Is the evil impulse good?

I learned this teaching from Rabbi Rebecca Ben-Gideon last week and have been turning it over in my mind:

Rabbi Nahman said in Rabbi Samuel’s name: ‘Behold, it was good’ refers to the Good Desire; ‘And behold, it was very good’ refers to the Evil Desire. (It only says ‘very good’ after man was created with both the good and bad inclinations, in all other cases it only says ‘and God saw that it was good’) Can then the Evil Desire be very good? That would be extraordinary! But without the Evil Desire, however, no man would build a house, take a wife and beget children; and thus said Solomon: ‘Again, I considered all labour and all excelling in work, that it is a man’s rivalry with his neighbour.’

This is from Bereshit Rabbah 9:7.  Ambition, here, is understood as a manifestation of Yetzer Hara, the evil impulse.  David Holzel writes about this view of yetzer hara in the context of the Star Trek episode “The Enemy Within,” the one where Captain Kirk splits up into Good Kirk and Bad Kirk.  Holzel says the yetzer hara isn’t really all bad, and Nahman seems to agree.  Here’s a Talmud story on a similar theme:

It is said that two thousand years ago, a group of Rabbis encountered the Yetzer Hara amidst the destruction of Jerusalem. Knowing that the evil impulse was to blame for the devastation of their Holy Temple, they grabbed him and wrestled him into a chamber pot, where they held him. Ready to destroy the Yetzer Hara, one Rabbi interjected. “Who knows what will happen if you destroy him. Hold him for three days and see what happens!”
The Rabbis waited patiently for three days and then began scouting the city. Immediately, they noticed that the world was beginning to rot away. People stopped doing business. Chickens stopped producing eggs. Families stopped building houses. Immediately, they knew what they had to do. They let him go, knowing that the world could not be sustained without him. (Yoma 69b)

But here’s what I don’t get. If the yetzer hara is a morally neutral complex of desires (the physical/material/selfish part of human nature) why is it called the evil impulse?  It could have been called something else — “the animal nature” or something.  I feel like it’s a basic feature of Jewish thought that things are called what they’re called for a reason.  Nobody argues that lashon hara isn’t actually bad.  If it weren’t bad it wouldn’t be called lashon hara!

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13 thoughts on “Is the evil impulse good?

  1. Jon Awbrey says:

    I think the “very good” is a way of saying excess — too much of a good thing — whereas moderation in all things, perhaps even moderation itself, is better.

  2. Shecky R says:

    In a tangential way this reminds me of another old rabbinical teaching that was used to explain the basic conundrum of why ‘bad things happen to good people, and good things happen to bad people,” and runs like this: NOBODY is ALL good or ALL bad. So bad things happen to good people to punish them for their few ill deeds/thoughts in their earthly lives, because once they die they’ll experience eternal joy in heaven. Good things happen to bad people to reward them for their few good actions on this earth because once they die they’ll suffer eternal damnation.
    On first reading I thought it a bit clever, but on more reflection it seemed just as fatuous, shallow, and simple-minded as so many religious arguments.
    Anyway, in your own case above, it seems to me they’re merely saying that good can ONLY exist or be perceived, in the presence of (or in contrast to) evil. There can only be ‘heads’ on a coin, if there is ‘tails.’

  3. I love that you blogged about this! Here’s my take—there are so many parts of ourselves that we fear are bad. The rabbis in particular feared the power of their sexual impulses. They didn’t think sex was bad; on the contrary, they felt it was good and healthy as long as it was channeled properly (marriage, children, etc). But they feared the power of sexual feelings. So I think that the term ‘the evil impulse’ reflects this fear and ambivalence about feelings and impulses that feel big or uncontrolled. So with regard to ambition, is it egotism run amok, or a productive if sometimes frustrating drive that makes sure that we contribute to society? Unfettered and undirected, sex drive, ambition, etc. can lead to “ra” or bad. With intention and direction, these same powerful forces can lead to building families and the world. Does that help? RBG

  4. NDE says:

    Even “lashon ha-ra” can do good: truthfully speaking ill of another person is lashon ha-ra, but may be helpful or even necessary for the well-being of others.

  5. JSE says:

    But this source

    suggests that it’s not that lashon hara is OK under those circumstances, but that speaking ill under those circumstances isn’t lashon hara. In the teachings under discussion, nobody’s saying “building a house because you’re envious of your neighbor’s house isn’t yetzer hara because it serves a good end,” they’re saying “it’s yetzer hara and yetzer hara can be good.”

  6. NDE says:

    Well that’s an unusual example because there “speaking ill” is deemed beneficial to its target. I had in mind something like calling out a criminal to warn and protect the community, which would be a case of violating one mitzvah when it is the only way to fulfill a more important one. But to be sure I’m not a rabbi.

  7. JSE says:

    Nor I! And to some extent this is what makes me feel a bit of bad conscience about making posts like this: usually these matters are discussed by people who have a very deep and broad knowledge of the relevant literature. Which I, obviously, do not.

  8. Channeling Larry Gopnik: “you can’t understand the theology without prayer. Prayer is how it works.” These esoteric linguistic games are empty otherwise.

  9. Gail Margolis says:

    The bigger question in my mind is why follow the teachings of a group of ancient people who made up a religion and spread its teachings, knowing it was false? We today look at L Ron Hubbard and other “misleaders” of humans as vile people, but how are these founders of older religions any different?

  10. Kevin says:

    @Gail Behind the mysticism, there may still be good ideas.

  11. adam says:

    More or less, I think this is another way of grappling with theodicy… why is there evil in the world at all if there is an all-powerful, all-good god who is the only power in the universe? They inherit this language of yetzer ha-tov and yetzer ha-ra. Can’t say (like an ancient dualist or polytheist) that some of the forces in the world come from the good god or good gods (good god!) and some of the forces come from the bad god or bad gods. So this is a clever way of seeing some function to the bad which had to have been created by the good god (if you are a strict monotheist).

  12. brodix says:

    Monotheism is a form of Platonism. Logically a spiritual absolute would be the essence from which we rise, not an ideal from which we fell.
    So good and bad are not a cosmic dual between the forces of righteousness and evil, but the basic biological binary code of attraction to the beneficial and repulsion of the detrimental.
    What is good for the fox, is bad for the chicken. It is just that for a community to function as a whole, it has to have a common sense of good and bad. All foxes agree chickens are good, while all chickens agree foxes are bad.
    The problem is that when you have lots of people acting in tandem and thinking it is divinely oriented, much mischief can occur. With pantheism, the various gods are naturally competing so the powers that be can’t claim divine authority, when they chose to do foolish things.

  13. Zack Berger says:

    Excellent question. One answer: the name is a quote from Genesis, that the impulse of humanity is evil from youth. Another is that the rabbis of the Talmud, implying the same query, adduce 7 other names.

    The Wiki article in Hebrew is good, not so in English.

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