Ishay Rosen-Zvi, the man who brought us the new and improved Sotah ritual, has published his second book, Demonic Desires (not to be confused with another book with the same title). Some of the chapters have previously been published as articles, but the book as a whole gives a full, updated and comprehensive picture of its subject: a detailed and meticulous study of the Yetzer Hara.
The book, in essence, tackles one of the most entrenched myths in the academic study of Jewish sources, since many years before Carnal Israel: that Judaism, historically, is a sex-positive religion.
Rosen-Zvi’s book does not actually say that is what it does – in fact all it claims to do is analyze all the occurrences of yetzer hara in Tannaitic and Amoraic literature (he does not include Tanhuma, for example, or Avot deRabbi Natan). Along the way he comes across three startling conclusions:
- The yetzer has a very humble beginning in Tannaitic literature. In the school of R. Akiva, following much of Second Temple Literature, yetzer hara is just another word for “thoughts” or “heart” or “mind”. However, in the school of R. Ishmael, the yetzer is a much more wily and cunning adversary.
- This Evil Inclination, the yetzer, is not a rabbinic euphemism for the Freudian Id. It is not part of the person – it is a foreign intruder into the person. It is this yetzer that became current in Amoraic literature.
- This yetzer has nothing to do with sex. Nothing at all. It wants people to sin, yes, but it is not a “blind appetite” or just an “inclination” towards the evil; it leads its hosts to every kind of sin it can think of. Most often towards slacking off in Torah study.
This is the claim, and a full review will of course tackle every part of this claim, including the amazing comparative work Rosen-Zvi does with Patristic – especially monastic-literature, expanding on the work of Michal Bar-Asher Siegal. The clincher, however, comes at the end. We know that we think that the yetzer is sexual. So where does that come from? It comes both from the anonymous stratum of the Bavli – both anonymous statements and the give-and-take of the sugya – and from stories in the Bavli. These two come together *in this case* (Rosen-Zvi is careful not to haphazardly say anything about a “Stammaitic Culture”, a very dubious term in his opinion) to form a new image of the yetzer.
The yetzer is turned into sex; but the imagery of the yetzer as a powerful adversary, that can and should be vanquished, that the righteous can kill, and that should be exorcised like a demon, remains in place.
And so, it is no longer really tov meod to have an evil yetzer; it is in fact very bad. When sex is equated with the yetzer, per se, not as a kind of sin, it too becomes very bad. The prayers and admonitions to the yetzer that it leave us alone becomes admonitions not against sin but against sex. Not very positive.
This is, in my opinion, the coolest part of Rosen-Zvi’s exhaustive and authoritative book. Unlike other books in the field, halakha and aggada are discussed together, and all the sources are brought to the table. It can safely be said that it tackles all the occurrences of the term and says something about each one. The various roles and guises of the yetzer are mapped out and neatly laid on a time-line, and also flagged when they fail to fit a neat pattern, which Rosen-Zvi will readily admit (but that happens very rarely; one such instance is the famous mishnah at the end of m. Berakhot on yetzer tov and yetzer ra; Rosen-Zvi says the “dual yetzer” school of thought is quite marginal in the rest of rabbinic literature).
A real review is in the works for the near future; stay tuned!
Disclosure: Ishay is not only a dear friend, and a teacher and mentor, but also my employer for the past number of years; I have worked on this book, as well as several other projects, for him.