Should We Hate the Wicked?

Although I am not Jewish, I have a lot of regard for Judaism. I would like a rabbi’s perspective on the following question. Is it wrong to hate the wicked? Should we love all mankind regardless of who they are and how they act?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

Thank you for your important question. The simple answer is that yes, the Torah teaches us many times that we should hate wicked people. King David prides himself in this: “Will I not hate those who hate You God, and rise against those who rise against you? With the utmost hatred I hate them…” (Psalms 139:21-22). Likewise, Psalms 97:10: “Lovers of God, hate evil!” Proverbs 8:13: “The fear of God is the hatred of evil… and the deceitful mouth I hated.” and many more verses.

There are, however, some very important qualifications to this. God Himself hates the wicked as many verses attest (e.g. Psalms 11:5, Hosea 9:15, Proverbs 15:9, 6:16-20). Yet God virtually never gives up on a person and closes the doors on him: “‘As I live,’ says the Lord God, ‘I do not want the death of the wicked, but rather that the wicked man repents his ways and lives. Return, Return from your evil ways! Why should you die, House of Israel?” (Ezekiel 33:11). And likewise, “Let the wicked man forsake his way, and the sinful man his schemes, and let him return to God and He will show him mercy, and to our God for He is abundantly forgiving” (Isaiah 55:7).

Thus, although we hate the unrepentant wicked, we must never give up on another human being. Our prayers are that he at last mend his ways and return, not that God strike him down in his wickedness.

Exodus 23:5 states: “Lest you see the donkey of your enemy crouching under its burden and you will refrain from helping him? You must certainly help him.” The Talmud (Pesachim 113b) asks why this person is your enemy in the first place? Does not the Torah state, “You shall not hate your brother in your heart” (Leviticus 19:17)? Answers the Talmud that this person is an exception: You personally witnessed him engaging in wicked behavior (which he knew was forbidden but did anyway). You thus have every right to hate him.

But if so, why are you helping him? Aren’t we supposed to hate the wicked? Explains the commentator Tosafot that we don’t want the hatred to get out of hand. If he sees you hate him, he will hate you as well. He will then become entirely distanced from you and there will be no hope for him. Thus, at the same time as demonstrating our disapproval of his way of life, we must still treat such a person with dignity and common courtesy. For perhaps that small opening will one day help him find his way back.

There is a second important qualification. Very rarely do we have the right to conclude that a person is truly wicked. We have no idea of the challenges he has faced in life and what brought him to his current state. And perhaps he never had that person in his life who truly cared about him and could have helped bring him to the good. Thus, even if his behavior is quite bad, is he wicked? Or is he deep down a good person, one who has just failed to live up to his potential?

The Talmud (Brachot 10a) records the following incident. There were certain ruffians who lived in Rabbi Meir’s neighborhood and who caused him much aggravation. Rabbi Meir could no longer tolerate them and began praying to God that they die. His wife, the well-known scholar Beruriah (quoted several times in Talmudic literature), criticized him. Rather than pray that they die, why not pray that they repent? In fact, Psalms 104:35 states, “May sins cease from the earth, and the wicked will be no longer.” The verse does not state that sinners (“chotim”) should cease, but sins (“chata’im”) should cease. R. Meir heeded his wife’s advice, prayed that they repent, and so they did.

Although the episode is heartwarming, it’s actually problematic. Beruriah’s point is not even correct. It is quite clear that the word “chata’im”, though technically translated as “sins”, actually means “sinners” throughout the Book of Psalms. As my teacher R. Moshe Eisemann pointed out, one need not look further than Psalms 1:1 – “…and in the way of sinners (‘chata’im’) he did not stand…” – for proof of this.

My teacher R. Yochanan Zweig explained that in truth Beruriah was making a very profound point. How can King David refers to sinners as sins? How can a person be called a sin? Only when he is a sin – when he is sinful through and through. Only when a person’s wickedness has penetrated him so utterly that he can be called a “sin” should we hate the actual person, and should we wish that “sinners cease from the earth.” But who were the ruffians in Rabbi Meir’s neighborhood? Were they wicked incarnate? Or were they just a bunch of local troublemakers – some bored troubled youths up to no good, who never really thought about what life is all about?

Thus, Beruriah rightly recognized that these are not the sort we must hate. They are not evil. Their acts may be bad, but – as with most of us – their failures were not truly them. We should rather approach such people with love and understanding, and pray that God help them see the error of their ways.

Thus, there are certainly individuals wicked enough that we should hate them. But they are a very chosen few. The vast majority of us are actually quite good on the inside. A person may fail and sin far too often, but that is not what he truly wants. God does not give up on such a person. Neither should we.

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