The Persistence of Evil

30 11 2011

I find inspiring a remark made by Tom Shippey in an interview with Peter Jackson for the LOTR extended editions. He comments upon an incident which occurs early in the first book, when Frodo first holds the ring of power in his hand:

Frodo took it from his breeches-pocket, where it was clasped to a chain that hung from his belt. He unfastened it and handed it slowly to the wizard. It suddenly felt very heavy, as if either it or Frodo himself was in some way reluctant for Gandalf to touch it.
The Lord of the Rings (London: Harper Collins, 1995), 48

As Shippey observes, the text gives us two options. Either the ring is actually becoming heavier in Frodo’s hand, or Frodo imagines that the ring is becoming heavier. The practical upshot is significant: if the ring is becoming heavier, then evil (in Tolkien’s universe) possesses an external, physical presence. Operating upon the protagonists from the outside, it causes them to do deplorable things in their attempts to either secure the ring of power for themselves, or in their reluctance to let it be destroyed. They are no more to blame for their behaviour than is any victim of a violent crime. Alternatively, should Frodo be merely imagining the heaviness of the ring, then evil possesses an internal, metaphysical presence. Shippey refers to this as a “Freudian” interpretation. Latent within the protagonists all along, together with an ability to resist its seductive charms, the capacity for evil is encouraged by the presence of the ring but does not derive from it. One way or another, the greater the power and the strength that the character possesses, the more grievous would be their behaviour under the influence of evil, whatever its source.

This last weekend, I attended Limmud Oz Fest: the second such event to have taken place in Australia, and the first within the great state of Victoria. Keen on pursuing this line of thought, I ran a session on Shabbat morning, entitled “Evolution of a Horny Devil: Satan in the Talmud and Midrash”. My intention was to present a variety of sources within the rabbinic literature, dealing with (the) Satan, or “Samael”. I was rather astonished at the sheer number of such sources that I discovered, ranged throughout the Babylonian and Palestinian Talmuds (although overwhelmingly within the former), Midrash Rabbah (chiefly Genesis-Deuteronomy, but also Esther and Qohelet), Pirqei deRebi Eliezer and Midrash Tanchuma. I have no doubt that, had I really spent some time on this, I would have found much more, and had I opened things up to include later sources (I did, though just for fun, include a single text from the Zohar and some passages from the liturgy) I am sure I would have found abundantly more.

It is curious that so many people assert that Judaism lacks a devil figure, given the overwhelmingly large number of references to not just one, but a veritable army of satans, with Samael (“the chief of the satans”) at its head. Some time ago, I had an argument with John Hobbins about whether or not Judaism possesses (or at least possessed) the notion of eternal damnation. (If you are interested, this is John’s first post, my response, and my response to his excellent comments.) I still consider the idea to be fundamentally problematic (awarding an infinite punishment to a finite crime, no matter how great, is obscene), but recant of my original position: that such a notion was absent from the literature of the rabbis. It was not absent; it has merely been downplayed.

The same could be said, in every respect, for the figure of (the) Satan. He is described as dropping to earth to entice the first humans (Pirqei deRebi Eliezer 13), tempting both Abraham and Isaac not to go ahead with their (non-)sacrifice (Tanchuma, Vayyera 22-23), taunting and causing the death of Sarah (op.cit. 23), encouraging the people to create a golden calf (Targum P-Jonathan, Ex 32:1), being eager to kill Moses (Deuteronomy Rabbah 11:9), actually killing Vashti (Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 11a), and even bringing about the necessary changes on high to allow for Haman’s drafting an edict of destruction:

אמר רבי ישמעאל שמונה עשר אלף וחמש מאות הלכו לבית המשתה ואכלו ושתו ונשתכרו ונתקלקלו. מיד עמד שטן והלשין עליהם לפני הקדוש ברוך הוא ואמר לפניו רבונו של עולם עד מתי תדבק באמה זו שהם מפרישין לבבם ואמונתם ממך, אם רצונך אבד אמה זו מן העולם כי אינם באים בתשובה לפניך… באותה שעה אמר הקדוש ברוך הוא למה לי אמה שבשבילה הרביתי אותותי ומופתי לכל הקמים עליהם לרעה אשביתה מאנוש זכרם. מיד אמר הקדוש ברוך הוא לשטן הבא לי מגלה ואכתב עליה כליה. באותה שעה הלך השטן והביא לו מגלה וכתב עליה

Rabbi Yishmael said, “18,500 [Jews] went to the feast [of King Ahashverosh]: they ate, they drank, they got drunk and they became decadent. Immediately, Satan stood and testified against them before the Holy One, blessed is he. He said, “Master of the World! For how long will you cleave to this people who separate their hearts and their faith from you? If it be your will, eradicate this people from the world, for they are not coming to you in repentance”… At that moment, the Holy One (blessed is he) said, “What do I need this people for, for whose sake I multiplied my signs and wonders to all those who arose against them for evil? “I will eradicate all remembrance of them from man” (Deuteronomy 32:26)!” Immediately, the Holy One (blessed is he) said to (the) Satan, “Bring me a scroll, that I may write [an edict of] destruction upon it!” At that moment, the Satan went and brought him a scroll, and he wrote upon it.
Esther Rabbah 7:14

[A minor point, but the first reference to the villain in this text is to "Satan", the third to "the Satan", and the second could be construed as either possessing or lacking the definite article, depending on preference. The usage of Satan as a name and as a title is inconsistent throughout the rabbinic literature.]

These references aside, there are also descriptions of Satan being identical with the evil inclination, such as is asserted by Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish in the Babylonian Talmud, Bava Batra 16a. It is not an easy assertion to understand, given his equation of the evil inclination also with the angel of death, and given that the passage falls within the context of an explication the function of the Satan in the biblical book of Job: a role that is clearly both physical and external to the main protagonist, and one with whom the rabbis even sympathise:

אמר רבי יצחק קשה צערו של שטן יותר משל איוב משל לעבד שאמר לו רבו שבור חבית ושמור את יינה

[God tells the Satan that Job is in his power, but that he must spare Job's life.] Rabbi Yitzhak said, “Satan’s anguish was greater than Job’s! This is like a servant who is told by his master to break open a barrel but not spill any wine.”
Babylonian Talmud, Bava Batra 16a

It is my feeling that internalisations of evil come into their own at precisely the time that Jews begin to assert the non-existence (or to at least downplay the existence) of powers other than God, but that the rabbinic passages under consideration testify to an overwhelming, and considerably more dominant, externalisation of the phenomenon. Whether it’s Rabbi Meir driving Satan out of the two people in whom he dwelt, and who were fighting every Friday evening (Gittin 52a), Shmuel’s insistence on only travelling with a non-Jew, for Satan has no influence upon two nationalities simultaneously (Shabbat 32a), the stipulation that one must blow the shofar on Rosh haShana in order to confound the Satan and prevent his testifying (Rosh haShana 16b), or the assertion that he has no power to indict people on Yom Kippur (Yoma 20a), the overwhelming number of references take his physical and objective reality at face value.

Certain of the participants disagreed with my assessment, preferring to understand the tone of the passages that we considered as ironic, playful or fantastic, which I think is perfectly reasonable. All of the passages were in the aggadah, and I see no reason why any of them should be taken seriously, nor consistently with any of the others. For an example of a particularly playful midrash, and one with interesting parallels to Targum P-Jonathan, consider the following explanation of the origin of evil:

והאדם ידע את חוה אשתו ותהר ותלד את קין ותאמר קניתי איש את יהוה

Then the man knew his wife, Eve, and she became pregnant and delivered Cain. She said, “I have acquired a man with the Lord.”
Genesis 4:1

ואדם ידע ית חוה אתתה דהוה חמידת למלאכא ואעדיאת וילדת ית קין ואמרת קניתי לגברא ית מלאכא דיי

Then Adam knew his wife, Eve, that she had desired the angel. She became pregnant and she delivered Cain. She said, “I have acquired a man with the angel of the Lord.”
Targum P-Jonathan, Genesis 4:1

כתיב ומפרי העץ אשר בתוך הגן, תנא רבי זעירא אומר מפרי העץ, אין העץ הזה אלא אדם שנמשל כעץ, שנאמר כי האדם עץ השדה וגו’. אשר בתוך הגן, אין בתוך הגן אלא לשון נקיה, מה שבתוך הגוף, אשר בתוך הגן, אשר בתוך האשה. ואין גן אלא האשה שנמשלה לגן, שנאמר גן נעול אחתי כלה, מה הגנה הזו כל מה שנזרעה היא צומחת ומוציאה, כך האשה הזאת כל מה שנזרעה הרה וילדת מבעלה. בא אליה ורוכב נחש ועברה את קין, ואחר כך עברה את הבל, שנאמר והאדם ידע את חוה אשתו. מהו ידע, שהיתה מעברת וראתה דמותו שלא היה מן התחתונים אלא מן העליונים, והביטה ואמרה קניתי איש את יי

It is written, “but from the fruit of the tree in the midst of the garden” (Gen 3:3). It is taught that Rabbi Zeira says, “From the fruit of the tree? This tree can only be a reference to man, who is likened to a tree, as it says: “For man is a tree of the field” (Deut 20:19). In the midst of the garden? “In the midst of the garden” can only be a euphemism for what is within the body. In the midst of the garden means, “in the midst of the woman”, for this garden can only be a reference to the woman, who is likened to a garden, as it says: “My sister, my bride is a locked garden” (Songs 4:12). Just as with this garden, everything that is planted in it blossoms and grows out of it, so too with this woman: she becomes pregnant and delivers from her husband whatever is planted within her. A serpent approached her and mounted [her] and she became pregnant with Cain. Afterwards, she became pregnant with Abel. As it says, “Then the man knew his wife, Eve” (Gen 4:1). What did he know? That she was pregnant. She saw his form [Cain's form], that it was not like those below but like those above, and she looked and said, “I have acquired a man with the Lord” (Gen 4:1).”
Pirqei deRebi Eliezer 21


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5 responses

30 11 2011
Annelise

That explanation of Cain really changes the sense of Genesis 4 as I’d read it otherwise. Immediately after the decision to disregard God in exchange for a particular desire, this resulting disharmony is sudden, also very relational, and devastating. The killing of Abel seems not to be a punishment, since God is portrayed as showing Cain to choose what is good, but a natural consequence into which the human family blindly stepped. There’s an impression of evil, whatever it is, being not merely a matter of arbitrary rules and according punishments; it’s almost inseparable from the decay and violence it brings in force, at its heart.

This is what makes the explanation here so fundamentally different. You catch it well in the suggestion about LOTR: “Latent within the protagonists all along, together with an ability to resist its seductive charms, the capacity for evil is encouraged by the presence of the ring but does not derive from it.” If Cain is Adam’s son, then both he and Abel come from the same heritage, and yet make such different choices. “Sin crouches at the door; / Its urge is toward you / Yet you can be its master.” If Cain comes inherently from evil, though, his corruption is a matter of nature, and the consequence is the work of either a cruel sovereign or of empty chance. There is neither dignity nor kindness anywhere, if so. Only if both Cain and Abel are portrayed as sons of Adam is there any sense in the story that humanity, and our very real desires, are even redemptible.

30 11 2011
Annelise

It’s a lot like the characters of Gollum and Bilbo, I guess (and Frodo, following them), in those paragraphs where Gandalf tells Frodo about Gollum’s connection with hobbits; where he hopes there might be a cure for Gollum, “though he possessed the Ring for so long, almost as far back as he can remember… eating up his mind, of course, and the torment had become almost unbearable”. J.R.R.T treads so carefully through something so perplexing, but it’s such a full reflection of that feeling. And to do so, he draws the commonalities between the two characters, heavily emphasising what is rewritten and changed in the explanation of a serpent as father.

2 12 2011
Daniel Lipman Lowbeer

Um … “Persistence”. Sorry.
Great article though :)

2 12 2011
Simon Holloway

Corrected. You pedent.

2 12 2011
Annelise

I’m going to suggest ‘persistaunce’ for use as the most attractive form of the word in English.

We seem to’ve taken it directly from the French, who used ‘persistance’ at least some of the time, as did many English writers then. If it’s original spelling we’re after, we’ll be reviving dead languages. Still, there’s better pedantic authority (if not more confusing or less satisfying, but that can’t disqualify it) in the points of first contact with English than in seventeenth or eighteenth century dictionaries.

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