Book Club, English, Recent Publications, Reviews

The Book Club: Ishay Rosen-Zvi’s Demonic Desires


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!

Amit Gvaryahu:

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.

Eva Kiesele:

‘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.

Raphael Magarik

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.


18 thoughts on “The Book Club: Ishay Rosen-Zvi’s Demonic Desires

  1. Great job people! We have a really nice collection of sophisticated thoughts on the book.

    I’d like to pick up with something that Amit sharpened in his interpretation of the book, and then relate that to some others. You are excited about the way Ishay isolates a certain “koine” of late antiquity, and specific articulations of that koine in different cultures, all more or less bound together by a shared textual (the Bible) and cultural heritage (something built off of “classical” Greek speculation, to varying extents, and with varying amalgamations). You correctly point out that to a certain extent, especially re: the textual base, this leaves the Zoroastrians out of the koine.

    An interest of all of you, and especially Raffi, is the actual purpose of this book, and the main assumptions Ishay is working with. As some note, Ishay here and elsewhere is something of a genealogist in the post-nietzschian sense. He is trying to chart the evolution of a certain set of beliefs and thought processes that define a particular archaeological “stratum” (or koine, if you will). Strangely, though I believe correctly, Amit points out that the result of this genealogy, which concludes long before modernity, is a chasmic break between “modern” beliefs, like psychology, and late antique (and medieval) ones, which remind us that the past is a distant country. This has the effect of rendering the rabbis irrelevant for understanding “the way we live now” – though surely this is an unintended consequence. Anyone aware of the current cultural battles between waged, for instance, in the State of Israel knows that the development of the rabbinic yetzer in late antiquity does much to explain the way things are now, including people on both sides of the current cultural debate.

    From my (and Eva’s) perspective there is a real problem with constructing a totalizing genealogy that only reads certain textual corpora (which are supposedly part of a particular koine). It is not simply that the Zoroastrians are fun and should not be left out. I should add that when we think of religious communities outside of the textual orbit of “Judeo-Christianity” we are not only dealing with Zoroastrians. We have all sorts of “pagans” in the West , and religious communities in the East – like Mandaeans and Manichaeans (who do include certain figures from Christianity in their heirarchies / pantheons, but are in no real sense Christianities). It is that the purpose of a genealogy is to subvert the common assumptions about the meaning of certain terms and mentalities and their history. If you only read the texts that are obviously already part of the koine (in this case those which make up Judaism and Christianity across its expansive variety), you are in a sense reproducing the ideology of the mentality and term. Reading for koine will unsurprisingly result in confirming the koine.

    Eva points out how Zoroastrianism has very important things to say about desire, demons, and “psychological” tendencies. For fun I’ll cite a Sogdian fragment of a Manichaean confessino that nicely represents a Manichaean view of import for Ishay’s project. Try to get past the different (in this case, Iranian) terminology of a different “koine” to see how an external and internal demon are envisioned:

    The Closing (’nwyj’mndy) of the Five Gates: Also in the closing of the five
    gates I was not perfect. As he taught in scripture, “What is the profit of that
    Righteous One who says ‘I possess power in my limbs,’ when he is ruined
    through his eyes, ears and other limbs as well?” Thus, if I (have left open) my
    eyes to sight, my ears to sound, my nose to smell, my mouth to improper food
    and ugly speech, and my hands to improper contact and touch; and the demonic
    Az, who has built this body and enclosed herself within it, produces indeed
    through these five gates constant strife; she brings the inner demons together
    with the outer ones, between which a portion is destroyed daily; if I
    thus should have kept my gates open and Azshould have provoked all of the
    desire-affected spiritual demons, so that the soul-treasure (rw’nyh gr’myy), the
    living self (gryw jywndg), goes astray from me: for all these things, forgiveness!

    What would this genealogy have looked like if it also surveyed those late antique communities who were in contact with Jews and Christians and yet also speculated on a kind of “evil desire” but did so beyond the Judeo-Christian orbit? I suspect we would have a vastly different answer. The problem is, which scholar out there is equipped to undertake such a heroic project.

    • Concerning the rabbinic ‘koine’ and the question of the corpora studied; one thing I like in the book is the attention given to poetic materials (i.e. Aramaic and Hebrew liturgical poems). One would hope to find in such a monograph a more comprehensive treatment of the subject matter in contemporary liturgical poetry, but this is a good start…

  2. Eva Kiesele says:

    Raphael, I would like to get back to your first question, whether demons and psyches work differently or are just a “different metaphorical register” (I like that term!). I think we need to distinguish between three different levels: a) the phenomena in human behavior, b) the causal pattern we place a certain act into (our explanatory framework), and c) the terminology we use to describe the act and its causes. To my understanding, human beings are phenomenologically extremely similar both on the “horizontal” (geographical) axis as well as on the “vertical” axis of time [as may be inferred from the insight that our emotional apparatus has not evolved considerably over the past 10000 years – which is why we are still able to relate to plots like the Gilgamesh epos]. Humans “sin” (according to their specific definition), desire etc. quite universally, and we could explain their acts in countless different frameworks – Freudian, neurological, demonic, fate, whatever you wish. So while a) is rather universal, levels b) and c) are highly dependent on specific cultural settings in time and space. The distinction between demons and psyche (or: inclinations/parts of the soul etc.) is certainly on level c) – linguistic representation or “metaphoric register” –, but also on b), and this is the jumping point, i.e., their functional difference.
    Let’s assume one of our late antique fellows transgressed one of his community’s rules – he sinned. He will now ask himself (or others will ask him), Why did I/you do this? If he believes in an entirely positive creation, he is facing a serious problem: I was created as an entirely positive being, within an entirely positive framework of rules – it does not make any sense that I have done this! His first urge will be to say, Wasn’t me! Something rushed upon me and made me do it! That is the demonological model. A sin is believed to be a contingent act, caused by an external entity. Your fault is that you allowed that thing to rush upon you. Grave as that is, but hey, we all forget to apply mosquito repellent from time to time (the yetzer repellent: talmud torah). In a psychological model, on the other hand, the thing that causes you to sin is an integral part of yourself. It might not always dominate you, but in principle sin is not contingent anymore: you sin because you are a flawed being. The Greek/Christian/gnostic model of blaming the body is a slightly half-baked attempt to still externalize sin although the source of it is already unseparable from you: It was my body, but my body is not what really defines me. [A contemporary leftover of that attitude can be seen in people with a strong psychology taboo: They would have much less of a problem being diagnosed with a metabolic dysfunction causing hallucinations and getting proper pills – making it “bodily” – than being told they are paranoid and have to undergo bothersome therapy sessions – rendering it “spiritual”.] Only in a third model, when humans are defined as autonomous, i.e. they are positive beings in their very capacity to sin, there is no longer a need to externalize sin – unless you want to give up on the premise that human beings are good by nature (a no-go for the rabbis). But such a model is not yet in place in Late Antiquity.

    • This way of thinking is precisely what is needed when constructing a genealogy of a yetzer that points forward! So for example, the division between the rabbinic demonic yetzer who is subdued through intensive Torah study, the advice of nineteenth century mussar works to drown desire in lamdus, and perhaps even the evangelical suggestion to throw oneself into school work to eliminate desire for premarital sex can be profitably looked at as a single constellation of phenonema – some of which have genetic, historical connections. As long as we are clear regarding the three categories (a-c) that you set down.

  3. Ok, there’s an enormous amount here (and I’m sorry that my scattered thoughts will take the conversation in a number of fragmentary directions). I’d like to start by registering that I think Eva put good pressure on a number of places where the argument seems to under-read (the connection between sexuality and self-presentation, the underestimation of the dual-yetzer model…). Now, a couple of new thoughts.

    1. Eva, I think your distinction between a) human behavior and practices and b) discourses around that behavior is good (I’ll ignore b and c for my purposes) — my question is just, “do the differences in b result in differences in a, or are they just rival languages for making sense of practices that are largely the same?” Was lamdus at Slobodka somehow practiced differently than was torah-learning in the demonological texts Rosen-Zvi discusses?

    As to the question of different yetzers and “libertarianism” about evil choices (which I take to be your central answer to how psychology is a chiddush), I’m curious how Rosen-Zvi’s treatment of the Bible (which he takes to assign total responsibility to people for their evil deeds), fits into your argument that the newness of psychology is the total responbility of the self with all of its actions.

    [Interestingly, by the way, Shai’s last comment raises (at least to me) the question of sex again: to what extent is the “throw yourself into schoolwork to avoid sex” in contemporary evangelical America class-oriented. That is, what distinguishes classes sociologically in the US is primarily how early people have kids (and thus, generally, cease their educations). Sin, in a puritan context, often has to do with not working hard enough or not moving up class-wise. I mention this because this is clearly a place where “torah” means something different in different cultures]

    2. Shai, though I cannot claim to understand what’s driving the text you’ve brought, I am struck by the thematization of the boundaries between externality and internality (through sensory organs), which reminds me of Butler’s notorious description of internal organs as “folded-in pockets of exteriority” — and seems potentially self-conscious about the kind of questions that Demonic Desires raises!

    3. Though this last piece may seem remote from the discussion, I feel like, at least when we’re in the psychological/philosophical side of the discussion (and not the historical/textual side), Peter Carruther’s work on the translucency of our own minds is probably an important intertext. Enjoy:

    • Eva Kiesele says:

      Raphael, two brief clarifications because I think you misunderstood me a bit:
      1. On purpose, I tried to avoid post-structuralist vocabulary because I honestly find it a little too nebulous sometimes. I did not mean to distinguish between practices and discourses, but rather, my level a) was intended to designate single actions (“Zach ate a cheeseburger”, “Gregory made love to his pregnant wife”) and not practices (“[the way of] studying Torah”). I am certain that lamdus at Slobodka was very different from early rabbinic Torah study, and yes, such practices are likely to be influenced by our assumptions about the world – trivial example: do you encourage/practice fasting at school (psychologist body-blamers) or not (monistic demonologists). The distinction between b) and c) I deemed important insofar as it reflects Amit’s wording of “a Jewish dialect within a broader koine”: patristic and rabbinic literature share very similar explanatory frameworks (the koine, b), but they come in different garb (the dialect, c).
      2. The psychological model has nothing to do with libertarianism, on the contrary. In both settings, the evil nature of sin is nonnegotiable. But psychology presents man in much dimmer light. The source of sin is in man himself – as I said, he becomes a flawed being. [Much later psychology became a necessary basis for re-integrating an “autonomous” self into religion (under some friction) – first steps maybe in the Rambam’s rationalization of halakha, and then in post-Kantian theology.]

      3. The Bible does assign total responsibility to people for their evil deeds, I agree – but so does rabbinic literature! (It is full of liability discussions, no? The only exception where the yetzer actually exonerates is in women, who are simply determined by external forces anyways.) That is exactly the fascinating dichotomy: The notion of responsibility seems to be much older than any notion of “independent” decision-making. We are so used to base (in maybe more Aristotelian fashion?) “responsibility” on (“liberal”) “freedom of choice” but that is not how they thought. To both the Bible and to the rabbis, there is choice – but whenever you choose option B instead of A, you somewhat drop out of the system. It is an extremely asymmetrical model.

      • A) I never meant, by the distinction between practices and discourses, to invoke post-structuralism — quite the opposite, I was just asking whether or not demonological patterns of thought carry over into behavior. Of course language is an instance of behavior — but in my mind, it’s only an important one to the extent it relates to and causes other behaviors.

        B) I thought that Rosen Zvi basically saw the yetzer as the combination of biblical libertarianism and second-temply dualisms. In the latter, there really is less responsibility assigned to humans for sins (as their sins reflect the cosmic evil principle at work), no? And thus somehow, the demonological model, insofar as it partakes (even vesitigially) of that cosmic dualism, does work differently than modern psychology. So, for that matter, does the hellenistic body-soul model — for if sins don’t “really” reflect the person, but only his lower, secondary parts, then evil is not essentially human. My original point was to note that the Bible didn’t seem to accept any of these distancing methods — rather, sin seemed to be generated from human beings directly. That is, “a psychological model, on the other hand, the thing that causes you to sin is an integral part of yourself,” doesn’t seem so modern — it seems Biblical.

        C) I’d be eager to hear more philological conversation, just as I am eager to watch more expert rock climbers attempt to free-climb El Cap. In neither case would it be a good idea for me to be the one to try and do the thing in question.

  4. Daniel Boyarin says:

    I’d like to comment a bit on one of Eva’s arguments. She writes:
    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.”

    I’m afraid that she has totally misunderstood this passage (unless I have totally misunderstood either her or the passage, a distinct possibility. The point of the passage is not that the yetzer is necessary for life but that the yetzer is strengthened and most strong when it is denied something, most powerful in its desire for the forbidden (See Paul in Romans for this idea as well). Once the person for whom water is forbidden (presumably some ancient medical practice) is offered water, his thirst leaves him; on the other hand, the daughter who is not given water dies (not clear whether from thirst or from the yetzer which was getting stronger and stronger with the continued denial). I just don’t see here (my own hypothesized dialectical yetzer). I’m inclined to see R-Z as much more correct than not in this work. After all the primary sense of dialectic is זה בונה וזה סוטר, כך דרכה של תורה.
    On the question of cultural context. Obviously there is no doubt that the more relevant context the better, but it is starting to be a tiresome litany with regard to every piece of rabbinic scholarship that it is defective owing to its lack of citation of Iranological material. Is the point that we should all just stop until we have all become Middle Persian scholars (and for some of us it is impossibly late, having wasted our time reading Patristics in Greek and Syriac)? I welcome an intervention such as Shai’s which positively shows or corrects some point in the research out of his expertise. That’s the way we will have to work but no one will know everything, not now, not in the future. Those who become expert in Pehlevi (may their numbers increase) will probably have less time to read John Chrysostom. Those who do both of those will have less time to read Byzantine piyyut in Greek, Syriac, Palestinian Christian Aramaic, and Jewish Aramaic. Scholarship will increasingly be collaborative, whether formally or through the production of texts which will be supplemented by others’ texts.
    (Perhaps a bit polemical in tone but meant to be a positive contribution to a stimulating discussion)

    • Eva Kiesele says:

      Ouch, thanks for this refreshing dose of pure acid. Yes, you have misunderstood me. First and foremost my “tiresome litany” about the lack of Persian sources. My point was entirely methodological: A limited scope of sources allows for limited questions, but not for comprehensive genealogy. Ishay’s claim that “moral demonology” is a Jewish-Christian innovation is possibly too big for his set of sources. A more general thought: An intrinsic danger to all cultural comparison is parallelomania. – Is it a possible remedy to consider more than two corpora of literature – once you see a broader spectrum, you pay more attention to the fine distinctions? (By the way, Demonic Desires does a great job in pointing out fine distinctions.) And how do we know where the boundaries of the relevant koine are?

      As for the passage in yYoma, I would like to read it with you:

      >> The point of the passage is […] that the yetzer is strengthened and most strong when it is denied something, most powerful in its desire for the forbidden

      This is obviously the point of the mishna, and also of its explanation.

      >> Once the person for whom water is forbidden (presumably some ancient medical practice) is offered water, his thirst leaves him;

      The existence of such suicidal ancient practice I will believe as soon as you show me some proof, else I tend towards Shai’s reading that the episode takes place on Yom Kippur (although it is not explicated in the text). Still, who would ever forbid a seriously ill person to drink on Yom Kippur? The story is a borderline case.

      >> on the other hand, the daughter who is not given water dies (not clear whether from thirst or from the yetzer which was getting stronger and stronger with the continued denial)

      A. This episode does not take place on Yom Kippur (they are on the market!), there is no halakhic reason not to give her some water. Weird. B. Her dying from the yetzer is not in the text. Moreover, I am not aware of any source where someone dies from increasing yetzer; the yetzer killed sages in the temple, but you don’t seem to die from it just so, מן הסתם. And the final story about R. Aha would be out of place if she had died from her yetzer. I conclude she died from thirst.

      Can we agree that this little passage has the following structure?

      [A] yetzer grows stronger when denied, it is desire for the forbidden
      [B] children die when denied to drink
      [C] R. Aha sends the parents among his congregation home to take care of their children

      This structure is: thesis – antithesis – synthesis. And, as my (confessedly poor) Greek informs me, this is the classical understanding of dialectics – the art of letting two opposing voices speak and coming to a conclusion. The passage thus confronts us with a dialectical *set-up*. The crucial question is: to what extent is the yetzer involved? You read, and I also tend to read, that the daughter’s plea is triggered by her yetzer. But in that case the yetzer becomes part of the antithesis. In principle, I see two options here: Either, “the desire to drink” is explicitly excluded from the yetzer’s activities (but drinking on Yom Kippur would be yetzer, friction!); or the yetzer serves some positive function here. I would love to hear your thoughts on this.

      • Wooah. Since I’m officially the MC around here I just want to keep the rhetoric in check (if you’re watching Srugim season 3 – I don’t want a talmudic equivalent of that great poet’s brawl the other night) I don’t see acid here, and in fact room for real and robust dialogue – which in any case has still taken place.
        Ok, please continue with regular programming

  5. Thanks for your comments!
    I assume, by the way, that in the Yerushalmi drinking is forbidden because it is Yom Kippur.

    Just to clarify, my purpose was not to be the perpetual Persian parrot (!) ever-chirping “Iran Iran”. I was following Eva’s critique about the book’s allegedly totalizing argument, and explaining why I thought it is particularly problematic in this case. For a genealogy to really subvert accepted wisdom, it cannot only reread the texts recognized in the academic “canon” and provide new (and even brilliant) readings. In a way, this merely reproduces the “canonically” accepted wisdom. Particularly in a work that wishes to present a new broad and fundamental claim about the development of the yetzer hara, one cannot ignore the textual traditions of communities like the Manichaeans, who were quite preoccupied with the issue. For a variety of reasons, that canon remains beyond much current history of religions scholarship, yet that is precisely why it should be at least partially incorporated here. Crucially, Manichaeaism is not an Iranian phenomenon alone and was incredibly influential throughout late antiquity. More importantly, one need not read through all the primarily material alone. There is a good deal of great secondary literature on the topic. (Incidentally, my quote came from Jason BeDuhn’s masterful “The Manichaean Body”).
    And yes, when it comes to the Bavli and Babylonian Judaism, I will don my parrot mask and say that IF one wants to make a broad and fundamental genealogical claim, it is necessary to at least survey what is going on in other late antique Mesopotamian and west Iranian religious literatures.

  6. Daniel Boyarin says:

    So. First of all, I think that Eva mistook my tone somewhat. It is notoriously difficult to communicate tone in online conversation. I had felt my communique might be taken as more combative than I meant it, so put in a disclaimer but it didn’t work. My tone, I would have hoped, would have been perceived more like a heated exchange between folks studying a text in a Bet Midrash than an acid bath.
    Back to the Yerushalmi. I think that part of the problem here is that none of us is actually providing their reading of the text. If there is one thing that I think I may pride myself on, it is that I don’t base arguments on a text until I have analyzed it and presented my analysis (I’m not criticizing Eva on this score, but I am suggesting that I have little idea of how you read the text–even now.)
    Let me attempt to put my money where my mouth is, as it were. This is not meant as a fully considered and worked out reading but more like an oral communication in a havruta.
    The proposition of the text is that forbidding something makes the yetzer stronger. That is well illustrated by the first story. I like the idea that we are talking about YK. That makes perfect sense. In that case, there is actually no reason to assume that R. Haggai was sick; he was weak from the fast.
    How do the next two moves in the text fit in? One possibility is that they don’t. This goes, in part, to the heart of the query about the redaction of the Yerushalmi. We should at least entertain the possibility that we’ve simply got a mini-collection of stories about thirst here. On the other hand, I prefer the attempt to over-read. If the story about the man in the shuk is actually relevant and not just merely an add-in, then presumably it is meant to illustrate something about the yetzer. I assume from the way that the story is told that the father was not denying the daughter drink for some ideological reason but he was rushing about his business and just telling the child (as we all do sometimes): just a minute, just a minute….The story then only makes sense in context if its point is that her yetzer kept getting stronger and stronger owing to the denial until she died of it. If this reading is deemed improbable, then, I suggest, that we have only a mini-anthology, ending with a paranetic point. Either way I fail to see a dialectical approach to the yetzer (But, of course, I’m open to hearing other readings).
    It may be interesting to note that I once heard R. Mordecai Gifter זצ”ל speak at a wedding in Telz in which he made the argument that the avrekhim must go home in the afternoon to care for their children and help their wives. His argument was based on the terms of the ketubba but I suspect that this Yerushalmi was in the background.
    OK reading the Talmud in Iran. I have no doubt, and would not be heard otherwise, that more and more study of late-ancient Iranian culture in all of its varieties will yield important results for understanding particular passages of the Talmud, as well as for accounting for larger movements within Babylonian rabbinic culture. My argument is that it is futile to complain of a given scholar that she has not mastered this or that corpus of important texts. What Yishay did in the book was to carefully read rabbinic texts that have been sloppily conflated ideologically and demonstrate how different the different strata are, that a particular conception that we have taken to be a virtual universal (either among humans or, in this case, between Rabbis) is, in fact, the product of a particular historical development (which, itself, may or may not be explicable in terms of context). This was illuminated in part by an important set of comparanda. Go ahead and supplement, correct, amplify details, and if the data warrant it, show that his argument is wrong and something fundamental has been missed or distorted by not reading the Zand, or the Manichean codex, or Mandaean literature (which I, for one, have read already in graduate school; I was impressed with how similar the Aramaic was to that of the Bavli, and how rich and fascinating the texts are, but don’t remember that I experienced it as particularly illuminating for the Bavli). In a lecture that I’m set to deliver next year, אם ירצה ה’, I hope to present some sort of a model for thinking about Babylonian Jewish rabbinic culture as a diasporic culture, as almost the perfect type of a diasporic culture.
    Meanwhile, be well all. This forum is a blessing.
    I actually know how easily such forums are “killed” by flaming and am sorry if I was taken as a flamer.

  7. Eva Kiesele says:

    All right, then I am glad I just misunderstood, and apologize for my harsh reaction. I’ll try to explain my reading a little better, and jump right into the question of redaction. The fact that we all began to speculate whether R. Haggai’s sickness occurs on Yom Kippur and whether the daughter died from her yetzer is proof enough to me that this passage is redacted: Neither is said in the text, instead we carried with us information from the opening line and imposed it on the following parts. That could hardly have happened if the passage were just some random collection. We perceived a continuous thread throughout these stories, and thus we all fell into the redactor’s trap. Hence I wish to make sense of this passage as a whole, as a literary unit. I will read in unpleasantly pedantic manner, the reader may forgive:
    The opening line connects mYom 6:4 to the yetzer, and forces on it the principle of desire for the forbidden (the mishna itself could be understod as: לייפות את כוחו – in expectancy of a great meal after the fast). The story about R. Haggai does not actually say that forbidding something makes the yetzer stronger; in fact it says only that offering water makes thirst (the desire to drink) cease. This links back to the mishna, and thus we readily buy into our story also the principle imposed on the mishna: the desire to drink is yetzer, and it grows stronger when drinking is forbidden. (The only slight hint that drinking might be forbidden in this story is the word שרית – no Yom Kippur, no yetzer, no growing in the text.) The second episode connects to “offering water makes thirst cease.” But it comes not to reinforce this statement but rather as its complement: “not offering water causes death.” Together these two episodes present two sides of the same coin: the shared initial condition is that someone wants to drink; there are two possible reactions (allowing to drink forbidding to drink) and two respective outcomes (thirst ceases, person lives person dies). Now, that I am ready to argue about but I believe that the second outcome is disapproved of. That we are supposed to disapprove of #2 is supported by the addition of yet a third episode: People are being sent home on a holiday in order to take care of their children – and thanks to the redaction we infer: …lest they die. Action shall be taken in order to prevent outcome #2. The jumping point is, to my understanding: If action shall be taken to prevent outcome #2, that implies that reaction #1 shall be chosen. In its very limited sense: Give in to the desire – i.e. the desire to drink, in this particular setting – in order to sustain life.
    So much for the logical structure of this passage. Now we have this yetzer hovering above it, and the implications crucially hinge upon how much yetzer we want to read into it. Our natural inclination was to charge the entire passage with the yetzer – and I wonder if such has been the purpose of its compilers. But if we do so, the result is: “not offering the yetzer to drink causes death.” We can tone this implication down if we take the yetzer out of the thirst episodes – this minimalist conclusion would be “not every desire/urge is yetzer, cf. thirst.” (Whence my reading of this passage as anti-ascetic.) The maximalist conclusion would be: “yetzer alerts you (inter alia) to what you need in order to survive.”

    • Daniel Boyarin says:

      Without wishing to pour on any acid, let me just say that I could not disagree more with your reading here; I’ve laid out mine in the previous email, and folks can pick and choose either or neither. What is more to the point is the methodological issue. The fact that we are searching for coherence does not in the slightest way imply that there is coherence “there” in the text, i.e., that it has been “redacted.” That argument is, in fact, totally circular. The coherence lies in the activity of readers and either is convincing as a reading of the text or not to other readers. What I do think that this text conveys–and this is perhaps problematic for Yishay–is yetzer as desire, per se. The only reason to see this as taking place on YK is the word “permitted” as you have said, so it needs to be an occasion in which drinking water would normally be forbidden.
      Be well

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