What the Rabbis Knew

Beyond the Platonic conceptions of good and evil is a duality that exists in creative tension. Just ask the rabbis.

By Max Borders – June 19, 2024

The creative tension between these two forces prods us forward in life. These are major features in rabbinic psychology and anthropology. The yetzer hara is not intrinsically evil. Rather, it is raw, untamed energy that manifests itself in the form of drives, especially sexual. Nevertheless, without it, according to the rabbis, one would not be driven to marry, have children, build a home, or engage in business. —Pirke Avot

Yetzer Harah and Yetzer Hatov are concepts from Jewish philosophy that refer to an inclination towards “evil” (Yetzer Harah) and an inclination towards “good” (Yetzer Hatov). These opposing forces are seen as existing within every individual, and the struggle between them—or balance—is central to our condition.

But do not think of these forces as black and white.

Grey Ethics

Yetzer Harah is not considered inherently evil in all contexts. Instead, the rabbis understood the drive as a part of human nature that can lead to negative outcomes if not controlled. Yetzer Harah is therefore necessary for human survival and includes drives such as ambition, desire, and competition. When left unchecked, these can lead to harmful actions, whether to oneself or others.

Social Virtues

  1. Nonviolence — Initiate no harm
  2. Integrity — Be true to self and to others; to honor your word
  3. Compassion — Discover suffering and properly help relieve it
  4. Pluralism — Respect differences, seek understanding
  5. Stewardship — Leave property or offices better off
  6. Rationality — Think critically in pursuit of truth or ends

Personal Virtues

  1. Centeredness — Self-possession in the face of adversity
  2. Courage — Overcoming fear: the master virtue
  3. Resilience — Working through suffering, developing scars
  4. Sovereignty — Striving to expand one’s efficacy
  5. Discipline — Pursuing excellence ceaselessly, even if it hurts
  6. Curiosity — Openness to new insights, wisdom, and wonders; Willingness to revise one’s perspective,

Such is not to argue that the twelve virtues should be taken lightly. Instead, think of the virtues as expressions of Yetzer Hatov, guardrails to channel Yetzer Harah. But if the reverse is also true, then Yetzer Hatov without Yetzer Hatov can lead to harmful inaction or constraint—impotence, torpor, or an unfucked spouse. Worse, it can lead to rampant, judgmental pillar sainthood.

Grey ethics relates to the challenge of maintaining a balance between these two inclinations, which creates a paradoxical form of good—at least for beings who are not gods.

Grey ethics acknowledges many circumstances where the right course of action is not clear-cut, without ceding ground to any forms of normative relativism. Grey ethics practitioners recognize human complexity and that Platonic abstractions such as pure evil or pure good are unhelpful in the context of embodied beings. The evil of either Yetzer Harah or Yetzer Hatov lies in the excess of either or the failure to balance one with the other.

We ought to seek both occasional pleasures and deeper fulfillment. But we must draw boundaries to prevent our collective descent into decadence, which threatens vital structures such as family, community, and society.

Grey ethics involves grey dialectics.

The challenge, therefore, is to find a balance between indulging our desires and maintaining responsibility—that is, to acknowledge and embrace the Yetzer Hatov while setting limits on the Yetzer Harah. It involves cultivating self-awareness, exercising discipline, and developing a subtler understanding of moral practice beyond Platonic dichotomies.

Libertinism has its limits, of course. But so also does pillar-sainthood.

יצר הראח ויצר הטוב

What the Rabbis Knew

The rabbis understood our ongoing struggle to navigate the tides of desire. The need for freedom within a scaffolding of ethical conduct creates the conditions for the emergence of a more generative people. The implied middle path, Grey Ethics, allows for the pursuit of pleasure and fulfillment within the confines of principle and virtue.

But there is something else that is important to remember:

He who has a why to live can bear almost any how. —Nietzsche

In other words, when you transmute your vision of the good into your greatest desire, you can endure hardship and sacrifice in pursuit of your mission. You will accrue moments filled with meaning—and, therefore, a sense of fulfillment—along the way.

And your children will inherit the fruits.