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The Evil and Good Inclinations in Judaism

Judaism does not have a single, unified theory about the origin of good and evil. The Kabbalists (Jewish mystics) understood the brokenness of the universe to be the result of shattered vessels that had proven too weak to hold the primordial light present in the act of creation, and believe that evil developed from the resulting imbalance in the cosmos. Although Judaism in general rejects the Christian concept of “original sin,” something very close to this idea is found in kabbalistic thinking, which posits that all created souls have been affected by Adam’s failure to complete the assigned task of gathering the final, stray sparks of the shattered vessels that would have set the universe right.

However, traditional rabbinic understanding of human nature is shaped to a large degree by the presence of two inclinations – the yetzer ha tov (the good inclination) and the yetzer ha ra (the evil inclination). Influenced to a large extent by the thinking of the Jewish philosopher Maimonides (1135-1204), the good inclination has become identified with the rational self that is capable of positive, moral choice. The evil inclination is sometimes identified with the “lower” passions, and Torah study and obedience are prescribed as the means through which the evil inclination is tamed and put to proper use.

This understanding places the human being at the center of his own cosmic drama, torn between two opposing forces that are vying for control. Evil is most certainly opposition to God. Yet without the evil inclination, we humans would lack the opportunity to grow in goodness, as we learn to overcome temptation and therefore develop righteous character.

The teaching of Yeshua (Jesus) understands human nature as needing a total transformation that is initiated through belief in and obedience to the Messiah, whose atoning death and resurrection form the basis for new life: “I am the light of the world. He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life” (John 7:12).

Written by Alan Shore

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