Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Evil within and Without

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Evil within and Without

Article excerpt

Evil Within and Without Demonic Desires: "Yetzer Hará' 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 hará, 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 hará 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. …

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