[NOTE: The implications of what is expressed below are vast. It is a singular, albeit central, concept in an entire position of hashkafah. As such, it will most likely beg more questions than it answers. However, it is simply not possible in the space of an answer here to express it all adequately – to do so could fill volumes…and many have. So, please relate to following as a piece of a much larger whole.]
It is important, first of all, to understand that when the word ra (רע) is used in Hebrew, it is not always indicative of malicious or wicked “evil.” Rather, it is often used as a general term for all levels of negativity (e.g. “bad”, “evil”, “wrong”, “trouble”, et al). I make this qualification only to prevent the common misconception that if God is the “Creator” of evil, that this necessarily implies that He is the author of cruelty, barbarism, and travesty committed by human beings throughout the course of history (has ve-shalom). This, of course, is completely absurd, as it is a foundational principle on which the entire Torah rests that man is endowed with an absolutely free will, completely without Divine coercion of any kind (cf. Hilkhot Teshuvah 5:5). As Rabbi Akiva said, “ha-kol tzafui wa-reshut netunah – Everything is foreseen and [yet] free will has been given” (cf. Pirkei Avot 3:18). God is neither responsible nor the source of human choices, whether good or bad.
Thus, in order to attribute neither outright evil and wickedness nor absurdity to the Creator of All, blessed be He, we must seek an explanation for the seemingly explicit statement made by Yeshayahu HaNavi (45:7) – i.e. that God is the creator of “evil” – that accords with both Hazal and the Tanakh.
In the Moreh HaNavokhim, the Rambam addresses both the origin(s) of evil and the meaning behind the pasuk in Yeshayahu 45:7.
In III:10, the Rambam explains that the meaning of Yeshayahu 45:7 [yotzer or uvore hoshekh oseh shalom uvore ra, ani Adhonoy oseh khol eleh – “Forms light and creates darkness, makes peace and creates evil. I, HaShem, do all these things.”] is that evil – expressed in connection with the word bore – “creates” – is not something with a positive existence [i.e. a “thing” by itself], but is merely a privation, or the absence of properties. Therefore, it can only be “created” indirectly, like when someone directly extinguishes a lamp and indirectly “produces” darkness – the absence of the positive attribute of light (Rambam, ibid). In the pasuk, light and darkness are used as a comparative metaphor for good and evil, and should probably not be understood as a reference to the original act of creation. However, since it says in the Torah that the primordial “light” that was created was called “good” (Bereshit 1:4), and this light is equated by Hazal to cosmic goodness (b.Sotah 12a; b.Hagigah 12a), one could say that anything which lacks this “light” is necessarily “evil” – evil being merely the absence of properties, as already stated.
In other words, we can attribute evil to the Creator only in the way that He created a world in which evil could potentially exist and He fashioned mankind with the capacity to commit wrong. However, the reality of evil is that it exists in the negative choices of human beings that fill the “void” of our capscity to make free choices.
In conclusion, I would like to share a personal story.
I once had a discussion with an older [secular] Jewish psychologist about the classic accusation of God: “Where is He when children suffer?” Now, any demographic could be inserted to replace “children” in that question. After all, suffering is suffering. However, the suffering of innocent children cuts directly to the point. This doctor asserted that if God were a truly loving God, then He wouldn’t have caused it or allowed it to happen.
My answer to him – in standard Jewish form – was another question. Actually, it was a series of questions:
“Where are we? Where is mankind when children suffer? Where are we when we make wars for money, control, and prestige? Where are we when we encourage free sexuality and immorality, causing thousands of unwanted children to be born to mothers who will not properly care for them? Where are we when we use chemicals, plastics, radiation, and food additives to feed our people? Where are we when we feed people GMO produce that even stock animals refuse to eat when given a choice in trials? Where are we when we pump pollution into the water and air? Is God to blame for all the nonsense that mankind is collectively responsible for when we know better? Can you walk into the cancer ward of a children’s hospital and honestly tell me that God is directly responsible for the suffering of all those children, as if He just decided one day to hurt some children?”
He was silent and then admitted that these were very good questions that he had never before considered.
As the Rambam explains in volume III of the Moreh HaNavokhim, the majority of the evil in the world may be categorized as man to man and man to himself. Very little comes from above, and when it does, they are calamities of nature and not God “causing” certain people to make evil choices. No moral evil comes down from Heaven – so say Hazal, as the Rambam explains.
And if anyone is tempted to take issue with this understanding of Divine Providence (hashgahah peratit/kelalit), then I ask them to answer the difficult questions raised by the opposite view, such as: When a religious Beis Yaakov girl is raped while walking home (has ve-halilah), did God pre-ordain both her to be raped and the rapist to commit his disgusting act? Does God starve children? Does God cause men and women to commit adultery through His Divine Will? The answer to all of these – and similar – questions is an unequivocal and resounding “NO.” And if anyone persists in their position that such things are directly caused by God, then it is, in my experience, a near certainty that such a person has never truly suffered or been a victim such as that they have had to seriously ask such questions. To the comfortable and happy, everything seems to obviously be “God’s will” – that is, until something happens to them.
HaShem created a good world, He created man with free will, knowledge, and the capability to live on earth in peace. He expects us to do our job. And we will, bi-siyata di-shmaya (with Divine assistance).