“Good” Deeds Done in the Service of Evil?

Rambam asks us to imagine ourselves and our world at equipoise, virtues and vices cancelling out perfectly, so that our next action decides how G-d will judge. But is it true justice to weigh deeds against one another, rather than responding to each deed independently? This is a metaphysical question, but I want to approach it by putting two very concrete halakhic analyses in dialogue with each other: Professor Jeffrey Rosen’s take on lashon hora, and Rabbi Shaya Karlinsky’s approach to dealing with abuse allegations.

The obvious question regarding lashon hora is: Why should it be forbidden? Why shouldn’t we see maximum transparency as a good, and celebrate when a false image is shattered? Professor Rosen’s answer is that complete transparency is never achieved. We are continually making educated guesses and filling in the blanks of our knowledge about others in order to complete our view of them. In this process, human nature tends to assign negative information disproportionate weight, and therefore a word of lashon hora can generate untold numbers of unjustified negative guesses. Lashon hora is therefore deceptive in result—it makes us think of people as worse than they are—even when true.

Rabbi Karlinsky notes, however, that abuse allegations against popular rabbis and teachers often generate the opposite reaction. People rush to serve as character witnesses for the accused and argue that their many acts of kindness and compassion make the abuse allegations implausible. Rabbi Karlinsky’s response builds off a Kli Yakar. Kli Yakar understands Devarim 25:13-16 as condemning both the honest and dishonest weights of a shopkeeper who maintains two sets, on the ground that the honest weights—and all the transactions for which they are utilized—are essentially covers for the fraud. When accused by a victim, the shopkeeper will produce the honest weights and satisfied customers and use them to attack the credibility of the fraud accusation. So too, Rabbi Karlinsky argues, the abuser’s acts of kindness and compassion are a core part of their abuse.

On the surface, Rabbi Karlinsky and Professor Rosen are in serious tension. However, they dovetail in the following way: Our tendency to overplay the sins of others makes it hard for us to believe that someone who has sinned seriously is also capable of great good. Where the good is incontrovertible, we may choose to disbelieve the evil, since we cannot find a coherent narrative that explains it.

Rabbi Karlinsky’s solution to this problem is dramatic. He encourages us to disregard apparent good done by abusers, seeing it as instrumental to the evil, and so the evil becomes the only aspect of character left, and cannot be ignored.

I prefer a slightly different framing of the problem. It may not be that people disbelieve the accusations, but rather that they are hesitant to ruin a life for one misdeed when they know of much good the accused has done. Rabbi Karlinsky’s solution theoretically works for this version of the problem as well. But I’m not sure it works in practice. Here’s why:

If the fundamental issue is whether the allegations are accurate, it is directly useful to explain how the same person could have committed both great and foul deeds. But if the fundamental issue is justice, Rabbi Karlinsky’s theory has a more uphill climb. It requires us to believe both that the accused committed evil deeds, and that their good deeds are essentially meaningless.

Divrei Torah during this period of repentance should meet two criteria: cause self-reflection and be concrete. So let me put this question in a framework that functions as a soul-mirror for us, challenging us to make real decisions differently.

Are there people who do good primarily to enable them to do or get away with evil? Is this an underlying motivation for other people? I think the answer to both questions is yes, which is an introduction to more serious questions.

Base motivations can often be bent to positive aims, and one can imagine a person successfully doing good their whole lives by convincing their evil inclination that, on some undefined day, their reputation will be so unimpeachable that they can act as they please without fear of consequences. So the real questions are: How much good is done by being alert for such motivations? How much harm is done by suspicion?

Answering these questions properly likely requires developing a comprehensive taxonomy of people who do both significant good and significant evil. Here is a tentative and very incomplete attempt toward that end:

  1. Conflicted: They have tasted the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and found it delectable either way. There is no ultimate way to know which will predominate their life. In the terms of mussar, we might say that they constantly revisit the same “bechirah (choice) points.”
  2. Consistent: They are fundamentally driven by a single basic passion, regardless of whether it leads to good and evil. Examples of passion include power and eros.
  3. Goal-oriented: They believe they have an end that justifies all means, and their actions ultimately aim at that end. In an extreme version, their end not only justifies any means, but fundamentally makes all other values irrelevant. They may believe their attainment of power to be an essential means, and can end up confusing that means with their ultimate end.
  4. Manipulative: They have no values other than their own satisfaction, but are capable of making short-term sacrifices and long-term strategies. They will go to lengths to cement relationships that give them what they want. But they will badly use people after a relationship is established, using gratitude, insecurity, and hero worship to maintain control.

These are ideal types, and very few people, if any, fit any of these descriptions precisely. I suspect, though, that each of us can recognize a little of ourselves in at least one.

It is very important to socially reward the conflicted and the consistent for the good they do. But Rabbi Karlinsky argues that we as a community and as individuals must recognize the manipulators for who they are. Gratitude and admiration are natural and generally wonderfully positive human emotions, but they can be perverted. The question is how we can tell which kind of person we are dealing with.

Perhaps the scariest experience of my life was attending a speech by the late Rabbi Meir Kahane. What terrified me was the way he insulted his followers—he seemed depressed that his supporters were generally not intellectually gifted—and nonetheless kept perfect control over them. I submit that the surest sign of a manipulator is the presence of acolytes who cannot tear themselves away no matter how badly they are betrayed or humiliated. When apologists for the accused include people whose trust has been betrayed, look out.

Now it seems to me from a legal theory perspective that in general we rule that מצות בין אדם לחבירו אין צריכות כוונה = interpersonal mitzvot do not require intent to be legally significant. Money given to the poor is charity even if given for the sake of personal aggrandizement, even if it is not ideal charity. So from a theological perspective, it may be that G-d rewards manipulators for the interpersonal mitzvot they do.

From a human perspective, we cannot allow the good they do to weaken our resolve to stop their ongoing manipulation, and, as Rabbi Karlinsky argues, we cannot think in terms of balancing their good and evil. In particular, we must take a very jaundiced view of any apparent teshuvah, demanding it be sustained for many years, without relapse, before even thinking of considering them changed people.

It is also very important that we identify the goal-driven, not because their good deeds are done in service of evil, but because their good deeds are not predictive of how they will behave when faced by similar choices in the future. Most specifically, they are likely to behave differently when trusted with power than when they are powerless.

In the foremath of Yom Kippur, it is and should be emotionally difficult to set high standards for accepting the repentance of others even as we ask G-d to set abysmally low standards for our own. It is similarly hard to judge others by their worst aspects as we ask G-d to judge us by our best. We are mostly, I hope, conflicted or consistent sinners, striving to find ways to empower our best selves. We would rather believe that all others are doing the same, and we pray for G-d to take that as His premise. But that may be a Divine luxury in which we cannot always indulge.


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