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What is the ‘evil inclination’?

The common definition for the ‘evil inclination’ is: the urge to do evil; the totality of baser tendencies within a person.

  1. A.   One’s Baser Tendencies

The common and intuitive definition for the concept of the ‘evil inclination’ is: the urge to do evil; the totality of baser tendencies that one finds within himself – the tendencies towards sin, destruction, jealousy, anger,  lust, and so on.

Let us delve more deeply into this definition.  There are different opinions about the source of these baser tendencies.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the 18th century philosopher, argued that man is essentially good, and that which makes him evil is the society in which he lives.   He even coined a term for the purpose of his argument: the ‘noble savage’.  In his opinion, the Native American Indians or the black tribes of Africa were much better people than the residents of the cities of Europe, since the hand of civilization had not yet touched them- thus covetousness, contentiousness, purposeful destructiveness, and a whole array of other negative qualities are nonexistent among them.  It is on the basis of this argument that Rousseau wrote an optimistic book on the ideal form of education, yet it is interesting to note that he himself failed completely in the education of his own children, sending them off one after the other to be adopted.  In any case, in a theoretical sense, his work is based on the attractive assumption that man is, by nature, good.

Contrary to this, there are those who claim that man is essentially evil, a savage beast.  This is also said in the Book of Job (11:12): “…let he who is a wild ass be reborn as a man…”, or in Latin: homo homini lupus (man is to man like a wolf).  In their opinion, if there is any hope for the transformation and rectification of man, it lies specifically in the values of society.  Sigmund Freud described the process necessary for change in a more detailed manner: man is born with unrestrained and unconscious urges towards bloodshed and incest which are given civilized forms as society restrains these baser tendencies by way of punishment, fear, de-legitimization, and strict behavioral codes.  That is to say, moral values, in Freud’s opinion, are not to be found in the depths of the human psyche, but rather stem from social coercion – this is the exact opposite of Rousseau’s approach.

A third opinion, popular among contemporary psychologists, is that man is neither good nor evil by nature.  Rather, he is a tabula rasa- a blank sheet.  Whatever is written on him is what will be.

There exists a forth opinion on this matter – that of our Sages – who claim that man is both good and evil by nature.  In the Talmudic tractate Berachot the Midrash asks: Why is it that during the description of the creation of man in the Book of Genesis the Hebrew word for ‘create’ (וייצר) is written with the letter yod twice, whereas in the description of the creation of animals, in the same word, the yod only appears once?  The Midrash answers: this is a hint at the two creations that are in Man – the ‘good inclination’ (יצר הטוב) and the ‘evil inclination’ (יצר הרע).  Both inclinations are intrinsic in man, neither comes from without.    Man cannot shake free of the darker forces that he finds in his soul and argue that they are some foreign element that has nested in him, and on the other hand, one cannot argue against him that his good aspirations are the result of societal and educational influences alone.

This understanding – that both inclinations are intrinsic in man – is cause for relief.  When the moral person gazes in his own soul and finds dark forces there he is startled and may even bow to despair or fear.  Yet our sages assure him: Do not worry; this is how G-d created you, with these different forces running about inside of you.  This is how you are meant to be.  You are not expected to act according to those baser forces, but be assured that in a very natural way they are a part of you.

Already at this stage one can see the enormous difference between the view of our Sages and the view of Christianity.  The Christian view sees in the baser tendencies as a curse, born in Original Sin, and as a result man is unwanted by G-d.  But our sages argue that this was the original intention in the creation of Man.  Accordingly, the individual, along with all of his inclinations, is desirable as far as G-d is concerned.  This argument removes all guilt feelings that accompany the baser tendencies: If man was created like this he need not feel ashamed.

  1. B.   Love of this world

Yet if we check these baser tendencies we find that most of them have a common element.  Let us try to imagine a man without the urge to eat, without the desire for money, without jealousy, or without anger.  Such an individual would not feed himself as he should, would not care for his own livelihood, would not strive to advance in society, and would not discover in himself his own unique personality.  His life-forces would dwindle and become weak.  In other words: the root of most of our negative tendencies is in actuality something positive – love of this world.

Love of this world is an important element in our human identity.  By way of love for this world, man strikes roots in reality and does not run away from it.  Man has a spiritualist tendency that might cause him to abandon being involved in worldly matters and even to be revolted by them, yet love of this world acts as a ‘weight’ pulling man down and creating in him the motivation to engage the world.  This is what the Sages explain in Kohelet Rabah (3 :16): “Rabbi Binyamin said in the name of Rabbi Levi: ‘and the world too he gave in their heart’- love of the world he gave in their hearts.”  In several places we find them emphasizing the importance of the evil inclination in this context.  Take, for example, the Midrash in B’reishit Rabah (9:7):

“R. Nachman b. Shmuel in the name of Rav Shmuel b. Nachman said: ‘here it was very good’ – this is the good inclination, ‘here it was very good’ – this is the evil inclination.  And is the evil inclination very good?  Strange!  Rather – if it not for the evil inclination man would never build a home, would never marry, would never heave children, and would never enter business negotiations.”

The person who lacks an evil inclination, who lacks love for this world, is in danger – and needs a doctor or psychologist immediately.  Thus, the very fact that one wishes to eat is not evil at all.  This is a natural tendency of the soul, and it behooves one to desire to fulfill the inclinations of the soul.

Together with this, however, love of this world may bring one into the hands of sin – to exaggerate and overreach the bounds of morality – and for this reason it is known as the ‘evil inclination’.  A healthy individual is born and grows with a great love for this world, yet if he navigates his life solely on this basis he will, in the end, reach an imbalance and perform evil deeds.   Yet the diagnosis with which we opened is extremely important: the forces in themselves are positive; it is the evil act that is evil.

The early Christians diverged from the way of our sages in this matter as well.  They saw in the fact that man was drawn to this world an existential disaster.  Paul claimed that the evil inclination was a demon found in man, a ‘thorn in the flesh’, and thus the possibility of man’s redemption on his own accord was impossible.  Instead, one must wait for divine intervention to redeem him from his condition.  This worldview is necessarily pessimistic and gives rise to hatred towards this world.

In contrast to this view, the sages guided man to establish a pact between the good inclination and the evil inclination in order that the two might balance one another.  The Sages read the passage “And you shall love the Lord your G-d with all of your heart and all of your soul and all of your might (Deuteronomy 6:5)” as implying “with all of your heart – with both of your inclinations, the good and the bad (Berachot 54a)”.  One must serve G-d with both inclinations, for if he were to serve with only one inclination he would lose all balance.

The Maharal of Prague (prominent Jewish Kabbalist and scholar, 1520 – 1612) explains that there are some things in our reality that have no value in and of themselves but do have value when they are used as preparation for something else.  So too with the evil inclination – it has no purpose in and of itself, but is beneficial insofar as it allows for and advances life in this world.  Without the evil inclination, one would be constantly linked to G-d but would be unable to establish a base and strike roots in this world.

  1. C.   The tension between worlds

In another place, the Maharal offers a new understanding of the concept ‘evil inclination’.  The Maharal opens his words with a painful question: Why is it that all created things act in accordance with their inherent level of virtue, while the people of Israel, who were graced with special virtues, fall again and again to lowliness and to the evil inclination?

After a prolonged analysis of the question from various sides, the Maharal brings the words of the Talmud in the tractate of Sukkah (52a) where it is declared that as one advances in the rungs of holiness, so too the evil inclination grows stronger in order to cause one to fail in his advance.

Yet what is the evil inclination, and why does it grow stronger?  According to the Maharal, the evil inclination is not an independent entity – some dark demon with featherless wings, horns, and a pitchfork.  Rather, it represents the tension that is formed as a result of the existence of two worlds: the natural world, and the transcendental world.  In order to better explain this claim, let us look at the following experiment from the world of physics:  When we spread out a tablecloth on a large table and then try to pinch and lift it from its central point, we find that, due to atmospheric pressure, it remains stuck to the table.  If we may translate this experiment into more colorful language, we might say that nature hates deviations.  The natural world has a tendency towards uniformity and equal application of rules.  The moment that a given element tries to stray from the norm, it becomes subject to a system of pressures that attempt to bring it back to its place.

So too with man and holiness:  Man was created in the image of G-d, and the image of G-d is a foreign element in the natural world.  Therefore, when man tries to express himself as an image of G-d, nature pulls him down and humiliates him.  As one rises in the rungs of holiness – man, the people of Israel, talmidei chachamim (Torah scholars) – the tension becomes more pronounced, and the downfall that may result will be more severe.

This is the exact meaning of the Kabbalistic term sitra achra, whose literal translation is ‘the other side’.  The other side of what?  It turns out that we are talking about the other side of kedusha, holiness.  The sitra achra is not an independent entity; rather it is the other side of the same coin, the other side of the ‘good inclination’.  At the very moment one decides to advance and deviate from the natural environment in which he is engulfed, a new force is born in him that expresses a strong will to cling to natural reality.  This is the deeper source of the evil inclination.

When we accept the Maharal’s definition that the evil inclination is in fact the tension that exists between the natural world and the transcendental world we immediately arrive at a further definition:  Since the natural world is governed by strict laws while freedom of will exists in the transcendental world (insofar as this is an extension of the freedom of G-d), the evil inclination is, then, the tension that exists between slavery and freedom.  In other words: the inclination to sin is really the demand for slavery in the soul of man.  When one succumbs to the evil inclination, he is requesting slavery.

This definition is surprising since in most cases the evil inclination brings arguments that are themselves based on the concept of freedom (“Do whatever you want”) while the arguments against this are based in structure and rules (“Do this and don’t do that”).  In truth, however, surrender to the evil inclination comes about as the individual proves to himself that he is incapable of standing before worldly temptation, that he is not free, and thus he is not to blame.  The moment the individual removes the responsibility from himself, he gives it to someone else, thereby affirming the definition: he is as a slave. 

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About Rabbi Oury Cherki

Rabbi Oury Cherki
Rav Oury Cherki was born in Algeria in 1959 and grew up in France, and he made Aliyah in 1972. He studied at Merkaz Harav Yeshiva, which was founded by Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook. He performed his military service in the artillery branch of the IDF. He studied with Rav Tzvi Yehuda Kook, Rav Yehuda Leon Ashkenazi (Manitou), Rav Shlomo Binyamin and Achlag. Rav Cherki heads the Israeli department of Machon Meir, and he is the Director of Brit Olam - the Noahide World Center.He teaches in many places throughout Israel. Rav Cherki is the spiritual leader of the "Beth Yehuda" community in Kiryat Moshe (Jerusalem). He has written many books on Jewish thought and philosophy.

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