Here’s a fuller discussion of the Jewish teaching that we have two impulses, the yetzer hara and the yetzer hatov.
Judaism 101 on “Human Nature.”
The yetzer tov is the moral conscience, the inner voice that reminds you of G-d’s law when you consider doing something that is forbidden. According to some views, it does not enter a person until his 13th birthday, when he becomes responsible for following the commandments. See Bar Mitzvah.
The yetzer ra is more difficult to define, because there are many different ideas about it. It is not a desire to do evil in the way we normally think of it in Western society: a desire to cause senseless harm. Rather, it is usually conceived as the selfish nature, the desire to satisfy personal needs (food, shelter, sex, etc.) without regard for the moral consequences of fulfilling those desires.
The yetzer ra is not a bad thing. It was created by G-d, and all things created by G-d are good. The Talmud notes that without the yetzer ra (the desire to satisfy personal needs), man would not build a house, marry a wife, beget children or conduct business affairs. But the yetzer ra can lead to wrongdoing when it is not controlled by the yetzer tov. There is nothing inherently wrong with hunger, but it can lead you to steal food. There is nothing inherently wrong with sexual desire, but it can lead you to commit rape, adultery, incest or other sexual perversion. …
People have the ability to choose which impulse to follow: the yetzer tov or the yetzer ra. That is the heart of the Jewish understanding of free will. The Talmud notes that all people are descended from Adam, so no one can blame his own wickedness on his ancestry. On the contrary, we all have the ability to make our own choices, and we will all be held responsible for the choices we make.
Now, it is anachronistic to project medieval Jewish distinctions back into New Testament times, but this does put the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness into an interesting light. Jesus’ first temptation is to turn stones to bread–to satisfy hunger, something that is not wrong in itself. But Judaism would see that desire as arising in the yetzer hara. Without that impulse, we would not be inclined to do the basic things that keep us alive–but it can be misdirected, and so must be controlled.
Update: A friend sends me a link to an article by Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein–“Senator, You’re No Jonathan Edwards.”
She then says,
Sorry to sound critical, but I am again amazed at the blanket assertion that the distinctions are medieval…. First, there really is no proof that these decidedly stop at the Middle Ages. With a culture that has been heavily dependent on oral tradition as well as written, we may never know for sure the age of some idea, approach, or practice. Secondly, just as with the account of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, as I’ve sat at the feet of rabbis in this last decade, I’ve been consistently struck by how much rabbinic traditions shed light on New Testament passages. I can learn some particular tradition that was written down late, such as from The Zohar, and suddenly, the teaching will make very clear why a certain passage in the New Testament is composed the way it is. Some day, I’ll collate these….
To which I respond–Indeed. I accept all you say. Understand that I threw in the statement (“it is anachronistic to project medieval Jewish distinctions back into New Testament times”) to cover myself from the accusation of being anachronistic by citing this, since I’ve sometimes been critical of those who would try to interpret the Last Supper narratives in the light of the medieval seder (e.g., Scott Hahn, with his forced interpretation of the four cups). I agree with you that the Jewish tradition here does shed light on the New Testament stories. That’s the reason I made the connection. If you (or anyone you know) can send me some specific Talmudic and Kabbalistic references to help elaborate this discussion, I would be very grateful. 🙂