Demonic Desires: Yetzer Hara and the Problem of Evil in Late Antiquity

The Evil Inclination
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He begins by unpacking a rabbinic exegesis of Ecclesiastes from the Babylonian Talmud, Nedarim 32b. Typical of the work as a whole, Rosen-Zvi carefully examines a textual artifact, in this case the comparison of the yetzer to an evil king besieging a city. Rather than adding this image to an anthology of definitions for the evil yetzer, Rosen-Zvi delineates the unique features of yetzer as evil king to form the basis for innovative synchronic claims about the history of the yetzer and rabbinic anthropology.

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The notion of the evil yetzer as an independent, hypostasized entity represents a late Babylonian development in contrast to previous views of a complete and fully operational evil yetzer as a biblical or tannaitic phenomenon. Furthermore, Rosen-Zvi rejects recent scholarship on rabbinic anthropology that characterizes the yetzer as desire to be controlled.

In contrast, he argues that it is an internalized demonic being to be defeated. These stages are united in the latest strata of the Babylonian Talmud. Contrary to scholarly consensus and despite a Mishnaic reference to two yetzerim mBer. The concept of two yetzerim represents a later, amoraic development.

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Oaths and Torah assist in the human struggle against the evil yetzer, who can be surprisingly skilled in rabbinic dialectic. Defeat of the evil yetzer may involve enlisting it into divine service or excising it completely.

While comparative material from Greek philosophy and tragedy enables Rosen-Zvi to differentiate the tannaitic concept of the yetzer from the body-soul dichotomy or tripartite division of the soul into appetites, passion, and reason, the locus and opponent of the yetzer is unclear. This may result from the lack of precision in rabbinic anthropology where the opponent of the yetzer seems to be the person, not the soul.

Similarly, the evil yetzer deceives from within the person, but the rabbinic texts do not explicitly explain where. The yetzer can be antinomian or simply desire or a character trait like anger.

The Book Club: Ishay Rosen-Zvi’s Demonic Desires | The Talmud Blog

Or the hypostasized yetzer leads people astray to anger and idolatry. The internalization of this demonic function may explain why rabbinic literature views demons as a normal part of human experience unconnected to human sinfulness.

Patristic demons, Rosen-Zvi notes, also differ from the evil yetzer because they have mantic powers and the power to harm physically. Rosen-Zvi, however, carefully avoids equating it with the rabbinic term. The qumranic usage is less defined as the rabbinic with the yetzer being homologous with the heart, or tendency, at the same time as blurring its internal and cosmological provenance.

Demonic Desires

Moreover, we do not have the concept of two yetzerim in Qumran. Rosen-Zvi argues, in contrast, that the dualistic model is rare in tannaitic literature. Moreover, the yetzer is represented differently in different strata. The process of reification and internalization begins at Qumran, but does not end there.

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We reserve the right to delete inappropriate comments. Analyzing the some one hundred and fifty appearances of the yetzer in rabbinic literature, Rosen-Zvi contends that the term should not be read under the traditional rubric of sexual desire, but rather in the context of ancient Jewish demonology. 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. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, I ordered it thinking it was a facsimile edition of an old haggadah, but it turns out to be a really interesting discussion of how to look at Jewish art, really art made for Jews by Jews or non-Jews more generally. The yetzer hara , usually translated "evil impulse," is an elusive rabbinic concept.

This becomes even more pronounced in the Bavli, where the yetzer acquires physical characteristics like a fly, wheat crouching at door, kidney and becomes a national enemy. Particularly unique, however, is the emergence of the yetzer as the enemy of Torah observance with a ubiquity underlying its centrality to amoraic anthropology.

Although demonic, the yetzer cannot force the individual to sin, but like a rabbi, must use persuasion.

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. 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. 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.

Demons and Negativity

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.