Demons in the Outfield

Ishay Rosen-Zvi, the man who brought us the new and improved Sotah ritual, has published his second book, Demonic Desires (not to be confused with another book with the same title). Some of the chapters have previously been published as articles, but the book as a whole gives a full, updated and comprehensive picture of its subject: a detailed and meticulous study of the Yetzer Hara.

The book, in essence, tackles one of the most entrenched myths in the academic study of Jewish sources, since many years before Carnal Israel: that Judaism, historically, is a sex-positive religion.

Rosen-Zvi’s book does not actually say that is what it does – in fact all it claims to do is analyze all the occurrences of yetzer hara in Tannaitic and Amoraic literature (he does not include Tanhuma, for example, or Avot deRabbi Natan). Along the way he comes across three startling conclusions:

  1. The yetzer has a very humble beginning in Tannaitic literature. In the school of R. Akiva, following much of Second Temple Literature, yetzer hara is just another word for “thoughts” or “heart” or “mind”. However, in the school of R. Ishmael, the yetzer is a much more wily and cunning adversary.
  2. This Evil Inclination, the yetzer, is not a rabbinic euphemism for the Freudian Id. It is not part of the person – it is a foreign intruder into the person. It is this yetzer that became current in Amoraic literature.
  3. This yetzer has nothing to do with sex. Nothing at all. It wants people to sin, yes, but it is not a “blind appetite” or just an “inclination” towards the evil; it leads its hosts to every kind of sin it can think of. Most often towards slacking off in Torah study.

This is the claim, and a full review will of course tackle every part of this claim, including the amazing comparative work Rosen-Zvi does with Patristic – especially monastic-literature, expanding on the work of Michal Bar-Asher Siegal. The clincher, however, comes at the end. We know that we think that the yetzer is sexual. So where does that come from? It comes both from the anonymous stratum of the Bavli – both anonymous statements and the give-and-take of the sugya – and from stories in the Bavli. These two come together *in this case* (Rosen-Zvi is careful not to haphazardly say anything about a “Stammaitic Culture”, a very dubious term in his opinion) to form a new image of the yetzer.

The yetzer is turned into sex; but the imagery of the yetzer as a powerful adversary, that can and should be vanquished, that the righteous can kill, and that should be exorcised like a demon, remains in place.

And so, it is no longer really tov meod to have an evil yetzer; it is in fact very bad. When sex is equated with the yetzer, per se, not as a kind of sin, it too becomes very bad. The prayers and admonitions to the yetzer that it leave us alone becomes admonitions not against sin but against sex. Not very positive.

This is, in my opinion, the coolest part of Rosen-Zvi’s exhaustive and authoritative book. Unlike other books in the field, halakha and aggada are discussed together, and all the sources are brought to the table. It can safely be said that it tackles all the occurrences of the term and says something about each one. The various roles and guises of the yetzer are mapped out and neatly laid on a time-line, and also flagged when they fail to fit a neat pattern, which Rosen-Zvi will readily admit (but that happens very rarely; one such instance is the famous mishnah at the end of m. Berakhot on yetzer tov and  yetzer ra; Rosen-Zvi says the “dual yetzer” school of thought is quite marginal in the rest of rabbinic literature).

A real review is in the works for the near future; stay tuned!

Disclosure: Ishay is not only a dear friend, and a teacher and mentor, but also my employer for the past number of years; I have worked on this book, as well as several other projects, for him.

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5 responses to “Demons in the Outfield

  1. This sounds very interesting, and I have not read his analysis, but there is this slippery quality as to your assertion of what the Yetzer really “is.” All historians obsess about origins, but then they make the mistake of claimed that what a thing was in its origins, it remains for all time. “Toe the line” originally meant pretty much the opposite of what it means now. Are people wrong to use it in its contemproary sense, should they stop “because it is wrong”, or should we just recognize the meaning has changed? Likewise, the Yetzer may have started as an external demon, but within the compositional span of the Talmud, it became something very different. Most discerning readers recognize there are two vectors to the yetzer sources, the dualistic and the dialectic. Evolution is as real in ideas as it is in biology, and we are as real as the creature we were in the past.

  2. Geoff, thanks for your comment. Maybe I didn’t clarify that the book does not deal only with “origins”. It traces the entire life story of the yetzer, from the bible to the bavli, and everything – everything! – in between. The yetzer was never an external demon, it became an *internal* demon, and stayed that way for a very long time (cf. Ibn Ezra’s line in his צמאה נפשי that the yetzer looks like a spider in the heart). Rosen-Zvi’s book is not about the origins. It is about the life and lies of the evil yetzer.
    Your claim about “most discerning readers” is exactly what Rosen-Zvi is polemicising against: one is hard pressed to find the “dialectic” model when one reads carefully and closely, and really all you get is the “dualistic” model in which “we” are good but our yetzer is evil.
    The Good Yetzer in this story is a marginal figure, espoused by some isolated sources but shunned by most. It does not make it into the “big story” of the yetzer.

  3. I have not yet read the book. But I note a number of crucial ambiguities in this review of Rosen-Zvi’s work, which echo in the review by Raphael Magarik, “The Evil Inclination,” at Jewish Ideas Daily, http://www.jewishideasdaily.com/content/module/2011/12/5/main-feature/1/the-evil-inclination. But first, in response to Geoff’s remarks, according to Magarik, Rosen-Zvi grants that throughout the Torah, Nevi’im and Ketuvim, the Yezer is “neutral, denoting human thoughts and impulses of all kinds: much later, the notion became prominent that there were two main inclinations, one for good (yetzer hatov) and one for bad. But during the rabbinic period, from the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. to the final redaction of the Babylonian Talmud in roughly the sixth century, the yetzer came mostly to be seen as a force specifically for evil. Invoking it was a way of answering the question of why good people do bad things.” So the origin of this concept which underlies the rabbinic texts, frames their discussions and informs them is pretty much how it has been understood in recent times, e.g., in Solomon Schechter’s Aspects of Rabbinic Theology. Schechter’s discussion, in fact, does not seem to me to have been superceded by this current study. He does not sensationalize the yetzer by focussing on the sexual impulse, by the way, as have done some more florid post-modern academics nowadays, including Daniel Boyarin and David Biale. So what Rosen-Zvi seems to be correcting in that regard was already correct with Schechter. Schechter writes in page 250 of his Aspects, “The two great passions which the Yezer plays most upon are the passions of idolatry and adultery.” Note: “adultery,” not sex as such, wayward sex that breaks moral boundaries and overthrows halakhah. At the very least, there can be truly good sexual impulses according to the Sages, and despite florid claims by those named above even God is imaged by the Rabbis as having a sexual relation with Israel and indeed the whole world, and marriage is the chief metaphor for the divine process itself. This assertion is at the heart of Jewish mysticism despite ascetical tendencies also to be found in it.

    But there is something to be learnt from the other great passion, “idolatry.” And this brings me to the crucial ambiguities I mentioned in my second sentence. The defining trait of idolatry is reification of self-gratifying impulses into external beings, often entirely imaginary beings, and then bowing down to them as if they were gods and declaring that one can do no other than follow them. It is a renunciation of personal responsibility for evil deeds, a bit like Eichmann’s claim that he was not responsible for what he did, he was merely a cog in the wheel of the greater apparatus and was just following orders. He reified his own desires and views into the machine and then “helplessly” obeyed them with joy. Contrary to Hannah Arendt, his “banality of evil” was truly demonic and willed evil, precisely because of this reification dynamic.

    What seems missing from these reviews is an analysis of the process of reification, idolatrous behaviour as such. That, however, is crucial to understand evil, also according to the Talmudic sages — and the Zohar. The only power the demonic forces have is the power we give them. We externalize those powers to them, and then enslave ourselves to them. This does not mean that there are no demons; the Sages thought there were. But the demons only or chiefly subsist on what we provide them. Our enslavement is to ourselves. The process is described in Sukkah, 52a and Genesis Rabbah 22:6.

    In general, the Sages personalize things which even they affirm are at base spiritual and thus not things at all. That is, they use METAPHORS. So we read that God puts on tefillin. We also read that, similar to the Buddhist meditations on the cosmic body of Buddha, HaShem also has a cosmic body which can be visualized as a foundation for meditation (e.g., the Shiur Komah). But these remain metaphors. God is also an eagle, a lion, even the sound of a rooster in the morning. Or he is Space itself. The metaphors ultimately provide a cancelation of the literalness of any one of them.

    So a further absence in the discussion at least as refracted through these reviews is a really sophisticated (as opposed to superficially sophisticated) analysis of the Rabbinic understanding of language itself, and truth as such. In the Rabbinic view, as I understand it, language is always metaphorical. We cannot escape metaphor. That, precisely, is why we must seek as many possible angles on any given subject as possible, and multiply the metaphorical perspectives to arrive at the reality behind them all. We can call this Rabbinic epistemology. Rav Soloveitchik’s “pluralism” (as defined in his The Halakhic Mind) is about this.

  4. Abraham Joshua Heschel, however, has a lot to say about the different views of language of the School of R. Ishmael and of the School of R. Akiba, with R. Ishmael being characteristically inclined to a Peshat and restricted, more literal understanding of Torah language, and stressing God’s transcendence (thus perhaps the balancing stress on humanity’s evil desires) and R. Akiba favoring the metaphorical approach of Sod, which tends to intertwine all things (and thus perhaps merely seeing the yetzer as being neutral and open to the interpenetration of godly influences). On the differing approaches to language and epistemology, see Heschel, Heavenly Torah (Continuum Press, 2007), Chapter 2: “Two Approaches to Torah Exegesis.” Heschel’s entire Heavenly Torah magnum opus is about the widely branching but differing views of the two schools of thought, that of R. Ishmael and that of R. Akiba. Yet he does not discuss the matter of the yetzer much in it, so the study by Rosen-Zvi is a welcome contribution.

  5. Pingback: The Book Club: Ishay Rosen-Zvi’s Demonic Desires | The Talmud Blog·

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