The Devil and Us

The other day, my dental hygienist asked me a very significant question. Of course, she had a dental probe in my mouth at the time. But it was so important that she removed it to let me answer. We’d been talking about her experiences as a believing, devoted member of the Armenian Apostolic church and their trip to Israel. During our conversation – well, her talking and my grunting – she asked me, “Do Jews believe in the Devil?”

I’m generally not asked questions about the Devil. It’s just not a “thing” for us. There was a period in the early centuries when the rabbis incorporated the figure of Satan as a demonic force loosed by God to test the Jewish people. In the Jewish literature of the rabbis, Satan is portrayed as a singular being who lures men into sin, and as a prosecutor in the divine tribunal, trying to convince God to mete out harsh penalties. He is said to have been a powerful angel, able to fly and assume the shape of men, women, and animals.

By the medieval period, this image of Satan as an actual being diminished. It was understood as a Christian belief, not to be emulated. This doesn’t mean that there were not appreciable superstitions related to Satan. In Christian dominated Europe, the image and the presence of Satan was ubiquitous, as was the unfortunate tendency to call Jews the devil’s spawn. This was picked up in popular Jewish culture and then channeled through the prism of Kabbalistic texts. The notion of an animated universe, filled with evil spirits, was anathema to many rabbis of the Middle Ages, but eagerly embraced by the common folk.

Many years ago, as a young rabbi in Texas, I put together a study group with a group from my temple and a group from a liberal-leaningDisciples of Christ church. The minister, Dick Lord, was a smart, funny, and open-hearted friend who was willing to take on any and all questions and controversies about our respective beliefs. I will never forget the day we spoke about evil. He was absolutely sure that there was a demonic force that existed in the world, an independent malevolent presence that sought to uproot human life. How else, he wondered, could one explain the evil in the world? It had to come from somewhere.

I replied that, from a Jewish perspective, there was no independent force, no Devil in the Universe. Jews believe in the Yetzer ha-tov, and the Yetzer ha-ra: the impulse for good and the impulse for evil. Human beings can perform selfless deeds of breath-taking good and have the capacity to commit unbearably evil acts. It is all about our individual existential decisions, choices to live a life of decency or conversely to stray from the path of righteousness. This dualistic battle, this endless acrobatic feat of finding a balance between our own selfish, self-serving agendas, and the greater good, is a struggle throughout our lives.

Most of the time we know what’s the right thing to do. But we also know what’s the most expedient thing that redounds to our benefit, and frequently, the two are diametrically opposed. 

No Jewish logic can justify saying, “The devil made me do it.” We may want to blame a force outside of ourselves. It makes us feel less overwhelmed and guilty.

The Jewish lexicon does not include the phrase, “The devil made me do it.” No force pushes us against our will to sin. It’s a decision, to do good or to do evil. The Yetzer ha-tov and the Yetzer ha-ra are impulses that make us think all of the time.No, Jews don’t believe in Satan. There’s no one to blame, no devil to shake our fists at. It’s all on us. It’s looking in the mirror and challenging ourselves to aspire to be our best selves.

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