The Evil Inclination: A Chapter in Talmudic Anthropology

Conventional wisdom says that the Sages viewed the evil inclination as an expression of sexual lust, but outside of the Babylonian Talmud evil inclination has no sexual connotation.
Prof. Ishay Rosen-Zvi is a Senior Research Fellow of the Kogod Research Center at the Shalom Hartman Institute. He has a doctorate in Jewish philosophy from Tel Aviv University where he is a lecturer in the Department of Hebrew Culture; teaching Talmudic literature and culture. Among Professor Rosen-Zvi’s latest publications are: The Mishnaic Sotah Ritual: Temple, Gender and Midrash (Brill, Leiden, 2012) Demonic Desires: “Yetzer Hara” and the Problem of Evil in Late Antiquity (University

It is the conventional wisdom that the Sages viewed the evil inclination as an expression of sexual lust. A new study by Dr. Ishay Rosen-Zvi questions this conclusion and shows that outside of the Babylonian Talmud the evil inclination has no sexual connotation. Thus, in the Land of Israel midrashic literature the evil inclination is described as an evil and sophisticated entity whose sole interest is to trip up human beings. Rosen-Zvi thus disproves the widespread view among researchers that the Sages’ discussion of the evil inclination is part of the Hellenistic discourse on self-control and curbing desires. His research in fact points to the ancient Jewish view of demonology as the source for the Sages’ approach to the evil inclination and thus uncovers a unique solution that they found to the question of what is the source of sin and whether doing evil is subject to the free will of man.

The evil inclination is one of the most familiar concepts in the Jewish philosophy of man. The struggle with the evil inclination had a prominent place in the literature of the Sages, in both halachic and aggadic contexts, and subsequently reappeared in the Musar literature, the Kabala, Hassidism and even modern literature and spoken language. Essentially, it has always been with us. The term “evil inclination” is used as an expression of our weaknesses, our dark desires and in particular the sexual attraction that is so prevalent around us. The term is so familiar that we ignore the fact that someone invented it at a certain point in history and for specific reasons.

Although the Bible tells us that “the inclination of man’s heart is evil from his youth” (Genesis 8:21), in the Bible’s language its meaning is only something that is created in the heart of man (in Hebrew, the root is “to create”). In other words, his plans and thoughts are evil. This is indeed how it is explained two chapters earlier: “All inclinations of his heart are only evil at all times” (ibid. 6:5). The post-Biblical literature hardly refers to the evil inclination and even then it generally appears in its Biblical meaning, i.e. as the thoughts, choice or tendency of man. Essentially, the term “evil inclination” appears explicitly in only one type of literature prior to that of the Sages, i.e. the literature of the Essene cult whose writings were preserved in the caves of Qumran. But even then it is mentioned only on the margins. This phenomenon only reinforces the question: what is the source for the concept of the “evil inclination” in the literature of the Sages and how did it become such a central concept within that literature? How did a marginal Biblical term, which was developed to some extent in the literature of a relatively marginal cult become the focus of the Talmudic philosophy of man?

In his book, “Demonic Desires: Yetzer Hara and the Making of Rabbinic Anthropology’, which is about to be published by the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Ishay Rosen-Zvi relates to these questions. The goal of Dr. Rosen-Zvi’s research is to uncover the birth of the concept and to outline its place in the Sages’ philosophy of man. His basic claim is that the research done until now has been mistakenly based on a number of teachings in the Babylonian Talmud, which present the evil inclination in a sexual context, and as a result the Sages’ concept of the evil inclination has been presented as an expression of sexual lust. This presentation made it possible to give the evil inclination a Freudian interpretation and to view it as a kind of ancient id and the struggle against it as a struggle against man’s unrestrained lust. Rosen-Zvi seeks to prove that this picture of the Sages’ approach – as an extension of the Platonic description of the struggle that takes place in the soul between the higher portion of the soul (the logos or understanding) and its lower and blind portions – is incorrect.

An examination of the Land of Israel midrashic literature, and in particular the Tannaitic literature (in other words starting from the second century), shows that the evil inclination does not appear there as sexual attraction or blind lust but rather as an evil and sophisticated entity that seduces man to sin – any sin, whether it be theft, murder or adultery. Rosen-Zvi’s research shows that the evil inclination does not appear in this literature as the satisfaction of lust but rather as the seduction of man to sin. The evil inclination in this literature is not blind but rather evil and its explicit goal is to trip man up.

Essentially, writes Rosen-Zvi, the evil inclination has no sexual connotation outside of the Babylonian Talmud and even within it the sexual description of the evil inclination does not actually relate to the evil inclination itself but rather to the more fundamental revolution in this Talmud, whereby sex becomes the key through which its authors understand and explain man’s nature.

Accordingly, Dr. Rosen-Zvi proposes a new contextualization for the Sages’ evil instinct and claims that it should no longer be viewed as part of the Hellenistic discourse concerning self-control and the curbing of desires but rather as part of the ancient Jewish interest in demonology or in other words the belief in ghosts and spirits that control man and drive him to evil. He claims that the evil inclination appears among the Sages as part of their interest in the source of sin and evil. What causes man to continually sin? Why do we do evil even though we want to do good?

Rosen-Zvi’s research claims that the Sages rejected the two conventional answers to this question in the Second Temple literature. On the one hand, they rejected the simple Biblical answer: someone who sins does so out of free will. This is what is written in Deuteronomy and also what Ben Sira claimed but the Sages, and Paul before them, did not accept this position. They felt that our basic experience is one of doing evil; however, we do not choose to do so. If Paul is right in that “Not what I wish do I do, but that which is hateful to me” (Letter to the Romans, 7:15), then an anthropological mechanism is needed that is more sophisticated than free will alone.

On the other hand, the Sages also rejected the conventional solution in the Second Temple literature according to which various demons control man and cause him to sin. These demons have various names (Azazel in Hanoch, Mishtama in Jubilees, Beliel in Qumran and Satan in the New Testament) but all of them have a basic characteristic in common – they are external to man and control him against his will. A third view, which appears in various writings and claims that the body itself and the desires within it are the source of sin, is also rejected by the Sages.

Dr. Rosen-Zvi claims that the evil inclination was adopted and developed in the literature of the Sages as an alternative view of the source of sin. Therefore, according to the solution of the Sages, there is indeed a source for sin that is not dependent only on man’s free will. However, it does not involve an external entity or even corporeality but rather a type of demon that exists within the heart of man. Thus, the Sages felt that man has the power and also the obligation to win out over this demon and to root it out. Thus, according to Rozen Tsvi, a complex anthropological structure was constructed which identifies the source of sin but does not release man from the responsibility of overcoming it. This can be viewed as a process of internalizing the demonology and making it part of man’s basic makeup. “What foreign god is within the body of man? Let us say it is the evil inclination”  (Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 105b). This internalization enables the Sages to claim that sin is not just a result of free will but neither is it an uncontrollable external force. Rosen-Zvi claims in his research that the Sages felt that there is indeed a source for sin but if we work hard enough it can be controlled. From this viewpoint developed the Sages’ basic imperative to continually struggle against the evil inclination, an imperative that has been with us in various forms, for better or worse, until today, according to Rosen-Zvi.

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