The Evil Impulse: The Source of Self-Interest


By Charles Mathewes, Ph.D., University of Virginia

Some rabbis believe the evil impulse is a personified agency. Nonetheless, no rabbi has ever suggested this was actually any sort of rival to God. That would make it more like the Satan of the pre-Genesis Ancient Near East and appeal to a kind of combat myth or metaphysical dualism.

Old Jewish man's hands holding a prayer book.
According to Jewish tradition, evil is not a devilish force. (Image: tomertu/Shutterstock)

One Way to Resist an Over-Dramatization of Evil

The rabbis in particular, and Jewish tradition in general, are always shadowed by the resistance to the Ancient Near Eastern combat myths. But now, Jewish thought is silently influenced/inflected by a desire to distinguish itself from Christian thinking. 

So, even as it resists a kind of metaphysical dualism of the combat myth, this Jewish tradition is going to begin to try to figure out ways to resist an over-dramatization of evil as well.

Here’s one way, because it turns out that this evil impulse, the yetzer ha-ra, is actually not so bad after all in some dimensions. The yetzer ha-ra is the impulse in humans enabling people to build a house, marry, have children, and engage in business. The evil impulse, in some ways, seems to be at times the source of self-interest, even self-interest properly construed.

This is a transcript from the video series Why Evil Exists. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Dangers of the Evil Impulse

A statue of Cain and Abel. Cain is killing his brother, Abel.
The story of Cain and Abel shows the impulse of evil. (Image: Lucian Milasan/Shutterstock)

Although the evil impulse can be a part of life that supports and enables, it can be excessively partial and caught up in self-interest and greed. That’s the danger of the yetzer ha-ra—not its bare existence, but when it comes to overmastering the person. 

In the same way, the story of Cain and Abel reveals this when God says: “Sin is crouching at your door; it seeks to master you, but you must master it.”

What the rabbis read that as for the yetzer ha-ra is specifically the struggle; not to remove the yetzer ha-ra, not to send it off like Cain (a restless wanderer), but rather to make it a beneficial part of ordinary life.

Learn more about Montaigne and Pascal—evil and the self.

Rabbinic Understanding of Humans

Classical Rabbinic understanding of these categories still profoundly influences Jewish thought about evil today. The implications of this psychology make humans less caught in a kind of vast, metaphysical melodrama and more a matter of the handling of the everyday temptations that humans encounter all around them. 

This focus on everyday temptations is really important. It’s not simply a momentary thing about evil in the Jewish tradition. Some critics of Judaism will argue that Judaism in some ways is too focused on the mundane commandments to do one thing or another. There’s a deep insight being communicated, especially when it comes to the Rabbinic tradition’s focus on the minutiae of life, such as simple decency rather than moral heroism. 

The resistance of the rabbis to more theologically radical pictures of evil—like the Christian Satan, for example—and their similar resistance to depictions of the history of human evil in terms of calamities, like the Christian notion of the Fall, makes evil an intrinsic part of human nature in a certain sense.

Learn more about life in truth—20th-century poets on evil.

The Good Part of the Evil Impulse!

The rabbis make evil not supernatural but really derived from the naturally-created being. In some important way, evil is something that happens to people because of their impulses, and if that’s the case, then people are, in important ways, able to handle those impulses, and they can learn to deal with them. 

That’s not to say in this account, evil must be understood in reductively human and naturalistic terms, there’s no necessary dimension of this that says evil is not a big thing at all. But, unlike many popular Christian accounts where the Devil is a really powerful presence seducing and captivating humans, in this account, evil’s origins are to be sought in the exercise of the human will, not as an external force overmastering it. 

Learn more about Hobbes and evil as a social construct.

Trivializing Evil and Its Consequences

An open book of Talmud.
In the Talmud, the evil impulse is said to be a ‘wayfarer’, then a ‘guest’, and finally becomes a ‘master’. (Image: David Cohen 156/Shutterstock)

Evil shouldn’t be trivialized at all, however, because when left un-countered by other parts of nature, will lead one astray and cause great damage.

Going back to Cain and Abel: “It seeks to master you, so you must master it.”

The rabbis recognize this impulse as powerful. It’s a life force, but it can be very destructive, and it can warp people in ways that are against their lives.  

But its power is in some significant ways related to its initial appearance as small. It moves in subtle ways. As the Talmud puts it: “At first the evil impulse is a ‘wayfarer’, then it is a ‘guest’, then finally becomes a ‘master’.” This goes back to the views of the rabbis, that in some important way people need to focus on the minutiae of life, the smaller, minor things, and the things that don’t look very dramatic—those are the moments when people can actually resist evil successfully.

Common Questions about the Evil Impulse and the Source of Self-Interest

Q: What are the dangers of the evil impulse?

The evil impulse, the yetzer ha-ra, can be accompanied by a sort of self-interest and greed. This self-interest can be the dangerous part of this impulse when it overmasters the people.

Q: Is evil a supernatural force according to Jewish tradition?

The rabbis, as well as Jewish tradition, are of the view that the evil impulse is not a supernatural force, but it is rather a natural derivation of the inner sense. In some important way, evil is something that happens to people because of their impulses. 

Q: What are the consequences of trivializing evil?

Evil shouldn’t be trivialized at all because when left un-countered by other parts of nature, this will lead one astray and cause great damage. The rabbis recognize this impulse as powerful, and they believe people need to focus on the minutiae of life as those are the moments when people can actually resist evil successfully.

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