Antisemitism and Human Inclinations: The Good and Evil

Beit Midrash for calendar_month November 2023

The prophet Jeremiah declared that “the [human] heart is devious above all else; it is perverse — who can understand it?” (Her. 17:9). Whether it is humanist, secularist, or pagan, the heart of godless man despises the God of Scripture and the Scripture of God. And, like it or not, the Jews still represent God, and the Scriptures of the Jews still speak for God. The devious and adiamorphic human heart also hates the Jewish people, the Jewish nation, and the Jewish land, because this people, this nation, and this land bear witness to the existence of the one and only true God (Is. 43:10; Mal. 3:6).

Paul said it well: “The mindset of the flesh is hostile toward God” (Rom. 8:7). This hostility toward God can be both mental and visceral. It prompts the conflict which Paul also lamented when he confessed, “I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin … I know that nothing good dwells in me … the good that I want to do I do not do, but the evil I do not want to do, this I keep doing” (Rom. 7:15-19). Paul’s description of this existential battle led him to draw this poignant conclusion: “What a wretched man I am!” (Rom. 7:24-25).[1] Even with the best of intentions and determination, humans often find themselves engaged in actions for which they are sorrowful and for which they know they need to make restitution.

The sages of Israel discussed this same dilemma, noting that God created in the first human being and every person since that time two inclinations[2] —an inclination toward good (vetzer hatov) and an inclination toward evil (yetzer hara) — and that this creation set the stage for the unending struggle between good and evil in every human person. “The yetzer tov serves as people’s moral conscience, while the yetzer ra drives people to satisfy their personal needs and desires. The yetzer ra is not intrinsically bad; it becomes bad when it is not countervailed by yetzer tov and leads to wrongdoing,” explains Alan Dershowitz.[3] The term yetzer hara is usually translated as “evil imagination” and is characterized as evil, the enemy, and a stumbling-block.[4]

The sages generally agreed that the yetzer hara is inborn, like a genetic trait, and that it is essentially a nature of evil — characterized by pride — that is resident in the human instinct for survival.[5] At the same time, however, they also agreed paradoxically that the evil inclination is the source of the drive for self-improvement and the restoration of the world, prompting them to conclude, therefore, that “the inclination toward evil in humans has a potential for good as well.”[6] One rabbi even suggested to his colleagues that “the yetzer ha-ra is very good. How so? Without it, a man would not build a house, marry a woman, have children, and conduct a business,” he said.[7] King Solomon actually established this idea when he said, “I have also noted that all labor and skillful enterprise come from men’s envy of each other (Ecc. 4:4).[8] As Reuven Bulka has noted, “Only with yetzer hara is the world complete, free-choice a reality, and human praiseworthiness a possibility.”[9] While elements of the yetzer hara are positive and necessary for human existence, the potential for the manifestation of the most heinous evil also rests in its paradoxical realm.

Both good and evil are present in the mind and in the heart of every human being. The sages maintained that unlike the yetzer hara, which was present in a human being from birth, the yetzer hatov was generally acquired at puberty.[10] Scripture does confirm the presence of an inclination toward evil in humanity from birth. God himself said that, in the antediluvian world, “every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood” (Gen. 8:21). King David took the issue further when he was so overwhelmed with remorse over the heinous nature of his own sin that he exclaimed, “I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me” (Ps. 51:5). The yetzer hara concept, wherein the evil inclination is believed to be inborn in all human beings, contrasts with and is distinct from the Augustinian concept of “original sin,” since it does not suggest that “sin” is transmitted from generation to generation by the physical act of human conjugation.[11]

Contrary to the rabbinic view that the yetzer hatov is received around the time of puberty, Scripture indicates that it is also inherent in human creation from birth. Paul made it clear that all the non-Jewish people of the earth have resident in their beings the same Torah (Law of God) that was given to the Israelites at Mt. Sinai.[12] It is the Torah that is written on the heart of every human being that the apostle described as the human conscience.[13] Apparently, the Torah was written in the first human being’s heart at the time of his vivification, for Scripture declares that God “breathed into [Adam’s] nostrils the breath (neshamab) of life, and he became a living being (Gen. 2:7). Since Holy Scripture is “God-breathed” (2 Tim. 2:7), it is likely that the Torah was “written” on the human heart when God “breathed” life into humanity. As Elihu declared to Job, “There is a spirit in a person, the neshamah of the Almighty, that gives them understanding” (Job 32:8). The “breath of the Almighty” is the “spirit” that generates “understanding” in the human heart. The yetzer hatov is, therefore, inherent in human life and coexists with the yetzer hara from birth so that both good and evil engage in a continuing conflict in the human heart and mind ever thereafter. From the moment that primal humanity acquired the knowledge of good and evil, all human beings have experienced the “conflict between good and evil … conflict within the human person, conflict among human beings, [and] conflict between human person and the cosmos,”[14] Anthony Akinwale rightly concludes.

Zvi Yehuda observes that “this metaphor of duality and constant battle between the yetzer-tov and yetzer-ra dramatizes the complexity and intensity of the human moral dilemma … Metaphorically, the righteous have the yetzer under their grip; the wicked are within the grip of their yetzer. The virtuous ones rule over their drives; the wicked ones let their drives rule over them.”[15] This is the battle that makes it possible for “human corruption and failure” to be manifest through “conflicts and hatred, loneliness, fear, and depression,”[16] says Kallistos Ware.

Even believing upon the Messiah for salvation from sin does not obliterate the human potential for sin. It merely makes one positionally righteous by the imputation and impartation of the righteousness of Christ to the believer and makes it possible for the Lawgiver (the Holy Spirit) to become resident in the heart of the believer, thereby empowering him to overcome evil by doing good.[17] What God intended in the beginning by infusing humanity with his Word, a “Torah written on their hearts,” he completed through the impartation of the Holy Spirit to those who would believe upon his Son for justification from their sins.

Since the human instinct for survival is connected with or a part of the inclination toward evil,[18] it presents a major challenge to the human person in that it also is a focal point for perceived threats to one’s wellbeing that can trigger the “flight or fight” impulse when, for whatever reason, one feels threatened. A natural impulse of the fear of potential injury to one’s person can expand into paranoia which then can produce prejudice and bigotry. This, too, is both a psychological and a spiritual matter, for these issues can rapidly expand into revulsion, contempt, animosity, and violence. The author of the book of Hebrews says that a “root of bitterness” can “spring up” to “trouble” a person, eventually causing him to be “defiled.”[19] Controlling anger and paranoia when they arise, therefore, is essential to both mental and spiritual health. As Paul said, “Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry… In your anger do not sin” (Eph. 4:26).

This is why Jesus defined the root cause of murder this way: “You have heard that the ancients were told, ‘You shall not commit murder,’ and ‘whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, ‘You good-for-nothing,’ shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell” (Matt. 5:21-22). Jesus took this matter much further, however, when he said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44). The murderous spirit that results in homicide is, therefore, first of all, a heart issue. It results from making concessions to the yetzer hara and not controlling that inclination by the yetzer hatov.

The prophets and sages of Israel maintained that it is vital for every human being to be educated in the truth, the divine instructions codified in the Torah and the rest of Hebrew Scripture. The blessed and righteous person is the one who “delights in the Torah of the Lord” and meditates in it “day and night” finds that “whatever he does prospers” (Ps. 1:1-3). Because the human mechanism is “hypersensitive, delicately balanced,” says Kallistos Ware, it all too easily goes wrong; yet, there is “incomparably more” to the “human person,”[20] because every human being is uniquely God’s creation and, as such, is possessed of infinite value. Each person is capable of profound and utterly depraved evil, yet, under the influence of the inclination toward good and the indwelling Spirit of God, each person is capable of immeasurable good.

In order to ensure that the yetzer hatov, through the agency of the Spirit and the Word of God, overcomes evil when it is presented, a person must be wise to the devices of haSatan when, in his profound subtlety, he presents himself as an “angel of light” and seeks to beguile the person by corrupting him from the “simplicity” of divine truth and righteous conduct (2 Cor. 11:3). Those who fail to educate themselves in respect to haSatan’s devices inevitably find themselves outwitted and overcome with evil. Only faith in God and his divine Word can empower for victory.

Sadly, rather than ruling their yetzer hara through the power of the Word and Spirit of God, so many human beings come to be ruled by the inclination toward evil to such a degree that the inclination toward good is so severely suppressed as to be virtually nonexistent. Paul spoke of such individuals as having had their “conscience [yetzer hatov] seared with a branding iron” (1 Tim. 4:2). These are the people who have submitted themselves to evil to such a degree that they have been “given over to a depraved mind” (Rom. 1:28). Because they “love not the truth … God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie and so that all will be condemned” (2 These. 2:11-12). This is what the apostle said occurred with pagans who, rather than worshiping the living God when they came to know him, converted their insight of God into anthropomorphisms and theriomorphisms and engaged in idolatry that prompted God to turn them over to the reprobate mindset that drove them to hedonistic excesses (Rom. 1:20-32).

Evil that is resident in the human heart can be controlled by engaging in a spiritual warfare wherein one follows the example of Paul who declared, “I discipline my body and make it my slave so that … I myself will not be disqualified” (1 Cor. 9:27). To do so, “everyone who competes … exercises self-control in all things” (1 Cor. 9:25). Impulses toward prejudice and hatred are best controlled when they arise, not after they are allowed to fester and breed violent intent. Antisemitism is obviated when human beings employ their God-given inclination toward good to constrain their all-too-human inclination toward evil.

This article is an excerpt from Dr. John D. Garr’s book, Anti-Israelism: The New Face of Antisemitism, which can be purchased from the store or in any major bookstores.

[1] When Paul asked the rhetorical question, “Who shall deliver me from this body doomed to death?” he answered his own question with this conclusion: “I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

[2] The two inclinations can be transliterated from Hebrew into English as 1) yetzer hatov (literally “inclination, the good”) or as yetzer ha-tov, yetzer tov, or yetzer-tov and 2) yetzer hara (literally “inclination, the evil”) or as yetzer ha-ra, yetzer ra, or yetzer-ra.

[3] Alan M. Dershowitz, Rights from Wrongs: A Secular Theory of the Origins of Rights (New York: Basic Books, 2004), pp. 239-240. Dershowitz references Genesis 6:5, 8:21 from the Hebrew Scriptures and Berachot 61a and Sukkah 52a from the Talmud.

[4] Solomon Schecter, Some Aspects of Rabbinic Theology (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1910), pp. 242-263.

[5] See Sifre Deuteronomy, Ekev 45 (a rabbinic collection compiled in the third century in Israel). See also Maimonides, The Guide for the Perplexed (1190), III:22.

[6] For a comprehensive discussion of the yetzer hara, see Samuel Tobias Lachs, Humanism in Talmud and Midrash (Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Press, 1993), pp.

[7] Nachman of Breslov made this statement in the name of Rabbi Shmuel, basing his contention on Ecclesiastes 4:4, Genesis Rabbah 9:7, and Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 38a. See Joel Lurie Grishaver, Talmud with Training Wheels (Los Angeles, CA: Torah Aura Productions, 2005), vol. 3, p. 9.

[8] See also Genesis Rabbah 9:7. See Joseph Telushkin, Jewish Literacy: The Most Important Things to Know about the Jewish Religion (San Francisco: HarperCollins Publishers, 2001), p. 599.

[9] Reuven P. Bulka, Jewish Marriage: A Halakhic Ethic (New York: KTAV Publishing House, 1986), p. 107.

[10] Jack J. Cohen, Jewish Education in Democratic Society (Tyler, TX: Reconstruction Press, 1964), p. 328. Also Philip 5. Berg, The Power of You: Kabbalistic Wisdom to Create the Movie of Your Life (New York: Research Centre of Kabbalah, 2004), p. 164.

[11] Tatha Wiley, Original Sin: Origins, Developments, Contemporary Meanings. (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2002), pp. 56-80. Also, Howard Greenstein, Kendra G. Hotz, and John Kaltner, What Do Our Neighbors Believe?: Questions and Answers on Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), pp. 68-69.

[12] Romans 2:14: “Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law.”

[13] Romans 2:15: “[Gentiles] show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them.” The human conscience, therefore, is an application or manifestation of the Torah. The Hebrew word torah has been almost universally translated as “law”; however, from its etymology, it actually means “instruction.” The word torah is derived from yarah, an archery term that means “to hit the mark.” The word torah is related to the words moreh (“teacher”) and horeh (“parent”), which come from the same root. The Torah contains law; how-ever, it is much more than “law”; it is the instruction of a wise father to his children.

[14] Anthony Akinwale, “Reconciliation,” in The Oxford Handbook of Sacramental Theology, Hans Boers-ma and Matthew Levering, eds. (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2015), p. 549.

[15] Zvi Yehuda, “Ve-Khof Et Yitzrenu Le-Hushtabed Lakh—Direct Our Impulses [Yetzer],” in Yom Kippur Readings: Inspiration, Information, Contemplation, Doc Peretz Elkins, ed. (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2005), p. 42.

[16] Kallistos Ware, “In the Image and Likeness’: The Uniqueness of the Human Person,” in Personhood: Orthodox Christianity and the Connection between Body, Mind, and Soul, John T. Chirban, ed. (Westport, CT: Bergin & Garvey, 1996), p. 11.

[17] To confirm the Holy Spirit as the lawgiver, compare Deuteronomy 9:10 (where Scriptures says that the Torah was written “by the finger of God”) with Luke 11:20 (where Jesus said that he cast out demons by “the finger of God”) and Matthew 12.28 (where Jesus said I cast out demons by “the Spirit of God”). For establishing the fact that evil is overcome through Holy Spirit empowerment, see Romans 8:2, 3, 9; 12:21. To establish the fact that the purpose of the law as divine instruction is established by faith, see

Romans 3:31.

[18] Abraham J. Twerski, The Enemy Within: Confronting Youre a Changed the 21st Century (Brooklyn, NY: Shaar Press, 2002), p. 185. Also, Stan Tenen, The Alphabet that Changed the World: How Genesis Preserves a Science of Consciousness in Geometry and Gesture (Berkley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 2011).

[19] Hebrews 12:15. To describe the “bitterness” that can spring up, the author uses the Greek word pikea, which means “bitter gall.”

[20] Ware, in Chairman, p. 11.

About the Author
John D. Garr, Ph.D.
President & CEO