Demonic Desires

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

Ishay Rosen-Zvi
Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 264
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    Demonic Desires
    Book Description:

    In Demonic Desires, Ishay Rosen-Zvi examines the concept of yetzer hara, or evil inclination, and its evolution in biblical and rabbinic literature. Contrary to existing scholarship, which reads the term under the rubric of destructive sexual desire, Rosen-Zvi contends that in late antiquity the yetzer represents a general tendency toward evil. Rather than the lower bodily part of a human, the rabbinic yetzer is a wicked, sophisticated inciter, attempting to snare humans to sin. The rabbinic yetzer should therefore not be read in the tradition of the Hellenistic quest for control over the lower parts of the psyche, writes Rosen-Zvi, but rather in the tradition of ancient Jewish and Christian demonology. Rosen-Zvi conducts a systematic and comprehensive analysis of the some one hundred and fifty appearances of the evil yetzer in classical rabbinic literature to explore the biblical and postbiblical search for the sources of human sinfulness. By examining the yetzer within a specific demonological tradition, Demonic Desires places the yetzer discourse in the larger context of a move toward psychologization in late antiquity, in which evil-and even demons-became internalized within the human psyche. The book discusses various manifestations of this move in patristic and monastic material, from Clement and Origin to Antony, Athanasius, and Evagrius. It concludes with a consideration of the broader implications of the yetzer discourse in rabbinic anthropology.

    eISBN: 978-0-8122-0420-9
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [vii]-[viii])
  3. Introduction. The Riddle, or: How Did the Evil Yetzer Become a Mighty King?
    (pp. 1-13)

    Shortly before coming to a close, Ecclesiastes tells us of a small city that was besieged by a great king. The city was saved by the wisdom of a “poor wise man,” who, however, was forgotten a short while later. Ecclesiastes dryly comments: “So I observed wisdom is better than valor, but a poor man’s wisdom is scorned and his words are not heeded” (9:16). This critique of urban warfare and politics did not seem to interest the rabbis. Although they still understood these verses as reflecting on the themes of power, wisdom, and military tactics, for them the narrative...

  4. Chapter 1 “The Torah Spoke Regarding the Yetzer”: Tannaitic Literature
    (pp. 14-35)

    Tannaitic midrashic literature is divided by scholars into two major schools, named after two teachers associated with them: Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Ishmael.¹ In the case of the yetzer this division yields a systematic, significant difference. I thus begin the study of the tannaitic yetzer by analyzing each school independently.

    The following three chapters are one continued inquiry into the birth and origins of the rabbinic yetzer, divided only for the sake of convenience. In this chapter I map and characterize the various trends in early rabbinic (i.e., tannaitic) sources, move on to compare them to parallel monastic literature in...

  5. Chapter 2 Yetzer and Other Demons: Patristic Parallels
    (pp. 36-43)

    In the previous chapter I used the term “demonic” to describe the tannaitic (Rabbi Ishmaelian) yetzer. While this term can be employed in various ways, and with varying degrees of literalness, I use it here in the strictest and most literal manner possible. Rabbinic yetzer is a demon that inhabits the human heart. In order to substantiate such a bold claim one may choose either to show that the yetzer originated or developed in a demonological context or that it functions in a manner similar to that of demons. In the next chapter I move to the historical claim (through...

  6. Chapter 3 Yetzer at Qumran: Proto-Rabbinic?
    (pp. 44-64)

    Comparison of the rabbinic yetzer and its biblical roots reveals a conceptual gap that should be accounted for. How did yetzer, which denotes thoughts or plans in the Bible, become a reified being? How did a rather marginal biblical term come to the heart of rabbinic anthropology? What are the origins of the phrase “yetzer ra”? Most of tannaitic literature, as we have seen, presents yetzer as a mature and developed term from its earliest strata, and so cannot be expected to yield answers to these questions. The first significant use of the term yetzer¹ as well as the first...

  7. Chapter 4 Coming of Age: Amoraic Yetzer
    (pp. 65-86)

    In Palestinian amoraic literature,¹ Rabbi Ishmael’s yetzer has clearly won the day. Most sources develop the model of one evil yetzer further,² refine it and deck it out with all manner of sinister attributes. A comparison of Sifre Deuteronomy 45, discussed above, with a homily in Genesis Rabba can exemplify both the differences and similarities between the tannaitic yetzer and the amoraic one:

    Therefore impress these My words upon your heart (Deut 11:18)—this tells us that the words of Torah are like an elixir of life (סם חיים). This is comparable to a king who was angry with his...

  8. Chapter 5 Refuting the Yetzer: The Limits of Rabbinic Discursive Worlds
    (pp. 87-101)

    Being fully internalized, the evil yetzer cannot use direct coercion, as other demons do. It is restricted to inner, dialogical means in its attempts to achieve the sinister goal of leading its host astray. Various arguments are thus cited in the name of the yetzer in rabbinic literature, and these are the focus of this chapter.

    Ascribing an argument to the yetzer has an immediate discursive effect. Even an allegedly local, harmless controversy becomes acute, and dangerous, when identified with the yetzer. My basic argument in this chapter is that the rabbis use the yetzer exactly for this purpose: to...

  9. Chapter 6 Sexualizing the Yetzer
    (pp. 102-119)

    Thus far, this book has signaled a sharp departure from the prevailing yetzer discourse. Students of the rabbinic yetzer usually discuss it in sexual terms, so much so that “yetzer” has become almost synonymous with “sexuality.”¹ In fact, I suspect that the rabbinic yetzer has come to the forefront of scholarship in recent years precisely because of the interest in sexuality and the body in Jewish studies, and particularly in talmudic scholarship. I have discussed the ideological roots of the current scholarly trend elsewhere;² here I wish to detect the inner rabbinic origins of the sexual yetzer. As the following...

  10. Chapter 7 Weak Like a Female, Strong Like a Male: Yetzer and Gender
    (pp. 120-126)

    Do women have a yetzer? The question is far more complex than it might sound. Most rabbinic sources do not use gender-specific language, but their usage might nonetheless imply some sort of gendering. Sources that use the word adam (אדם) are especially tricky: Rabbinic Hebrew usually uses ish (איש) in opposition to isha (אשה; woman), thus marking men specifically.¹ Adam, on the other hand, does not have a decisive gender tag, and might refer to all humans.² However, sometimes adam is also gendered, such as in the idiom “adam takes a wife” (נושא אדם אשה) and the like.³ When Rabbi...

  11. Afterword: Toward a Genealogy of the Rabbinic Subject
    (pp. 127-134)

    Let us return to where we began. The central argument of this book is that recent scholarship mistakenly contextualized the rabbinic yetzer as part of the Hellenistic discourse of self-control and self-fashioning. It should instead be read as part of the biblical and post-biblical search for the sources of human sinfulness, closely linked at least since Second Temple times with demonological concepts and conventions. The affinity between yetzer and demonology is demonstrated in the imagery of the evil yetzer in rabbinic literature (a wicked, sophisticated figure ceaselessly attempting to trap humans), its representations (a personal, national, and cosmic enemy), the...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 135-214)
  13. Bibliography
    (pp. 215-238)
  14. Subject Index
    (pp. 239-242)
  15. Source Index
    (pp. 243-254)
  16. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 255-256)