Saturday, May 7, 2011

Talmudic Psychology

It seems to me that the conclusions that Freud and Jung eventually arrived at after lifetimes of cogitation and G-d wrestling (= Self wrestling, same thing) had been broadly articulated in the Talmud 1500 years prior.

Towards the end of his life Freud jumped to the conclusion that there are two elemental forces at work in the soul of man (and poissibly wo-man!) - eros and thanatos - the life lust urge and the death destroy urge. The rabbis of the Talmud (and let us speak of them as a collective although they lived across several hundred years) posited that there are two fundamental forces at work in the individual psyche/human personality (that we question the ultimate reality of the individual psyche can be set aside for the moment). These two fundemental forces are:

a) The yetzer tov - the desire towrads "good"


b) The yetzer hara - the desire towards "bad" or "destruction"

These two forces are seen as always present, always potentialities which a person may follow. Sometimes they will go with the one, sometimes with the other.

Interestingly, both forces are called "yetzer", which comes from the Hebrew root yud - tsadi - reych = to create, to fashion, to give form to. So there is an acknowledgement that both impulses help forge and shape the ever emerging reality. The Talmud specifically acknowledges the creative power of the Yetzer Hara in several passages. In fact it is conflated with the life-lust urge and these rabbis say that if it were not for the yetzer hara, the world wpould stop turning and chickens would stop laying eggs.

The wise men ( and alas the opions of the wise women are rarely recorded there) of the Talmud speak in seemingly bottomless metaphors about the role these two forces play, and how both can be "transformed" via the light of consciousness.When I read their pronouncements, I never failed to be awed by the inscrutable richness of their (divinely inspired) imagination.

Of course I am drawn to the yetzer hara more, or at least as much, as the yetzer tov, because of its vitality and virility. As Blake said of Milton "he was of the devil's camp, only he did not know it" which is why Milton's descriptions of hell are so much more animated than are his descriptions of hell. (Although Judaism never developed the split Christian cosmology, and always surged towards a more integrated and holistic understanding of self.)

Here are some rabbbinic comments on the yetzer hara:

1)If it were not for the Yetzer Hara chickens would stop laying their eggs and people would stop having children

2)Spying out the talent at funerals: "Even in the hour of a person's mourning, his desires overcome him." (Tractate Kidushin Page Pey [80] side Bet [B])

and conversely

3)The evil inclination is not found in cemetries (Jerusalem Talmud, Kiddushin Perek Dalet [Chapter 4] Halacha Yud Aleph [law 11]

4)The following passage acknowledges the intrinsic divity of the yetzer hara, that destruction emenates from the one source as much as creation: "I created the evil inclination, and I created its antidote - the Torah" (Kidushin lamed, amud bet.)

5) The yetzer hara is a provacateur in this world, and a witness for the prosecution in the next.

6)It is hard for the yetzer hara, that even its Creator called it bad.

7)If the yetzer hara says "do it anyway and G-d will forgive you" do not believe it.

Similarly, in acknowledgement that all pleasure leads to pain

8)The evil inclination - its head is sweet and its end is bitter

9)"Veahavta et HaShem Elokecha bechol levavechecha - im shnei yetzirecha" i.e and you will love G-d with all your heart, ie. with both your inclination towards 'good' and your inclination towards 'evil'



kkopdegrass said...

I would like to know why yetzer tov is generally cited without the "hay" as in yetzer ha'tov. I have asked many and not received a satisfactory answer as yet.

kkopdegrass said...

I would like to know why yetzer tov is generally cited without the "hay" as in yetzer ha'tov. I have asked many and not received a satisfactory answer as yet.

The author of this blog is said...

Dear Kkopdegrass

As you probably know "hay hayediya" is the definite article. In "Heblish" people provide the "the" in English, i.e. they say "the yetzer hara", but in Hebrew it is yetzer hara. I think yetzer tov is just the Heblish version - in most of the sources it is Yetzer Hatov - for example: see Avot DeRabi Natan Chapter 16, 2nd Mishna or Brachot Daf 61, Side Aleph: "Vayeytzer HaShem Elokim et HaAdam" - bishnei yudin: shnei yetzarim bara hakadosh baruch hu - echad yetzer hatov veechad yetzer hara" - Why is the word "and G-d FORMED human" written with two yuds (the second being seemingly superfluous)? To show the Holy One created both a good and evil inclination"