(Horizontal) Demonic Desires (Ishay Rosen-Zvi_

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A few quick notes on Demonic Desires: “Yetzer Hara” and the Problem of Evil in Late Antiquity. Like all scholars of rabbinics, Rosen-Zvi parses carefully through tannaitic, mishnaic, amoraic, and post-amoraic sources. This is my general takeaway.

1] The yetzer  (translated usually as inclination) is not good, but demonic. The only yetzer that counts is the evil one. The motif of a good yetzer is identified by Rosen-Zvi as minority one in amoraic midrash, most famously the ones in Genesis Rabbah  according to which God created the person with two “yuds,” namely two yetzers,  and according to which a person would not build a home, marry, and have children without the yetzer. These have an important afterlife in medieval and modern Jewish thought and apologetics, but Rosen-Zvi argues that in the rabbinic literature these are outlier traditions.

2] The yetzer is not synonymous with sex. It is only sexualized in the Babylonian Talmud, but not in the Palestinian sources.

3] Sex is therefore not considered by the rabbis to be demonic per se, even in the Bavli, whose view of the world, according to Rosen-Zvi, is entirely sexualized.

4] This evil, deminic yetzer is not innate to the human person or to the physical body. It enters the person, the body from without like an alien god.

5] The body is therefore not innately evil in rabbinic thinking.

6] In terms of organization, the philosophical anthropology of the rabbis is not built on a vertical model of top-down control of mind over body.

7] It’s been my sense for some time now that rabbinic ontology is flat. Rosen-Zvi’s study of the yetzer implicitly suggests a horizontal design or layout. He himself points out that the demarcation between inside and outside is not so clear in rabbinic thought. He describes the human person in rabbinic thought as caught in the middle between God and the yetzer, evoking the image of three points graphed one next to the other across a line.

8] In rabbinic thought, neither God nor the yetzer are “me.”

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish though and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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