The Evil Inclination

By Raphael Magarik
Monday, December 5, 2011

The yetzer hara, usually translated "evil impulse," is an elusive rabbinic concept. The words derive from God's observation in Genesis 8:21 (paralleled earlier in 6:5) that "the imagination of man's heart is evil from his youth." In Genesis and elsewhere in the Bible, the word yetzer itself—the Hebrew root means to fashion or create—is neutral, denoting human thoughts and impulses of all kinds; much later, the notion became prominent that there were two main inclinations, one for good (yetzer hatov) and one for bad.  But during the rabbinic period, from the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. to the final redaction of the Babylonian Talmud in roughly the sixth century, the yetzer came mostly to be seen as a force specifically for evil. Invoking it was a way of answering the question of why good people do bad things.

In Demonic Desires: "Yetzer Hara" and the Problem of Evil in Late Antiquity, the Israeli scholar Ishay Rosen-Zvi has given us a taxonomy of the yetzer in its rabbinic understanding. Although his study is not the first to center upon this concept, researchers in the last half-century have devised remarkable new critical tools for reading rabbinic texts, and he has made good use of them. In the meantime, especially recently, the yetzer has become a leitmotif of academic discourse in such fashionable areas as the study of gender and sexuality, rabbinic anthropology, and the "rabbinic body."

For scholars like Daniel Boyarin—Rosen-Zvi's frequently-cited mentor—Jonathan Schofer, Michael Satlow, and others, the yetzer is an important element in rabbinic self-fashioning; the yetzer stands for a complex of physical desires which, the rabbis thought, need to be trained, if not resisted, by the soul's rational parts. Some have connected this to the Greek philosophical concept of akrasia, or misrule of self. Stoics, Platonists, and others believed that the soul administered the body as a government administers a city. Like any ruler, the soul was susceptible of corruption and in constant danger of submitting to bodily temptation. In pursuing this line of thought, contemporary Jewish scholars often cite a debt to the French cultural theorist Michel Foucault, who famously emphasized on the role of power and repression, including of the sexual variety, in the formation of social norms.

Against this background, Rosen-Zvi has set out to define exactly what the rabbinic yetzer is and what it is not; he has come up with some surprising conclusions. Surveying the roughly 150 citations of the term in rabbinic thought, from early homiletics through the late stages of the Babylonian Talmud, he finds that, for the rabbis, the yetzer is not a part of the human psyche or soul at all, and not a metaphor for it, either. Rather, it is an actual, physical demon: an impish spirit that invades the human person in order to entice it to sin.

Nor are its activities directed mainly toward inciting physical desires. Not until very late in its rabbinic career is the yetzer associated with sexuality, and even then this aspect is not seen as intrinsic to its nature. Although one rabbinic school holds that the yetzer is an ambivalent force, potentially dangerous but also crucial to life (and to human achievement), this is very much a minority view. Many more sources regard the yetzer as desiring transgression for transgression's sake; it is just evil.

Demons themselves are hardly foreign either to the biblical imagination or to rabbinic thought. But whence their amalgamation to the yetzer? In Rosen-Zvi's judgment, this can be traced to the idea of a mythic, cosmological drama in which demons were said to have featured prominently; the writings of the early Church fathers include passages along these lines that, he notes, strikingly parallel similar passages in rabbinic sources. True, unlike in the patristic demonology, the rabbis tend to depict the creatures as occupying spaces inside an individual's body, like the kidneys or the heart; even so, however, the malicious beings do not fuse with the person but remain separate, distinct entities.

In a chapter on the Dead Sea community at Qumran, Rosen-Zvi suggests a common origin for this Jewish-Christian demonology in the theological dualism rampant in the first century C.E., according to which the divine forces of good (light) and evil (darkness) are in a fight to the finish. This dualist cosmology then mixed with its nemesis, the biblical monism in which God is one and evil is a human problem, yielding a kind of détente—of which the rabbis' demonic yetzer is a residual product.

Demonic Desires is as punctilious a study as one could desire. Rosen-Zvi writes cleanly and cautiously; he does not get lost in details, and for the most part he eschews the pyrotechnics of literary theory. If other recent scholars have been seduced into a heatedly sexual reading of the yetzer, Rosen-Zvi maintains a dispassionate and judicious stance throughout. As an added bonus, his book is accessible and can be read by non-academics.

Yet his detachment proves one of the book's key frustrations. Even as he draws a sharp line between physical demons and psychological desires, Rosen-Zvi not only concedes the tenuousness of the line itself but fails to ask whether the distinction marks a real difference. Thus, insisting that we take seriously rabbinic imagery picturing the yetzer as an independent force, he nonetheless concedes that "there is no true dichotomy between character and being"—that is, between a psyche and a demon—"only a spectrum of levels of reification." But people use all sorts of images and metaphors to describe human behavior; even assuming that we can successfully untangle a real if invisible thing from its expression in a metaphor, what have we learned from our untangling, and what difference have we made thereby? Did the rabbis' more intense "reification" have legal consequences? Moral consequences? How did it affect life under rabbinic Judaism?

The question is the more vexing because clearly the yetzer hara did come to be regarded in Judaism as a purely psychological phenomenon, and it did so long before the 19th-century musar movement made it a key element in a religious program of ethical and spiritual self-discipline. When did the "psychologization" of evil take place in Judaism, and what, if anything, did this change signify for the understanding of evil?

To all such questions, Rosen-Zvi might reply that his interest is limited simply to isolating and documenting the distinctive features of the rabbinic yetzer, not in puzzling out the intricacies of its relation to what came before and after. He also does not engage in polemics—with one exception. As he says explicitly, he intends his work as a corrective to up-to-date, Foucauldian readings of the rabbinic yetzer as erotic passion.

But if Rosen-Zvi does not like this conversation, it is not clear what direction would he prefer. A return to the rabbinic conception of the yetzer as an answer to the problem of evil? By contrast, an uprooting once and for all of the "primitive" demonology of the rabbis? Concerning such issues, Demonic Desires, an exercise in old-fashioned antiquarian research, is mum. Fortunately, the research, which is clearheaded, sophisticated, and bracing, provides its own reward.

Raphael Magarik is a graduate of Yale University, from which he has a BA in English; he has studied Talmud and rabbinics at Yeshivat Maale Gilboa, Yeshivat Hadar, and Drisha.

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