Demon­ic Desires: Yet­zer Hara and the Prob­lem of Evil in Late Antiquity

Ishay Rosen-Zvi
  • Review
By – June 22, 2012

The stan­dard account of the yet­zer hara, or evil incli­na­tion, today focus­es atten­tion on destruc­tive sex­u­al desire aris­ing from the low­er body, and the need to con­trol and tame it. How­ev­er, when Rosen-Zvi inves­ti­gat­ed this con­cept in rab­binic lit­er­a­ture, he found that it rep­re­sent­ed a dif­fer­ent con­flict for cer­tain rab­bis and schools asso­ci­at­ed with them, espe­cial­ly Rab­bi Ish­mael. Pri­or to its lat­er inter­nal­iza­tion to the human psy­che and the dis­course of self-con­trol, the evil yet­zer was asso­ci­at­ed with spir­i­tu­al pow­ers that tempt­ed humans to sin. Thus one sought to con­quer forces that were attack­ing from inside the per­son but were not a part of them­selves but demon­ic and cos­mic in nature. With Rab­bi Ish­mael, the demon­ic began to be inter­nal­ized.

In addi­tion to com­pre­hen­sive analy­sis of the clas­si­cal rab­binic lit­er­a­ture on the evil yet­zer, and the chang­ing per­cep­tions of it, Rosen-Zvi traces relat­ed devel­op­ments in ear­ly Chris­t­ian lit­er­a­ture, espe­cial­ly with­in the tra­jec­to­ries of asceti­cism and monas­ti­cism of the Alexan­dri­an tra­di­tion (Clement, Ori­gen, Antony, Athana­sius, and Eva­grius Pon­ti­cus). At stake are major top­ics of anthro­po­log­i­cal con­cern, espe­cial­ly whether the impulse toward evil sig­ni­fied by the yet­zer aris­es from out­side of humans, or inside but dif­fer­ent from them­selves, or as an inte­gral part of them­selves, and thus, what strate­gies the rab­bis sought to employ, and how those com­pare or con­trast with dis­cours­es about the strug­gles of the soul. Bib­li­og­ra­phy, indexes.

Mark D. Nanos, Ph.D., Uni­ver­si­ty of Kansas, is the author of Mys­tery­of Romans, win­ner of the 1996 Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award, Charles H. Revson­Award in Jew­ish-Chris­t­ian Relations.

Discussion Questions