Judaism 101: Humans’ Nature and Sin

As an evangelical Christian, I believed that infants were born with a sin nature. Even before they did anything wrong, they were already tainted with sin and already in need of forgiveness. In the Judaism 101 conversation about sin and forgiveness, one strand of the conversation spun off to discuss human nature, whether humans are born good or evil, and the nature of sin. Once again, reading what the panelists had to say I was struck by how different and distinct the Jewish view is from the Christian view—especially when I believed as an evangelical that Christianity was based principally on the beliefs of Judaism.

Hilary

I was taught that we are created innocent, with the potential for both great good and great evil. The Hebrew is Yetzer Ha-Rah, impulse to evil, and Yetzer Ha-Tov, impulse for good.  The word impulse isn’t very accurate though, because ‘yetzer’ means more than that.  It also means ‘formation’ as in the very formative powers of creation.  It’s the word of creation itself, in Genesis 2:7, “And God fashioned the man – the dust from the soil -” in Hebrew it’s “V’yi-yetzer YHVH Elohim et ha-adam”  V’ – and, yi’yetzer – created, YHVH Elohim – God,  et ha-adam – the primordial ha-adam that all humans are descended from. Usually the word ‘yetzer’ is spelled with only one yod/y, but here it is spelled with two yods, yi’yetzer.  The Talmudic rabbis translated this to mean that in our very formation we are created with both yetzers, good and evil. I also know they taught that we’re born with a yetzer ha-ra, but the yetzer hatov doesn’t develop until a child is 13 years old, which is why children can be so selfish, self-centered, and sneaky.  Then again, the more kids get raised with gentle parenting and empathy the earlier the yetzer hatov develops as they learn to mirror back the trust, love and kindness they get from their parents.

To say that we are created with ‘evil’ again isn’t very accurate.  The yetzer ha-rah is often used as a synonym for the sex drive and sexuality, but it isn’t quite that or just that.  It’s the drive for life itself, the animal urge to eat, sleep, grow, be safe, have territory, have sex.  Those desires aren’t considered ‘evil’ in and of themselves, but they are without a conscience, a-moral instead of im-moral.  This yetzer, this formative impulse to survive can so easily be turned to evil without a tempering yetzer hatov.  A sex drive isn’t evil, but it can so easily be corrupted, and uncontrolled or repressed it can bring great evil and pain into people’s lives.  But as painful as it can be, it’s necessary and part of being fully human. Likewise the desire to be safe isn’t wrong, yet our fear for our safety can easily be manipulated against us and against people who aren’t really hurting us – or who are also hurt and afraid for themselves, and reacting from their own yetzer for safety.

There is a story I know about some rabbis who were very upset at all the evil they saw around them.  They believed God had made a mistake in creating humans with a yetzer ha-rah, so they went up into a mountain and prayed, prayed, and prayed some more, ” Adonai Eloheinu, please remove the yetzer ha-rah from us so that there will be an end to pain and suffering.”  Adonai was so impressed at their piety that he actually did that, and withdrew the yetzer ha-rah from people.  But when the rabbis came down off the mountain and went back into the villages and cities, instead of finding peace and paradise, they found stagnation.  Nobody got married, fell in love, plowed a field, ran a business, or built a new home.  Reluctantly they asked God to bring the yetzer ha-rah back into the world when they realized that without it nobody would get anything done.

(Shout out to Firefly fans: this is like what happened in the movie ‘Serenity’ where Mal and his crew find out what happened on the planet Miranda, that the Alliance tried to make a world without sin by using the chemical Pax. Instead of peace most of the population laid down and died.  Except for those who became Reavers.)

Sin in Judaism isn’t something we are born tainted with, it’s missing the mark, not doing what we should or doing what we shouldn’t.  It’s action or inaction, not the innate state of our souls for no longer being in Eden. Or like Ki Sarita said earlier it’s not following mitzvot, not keeping all the laws of purity, ritual and ethical behavior that God told us to do in the Torah, expounded upon with great length in the Talmud and everything else. After all there are only 613 of them. (3)

Built into the system of laws and commandments, Torah and Mitzvot, are ways of reparing the damage caused by sin.  From the records in the Torah it used to be the system of sacrifices.  For Rabbinic Judaism of the last 2,000 years it is the threefold system of prayer, return to correct behavior, and reparative justice for our wrong actions or giving to charity that we’ve talked about. You know someone has truly repented of their sin when they are confronted with the opportunity to do it again and refrain from doing so.

How well does this system work? Your Mileage Will Vary to the Nth degree. (emphasis mine).  What Ki Sarita said earlier about obsessive levels of minutia is true, from what I’ve read and learned about keeping an Orthodox life (1) style it seems like every detail of everything you do has a prescribed right way to do it with a couple hundred years or more of commentary involved.  In Reform the autonomy to decide what level of observance you want to do can lead to some well thought out and meaningful choices or to almost nothing at all just from ignorance or inertia and anywhere in between. Mitzvah, singular, and mitzvot, plural, mean commandment/s (2).  This is what we are commanded to do, or not do, although at my end it often gets used as a compliment or generally meant as a good deed (4).  Like visiting your grandmother in the hospital is a real mitzvah, or donating to the mitzvah food shelf, or dropping off hats, scarves and mittens is a mitts-vah (sorry, bad pun).

1. http://www.torah.org/features/spirfocus/whatisamitzvah.html

2. http://www.myjewishlearning.com/practices/Ritual/Jewish_Practices/Mitzvot.shtml

3. http://www.jewfaq.org/613.htm

4. http://urj.org/socialaction/takeaction/mitzvahcorps/

As with any other human endeavor it’s success depends on the level of integrity, compassion, and flexibility to deal with real life. The problem is that the further you go into orthodoxy, ultra-orthodoxy and into fundamentalism the less room there is for flexibility and empathy, but that’s true of most human systems not just Judaism, or even religion in general.

I do believe in the yetzer ha-ra and yetzer hatov.  Not because of how the word ‘yetzer’ is written in the Torah, but because I see it in humanity. That humans have a profound capacity for evil is obvious, but we also have a profound capacity for goodness as well, and to deny either one is to be less than fully human and dangerous.

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Anat

Isn’t yetser hara’ very close to Freud’s id?

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Rachel

Anat, it’s been suggested several times that the id and the yetzer hara are linked, but it’s not clear if Freud intended it to be read as such — the id is part of a three-part psyche within a person (id, ego, and superego) where id is unchecked desire and impulse, the superego is morality and criticism, and the ego is trying to satisfy the id’s needs in a way that won’t get it yelled at by the superego, so all three are linked internally. The yetzer hara and yetzer hatov, however, are considered to be more or less outside of the self, allowing one to make free choice between whether to use your natural desires to do good or to do evil. In Freudian psychology, correct me if I’m wrong but I believe the superego can be the part of the psyche causing issues if it’s not allowing desires to be expressed: following the yetzer hara/yezer hatov model, you can only go wrong by following the yetzer hara. (You may be *boring* by following the yetzer hatov, but not wrong.)

Basically, you know those cartoon angels and devils, one on each shoulder, one urging you to do good and one urging you to do bad? That’s the yetzer hara and yetzer tov. And you have free will — you can do good or do evil, it’s all up to you.

(To follow Hilary’s example of Serenity and the Pax: we do not hold to the idea that you can make someone “better” by surgically removing the yetzer hara; we prefer free will for all, even if it leads to negative consequences here on Earth, and do not think that this world is supposed to be “a world without sin.” Huh, wonder if Joss Whedon knew about the yetzer hara?)

Disagree with where Hilary sourced the concept of “yetzer hara”, though — the “inclinations of man toward evil” are referenced early in Genesis, in the story of Noah and the Flood. I would say that while the existence of the yetzer hara is considered necessary, it’s not considered benign.

To get back to the earlier discussion (and poor Libby, who has to edit this into something linearly consistent) — I love the version of Ani Ma’amin that Ki Sarita posted. (When I was in a choir, we sang a different arrangement – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dr9e639d1Js). And this is a deeply meaningful song for me, as is “Eliyahu HaNavi”. But for those of you who don’t actually believe in the coming of the Mashiach, what is the significance of these songs you? Is it a connection to the past, a personal meaning that differs from the literal?

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Anat

Rachel, you can live a boring life following only ‘yetzer hatov’, but it will also be a very short life. And if everyone did so humanity will come to an end very soon. See Hilary’s post. Those aren’t her idiosyncratic views. It is very common to refer to all sexual urges as ‘yetzer hara’, and by extension all strong urges for pleasure and self-actualization.

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Rachel

Anat, I always thought that the yetzer hara was considered to be the “perversion” of the sexual urge —  i.e., that which leads to sexual abuse, adultery, perhaps even sex for non-procreative purposes. It doesn’t make sense for all sex to be considered evil, but the indulgence in sex over other priorities could easily be seen as “the evil inclination”. Thinking of all sex as evil is ridiculous: you’re supposed to have sex.  (And for those who cry, “citation needed!”, here you go: http://www.myjewishlearning.com/life/Sex_and_Sexuality/Jewish_Approaches/Purpose_and_Meaning/Sexual_Pleasure.shtml)

Anat, is this the same Yeshayahu Leibowitz you’ve quoted before? http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-arts-and-culture/129034/stop-yeshayahu-leibowitz

He’s pretty fascinating (as is Tablet Magazine, which I read daily).

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Anat

Yes, that’s him. I first became aware of him watching him on TV answering questions of teenagers. One girl asked him if the mitzvot exist to fulfill a human need. His response was that to piss was a human need and nowhere in Torah does it say ‘go take a piss’. OK, it is a bit of a non-sequitur, because she didn’t claim that *all* human needs are addressed by Torah, but I suppose he thought that one was important enough.

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Anat

Rachel, see <a href=”http://ejmmm2007.blogspot.com/2006/12/necessary-evil-yetzer-ha-ra.html“>A Necessary Evil: The Yetzer ha-R</a> in support for Hilary’s position, that all creativity and drive, including all sexual drive, was believed by Jewish sources to originate in yetzer hara. When yetzer hara is removed from the land, even chicken don’t lay eggs.

<i>As Genesis Rabbah teaches:

And God saw all that He had made, and found it very good…vehinei tov zeh yetzer hatov, vehinei tov me’od zeh yetzer hara – “good” refers to the Good Inclination but “very good” refers to the Evil Inclination.
Why? Because were it not for the Yetzer ha-Ra no one would build a house, take a wife, give birth, or engage in commerce.</i>

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Rachel

Anat, I feel like you’re not understanding what I’m saying: I’m arguing that yes, while the yetzer hara has a purpose, unchecked following of the yetzer hara will lead to bad things.
“Yetzer hara is not a demonic force that pushes a person to do evil, but rather a drive toward pleasure or property or security, which if left unlimited, can lead to evil (cf. Genesis Rabbah 9:7). When properly controlled by the yetzer hatov, the yetzer hara leads to many socially desirable results, including marriage, business, and community. “
The yetzer hara, in small doses, may be productive, but indulging solely in the yetzer hara isn’t a good. Indulging solely in the yetzer hatov, while it may lead you to have a boring and short life, isn’t going to hurt anyone beside yourself. (Forcibly trying to make people only follow their yezter hatov is actually a use of the yetzer hara.) The best choice, however, is to use your own free will and not be unbalanced.

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Hilary

Anat, Rachel

I think it’s fascinating that I mentioned both yetzer ha-ra and yetzer hatov, and offered two examples of the yetzer ha-ra one sexual and one not, and what are we talking about?  Sex.  Freud would be proud. I think self-protection & fear have just as much impact on our lives as sexuality; think about how politian’s use people’s desire to be safe and keep their family safe turns into a fear of the ‘other’ that can be used so deftly to champion economic plans that work against their self-interest, or fear that if those ‘other’ people get the same social advantages, they themselves would loose out. But that self-preservation is the same instinct that can get a woman or a man out of an abusive relationship, or an abusive religion.

Rachel, I am very respectively going to disagree with you – I don’t think living a life based primarily on the yetzer hatov is boring at all. I think the determination people have to create a better life for their children is one of the most powerful examples of the yetzer hatov I know. Especially for people who come out of violent, abusive, or fundamentalist backgrounds and move heaven and earth to heal and have a better life for themselves or their children, like we see on Love, Joy, Feminism – that is not boring!  When people are motivated to donate blood, care for abandoned animals, help abused children, visit hospitals as clowns to make patients laugh, work together for a habitat for humanity house, that is not boring.  The hard work to communicate well within a family, with your spouse and/or children, to create shalom bayit (peace in the home) shouldn’t be boring.  Good communication between married people and lovers definably should not lead to anything boring!

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Rachel

Point taken, Hilary!

I wanted to stress the “bad” parts of the yetzer hara in my responses specifically because as far as I know, the 101 definition is the inclination to sin or do wrong or overindulge: you and Anat are right that it’s a force to be productive in this world, but it can also be non-productive or have negative consequences when overindulged. That being said, pretty much everything in life needs to find a balance, and many good things can be overdone, even discussions about sex and Freud. ;)

Judaism 101: Born Jewish?
Judaism 101: Gehenna (Hell)
Judaism 101: The Torah and Other Sources of Holiness
Judaism 101: Sin and Forgiveness
About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Stev84

    Original Sin is probably the most disgusting, immoral, sick and inhuman idea Christianity ever came up with.

  • The_L1985

    As an ex-Christian Pagan, I’m somewhat amused by how close my personal view of humanity and morality is to the traditional Jewish perspective. I may not use the same words, but I definitely believe that humans have the desire to fulfill our biological drives, and the desire for justice and peace, and that these desires can sometimes be in conflict but aren’t necessarily so. I believe that the desire for peace and justice (yetzer hatov) should be the one you follow when there is a conflict.

    Serenity wasn’t my main influence in this, but it was interesting to see how well it matched up (I didn’t watch Firefly/Serenity until 2008, so I’d already developed my current view of morality before I saw them.)


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