Judaism teaches that God created man with two competing impulses, the good impulse and the evil impulse. But this translation from the Hebrew is imperfect, as explained by Jeffrey Spitzer, Chairman of the Department of Rabbinic Literature at the Gann Academy. “[The evil impulse] is not a demonic force that pushes a person to do evil, but rather a drive toward pleasure or property or security, which if left unlimited, can lead to evil (cf. Genesis Rabbah 9:7). When properly controlled by the [good impulse, the evil impulse] leads to many socially desirable results, including marriage, business, and community.[i]”
This description of the struggle between the good and evil impulses are very consistent with current theories about the brain and human psychology today. Our base drives and instincts derive from the more primitive parts of the brain (the so-called Reptilian Brain) whereas our social, cooperative, and compassionate traits come from the more evolved regions of the brain like the frontal cortex. And often the different regions of the brain are in conflict. (For a detailed discussion, check out Paul Gilbert’s Compassionate Mind Foundation here).
Here are two additional descriptions of the evil impulse from the Talmud that I find illuminating, especially with respect to idolatry.
“The first impulse to evil is as thin as a spider’s gossamer, but in the end it is as think as a cart rope.[ii]”
“Such is the nature of the impulse to evil: One day it bids a man ‘Do this’; the next day “do that”; until finally it says to him Go worship idols. And he goes and worships them.[iii]”
What do these teach us? The first teaches that once we begin to compromise our values, we begin to compromise them more frequently, and to a larger degree. The new values become ingrained, and a habit. (Which by the way, is entirely consistent with contemporary neurobiology research showing that repeated actions reinforce certain neural pathways.)
The second teaches that idolatry is not a single act. It is a pattern that develops over time. And both point to a view of idolatry as something that arises from basic human nature. If we give in to the base drives, and lose sight of people-first values, we begin to practice idolatry. If this is true, we would expect the battle against idolatry to be an ongoing one, and we would see idolatry recurring again and again throughout history. Which in fact we do.
[ii] Book of Legends, Sefer Ha-Aggadah Legends from the Talmud and Midrash. Edited by Hayim Bialik and Yehoshua Ravinitzky. Translated by William Braude. Schoken books 1992. p. 537:7
[iii] Book of Legends, Sefer Ha-Aggadah Legends from the Talmud and Midrash. Edited by Hayim Bialik and Yehoshua Ravinitzky. Translated by William Braude. Schoken books 1992. p. 537:8