Sunday, February 12, 2006

Memories from the past

I think I was around 14 at the time when someone approached me with his theological question. I don't know exactly why he asked me of all people, because I wasn't particularly pious at the time, but for some reason he thought I could help him answer his problem.

The question he had was regarding the rabbinic idea of yetzar harah (evil inclination). He told me that he understood that there was no outside entity that tricked people into doing bad, rather we did bad things due to our own natural inclination. His problem was that he understood that chazal (the Talmudic rabbis) seemed to understand it as some outside agent such as an angel and not some thing which is innate in us. This seemed to bother him greatly.

My response was that you should take the Rabbis words allegorically (although, I probably didn't use such fancy language at the time) and not literally. And it doesn't even matter if the rabbis themselves actually took it literally, all that mattered was what wisdom we can take from them and apply to our lives to make it better. You have to look beyond the surface and try to see the truth and wisdom of their words if you want to remain in their spiritual tradition. I didn't mean to say that we should interpret their words in a way that contradicted their intended meaning. Rather I meant to say that whether or not the evil inclination is an external or internal force, there may be still value in their words in how best to overcome it.

I still think this is the best approach a person should take if he wants to think rationally and at the same time remain within the tradition of the Rabbis. I think it was Rambam who said that any one who takes the words of the Jewish sages as literal is a fool. Now I don't think Rambam was a fool either, so I think he probably understood that the sages believed in some irrational things too, but I think his intention was that we should try to take the essence of their spiritual message and not dwell on the superficial aspect of their words. This, of course, depends on if the words of the Jewish sages contained any real truth. I don't have as much faith in them as Rambam did, I'm sure, but I do like to give people the benefit of the doubt when possible.

My friend agreed that this was a wise approach, but he still had a problem with the sages way of expressing their words. His problem was that when they talk about the yetzar harah as an external cause that takes away our moral responsibility. If we are the cause of our own actions then we are responsible, but if the cause is from outside then some of the responsibility is taken away from us. He felt the Rabbis expressed themselves in a misleading way that would hinder rather than help a person spiritually. At the time I had to admit he had a valid point.

But the fact is I think that our passions (yetzar Harah) is nothing more than external causes acting upon us. No, I don't understand it as an angel sitting on our shoulder whispering to us to do wicked thing. But when we see or experience something which we think will benefit us we automatically desire it unless there is another thing which has a stronger attraction on us. We really don't have a choice in whether we are attracted to something or not. It's not like we directly create or control our own desires. So I guess there is something to be said for the way the Rabbis expressed themselves after all.


Blogger Orthoprax said...

"So I guess there is something to be said for the way the Rabbis expressed themselves after all."

Indeed, the yetzar harah is our evil inclinations which is not directly within our control, but whether we act on them, that, in the view of the rabbis, is where our moral culpability lies.

Good post.

5:26 AM  
Blogger B. Spinoza said...

Thanks for the compliment.

>but whether we act on them, that, in the view of the rabbis, is where our moral culpability lies.

yes, although, I'm not sure I agree with them about that. ultimately, we may have no choice at all. But that doesn't mean that there are not consequences for our actions. Whether we have choice or not, there is reward and punishment for our actions.

6:44 AM  
Blogger Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

I've seen no evidence--zero, zilch--that the rabbis viewed "yetzer ha-ra" as anything other than an inner inclination. The anthropomorphization of yetzer ha-ra as a satanic being doesn't come from rabbinic writings so far as I can tell.

8:49 AM  
Blogger B. Spinoza said...

Fred, you could be right. I was just going on what he said. And I think it is a common view among some religious Jews.

9:08 AM  
Blogger B. Spinoza said...

And Fred, this idea probably comes from Iyov, which some Rabbis, I believe, did take literal

9:10 AM  
Blogger The Jewish Freak said...

Good post! you know that Schoepenhaur(?) said "Man can do as he wills, but he cannot will what he wills".
I also agree with Mississippi Fred about the evil inclination being internal according to traditional Jewish sources. The external "Satan" is a christian idea, and I believe it results from man's desire to project his shortcommings outward instead of acknowledging them and confronting them.

2:08 PM  
Blogger B. Spinoza said...



>The external "Satan" is a christian idea

Satan was mentioned in Iyov/Job as the angel which tried to tempt Iyov to sin. I am pretty sure that Iyov preceded Christianity. It's more likely that the Christians (who were Jewish, by the way) got it from judaism, rather than the other way around

10:06 PM  
Blogger The Jewish Freak said...

Spinoza: Agreed about the Job story, but the majority of traditional jewish sources still place the evil inclination squarely in the heart of man.
Also, the Job story discusses "the satan" who convinces G-d to test Job. This Satan is clearly not portrayed as Job's enticer.

11:32 PM  
Blogger Orthoprax said...


"This Satan is clearly not portrayed as Job's enticer."

But it is God's enticer, is it not?

1:06 AM  
Blogger The Jewish Freak said...

Orthoprax: Read Maimonides interpretation of Satan in the Job story (found in "The Guide") I think that you will find it very interesting, and I think you will enjoy it.

12:02 AM  
Blogger B. Spinoza said...


can you give us a summary? I don't have a Moreh on hand

12:12 AM  
Blogger Orthoprax said...


I actually do have the Moreh on hand ;-), though I don't know specifically what you are referring to. Maimonides equates Satan with the evil inclination and the angel of death and understands the word 'Satan' as being from the same root as 'seteh' i.e. 'to turn away' as Satan turns us away from the truth.

Or are you referring to earlier in the chapter when he sees Satan being an uninvited or unexpected guest in Heaven and describes him as a wandering being on Earth? And that he controls Earthly affairs but has no direct control on the soul?

12:37 AM  

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