Development of the Concept of Evil in Kabbalah
  • Kabbalistic and Gnostic Dualism
The following essays in Kabbalah by Gershom Scholem:
  • The Problem of Evil
  • Demonology in Kabbalah
  • Lilith
  • Samael
The following introductory essays by Tishby in The Wisdom of the Zohar:
  • The Forces of Uncleanness
  • The Activity of "the Other Side"
  • Demons and Spirits
The following essay by Scholem in The Mystical Shape of the Godhead:
  • Good and Evil in the Kabbalah