The Talmud Yerushalmi is like the forgotten sibling of the Talmud Bavli. In the yeshivas where the Talmud is studied at all hours of the day, the Bavli gets all the attention while the Yerushalmi is practically ignored. This is not a particularly new trend either. It’s been standard procedure for as long as Talmud study has been the focal point of Jewish scholarship. Even in the Talmudic departments of universities, where they tend to look at the lesser known texts of the Jewish world, the Yerushalmi usually lurks in the background behind its illustrious Babylonian rival.
Among other things, the Yerushalmi gives us a unique window into the rabbinic scene in the Holy Land during the crucial years when Judaism was interacting with its daughter/rival religion of Christianity. It was precisely during the two centuries of Yerushalmi rabbinic activity (200-400) that Christianity made its major gains in popularity in the Roman Empire, including the backwater region known as Palestine. Many of the fundamental doctrines of Christianity were formulated during this period, including those that ultimately distinguished it theologically from Judaism. In minute and often subtle ways, the Yerushalmi sometimes reveals bits and pieces of the interaction between the old religion and the new.
One possible example of this subtle interaction is found in an obscure prayer introduced by a Rabbi Tanchum. Recorded in the tractate called Brachot, dealing with the subject of prayer and blessings, his is one among several short personal requests for divine assistance in the trials and tribulations of spiritual life: ‘Let it be Your will, Hashem, my God and God of my fathers, that You break and remove the yoke of the yetzer hara from our hearts. You created us to do Your will, and we are obligated to do Your will. You desire this and we desire this, but what is the obstacle – the leaven in the dough. It is revealed and known before You that we do not have the power to resist it. Nevertheless, it should be Your will, Hashem my God and God of my fathers, that You remove it from us and subdue it, so that Your will and our will become the same.’
Right off the bat, Rabbi Tanchum unequivocally states our purpose in creation – to do the will of God. But mixed in with the clarity there are many questions and uncertainties in his prayer. First, what is this yetzer hara that blocks us from achieving our purpose in creation? Second, how can he imply that God gave us a purpose that we cannot succeed in without divine assistance? And finally, what is the meaning of this strange metaphor, ‘the leaven in the dough’?
The yetzer hara, commonly translated as the ‘Evil Inclination’, is the Jewish equivalent of Satan, or the devil. Jews, however, are careful to distinguish the yetzer hara as a spiritual force that works on behalf of God, as opposed to the Christian Satan, which seems more like an independent source of evil. Although there are important exceptions in rabbinic literature, the yetzer hara generally works within the mind, existing as a constant pull away from the side of good and the will of God. The yetzer hara is all over the place in rabbinic literature through the ages. Other than God and the Torah, it would be hard to find a concept that has spread so widely throughout Jewish thought. The Talmud, the Midrash, the mystics, the philosophers, and the Hasidic world all manage to find a prominent place for this power in their writings.
It is only in recent years that Jews have begun to shy away from attributing the evils that lurk in the human mind to the yetzer hara. An evil inclination twisting the mind doesn’t sit well with the modern scientific mindset. It is much more in vogue to describe evil in the personality as a result of childhood trauma or the effect of chemical neurotransmitters squirting around the brain, rather than resorting to some evil spirit invading the soul. As tempting as these traceable and measurable alternatives may be, however, they fail to explain the overwhelming majority of the hourly and daily spiritual battles that go on in the inner chambers of the mind. These truly seem to be nothing other than the human will choosing between the path of least resistance and an uphill grind.
The yetzer hara, according to traditional Judaism, is a spiritual force that is a key component of the mind but not of the soul. It is always pitted against its generally weaker opponent, fittingly named the yetzer hatov, or good inclination. The battle between these two internal forces, erupting throughout life and never really subsiding, explains the spiritual turmoil of life as well as any modern theory. These forces are understood as creations of God that enable human beings to fulfill their role of doing the will of God. The yetzer hara, as hated and as maligned as it always is in Judaism, is the crucial mechanism through which this happens.
What is that mechanism? The yetzer hara gives the will the challenge that it needs to truly succeed in its purpose. All those moments of temptation, of lust, of frustration, of anger, of jealousy, of all-consuming pride, of hatred, of despondency – they are all among the many faces of the yetzer hara. They change us into something we really are not. We are so accustomed to the change that we don’t recognize it for what it is - a corruption of the soul. This is the reason Rabbi Tanchum called it the ‘leaven in the dough’. Just as leaven transforms dough into a different shape by steadily blowing it up until it takes on a completely new appearance, the yetzer hara does the same to the soul. Those problematic conditions are merely the leaven infecting the dough of the soul, the true person.
In fact, there is so much of this leaven, with so many different faces placing so many different challenges, that Rabbi Tanchum went so far as to declare the battle futile, without some sort of divine help. On our own we simply cannot win this war. We may win a few battles here and there, but in the end the challenge is simply too much. Why, one may ask, would God make this challenge, which is nothing short of our purpose in creation, too tough to overcome? Wouldn’t it make more sense to give us a challenge that we can ultimately win? The fact is that some more recent Jewish outlooks on the challenge of the yetzer hara did not agree with the position expressed by Rabbi Tanchum (see the essay on Yisrael Salanter in the section on Mussar). What did he mean and what does it mean for us?
Rabbi Tanchum’s position on the futility of this battle without divine assistance reflects the mainstream Christian view on this important matter. Rabbi Tanchum certainly was not advocating Christianity, but he agreed with the idea of not being able to do it on our own. Maybe his thinking was influenced by early Christianity. Or maybe this was an idea that was in the monotheistic air at the time and both religions adopted it to varying degrees. Regardless, the idea must be explained. Why did God give us a spiritual challenge that we cannot win on our own?
Perhaps an explanation is that only with this arrangement can we truly see and appreciate the essential role that God plays in our lives. That role is not only in keeping us alive or in keeping the world spinning round, but even in those matters that hit us right between the eyes, those matters that are placed in the hands of our most personal and most powerful faculty, our free will. We must recognize our need for God even in something as basic as deciding to get out of bed in the morning, or dealing with a tough situation without giving in to despair. We need the help of God and we need to feel the presence of God, even in the very personal space of the mind. That presence can be detected constantly. It hovers about the mind in the same way that the yetzer hara does, but its touch is much more gentle and subtle. It is called the yetzer hatov.
For those who are familiar with the ‘good guy’ counterpart to the yetzer hara, this should come as no surprise. What did you think that subtle pull was to begin with? It obviously wasn’t ‘you’, being as you didn’t create the influence any more than you created the negative influence of the yetzer hara. It is the breath of God attempting to reach out and touch you and offer you a hand in this uphill climb. It is the will of God, revealing its desire to you and offering you the choice to make it the desire of your own will.
There is nothing shameful about needing God to attain spiritual success by overcoming the challenge of the yetzer hara. Just because you cannot do it on your own is not a sign of weakness. In truth, it is a sign of strength. It shows that you are able to accept God as a partner in your challenge. It also shows that God is always there to help us, even in the inner personal chambers of the mind. We can win this battle, but we need the subtle inspiration of God to make it happen.
The yetzer hara/yetzer hatov conflict is probably the most natural spiritual experience. It is so natural that we tend to not recognize it as a spiritual experience at all. It’s so darn constant and expected that we accept it with no more notice than we would give to normal activities like breathing or feeling. It’s just there. But there is no reason to not see these constant battles as exactly what they are – the soul interacting with the various ‘hands’ of God as a means of actualizing its reason for being here.
Here’s an easy one to try: the next time you feel the yetzer hara, or whatever you feel like calling those urges and pulls and sudden impulses - stop and observe the situation for just a few seconds. Stop and try to figure out what’s really happening. Is it ‘you’ who is bringing on those feelings or inclinations, or does it seem like they came from something other than ‘you’? Just do this little experiment a few times. Among other things, the very act of not letting it just happen may help you avoid falling into its clutches for the millionth time. But more important, you may discover a window into your spiritual self, a window that was always there but may never have been opened.
While you attempt to sense the yetzer hara side of things, you may want to take the further step of trying to detect the fainter influence of the yetzer hatov. This will be a good deal tougher to do, being as the other guy is much bossier and more aggressive. But it should always be there, riding right along beside you in every one of those battles. Try to find it, to discover its subtle presence - not a pull as much as a suggestion. If you really feel adventurous, try to go a step further and imagine this to be the voice of God speaking silently within you. If this ain’t spiritual, what is?
Food for Thought
The yetzer hara is considered to be a spiritual force that exists within us but somehow isn’t really ‘us’. Isn't blaming all emotional and spiritual failure on some outside 'force' just another way of dodging human responsibility?
Aren't confident enough to comment? Send an email to the author about any question pertaining to the essay
- Please keep comments and questions short and to the point.
- Try to keep things civil and overall try to keep the conversations respectful.
- No four letter words.
- No missionizing.
- Site moderators reserve the right to delete your comments if they do not follow the guidlines or are off-topic.
There are no Topics to show. Add a Topic to start a specefic discussion
There are no Comments to show. Comment and start the discussion.