Rabbinic Judaism: The View of Good & Evil in the Jewish Tradition – The Great Courses Daily News

Posted By on May 25, 2021

By Charles Mathewes, Ph.D., University of VirginiaRabbinic Judaism emerged out of a moment of crisis: the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the creation of the Diaspora. (Image: New Africa/Shutterstock)The Concept of Rabbinic Judaism

Rabbinic Judaism is the form of Jewish faith and practice that arose after the fall of Jerusalem in the first century and the scattering of Jews, known as the Diaspora, across the Mediterranean and Near East in the following two centuries. It flourished from the third century all the way to the 20th century. In some ways, its still flourishing today.

The third century of the Common Era is effectively the era of Talmuds composition; the Talmud is the body of literature that comments and interprets the Torah, Jewish religious law, in general.

Rabbinic Jewish tradition takes the Talmud to be a text of near-scriptural authority for interpreting the Torah; indeed, the Talmud is the textual fixing in this tradition of the Oral Law in comparison to the Written Law of the Torah.

This is a transcript from the video series Why Evil Exists. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The rabbis were the Jewish communitys teachers and ministers. They were scholars who knew the Torah very well and the debates surrounding it in the Talmud. They were effectively walking repositories of the tradition.

They understood the height of their religious duty to be the study of Torah and Talmud, the enormously complicated sets of argumentative commentaries that previous rabbis had created to understand how to live faithfully as Jews in this very complicated world.

Learn more about the Reformationthe power of evil within.

In the wake of the Shoah or Holocaust, theres been a huge wave of Jewish rethinking of the faith, but there have been events of similar existential crises in Judaism at different moments in Jewish history. One of them is the famous Babylonian Captivity where the remnants of Israel, or a large part of them, were exiled to Babylon in the sixth-century B.C.E.

Rabbinic Judaism emerges out of another one of those moments of crisis: the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the creation of the Diaspora. This was a revolution in Jewish thinking on the scale of the Shoah (Holocaust) with enormous ongoing effects.

In the Diaspora, the Jews effectively lost the Promised Land, and they lost the central ritual place of worshipping God (namely the Temple in Jerusalem). They did not return to Israel as a people for almost 2,000 years. A new kind of religion had to be built out of the rubble and the ashes of the old, and thats what the rabbis essentially did.

In terms of evil, in particular, rabbis explored a series of alternative moral psychologies of human malice; but much of their discussion centered around the evil and the good impulses in the human heart. The evil impulse is called yetzer ha-ra and the good impulse is called yetzer ha-tov.

Adam and Eve ate of the tree of the knowledge of tov and ra, good and evil. The rabbis saw God creating in humans two different and rival sources of energy, inclinations, or impulses. In fact, for the rabbis, the condition of the human, as driven by these two impulses, is signified in the scriptures themselves.

Learn more about self-deception in evil-scholasticism.

Jewish people view good and evil differently than Christians. It is rooted in the idea that the behavior of good or evil is anchored in basic human impulses existing essentially from the creation.

For Christ to have been so good, something must have been awful (that he came to remedy). The Jewish conception of these two impulses suggests an entirely different picture of how humans are organized and what motivations and struggles theyre dealing with internally.

Learn more about the Hebrew Bible and human rivalry with God.

The yetzer ha-tov, the good impulse, is basically conscience; its an inner sense that alerts the person when he/she is considering violating Gods law. It warns the person, and it develops around age 1213 when the young Jewish boy or girl first begins to become an adult.

At a boys Bar Mitzvah or a girls Bat Mitzvah for example, when the child first begins to struggle with Gods word in the Torah and the observance of the Commandments, for the rabbis, that is the true mark of a maturing Jew.

In contrast to the yetzer ha-tov, the yetzer ha-rathe evil impulseis a far more murky concept. It doesnt emerge when the person is 1213, and its part of human nature. Genesis, for example, says: The yetzer of the human heart is ra from youth, The impulse of the human heart is bad from youth (Genesis 8:21).

Learn more about Hobbes and evil as a social construct.

The evil impulse is not demonic, and its not an utterly unnatural violation of creation expressing some sort of anarchic hostility to Gods creation. The rabbis believe this is a paranoid kind of self-interest. In their view, a young child or infant sees the world as a threatening and dangerous place.

For example, think about how small children react when their parents introduce them to a stranger, often theyll hide behind their parents; in other words, the rabbis have a great deal of empirical evidence they can point to. Children are sometimes terrified of strangers, and they are scared of the world, and this seems accurate as to how children behave (at least part of the time).

After the fall of Jerusalem in the first century, a different kind of Jewish tradition arose called Rabbinic Judaism. This tradition flourished from the third century onward.

According to Rabbinic Judaism, Yetzer ha-tov, or the good impulse, is an inner sense that warns people when they are considering violating Gods law. This innate sense is also known as conscience.

According to Rabbinic Judaism, the evil impulse is part of human nature (self-interest). The evil impulse is called yetzer ha-ra in the Jewish tradition.

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Rabbinic Judaism: The View of Good & Evil in the Jewish Tradition - The Great Courses Daily News

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