How does one deal with evil people?

I was visiting a friend who is a Chabad Rabbi in Cincinnati, OH. He was holding a bris for his son, and his father-in-law who is the head of Yeshiva in Manchester, England was visiting.

Chabad is an Hassidic Orthodox community more formally known as Chabad- Lubavich for the city that this group originated. They are famous for their outreach and non-judgmental approach to Jews who are not living an Orthodox lifestyle. Chabad has outreach centers all around the world and in most US Cities. Some jews criticize the movement for its somewhat unorthodox adulation of the last leader of the community, who has never been replaced. But, the group is largely in the mainstream of Orthodox practice and teaching other than this single aspect.

I asked Rabbi Weiss, "Why do you involve yourself with evil people?" And, this exposed a core teaching of Chabad, Judaism, and religion in general.

He said, "When I talk and interact with people, I give them a chance to choose to perform mitzvoth (do good deeds.) If they do just one, the world is a better place, and perhaps they will decide it is enjoyable and worth while to do more. And, if they through their interaction with me, cause me to do something evil, then this was evidence that I need to find and recommit my own self and to my values."

There are two complementary practices in Judaism and these are also essentially to core of Christianity as well. While these are most often defined as Judgment and Compassion, it is important to see these through the lens of personal action. Judgement is used by the individual, not meted out.

Rather, the judgment aspect of religious faith is best understood as personal discipline that draws and keeps boundaries, protects the mind from foolish impulsive action, and protects from rationalizing evil into good. The existence of law that is beyond human influence is a great boon in establishing these lines as it is easy to discard boundaries that don't feed our egos or satisfy our momentary urges as old, and out of date. But, as humans, we all struggle to accept this level of strictness much less live it. Part of religious systems is a system and a path of choosing to end old self-destructive or more generally evil behaviors and doing good, one action at a time. Personal strictness is a learned behavior. It must be practiced and practiced until it becomes habitual.

People who insist that others abide by the strictness that one is trying to accept as one's own is merely projecting and misplacing their effort so that they don't have to do for themselves. Some people have noted that many "community organizers" and "advocates" live a very different life from the one they advocate. So called "social justice warriors" often do this same sort of thing, advocating change and sacrifice by others and not for themselves. And, people who see themselves as committed and religious can take on the same set of behaviors. At the core this thought process is an attempt to promulgate standards of behavior and enforce them on others around them as an "absolute good." But, in the end, this sort of behavior is best understood as bullying. And, as soon as the cat is away, the mice will play. Behaviors bought this way must be constantly reinforced by threat and guarded by observation.

Personal strictness as Judgment is the inverse of this behavior. Personal strictness is not built upon grand gestures but the smallest of choices. This is using Judgement rather than meting it out. Judgement drives two kinds of rule based behaviors, avoiding prohibited choices and behaviors, and acting through force of will to accomplish some required task. In the context of Torah, this is explained as negative and positive commandments. But, the general working of this struggle is universal. Each of these actions or choices takes willpower to accomplish. They don't rise up naturally out of passions, but are instead, through practice, become habitually performed. The habit replaces the stress of willpower so that the actions and choices are almost out of the conscious stream. And, this is all necessary, because these habits are the restraints applied to impulsive behaviors and choices that jump into action faster than cognitive thought can restrain.

When a person has a firm foundation, a moral compass and personal strictness in place, then they can embrace the world and its denizens with compassion. Compassion or loving kindness applied without such a foundation can be a source of evil. It creates dependency, and encourages self-destructive behaviors in others. The concepts of co-dependency and unlimited indulgence run together. Rather, loving kindness sees through the moment and the disorder and chaos and focuses on opportunity to elevate those who are suffering through example, through appeal to trial, and through eschewing criticism as a vehicle for driving change.

However, there are times when compassion and loving-kindness must slide from soft to tough. Where as punishment and threats are ultimately completely ineffective means of changing behavior, some behaviors are so self or other damaging that they must be stopped immediately. The struggle is to connect for the transgressor the action and consequence in some fashion that will prevent the ultimate or a greater consequence. So, it is an ultimate act of compassion to say no sometimes in the face of desperation. But, often, these moments are also times of the greatest opportunities for change. So, compassion shows a path to hope while closing the path of supporting or encoraging foolish or self-destructive action. Having that path in mind, is crucial for the act of compassion. In "Les Misérables," Jean Valjean's life is change by a Priest's choice to convert his act of theft into a moment of renewal. It is a romantic notion. But, this is when compassion has its greatest moments.

While Christians and Jews differ on the concept of "original sin" and the fallen nature of mankind, people are all struggling to slip the bonds of their evil nature. Some see this as an aspect that can be conquered or removed from human nature, but in fact, this is not possible. Jewish thought labels this aspect of our behavior as our animal soul. But, it also acknowledges that this is our original nature just the same. This is because the prime motivations and instincts that drive us to seek food, shelter, water and information operate on the level of life and death, and they are not designed to see nuance, just opportunity, threat or obstacle. This viewpoint is very limited, survival first. People in deep deep distress fall back to this level.

The rise of the nature we call humanity is unnatural. It is built upon the possibilities and curses of language and symbol that provide the mind with opportunities to interpret the past and project potential futures. These tools make it possible to function on a higher level and to create a world that pushes the hard scrabble selfishness of the feral animal just trying to survive into the possibilies of civilization where humans and other species can thrive.

All of this said, we have an idea of what we can handle. You need a support system to engage with evil people so that you might not be sucked into their evil. And, very often it is just as important for them, so that they might find others to support them. Given this, the best thing to do is help these people to find a situation where their needs can be met. If this isn't practical or possible, then the important thing is to limit the interaction to what you can "handle." Personal judgment and strictness need to prevent you from joining with an evil person and thier schemes, compassion must guide you to see through the moment to the soul and ask, what can I do this moment for this person to elevate them in some way, large or small.


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