Consider and Converse: A Guide to ‘Yetzer Ha’ra’ / The Evil Inclination
Acknowledging, accepting, and channeling our inclinations
Sh’ma Now curates conversations on a single theme rooted in Jewish tradition and the contemporary moment. At the heart of this issue of Sh’ma Now is the theme of Yetzer Ha’ra—the Evil Inclination. The perspectives shared in these pages are meant to be expansive — to inspire reflections on Judaism and possibility in ways you may not have considered before. They aim to hold discord. We hope that the richness and diversity of these essays will show you new perspectives that are personally meaningful and edifying.
Sh’ma Now has never viewed learning or “meaning-making” as solely an individual activity. That’s why we have included this guide, which is specifically designed to help you to consider the idea of going forth independently or with others, formally and informally.
How to Begin
This guide offers a variety of suggestions, including activities and conversation prompts for individual contemplation and informal or more structured conversations. We suggest that you use this guide to share reflections and thoughts over a Shabbat meal, or, for those who are more adventurous, to lead a planned, structured conversation, inviting a small group of friends and family to your home or to a coffee shop. If you would like more information about ways in which this journal might be used, please contact Susan Berrin, Sh’ma Now editor-in-chief, at SBerrin@shma.com. You can also print out a PDF file of the entire issue at http://forward.com/shma-now/.
Guidelines for Discussion
If you wish to hold a structured conversation, the following guidelines may help you to create a space that allows for honest personal exploration through sharing:
- Create a sense of shared purpose that can foster the kind of internal reflection that happens through group conversation.
- Remind participants of simple ground rules for conversations. For example: Avoid commenting on and critiquing each other’s comments. Make room for everyone to speak. Step into or away from the conversation appropriately. No one participant should dominate the conversation. Let silence sit, allowing participants to gather their thoughts.
- For each of the questions below, we recommend that you print out the article in question, or provide the link to it, and we ask that you take a moment to read it in print or on screen, before the conversation begins.
- Allow people a few minutes to absorb the article, perhaps even to read it a second time, before moving into the discussion.
Interpretive Questionscanfocus the reader on the ideas in the articles.
- Rabbi Jonah Pesner (page 1) introduces readers to the idea of yetzer ha’ra and examines “how humans are ‘very good’ even while they are capable of evil.” What do we learn about Judaism from a text that asserts we are each both good and capable of evil? We also learn that were it not for the evil inclination, “no man would build a house, take a wife, and beget children.” (Bereishit Rabbah 9:7) Digging deeply into this concept, what does Jewish wisdom teach us about accepting our inclinations and also channeling them?
Rabbi Arthur Green [page 3] reflects on the non-dual nature of the “yetzer,” exploring whether a binary approach to yetzer hatov and yetzer ha’ra is Judaism’s intention. He writes that God’s spark of divine light is within each person. “That is what makes for the sacredness of each human life. The spark is covered by qelipot, ‘shells,’ which I understand to be walls of defensiveness and self-protectiveness brought about by fear and inner weakness. The battle against evil is then the soul’s struggle to break through those walls, to be strong and free enough to love and to live generously. This view of the human self veers away from the binary view of endless moral struggle; it depicts a true self that has the capacity to live a life that fulfills God’s purpose in creating it.” How does a binary approach to moral struggle, and to the yetzer, limit or enrich Jewish thought? How does God’s maturation map onto the maturation of humankind?
Rabbi Jessica Minnen (page 4) writes about sexuality and sexual behavior. She writes that we are at a moment in American social history “when the power dynamics that make our sexuality such a potentially damaging force are front page news.” How do we address this behavior on a societal level and how do we address it personally in our own relationships?How do we approach sexuality and acknowledge our own yetzer ha’ra? How do we mediate this life-force and our ethical and moral compass? What role does yetzar ha’ra play in our sexual exploration? How does our inclination for good or for evil — our yetzer — work for good?” What are the complications?
Reflective Questionscanhelp to integrate the ideas in these articles with one’s own sense of self.
Yael Melamede (page 5) writes about lying and about the darkness and dangers of the proliferation of small lies and fake news. She writes that the “yetzer ha’ra privileges our short-term goals over what might be sounder long-term goals.” Do you ever lie? In what circumstances? Are some lies okay? How do you feel about other people lying to you? Is dishonest behavior an act of the yetzer ha’ra__? Given the acrimonious election cycle of 2016, are social norms about lying changing?
In NiSh’ma, (page 2) three writers explore the verse from Pirkei Avot that examines the nature of strength and wealth:”Ben Zoma said: ‘Who is valiant? One who masters his yetzer (inclination) … Who is rich? One who rejoices in what he has.’”(4:1) Robert J. Saferstein writes about the yetzer/yotzer as the place where “innovation and revolution are born. Neither ‘good’ nor ‘bad,’ the yetzer/yotzer …is the catalyst forward.” How do you understand the connection between one’s inclination — yetzer — and creativity? And how important is “yearning” to the work of social justice, innovation, and building robust communities?
Additional Resources onYetzer Ha’ra
- A source sheet on references to the yetzerha’ra in the Talmud can be found on the Sefaria: A Living Library of Jewish Texts website: http://www.sefaria.org/sheets/2517