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

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

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

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

Synopsis

In Demonic Desires, Ishay Rosen-Zvi examines the concept of yetzer hara, or evil inclination, and its evolution in biblical and rabbinic literature. Contrary to existing scholarship, which reads the term under the rubric of destructive sexual desire, Rosen-Zvi contends that in late antiquity the yetzer represents a general tendency toward evil. Rather than the lower bodily part of a human, the rabbinic yetzer is a wicked, sophisticated inciter, attempting to snare humans to sin. The rabbinic yetzer should therefore not be read in the tradition of the Hellenistic quest for control over the lower parts of the psyche, writes Rosen-Zvi, but rather in the tradition of ancient Jewish and Christian demonology.

Rosen-Zvi conducts a systematic and comprehensive analysis of the some one hundred and fifty appearances of the evil yetzer in classical rabbinic literature to explore the biblical and postbiblical search for the sources of human sinf and Origin to Antony, Athanasius, and Evagrius. It concludes with a consideration of the broader implications of the yetzer discourse in rabbinic anthropology.

Excerpt

Shortly before coming to a close, Ecclesiastes tells us of a small city that was besieged by a great king. the city was saved by the wisdom of a “poor wise man,” who, however, was forgotten a short while later. Ecclesiastes dryly comments: “So I observed wisdom is better than valor, but a poor man’s wisdom is scorned and his words are not heeded” (9:16). This critique of urban warfare and politics did not seem to interest the rabbis. Although they still understood these verses as reflecting on the themes of power, wisdom, and military tactics, for them the narrative was referring to an entirely different kind of warfare; not one of siege engines and adjutants but rather a form of combat completely private and internal.

R. Ammi bar Abba said: What is the meaning of the passage: a little
city, with few men in it
? (Ecc 9:14)
A little city—is the body;
with few men in it—these are the limbs;
and to it came a great king, who besieged it—this is the evil yetzer;
and built mighty siege works against it—these are sins.
A poor wise man was in the city (v. 15)—this is the good yetzer;
who saved it with his wisdom—this is repentance and good deeds.
But nobody thought of that poor man—for when the evil yetzer
[dominates], the good yetzer is not remembered. (b. Ned 32b)

This passage envisions the individual as a site of conflict that involves control, repression, and submission, that can best be described using the image of a city under siege. This use of the public sphere as a metaphor for the private is of course a commonplace in the Classical and Hellenistic tradition. It goes back . . .

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