Reader Post: The Yetzer Hara And The Yetzer Tov

FB image loI’m beginning to understand what Ezekiel meant when he said “The Hand of the Lord was upon me. . .”

“Thou shalt love thy God with all thy soul, all thy heart and all thy might. . .”

The creators of the Talmud deduced from this portion of the Sh’ma (as with all Jewish prayer; a quote from the Torah) to mean that included what they understood to be the Yetzer Hara – the inclination to do evil (the complement to the Yetzer Tov – the inclination to do good). The Yetzer Tov alone was insufficient. All meant ALL. They said. “Without the Yetzer Hara, no fields would be planted and no children would be born.” The task was to make the Yetzer Hara subservient to the Yetzer Tov.

“Upon three things (lit. words) does the (continued) existence of the World depends. Torah (study of/perpetuation of), Avodah (prayer – see note below) and acts of Lovingkindness”

This is the basis of R. Shmuley Boteach’s book “Kosher Sex.” To treat your partner not as a vessel or a chattel or service animal, but as an equal “B’Tselem Elohim” (created, same as you, in the Divine Image.) In this way, sex is made “holy” “sacred”. The Yetzer Hara is made to serve the Yetzer Tov.

I read and watch lots of science and sociology stuff, and I was struck at how this ancient insight, into the dimorphic nature of human behavior, comports with our modern understanding of the functioning of the mid-brain (cerebrum) and the fore-brain (cerebellum.) A recent book that opened my eyes to this (and which I strongly recommend you purchase and read) is Jonathan Haidt’s “The Righteous Mind.”

His central metaphor is the Elephant and its Rider. Our mid-brain, the Elephant, controls our emotions and “instinctive” reactions (approach/avoid) and our fore-brain, the Rider, (our vaunted intellect) creates the rationalizations and explanations to justify our “feelings.”

Do a Google search for <brain imaging and behavior>

There is even a scientific journal dedicated to this field of research

But Yetzers and Inclinations don’t satisfy me much, so I began looking for a better metaphor. What I came up with (h/t Martin Buber) is the dynamic between “self” and “other.”

I understand the Yetzer Hara to represent the exclusive promotion/advancement of the “self” while the Yetzer Tov is the acceptance of the “other” to the extent of promoting/advancing it at the expense of the “self.” It is not a hard and fast boundary. My brother is less my “self” than I am, but more my “self” than my neighbor. My neighbor is more my “self” than someone who lives in a different country and so on.

There is a reductionist view that the Yetzer Tov is just a manifestation of the Yetzer Hara. “Enlightened Self-Interest.” Even if it is true, I reject it for reasons I state in the 2nd note below.

What is required is to find the proper balance between these two Yetzers. Hillel said “If I am not for myself; then who will be for me? (If I have no yetzer hara I will cease to exist – humans only exist in groups where its members are fore each other). If I am only for myself; then what am I? (If I am all yetzer hara, then I am simply another kind of animal). And, if not now, when?” (interpolations mine)

As the Buddhists have taught us, it is always now. The thing to do is to find and maintian the balance as each now becomes the next. (I’m not a Buddhist. My time is almost completey taken up with being a trustee and docent of my portion of the Jewish tradition).

As 0.2% of the world’s population – a group who defines itself as “. . .a nation that dwells apart, And will not be reckoned among the Nations.” (Numbers 23:9) – we are the quintessential universal “other”. People thrive, communities thrive, nations thrive based on how well they accept the “other”. Hence “And I will bless them that bless thee, and him that curseth thee will I curse; and in thee shall all the families of the earth be blessed.” (Genesis 12:3)

People, communities and nations fail in direct proportion to the ways in which they deny and supress the other. The workings of this paradigm can be seen the the history of Islam and Christianity. When Islam was tolerant (not accepting, but at least tolerant) we had the glories of the Golden Age in Spain. When the intolerant Christians took over we had the Inquisition and the expulsion of 1492, from which Spain is still struggling to emerge. When Christian Europe embraced the Enlightenment, and the gheto walls came down, there was a burst of creativity and advancement, and when those ideas became enshrined in the United States, it rose to be the pre-eminent power bestriding the globe.

Today Islamism, the triumphalist, iteration of Islam (and every culture passes in and out of this phase) consider what kol ha’am v’kol ha’lashon implies or what this passage from the Aleinu prayer is all about:

May all the world’s inhabitants recognize and know that to You every knee must bend and every tongue must swear loyalty. Before You, Adonai, our God, may all bow down, and give honor to Your precious name, and may all take upon themselves the yoke of Your rule. And may You reign over them soon and forever and always. Because all rule is Yours alone, and You will rule in honor forever and ever.

Today Islamism is the most rejecting of the “other.” The one most obsessed with “self”. The “other” exists only to be dominated, suppressed and expunged.

But what does this mean to us? First we must recognize that in us too, the struggle between our Yetzer Hara and our Yetzer Tov goes on constantly. So we must be constantly vigilant that we do not allow our Yetzer Hara to come to rule over us.

We are being sore tried. The nations compass us about and bay for our blood. The liars and talebearers put up their bogus false equivalences, their glittering generalities, bandwagon fallacies, their emotionally loaded words, their ad hominem attacks and testimonials, hiding behind the “Halo Effect” of the language of “Human Rights” (start at paragraph 9).

Even in the face of all of this, we must not allow our Yetzer Hara to rule over us. I believe that Israel is, in great measure, holding to that standard. There have arisen pockets of those who have succumbed, may their names be blotted out.

Why  must we? I cannot state it better than the apocryphal mother who said: “And if all your friends decided to throw themselves under a trollycar. . .would you do that too?

Look at Hamas. That is the cost of giving yourself over, entirely, to your Yetzer Hara.

Notes:

Avodah – The Service of the Heart – Prayer

First, I need to take one step back. I am unable to sustain a belief in an immanent God. Particularly one which is “Ours” exclusivley. I cannot discern a diference between an immanent God who is exclusively “ours” and Baal worship. I believe, further, that this is one of the major flaws of Islamism.

For me, praying to God for “something”, is theurgy (the quaint notion that you can change God’s mind by performing rituals and reciting texts), an infantile artifact of our past, which we need to evolve beyond. Evolution, in my view is God’s signature on’s work. I’m with Jim Morrison on this one.

Yet I believe that prayer is one of the most powerful forces in the Universe. The repetition of texts (which you understand and identify with) engraves those texts on your heart. So, if you repeat over and over again every day “guard my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking guile”, “Teach us to number our days that we may get us a heart, of wisdom”,  “may my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth and my right hand lose its cunning; if I forget thee O, Jerusalem”,  the text of the Al Chet

“Enlightened Self Interest”

The Reductionists, who think that everything can be reduced to mechanics. Live very dull lives. There is no room for mystery, imagination; there is no space for wonder, for the fact that the future cannot be described, because it hasn’t happened yet.

Moreover, they’ve run into a brick wall. “Reality is not only stranger than we suppose but stranger than we can suppose.” – J. B. S. Haldane

The best current scientific “explanation of everything” ‘String Theory’ suffers from exactly the same problem that makes proving or disproving the existence of God impossible. Both reqire that you stand outside of the Universe to conduct the experiment.

Just because John Lennon wrote a catchy tune (Imagine) doesn’t mean I’m about to toss away the fruit of 50,000+ years of hominids grappling with the questions that are the same today as they were when our most ancient forebears began burying thei dead painted in ocher with little figurines and decorative beads.

And finally, I heard a wise man of an Eastern non-theistic tradition say (more or less): “Religion is like fruit. Some toss away the nourishing inner part and eat the rind. Others nourish themselves with the inner part; and place the rind on the compost heap.”

I consider myself blessed to live in an age where there is a banquet of nourishment from all over the world, and there’s always plenty of compost for my garden.

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  • Norman_In_New_York

    Now that French Jews are enlarging their aliyah, you should soon find yourself in the company of philosophers who would be delighted to discuss these issues with you. BTW, a good article.

    • Manya Shochet

      Even better, the French Jews know enough to be able to distinguish between a patisserie and a boulangerie. And they really know how to have fun.

      • E ben Abuya

        Too bad that “epater les Juifs” is a national sport

        • Manya Shochet

          חחחחחחח…..

    • E ben Abuya

      Thanks. Like you I’m a New Yawker. It saddens me that the new French aliyah, as so many before them, is to seek sanctuary from hatred and violence. But, as with all the other alliyot it will add another strand to the fiber and fabric of Israel.
      All who hold the tiller and look to windward know that that the strongest most flexible rope is made of many many strands. This is one of Israel’s greatest strengths. A gift, I believe, from the Talmud; where both side of an argument are presented and preserved. While we hold to that tradition of discussion/debate. Using our Yetzer Tov to guide our Yetzer Hara; we will persevere, survive and prosper.

      • Norman_In_New_York

        It may be sad that French Jews seek sanctuary, but I take comfort from the words of the Hallel prayer: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the main cornerstone.”

        • E ben Abuya

          It is said that that is what we do best. Take fate and turn it into destiny.
          (and bravo for citing the Hallel!)

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