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Prof. Moshe Benovitz Compels us to Question Good and Evil Inclinations in Parashat Noach

Prof. Moshe Benovitz digs into Parashat Noach and its commentaries to explicate the rabbinic notion of two inclinations – good and evil ‘yetser hatov’ and ‘yetser hara’– vying for domination in each human heart. Comparing the Biblical text, Rabbinic Homilies, Maimonides, Plato and Aristotle, Prof. Benovitz profoundly unpeels the layers of this important idea.  

The rabbinic notion of two inclinations – good and evil – vying for domination in each human heart is first mentioned and best known from a homily on Deuteronomy 6:5, the second verse in the Shema, which begins “ve’ahavta et hashem elokekha bekhol levavkha…”. Commenting on the use of the variant form levavkha, with double bet, for “your heart”, instead of libkha with one bet, the darshan explains that you are expected to love God with both your inclinations, the good and the evil: “bishney yetsarekha, yetser hatov viyetser hara“. Versions of this homily are found in Mishnah Berakhot 9:5, Sifre Deuteronomy 32 and Tosefta Berakhot 6:7. In the Tosefta this darshan is identified as the second century tanna Rabbi Meir, the primary teacher of Rabbi Judah the Patriarch, editor of the Mishnah.

At first glance, Rabbi Meir’s notion of the two inclinations of the heart brings to mind the anatomy of the soul according to Plato and Aristotle: Plato divides the soul into passion, spirit, and intellect, and bids the intellect control the other two (Republic, book IV). Aristotle’s soul has rational and irrational components, and he sees a hierarchical relationship between them; the rational being the higher soul (De Anima, book III).

Maimonides tries to equate Rabbi Meir’s notion with that of the Greek philosophers, going so far as to suggest that while the evil inclination is present in the individual from birth, the good inclination develops along with the intellect (Guide for the Perplexed, book III, chapter 23). But it seems clear that Maimonides attempt to harmonize the mishnaic conception of the two yetsarim with Greek thought does not reflect the original meaning of Rabbi Meir’s statement. Rabbi Meir sees the yetser hatov and the yetser hara as two equal tendencies built into each and every human heart from its inception. His short homily makes that abundantly clear: First of all, the inclinations are located in the lev, the heart, a physical organ, rather than in the nefesh, which God breathed into man, mentioned later in the same verse, which is analogous to the psyche that Plato and Aristotle were discussing. Secondly, the very use of the word yetser indicates that both inclinations exist in man from birth. Yetser means created thing, or “nature”, so it would be hard to argue that Rabbi Meir thought that the yetser hatov is not inborn, but develops over time. Also, the fact that the two inclinations are represented by the double bet in the word levavkha implies a basic equality between the two, as does the fact that the Torah requires that we love God with both.

This distinction between Rabbi Meir’s notion and that of the Greek philosophers raises an important question: What is the point of saying that a baby is born with two equal inclinations?  How is that different from saying that a baby is born with a tabula rasa, a blank slate, and becomes good or bad, or a specific combination of the two, over time? Wouldn’t that model be a simpler way of saying the same thing? Why does Rabbi Meir need a yetser hatov and a yetser hara?

The fact is, there is no need whatsoever for a yester hatov and a yester hara. To say that there are two equal inclinations is the same as saying that is a baby is born with a blank slate. But  Rabbi Meir did not invent the word yetser. The word occurs a number of times in the Bible. But in the Bible man is said to be born with one yetser – one inborn “nature” that accompanies him from his inception, and this nature is more often than not characterized as evil. At the end of last week’s Torah reading, Bereshit, God realized that “the entire nature, yetser, of the thoughts of man’s heart is only evil all day” and therefore he decides to shorten his lifespan to 120 years. In this week’s reading, after the flood, God realizes that since “the nature, yetser, of man’s heart is evil from childhood”, there is no point in destroying the world again and again because of man’s sin.

All this is according to the Bible. The Rabbis, on the other hand, devised the notion that every human heart is born with an equally powerful good inclination alongside the evil one, and thus they succeeded in neutralizing the view that pervaded Jewish thought from biblical times on, according to which man is born with only one yetser, the evil inclination, and thus succeeded in restoring man’s free will. This is the only way to understand the need for the two equal and opposite inclinations in rabbinic literature: it is a reaction and moderation of an earlier, more extreme view, according to which man is entirely possessed by evil, as God reluctantly states in both last week’s parashah and this week’s parashah.

Moshe Benovitz is Professor of Talmud and Rabbinics at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. He is the author of Kol Nidre: Studies in the Development of Rabbinic Votive Institutions (Atlanta 1998) and several volumes of comprehensive critical commentary on sections of the Talmud, as well as numerous scholarly articles on various aspects of Talmudic scholarship and rabbinic history, including oaths and vows, liturgy, and Jewish festivals.

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