Yetzer Ha-Tov and Yetzer Ha-Ra

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‘The good inclination and the evil inclination.’ In the typical Rabbinic doctrine, with far-reaching consequences in Jewish religious thought, every human being has two inclinations or instincts, one pulling upwards, the other downwards. These are the ‘good inclination’—yetzer ha-tov—and the ‘evil inclination’—yetzer ha-ra. The ‘evil inclination’ is frequently identified in the Rabbinic literature and elsewhere with the sex instinct but the term also denotes physical appetites in general, aggressive emotions, and unbridled ambition. Although it is called the ‘evil inclination’, because it can easily lead to wrongdoing, it really denotes more the propensity towards evil rather than something evil in itself. Indeed, in the Rabbinic scheme, the ‘evil inclination’ provides human life with its driving power and as such is essential to human life. As a well-known Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 9: 7) puts it, were it not for the ‘evil inclination’ no one would build a house or have children or engage in commerce. This is why, according to the Midrash, Scripture says: ‘And God saw everything that he had made and behold, it was very good’ (Genesis 1: 31). ‘Good’ refers to the ‘good inclination’, ‘very good’ to the ‘evil inclination’. It is not too far-fetched to read into this homily the idea that life without the driving force of the ‘evil inclination’ would no doubt still be good but it would be a colourless, uncreative, pallid kind of good. That which makes life ‘very good’ is the human capacity to struggle against the environment and this is impossible without egotistic as well as altruistic, aggressive as well as peaceful, instincts.

The Rabbinic view is, then, realistic. Human beings are engaged in a constant struggle against their propensity for evil but if they so desire they can keep it under control. The means of control are provided by the Torah and the precepts. One of the most remarkable Rabbinic passages in this connection states that the Torah is the antidote to the poison of the ‘evil inclination’ (Kiddushin 30b). The meaning appears to be that when the Torah is studied and when there is submission to its discipline, morbid guilt-feelings are banished and life is no longer clouded by the fear that the ‘evil inclination’ will bring about one's ruination. The parable told in this passage is of a king who struck his son, later urging the son to keep a plaster on the wound. While the plaster remains on the wound the prince may eat and drink whatever he desires without coming to harm. Only if the plaster is removed will the wound fester when the prince indulges his appetites. God has ‘wounded’ man by creating him with the ‘evil inclination’. But the Torah is the plaster on the wound, which prevents it from festering and enables him to embrace life without fear.

It follows that for the Rabbis the struggle against the ‘evil inclination’ is never-ending in this life. Nowhere in the Rabbinic literature is there the faintest suggestion that it is possible for humans permanently to destroy the ‘evil inclination’ in this life. (Eschatological references to the total destruction of the ‘evil inclination’, and its transformation into a ‘good angel’, are irrelevant. The World to Come is not the world in which humans struggle in the here and now.) For the Rabbis, the true hero is, as stated in Ethics of the Fathers (4. 1), one who ‘subdues’ his ‘evil inclination’, one who exercises severe self-control, refusing to yield to temptation. It is not given to anyone actually to slay the ‘evil inclination’. Nor are there references in the Rabbinic literature to the idea, prevalent in the Jewish mystical and moralistic literatures, of ‘breaking the evil inclination’.


Subjects: Judaism and Jewish Studies.

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