In Demonic Desires, Ishay Rosen-Zvi examines the concept of yetzer hara, or evil inclination, and its evolution in biblical and rabbinic literature. Contrary to existing scholarship, which reads the term under the rubric of destructive sexual desire, Rosen-Zvi contends that in late antiquity the yetzer represents a general tendency toward evil. Rather than the lower bodily part of a human, the rabbinic yetzer is a wicked, sophisticated inciter, attempting to snare humans to sin. The rabbinic yetzer should therefore not be read in the tradition of the Hellenistic quest for control over the lower parts of the psyche, writes Rosen-Zvi, but rather in the tradition of ancient Jewish and Christian demonology.
Rosen-Zvi conducts a systematic and comprehensive analysis of the some one hundred and fifty appearances of the evil yetzer in classical rabbinic literature to explore the biblical and postbiblical search for the sources of human sinfulness. By examining the yetzer within a specific demonological tradition, Demonic Desires places the yetzer discourse in the larger context of a move toward psychologization in late antiquity, in which evil—and even demons—became internalized within the human psyche. The book discusses various manifestations of this move in patristic and monastic material, from Clement and Origin to Antony, Athanasius, and Evagrius. It concludes with a consideration of the broader implications of the yetzer discourse in rabbinic anthropology.
Introduction. The Riddle, or: How Did the Evil Yetzer Become a Mighty King?
Chapter 1. "The Torah Spoke Regarding the Yetzer": Tannaitic Literature
Chapter 2. Yetzer and Other Demons: Patristic Parallels
Chapter 3. Yetzer at Qumran: Proto-Rabbinic?
Chapter 4. Coming of Age: Amoraic Yetzer
Chapter 5. Refuting the Yetzer: The Limits of Rabbinic Discursive Worlds
Chapter 6. Sexualizing the Yetzer
Chapter 7. Weak Like a Female, Strong Like a Male: Yetzer and Gender
Afterword: Toward a Genealogy of the Rabbinic Subject
"Demonic Desires analyzes a crucial element of late antique Jewish religious thought, the concept of the yetzer hara. Rosen-Zvi aims to correct misplaced assumptions about the yetzer, in terms of both anachronistic readings of the rabbinic tradition and misleading comparisons made between the yetzer and other aspects of late antique religious thought in the Hellenistic world. The book is a valuable contribution to an important area of study."—Columba Stewart, Saint John's School of Theology Seminary
"Rosen-Zvi's learned book opens up new vistas for the discussion of Jewish theological anthropology. His careful philological work traces the numerous connections between rabbinic and early Christian conceptions of human nature and sin. Ultimately, Rosen-Zvi emphatically endorses the view that the rabbinic conception of the human person is fundamentally optimistic."—Jewish Review of Books
"In addition to comprehensive analysis of the classical rabbinic literature on the evil yetzer, and the changing perceptions of it, Rosen-Zvi traces related developments in early Christian literature, especially within the trajectories of asceticism and monasticism of the Alexandrian tradition"—Jewish Book World