Demonic Desires: “Yetzer Hara” and the Problem of Evil in Late Antiquity
by Ishay Rosen-Zvi
University of Pennsylvania, 264 pages, $69.95

According to the standard view among Jewish thinkers and Christian scholars of Jewish texts, traditional Judaism posited two basic human inclinations in the conscience, one good and one bad. Both presume them to be personifications of inner experience rather than powers or agents external to the human being. True, we often experience both inspiration and temptation as a kind of compulsive, uninvited force, but such feelings reflect inner divisions within the psyche rather than something coming from the outside.

This presumed personification has been especially characteristic of prevailing interpretations of the evil inclination, yetzer hara, in rabbinic thought. Some modern Jewish thinkers have insisted that, unlike traditional Christianity, normative Judaism has no notion of Satan as an independent power of evil that afflicts humanity.

In his revolutionary reinterpretation of the role and meaning of the evil inclination, Ishay Rosen-Zvi shows that the standard view presupposes an unsustainable homogeneity in rabbinic thought and terminology. Rosen-Zvi, who teaches Talmudic literature at Tel Aviv University, builds on two major advances in the literary study of rabbinic texts.

First, since the late nineteenth century, scholars have recognized two schools in tannaitic (early rabbinic) thought, associated with the second-century rabbis Ishmael and Akiva. Until recently, little has been done to work out the respective theologies of these schools, and the little that has been done does not stand up to examination.

Abraham Joshua Heschel, for example, argued that Rabbi Ishmael was a proto-rationalist while Rabbi Akiva was a mystic. Parsing the schools in this way allowed Heschel to posit a dialectical tension between the literal/rational and metaphorical/mystical theologies going back two millennia. This would place Rabbi Ishmael’s school on the “modernist” side of the debate about the evil inclination.

Rosen-Zvi’s results are more nuanced. He shows that in the Akivan sources yetzer is used without adjectives: It indicates neither good nor bad desire, but simply desire. This terminology was predominant in rabbinic circles in the early period. The ascription of evil to desire, and consequently the emergence of yetzer hara as an external power, belongs only to the school of Rabbi Ishmael. If this is so, then pace Heschel, the Ishmaelite school was also mystical, if by mystical we mean inclined to the operation of independent spiritual powers.

The other relevant advance concerns the editing of the Babylonian Talmud. The Talmud contains the dicta of rabbis living after the tannaitic period. This material, which is vast and complex, comments and elaborates upon tannaitic material codified in the Mishnah. In recent years, David Halivni and others have pioneered a historical-critical approach to the Talmud.

One of their most important steps is to distinguish carefully between the actual statements of the named authorities cited in the Talmud and the surrounding discussions that have no named sources. The material without named sources is presumed to come from a period later than that with named sources. Using this distinction, scholars can reconstruct the development of the Talmudic discourse. Thus, just as modern Christian scholars ascribe different social and religious contexts to various historical layers of the New Testament, scholars of the Talmud see these two layers as reflecting different preoccupations and sometimes different ideas.

With these critical insights organizing his approach, Rosen-Zvi shows that the Ishmaelite concept of the evil inclination as an independent power gets reinforced by the earlier layers of the named sources. (The tendency to associate this independent power with sexual desires is primarily due to the later anonymous layer.)

As a result, although relatively marginal in the earliest period, in the final form of the Talmud the notion of an objective evil inclination distinct from the individual person stands out. This becomes the default view of rabbinic thought as a whole for many subsequent thinkers and scholars, opening up conceptual space for further discussions of the moral life in terms of battles with external powers.

This development should not be seen as linear. It is not as if an Akivan doctrine represents the original stage and is then replaced by an Ishmaelite, or vice versa. Nor should we think that demonology was not available to early rabbinic thought, and entered the scene in Babylonia, as some nineteenth-century students believed.

Rosen-Zvi devotes a substantial chapter to Qumran and related non-rabbinic literature from the Second Temple period, where, he maintains, the adjective “evil” is first applied to the yetzer. This yetzer is a cosmic force, and therefore dualistic and deterministic: Human beings cannot prevail against it. If the early rabbis did not adopt such thinking, it was not for lack of familiarity.

The Qumran and Second Temple texts’ elevation of the evil inclination to the position of a metaphysical principle was not carried forward. The early rabbis were united in their rejection of a thoroughgoing dualism. The Akivan school attributed sin to the exercise of free will, continuing the biblical approach, echoed in the second century bce in the apocryphal Book of Sirach.

The Ishmaelite school edged closer to the dualism that is often so evident in non-rabbinic Second Temple literature, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, recognizing the evil yetzer as an independent power in the human heart, pressuring man to sin. Nonetheless, for this school of thought, the yetzer hara is not a truly external, cosmic force; hence human beings may withstand its power. Although the evil inclination came to be associated with something external to the person in the Jewish tradition, no one can say, “The devil made me do it.”

This sketch of Rosen-Zvi’s philological achievement omits much of interest in his detailed textual analysis, and leaves out entire subjects. He charts rabbinic discussions of the yetzer in its sexual form: Does it affect male and female desire symmetrically, and in which sources? Rejections of dualism aside, does the rabbinic yetzer have a cosmic dimension, one that comes to the fore in national catastrophes like the destruction of the Temple?

His philology is solid, and the historical reconstruction based on it is plausible, perhaps even compelling. I doubt that it will be possible now to discuss rabbinic conceptions of human nature without starting from this volume.

For this reason, it goes without saying that Rosen-Zvi’s close historical analysis will be welcomed by those who aim at theological reflection that attempts to do justice to multiple voices within the normative Jewish sources. In particular, given the assumptions of so many modern interpreters that Judaism, unlike Christianity, does not view evil as an independent power that we must struggle with, we must confront Rosen-Zvi’s evidence about the external character of the yetzer. If he is historically correct, important and normative rabbinic statements on the yetzer presuppose that although it takes up residence in the human heart, it nonetheless is not identical with the person.

That means that the yetzer hara does not identify any aspect of the human soul, even as its interaction with the soul has everything to do with the nature of sinfulness. Something like the popular pre-modern view thus resurfaces: There is within us a demonic, or demon-like, power that is not us and urges us to evil.

Can such statements, often alien to the modern mind, be repackaged without doing violence to their original historical sense? To begin with, how literally are we to take ontological assertions by rabbis or Church Fathers, or pagan authorities, on the existence of demons?

Assuming that they did indeed mean something that we cannot accept or even fully understand, do we find here usable models or metaphors for aspects of the interaction between the human personality and external forces, and interaction that we can restate in modern psychological terms? I don’t see why not.

On this point Rosen-Zvi is not persuasive. He argues that the historical sense of traditional statements does not admit of metaphorical interpretations. When the rabbis, for example, say that Torah study protects against the yetzer only during study but not afterwards, Rosen-Zvi believes that Torah functions as a kind of talisman rather than as a psychological tool.

Surely he is right to hold that no rabbinic story presents the type of proto-modern inner conflict one gets in Augustine’s Confessions. Nonetheless, the range of traditional material is quite extensive. Recent work by Joshua Levinson draws attention to rabbinic midrash that contains a focus on inner conflict not entirely at odds with modern conceptions.

Moreover, Rosen-Zvi ignores all discussion of the yetzer not produced within the academic community. Religious thinkers and theologians are therefore totally absent, with the exception of a couple of Christian writers and Heschel, and them only insofar as they have an academic identity. This limited view is understandable. To have done anything else would have forced him to go far outside his field and would have cluttered his attempt to return to the primary rabbinic and contemporary sources and get them right for the first time. But as a consequence, he lacks the conceptual sophistication and spiritual insight necessary to see the full potential of his historical findings.

It is now desirable that students of later Jewish thought go back to the ethical and homiletic classics of medieval and modern Judaism and study their analysis of the evil and good impulses in the light of Rosen-Zvi’s pioneering work. If he is right about the multiple voices in rabbinic literature, it is likely that some unconscious trace of the multiplicity has found its way into later literature, with the result that some rabbinic statements have been highlighted and others reinterpreted or circumvented.

The inner complexity of the tradition often reflects the fact that wisdom about the human condition rarely admits of simple, one-dimensional formulation. A good, nuanced moral psychology outlined in modern terms may very well follow some of the same diverse patterns as the rabbinic tradition.

Shalom Carmy is co-chair of the Jewish Studies Executive at Yeshiva College and editor of Tradition , the theological journal of the Rabbinical Council of America.