UPDATE: THE BOOK CLUB IS NOW OPEN FOR COMMENTS!
Book clubs are not only for Oprah Winfrey fans. While there are numerous forums that assess recent Rabbinics scholarship, including books received, abstract digests, short reviews and review essays, conference papers and sessions, and long and looping footnotes in academic books and articles, there are surprisingly few places where scholars can get together and engage in extensive discussion about recent books of potentially great significance for the field. The Talmud Blog’s Book Club endeavors to create just such a space. Ultimately, we’re shooting for a new kind of scholarly discourse that is able to take on numerous aspects of a work and do so in a relaxed (though serious), free-wielding conversation between friends.
The first book we’ll discuss is Ishay Rosen-Zvi’s Demonic Desires: Yetzer Hara and the Problem of Evil in Late Antiquity. Our Book Club etiquette is that we will first hear opening reflections from three readers: Amit Gevaryahu, Eva Kiesele, and Raphael Magarik. Below you will find their (incredibly astute) thoughts and critiques about the book. They are all worth reading in full, and carefully. Before reading them you may also want to look at Raffi’s and Amit‘s previous reviews of the book. I will serve as the MC.
For the first day or so comments will be closed to all except Amit, Eva and Raffi. This will give them time to respond to each other, if they so (demonically) desire, and I hope to weigh in as well. After that point, comments will be open to all, though we will be moderating more than normal in order to keep the discussion moving along nicely. We ask that you comment only if you have read the book, and that you direct discussion to the proper target by clicking on “reply” under the comment you want to respond to, or “leave a reply” at the end of the thread for more general reflections on the book. To stay up-to-date with the discussion, I suggest you subscribe below, where it says “Notify me of follow-up comments via email”. After a week of discussion, if the author wishes he will have an opportunity to respond.
Let the games begin!
Ishay Rosen-Zvi’s Demonic Desires is in fact an inquiry into an unspoken assumption of the liberal arts: that people are, by and large, the same throughout history, and that their fundamental concerns can be discerned by inference from our own.
Rosen-Zvi begins with the philological. This should be an obvious point of departure for anyone who writes on ancient texts; sadly it is not. He surveys the existing literature and categorizes it according to time, place and milieu.
Drawing on the tremendous advances made in the study of rabbinic texts in the last fourty years – the classification of manuscripts, the critical editions, the new grammars and linguistic tools, the consciousness that various strata of a rabbinic text will not necessarily speak the same language – he is able to create a corpus of texts that is comprehensive and complete. This in itself is no mean task. The book could not have been produced without computerized tools such as Maagarim, or at least their predecessors, the Kosovski Concordances.
Rosen-Zvi, as advertised, however, goes further into investigating the origins of the yetzer hara. Not content with just a Tannaitic description of the yetzer, he discusses sugiyot in Palestinian literature (aha! They do exist!) and the Bavli, that typify and reify the yetzer even more. He manages to sketch not only a psychology of the yetzer, but a biography: the road that led the yetzer from its lowly origins to its great mastery of all that is sinful.
All that, however, is merely groundwork for what in my opinion is a groundbreaking and exciting aspect of this work: the isolation of a dialect of late antique koine. By this I mean thus: students of late antiquity are used to seeing boundaries and borders in their world as permeable and flexible. We know from amulets and synagogue floors that Jews and Gentiles both venerated Helios and the God of Israel. We know that the late antique Middle East shared myths and stories from all segments of society. Moses was a known quantity in Greek literature and he and the Jews were credited (or discredited) with various customs and laws that Greeks ridiculed and/or adopted.
Christianity of course made this koine even more monolingual: Jewish scripture in the vernacular was now a common cultural stratum that almost everyone could share (except the Zoroastrians). Literacy meant literacy of scripture and with it the sharing of even more ideas about cosmology and cosmogony, sin and salvation. Concepts and categories, for Jews and gentiles, began to overlap.
Rosen-Zvi’s work on patristic and rabbinic demonology is one locus of this overlap. Religious practitioners of both communities, rabbis and hermits, lived in common fear of evil beings that would entice them to sin, that could be warded off with constant mumbling of holy words. Salvation could be hindered by these beings, and promoted by proper spiritual exercises used against them. This is the koine.
The “Jewish Dialect” of this koine is the Amoraic yetzer. In a situation analogous to the existence of two mutually intelligible but distinct Aramaic dialects side by side in two faith communities, the rabbis reified and typified the Ishmaelian yetzer that they received from their past, into a demon with powers and weaknesses comparable to other demons in the neighborhood. But this rabbinic demon does not live outside the body, like the Christian (and Zoroastrian) demons; it lives inside it. It is the “leaven in the dough”, “a fly that lives between the two openings of the heart”.
And so, within the same semantic field of sin and salvation, with the same tools of adjuration and verbal resistance, and in the same discourse of demonology, the rabbis shaped their own distinct dialect of the late antique koine that is the evil yetzer.
This is the meaning in context of the evil yetzer. And so – to the contemporary context of the book – Rosen-Zvi contends that our own problems in life, for which we turn to Freud or William James, Durkheim or Jung, are not the problems of the ancients. The past is also a different country in the sense that the deepest concerns of its inhabitants are markedly different from ours. The yetzer is not just undeveloped language and a metaphorical image for what our psychoanalysts really know, but rather a window into a multireligious and multiethnic community – of people who were not concerned with a conflicted soul but with salvation from demons; not with mental health and hygiene but with mental and spiritual training. In that sense, Rosen-Zvi speaks Hadot in a Jewish dialect, pointing out that the people whom we (philosophers and Talmudists) identify as our spiritual forbearers are in fact colossally different from ourselves.
‘Demonic Desires’ is more than just the sum of Ishay Rosen-Zvi’s articles on the yetzer published over the course of a decade. It is supplemented by vast material for cross-cultural comparison, mainly Greek and Syriac patristic literature, and may well become an invaluable source for anyone interested in rabbinic anthropology. In many ways it is a reply to Daniel Boyarin’s ‘Carnal Israel’ and what has been written in its aftermath. It even delivers the famous fourth volume of Foucault’s ‘History of Sexuality’. But more importantly, it comes as a long due correction to the widespread trend of overreading: Yetzer discourse has for too long been charged with sexual apologetics, and has suffered from highly selective readings and from a tendency to quote from Boyarin’s oeuvre instead of quoting the primary sources. A certain polemical breeze throughout the book might be owed to this fact. ‘Demonic Desires’ undertakes to provide us with comprehensive analysis of all classical rabbinic sources instead, and with a proper blend of cross-cultural comparison, redaction and source criticism, and close readings. However, sometimes I found that in the process, overreading was replaced by underreading. This seems to be the case exactly in the two crucial aspects that are at the basis of most apologetics: dialectics and sexuality. Ishay routinely tones down sexual overtones – e.g., when GenR 22:6 describes a man who beautifies himself and prances around on the streets, he argues to read this as “pride” or “arrogance” (p. 69 and 104). But is not such “pride” simply courtship behavior, especially when (in a parallel) the “bear”- aka Mrs. Potiphar- lurks around the corner? He also spares certain passages from the reader that might have evoked a different impression. This is not meant to refute, though. His basic tenet that sexual transgression is just one out of many sins the yetzer leads to, is certainly convincing. The common construction of Judaism as a sex-affirmative religion via the yetzer cannot be upheld after this book.
More problematic seems to me his reading of sources that present two yetzarim, or those that might shed ambivalent light on the one yetzer. In dealing with the famous homily in GenR 9:7 (והנה טוב מאוד…) he writes, “If anything, it teaches that the evil yetzer is considered as the worst thing on earth” (p. 73). This holds true for the rhetorical question, but certainly not for the following sentence in the homily. Although through redaction criticism Ishay is able to turn down the claim that yetzer meant sexual desire, he is less sensitive to the redactional contexts with regard to possible ambivalence. See, for instance, the following passage (yYom 6:4 43d), which he does not reckon among the dialectic:
“על כל סוכה וסוכה אומר לו: הרי מזון והרי מים – לייפות את כוחו.” [mYom 6:4] למה? שאין יצר הרע תעב אלא דבר שהוא אסור לו. כהדא רבי מנא סלק למבקרה לרבי חגיי, דהוה תשיש. אמר ליה: צהינא. אמר ליה: שתה! שבקיה ונחת ליה. בתר שעה סלק לגביה. אמר ליה: מה עבדת ההיא צהיותך? אמר ליה: כד שרית לי, אזלת לה.רבי חייה בר בא הוה משתעי הדין עובדא: חד בר נש הוה מהלך בשוקא וברתיה עימיה. אמרה ליה ברתיה: אבא, צהייא אנא! אמר לה: אורכין ציבחד. א”ל: אבא, צהייא אנא! א”ל: אורכין ציבחד.ומיתת. ר’ אחא כד מפני מוספא הוה אמר: קומיהון אחינן, מאן דאית ליה מיינוק, ייזיל בגיניה!
The yetzer is no doubt introduced as sin as such; but the anecdote of the sick rabbi gives an almost ridiculous touch to the principle (why would a sick person not be allowed to drink?), and the death of the daughter clearly marks horribly exaggerated practice. While this passage is probably intended to reject asceticism, it does invest the yetzer implicitly with a quality of a drive necessary for survival – and compare this to GenR 9:7, or similarly, the passage in bYom 69b where the יצרא דעבירה gets blinded. A concept of a life-sustaining impulse existed in Stoic thought and was most probably known to the rabbis – s. the Stoically tinged dialogues of Antoninus and Rabbi. The only explanation Ishay offers regarding dialectic sources is that they are probably remnants of some midrash on מעשה בראשית. The text quoted here, however, is not at all related to creation. He pushes his point very hard when he categorically rejects the possibility of a parallel, more ambivalent notion of the yetzer.
Ishay’s review of Greek and Syriac sources is a landmark in understanding the nature and development of the yetzer. The parallels he presents are compelling, both regarding the yetzer’s demonic nature and the process of its internalization. But I do miss a third party to cross-cultural comparison: the Persian sources. The notorious difficulties in their dating aside, they share so many points of contact that it is a loss to exclude them from the picture. Qumranic demonology in general – the assumed origin of demonic yetzer discourse – is believed by Shaked and others to be influenced by Zoroastrianism. But more specifically: At least in the more sophisticated strata of Zoroastrian literature, demons are characterized by a negative ontology – they are non-existent and “are” non-existence. The way these demons work is not causing illness or mishaps, they are there to deny and destroy religious law and the good creation, or in Ishay’s own terms for the yetzer: sin qua sin. They enter from the outside and occupy people’s minds. And just like in patristic and rabbinic literature, if you neglect religious study you become easier prey to the demons. The development of psychological traits into reified entities is typical of Zoroastrian thought; and these demons are highly “moral”. In chapter 27 of the Bundahišn (the Iranian account of creation), e.g., they are held responsible for such vices as a-rāh (“leaving the proper path”), slander, illicit intercourse, and most prominently: wrath (xešm or aēšma – the model for talmudic Ashmeday), ultimately leading down the slippery slope to heresy. Rings a bell? Yup. These demons also cause you to entertain religious study without a teacher. This said, I am doubtful whether “moral demonology” is in fact a Judeo-Christian contribution, nor is the yeshivish/monastic perspective necessarily so. I would like to make a strong claim that we have to enlarge the demonic koine.
While I do not consider the omission of Persian sources a shortcoming per se (and to be fair, Ishay admits that he leaves these texts for “specialists in the Middle Persian language and Zoroastrian culture” [p. 12]), I do think that ‘Demonic Desires’ is facing a methodological problem here. Yishay’s approach is total analysis in order to reach bold conclusions regarding the notion’s origin and development. But these conclusions may become less reliable if you do not actually consider all relevant data. For example, he describes multiple moves of in- and externalization of the yetzer and finds that the Babylonian yetzer, with its national dimension, quite surprisingly, seems closer to the Qumranic yetzer than to the tannaitic one. Ishay speculates that an “old Jewish tradition [had been] consciously ignored by early rabbis” (p. 80). Would it not be more plausible to assume that an originally Persian concept, which had reached Qumran and from there the rabbis, was revived upon returning home?
In my eyes, the most fascinating parts of the book are the analyses of the yetzer’s functions on a meta-level. There is the yetzer as rhetorical device: certain answers to halakhic lacunae are, although theoretically acceptable, marked off as no-go territory by labeling them as the yetzer’s suggestion. Don’t even think about it – this is yetzer hara! Here we are right in the kitchen of rabbinic cultural policy: the yetzer is used to draw the boundaries of rabbinic identity where it cannot be negotiated by means of argument. Ishay points out that social “others” (heretics, philosophers, matrons, etc.) fulfill a similar function of marking “forbidden” arguments, but that the yetzer is unique in that it is never engaged through dialogue. I am tempted to understand this as: The arguments presented by the yetzer do not actually belong to any “other” that one could argue with, being factually kosher, but the rabbis do not want them to be “us”, either. Awkwardly, they are “us” that is not really “us”. If so, the same mechanism works on both the collective and the individual level: the yetzer is a part of “me” that is not really “me” (cf. p. 129). This construction is a bit unwieldy, but summarizes in the best possible way the underlying dilemma: it is exactly the yetzer that allows the rabbis to legally access not only human actions but their thoughts (s. the chapter on sexuality for this ethical “inward turn”); but it cannot be allowed to “become” a thought – and thus an integral part of “me” – because such would topple the basic positive anthropology. Is this the solution to the problem of human transgression of a society that already has a notion of personal agency and responsibility but not yet a notion of an autonomous subject (into the mind of which transgressive thoughts could be integrated)? Ishay touches here on so far almost untrodden grounds, and he rightly is careful not to use too many philosophical anachronisms. In spite of such restrictions, ‘Demonic Desires’ lays excellent ground for future inquiry into the rabbinic concept of the “self”. And in doing so, it delivers yet another desideratum: beginning to integrate rabbinic literature into Peter Brown’s account of late antiquity.
First off, I’d like to thank Shai and Yitz for asking me to contribute: unlike other participants, I’m only an amateur student of rabbinics, and it’s a great pleasure to be involved in this type of conversation around a great book.
Second, since I’d like to pick up where my review left off. In the review, I identified what I see as the book’s central move, namely shifting the context for yetzer from Hellenistic psychology (in the sense of philosophical study of the psyche) to Patristic demonology. I should say, for the little it’s worth, that the shift seems to me totally convincing.
I then raised two related questions, one internal to the book’s argument and one external. As I’m just an amateur, these will be fuzzy and philosophical — not technical or historically specific — responses.
(1) Is there a functional difference between these two discourses — do demons actually work differently than psyches, or are they just a different metaphorical register? This is a question Rosen-Zvi engages with in a number of ways, most directly when he points out that “there is no true dichotomy between character and being”—that is, between a psyche and a demon—”only a spectrum of levels of reification.”
I’d like to push the point a little: I’m not sure that some of the purported distinguishing features of demons cannot also be attributed to psychological complexes or parts of the soul. Two of those features (I think) are: that the yetzer can be defeated, that it encourages not bodily tempting sins but rather those that are specifically evil (or perhaps those which are marked as “outside” communally). But Freud thought he could cure neuroses, and I believe certain American Christians understand “Free Grace” as indicating that salvation effects a basic personality change in a person. And on the second point, not only psychological entities are bodily (Freud’s id is, but his death-drive, I think, is not), and as the death-drive illustrates, not all psychological desires are continuous with plausibly pleasurable motivations.
Now, to be clear, I’m not questioning Rosen-Zvi’s individual points about rabbinic yetzer — those seem to me astute, novel, and exciting: I’m just curious as to what’s at stake saying something like (my words), “We believe in psychology; the rabbis believed in demons” — can such a statement make a functional difference? Does Freud believe in psyches, or demons? What difference does it make? This question, of course, is a bit of a Pragmatist intervention and blends somewhat into the next one, as I’m not really worried about “whether the yetzer was a demon”: I’m not sure whether the implicit question about rabbinic ontology (what was the yetzer?) is very important at all.
(2) What’s the book’s larger intellectual project — how does Rosen-Zvi’s dispassionate historicization jive with his mentor Boyarin’s “recovery” of a usable rabbinic history? to put that question in less parochial terms, why excavate the demonological context to the yetzer now?
On this point, I’ve said a little in the review, and the question’s not so much even the mild, uncertain critique of (1) — it’s really just curiosity. Antiquarianism (in the strict Nietzschean sense) is not the most common form of socio-cultural history around today. In footnote 14 on page 136, Rosen-Zvi says something to the effect that even Foucault needs to be problematized — well, from what angle? Do we need to return to traditional questions about the nature of evil? Recognize that the rabbis were more primitive (and their concerns more remote from our own) than we’d like to believe?
Boyarin says somewhere that the goal of writing an academic book is to get people to buy onto your historical story even if they don’t share your philosophical or political agenda — i.e., to argue for a history persuasively. I think that’s right, and I’m curious is a) Rosen-Zvi does — perhaps he takes a more positivist line about discovering the past? and b) if so, what are those commitments? I think that though Boyarin’s right to say that the point of writing history is to persuade the unsympathetic reader (and thus appeals to the commitments are invalid in the argument itself), readers still ought to know (or at least are going to be curious!) what those commitments are.