Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Rami: Response to Mike's 2/9 Post

Two things strike me in this passage, Mike. First is its affinity with Jewish liturgy, and second its departure from Jewish psychology.

The similarity is found in the morning liturgy of the Authorized Jewish Prayer Book:

And may it be thy will, O Lord our God and God of our fathers, to make us familiar with thy Law, and to make us cleave to thy commandments. O lead us not into the power of sin, or of transgression or iniquity, or of temptation, or of scorn: let not the evil inclination have sway over us: keep us far from a bad man and a bad companion: make us cleave to the good inclination and to good works: subdue our inclination so that it may submit itself unto thee; and let us obtain this day, and every day, grace, favor and mercy in your eyes, and in the eyes of all who behold us; and bestow loving-kindnesses upon us. Blessed art thou, O Lord, who bestows loving-kindnesses upon thy people Israel.

Both Jesus and Jewish liturgy worry that God might lead us to sin or times of moral testing. I take this metaphorically. When I say that God is testing me I mean that life is presenting me with challenges that force me to make difficult choices. I don’t imagine that God is consciously doing this. This is simply the nature of reality, and, since for me God is reality, it is the will of God.

What is more interesting to me is Jesus’ use of “the evil one” verses the rabbis’ use of the “evil inclination.” If my memory is correct, the Greek for “evil one” is masculine suggesting that Jesus is talking about Satan or the Devil. Jesus uses the same term in the Parable of the Sower where “the evil one” steals what has been sown (Matthew 13:19).

It seems that Jesus believes in an independent Devil working in opposition to Kingdom people, while the rabbis saw evil more as an aspect of human psychology: “the imagination of the human heart is evil from its youth (Genesis 8:21), and “every imagination of the thought of the human heart is only evil” (Genesis 6:5). “Imagination” here means selfish fantasies that excuse exploitative and harmful behavior. The rabbis believed that the human capacity for such thinking develops around puberty (youth).

Satan is nearly absent from the Hebrew Bible, and by the time of Jesus most rabbis understand Satan to be a metaphor for the evil inclination. In this way they reject any independent source of evil at war with God. This is probably one of the major differences between Judaism and many forms of Christianity.

The Christian position posits Satan as the prince of this world, and in this way mimics Persian Zoroastrianism which pits Ahura Mazda, Lord of Light, against Angra Mainyu, the Lord of Darkness. While Ahura Mazda is destined to triumph, humans must choose sides. Substitute Jesus for Ahura Mazda and Satan for Angra Mainyu and I know lots of Christians who would assent to this belief.

Judaism is too monotheistic for this. We prefer Isaiah 45:2 where God admits that good and evil are both of God. For us evil is a psychological phenomenon fully within our power to control: “sin lurks at the door, and desires you, and you shall rule over it” (Genesis 4:7). Or as the second century rabbi Simon Ben Zoma taught, “Who is strong? One who controls the evil inclination” (Pirke Avot 4:2).

I find it odd that the Jewish writers of the Gospels would have opted for Persian dualism over Isaiah’s biblically normative monotheism. Their decision had huge consequences for Christian belief through the centuries. As far as I know no other religious tradition is as concerned with the Devil as is Christianity at least in its western forms.

Thoughts on this?


AaronHerschel said...
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AaronHerschel said...

"The rabbis saw evil more as an aspect of human psychology: “the imagination of the human heart is evil from its youth (Genesis 8:21), and “every imagination of the thought of the human heart is only evil” (Genesis 6:5). “Imagination” here means selfish fantasies that excuse exploitative and harmful behavior."

I have no idea what qualification the rabbis set around "imagination" in this latter passage, but I just want to play with an idea for a moment. According to Coleridge: "the Primary imagination is a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM." Coleridge saw the imagination as a way of bridging the gap between subject and object, the mind and reality. BUT.

What if, as an experiment, we turn that around and suggest that the imagination, in remaking the world as word (or image), breaks with reality, with God. Human imagining (and hence identity, philosophy, literature, religion, et. al.)is an act of rebellion and pride. Milton's Satan, indeed! Of course, this puts me, and all the other imaginers out there, on the side of the "evil one." Ah well, better to rule in hell....

Mike Smith and Rami Shapiro said...

This is Rami. The issue about the rabbinic understanding of imagination is worth clarifying. They really meant sexual imagination. The evil inclination was primary around sex, which is why they linked it to puberty. In my own work I tend to expand this egoic fantasies rationalizing harmful selfish behaviors. What AaronHerschel is talking about is something far greater. Certainly a culture rooted in the creative misreading of the Torah through the lens of the midrashic imagination is supportive of the kind of this larger understanding of imagination.