Judaism’s Teachings On The Human Sources Of Good And Evil – OpEd


All carnivores eat their food raw; with one exception. Out of several million species alive today on this planet, Homo Sapiens is the only one that self-consciously (with mixed feelings) kills and prepares (cooks) its daily diet of food.

In the past Homo Neanderthals and Homo Denisovans also cooked their food; but they are now long gone. Robots can be programed to cook food now; but they do not prepare food with conscious feelings or thoughts about the amount of sugar or salt in the recipe. Only humans worry if the food is: Halal or Kosher or vegetarian.

This is because only humans use both feelings developed over millions of years, and thoughts developed over the last few thousand years, to guide their selection, preparation and consumption of food, drink, sex and everything else we do in our daily life.

Only humans have what the Jewish tradition calls a Yetzer: and the human yetzer always develops into two aspects: one is raw and wild; the other is cooked and tamed. The untamed Yetzer is called by the rabbis the yetzer hara (the bad or wild yetzer). It is greatly lacking in the attitudes, values and self-discipline that could domesticate it. The well domesticated Yetzer, much better endowed with these good qualities, is called the yetzer hatov (the good yetzer)..

Personal feelings and impulses of anger, hate, jealousy, greed, envy, arrogance, and selfishness incline us toward bad behavior—the yetzer hara. Personal feelings and impulses of empathy, kindness, friendship, love, loyalty, patiences and joyfulness incline us to good behavior—the yetzer hatov.

Personality traits like competitiveness, steadfastness, aggressiveness, stubbornness, adaptability, ambition and charm also need to be channeled through self-awareness toward good personal values and social goals. This is the function of the moral and religious education of our religious attitudes, social values, and personal desires. For Jews this education is based on Torah and Halakah, just as for Muslims it is based on Qur’an and Sha’aria.

The following rabbinic statements from Jewish traditional literature exemplify various aspects of the Yetzer, both wild and tamed. Rabbi Samuel said, “good refers to the inclination toward good, and very good refers to the inclination toward evil. Can the inclination toward evil be good? Yes! If not for the inclination toward evil no man would build a house, marry, or beget children as it says, ‘excelling in work is due to a man’s rivalry with his neighbor.’ ” (Ecclesiastes. 4:4) The rest of this essay explains this startling statement.

Since it takes years of education and self-discipline to learn to live a good and holy life, the Yetzer haTov (the tamed impulse) isn’t there at birth, even though the soul is pure at birth. As the Torah teaches in the Book of Genesis: “The devisings of man’s mind are evil from his youth” (8:21).

Bereshit Rabbah 34:12 comments, “From the moment he awakes to go forth from his mother’s womb, the Yetzer hara (untamed/wild impulse) is in him” and the sages say, “The Yetzer hara is 13 years older than the Yetzer hatov. It begins growing with the fetus in the mother’s womb and comes out with him. (Avot of Rabbi Nathan). The reference to 13 years is related to the age when children are considered by Jewish law to be responsible for their own actions. It takes this long to train children to consciously control their wild urges and to consciously direct them to moral and holy purposes.

While impulses like anger, jealousy, greed, selfishness, stubbornness, rivalry, status, attention and thrill seeking, can be found in most young children, Mitsvot (good deeds) and Torah study can tame those urges. “The Holy One did create the Yetzer hara, but He also created Torah as an antidote.” (Talmud Baba Batra 16a).

Other natural impulses like approval seeking, conflict avoidance, caution, friendship, group loyalty, patience, sharing, sympathy, trust and peacemaking can be strengthened and consciously directed to moral goals by doing Mitsvot (good deeds) and Torah study. But without Torah and Mitsvot to control them even positive traits can contribute to evil deeds. For example, loyalty and friendship can lead one to cover up the misdeeds of another person. And patience and conflict avoidance can delay one from reacting against observed injustice and oppression. Sometimes, the untamed Yetzer needs to encourage independent thought and action.

In the east, the goal of most religious teachers was not to curb human lusts and passions, or to redirect them into something positive. Instead most, but not all, eastern religious teachers sought to extinguish natural passions and emotions entirely, and leave them behind permanently.

Jewish teachers did not believe this is possible or desirable. It is not desirable because “if we slay the untamed impulse the entire civilized world will be destroyed (by asceticism and celibacy). So they shaded its eyes (weakened it by harnessing it) and let it go” (Talmud Yoma 69b). It is not possible or desirable to eliminate natural feelings in this world even though they may often lead to bad behavior because the Yetzer hara will only be absent in the non-natural world to come (Genesis Rabbah 48:11).

Indeed, Rabbi Judah taught, “This world is based on three things: rivalry, lust and mercy.” (Avot of Rabbi Nathan) Rabbi Judah’s statement clearly refers to the emotional forces that motivate so much of human activity both positively and negatively. Our goal should be to harness our natural wild impulses and our natural empathetic, compassionate impulses and direct them to the service of our fellow creatures and the God who made us all.

Even great sages like Abbaye find themselves struggling to control their natural impulses, and as he learned “the greater the man, the greater his natural impulses.” (Sukah 52b)

The challenge of taming our Yetzer is also a continual one. The sages say, “A person’s yetzer grows daily.” (Sukkah 52b) and that’s one important reason to engage in daily ritual and ethical Mitsvot as well as daily Torah study.

But if the study of Torah and doing Mitsvot are necessary to enable people to civilize their Yetzer, how do non-Jews, who do not do either of these, become righteous? If the question was asked in the past it was rarely answered directly. There is one anonymous Rabbinic teaching that declares that both the wild impulse and the empathetic tamed impulse are rooted in the human gut (i.e. natural or biological). One Yetzer in each kidney.

This implies that every human also has a natural Yetzer hatov and that each religion can strengthens this natural-biological good impulse with its own explicit guidelines. (Berachot 61a).

There was also a 13th century Kabbalist mystic, Rabbi Isaac ben Jacob ha-Kohen, who explained why God destroyed the worlds created prior to this one. At first God thought: “If I create a world without any Yetzer hara there will be no amazement if the creatures are as good as angels. But if I put a strong Yetzer hara into them; they might be unable to overcome it. Still, I might find among them a couple of righteous people like King David (who had a very strong Yetzer hara– ‘The greater the man the greater the Yetzer’); so God created worlds (where people had a very strong Yetzer) and then destroyed them not finding any righteous people in them… Then God said, “I created it (the Yetzer) to powerful, so there is no good in them (at all); I will now create human beings with an (potential) additional Yetzer, the Yetzer hatov.”

Since Rabbi Isaac ben Jacob Ha-Cohen doesn’t mention that these other worlds received Torah he must have thought that pre humans should have been able to achieve goodness just with their natural impulses to co-operate alone. But they couldn’t; and their world was destroyed.

Now, with a potentially tamed Yetzer hatov, both Jews and non-Jews are adequately able to nourished their own Yetzer with their own religion’s moral teachings. This is why our sages declared that there were righteous people in every nation; and thus say that the righteous of all nations have a place in the world to come.

The Rabbis did not want to say much that was positive about untamed natural impulses that could lead people to do good outside the realm of Torah and Mitsvot (Jewish Civilization) or even outside the seven commandments of Noah’s descendants (Gentile Civilization). They said even less about the possibility that the Yetzer hatov might under some circumstances be counterproductive.

There is one story told about Rabbi Hiyya bar Ashi, who continually worried about his sexual impulses. His wife, after years of sexual neglect, disguised herself and flirted with Rabbi Hiyya. He came home and told his wife that he was depressed because he had flirted with a woman. She told him it was no big deal because she was the woman. He replied that even if nothing occurred and no one was hurt, his sin was in his desires and intention.

Rabbi Hiyya should have learned from this experience that sexual neglect of his wife was his sin. Instead, the Talmud relates, Rabbi Hiyya blamed himself and started fasting. He fasted so much that he died from his fasting. (Kiddushin 81b)

This narrative teaches us that Rabbi Hiyya was an extremest idealistic perfectionist; and it killed him. As the Hebrew Bible states: “Be not overly righteous, and do not make yourself too wise. Why should you destroy yourself?” (Ecclesiastes 7:16)

In the late 18th and 19th centuries there were a few Hassidic Rabbis who argued that overly strict Halakic (legal) control could interfere with natural spiritual emotions (in prayer for example) and excessive Kabbalistic (mystical) practices (multiple days of fasting or rolling naked in the snow) could depress or even extinguish the feeling of joy that Hassidism deemed necessary for true worship of God.

In today’s word we are all aware that too much of a good thing can become a bad thing. Too much love can become possessiveness. Too much idealism can become perfectionism.

And too much zeal can become extremism. As Rabbi Mikhal of Zlotchov said: When the Yetzer hara (or Satan) tries to tempt people to sin, it tempts them to become super righteous.”

The pious goals do not justify every kind of action. In today’s world we need to strengthen both our spiritually tamed compassionate yetzer; and our untamed critical independent yetzer, if we are to live up to our ideals.

Also Rabbi Eliezer said : I heard with my ear the Lord of hosts speaking. What did He say? He said: See, I have set before you this day life and good, and death and evil” (Deuteronomy 30:15). The Holy One said : Behold, these two ways have I given to Israel, one is good, the other is evil. The one which is good, is of life ; and the one which is evil, is of death.

The good way has two byways, one of righteousness and the other of love, and Elijah, is placed exactly between these two ways. When a man comes to enter (one of these ways), Elijah, cries aloud concerning him, saying, “Open the gates, that the righteous nation which keeps truth may enter in (Isaiah 26:2). And Samuel the prophet places himself between these two by-ways. He says : On which of these (two byways) shall I go ? If I go on the way of righteousness, then (the path) of love is better than the former; if I go on the way of love, (the way) of righteousness is better : but I call heaven and earth to be my witnesses that I will not give up either of them. (Pirke de Rabbi Elizer English chapter 15 Page 102-3; Hebrew 17a)

The Holy One said to him : Samuel ! Thou hast placed thyself between these two good byways. By thy life! I will give to thee three good gifts. This teaches thee that everyone who does righteousness and shows the service of love, shall inherit three good gifts, and they are: life, righteousness, and glory, as it is said, “He that follows after righteousness and love, finds life, righteousness, and glory” (Proverbs 21:21). It is only written here (in the text) : ” He finds life, righteousness, and glory.” (Pirke de Rabbi Elizer English chapter 15 Page 102-3; Hebrew 17a)

Rabbi Allen S. Maller

Allen Maller retired in 2006 after 39 years as Rabbi of Temple Akiba in Culver City, Calif. He is the author of an introduction to Jewish mysticism. God. Sex and Kabbalah and editor of the Tikun series of High Holy Day prayerbooks.

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