Thursday, February 19, 2009

Outer Critics, Inner Adversary

I am teaching a course in Mussar, the Jewish ethical training system. One of the Mussar teachings is that each of us contains an Inner Adversary (Yetzer haRah) perfectly tailored to our own psychology, and designed to challenge us to grow ethically at every state of our moral development. It is as if we were each born with an inner moral coach who comes up with tests designed to both test the quality of our present level of attainment and push us toward an even higher one.

While I find the idea intriguing, I must admit that I tended to take it in a somewhat abstract and even off-handed manner. Perhaps because I did so my Inner Adversary decided to work overtime.

Over the past seven days I have received more hate mail that at any other time in my writing career with the single exception of the essay I published in Spirituality & Health magazine critical of The Secret. Most of the mail was from people angry over the way I am teaching a three-week introduction to Islam for Jews.

The basic criticism is that I am whitewashing Islam, making it respectable, when, in fact, it is the greatest threat to Jews, Americans, and democracy in the 21st century. I was called a self-hating Jew, and anti-Semite, a Muslim sympathizer, and a terrorist collaborator.

I admit to being naïve when it comes to people’s responses to my work, and I admit to being shocked, hurt, and not a little frightened by the venom I sensed in these emails. The synagogue hosting this seminar has hired an off-duty police officer to help insure that things do not turn physically violent.

At first I was just stunned and upset by what was happening. Then I remembered the Inner Adversary and, without putting too fine a point on this, began to see this as the work of Yetzer haRah. In other words I set up the conditions that would invite the responses that would force me to look at what I was doing.

Regarding Islam and the teaching of religion in general, I always present the religions I teach in their best light. I want people to learn something positive from these traditions. I also believe that each religion contains gems of wisdom from which all can benefit. So I teach each religion as the best and brightest followers of that faith see that faith. Once we have a sense of that, however, I can and do turn to the darker aspects of the faith.

I also got two letters from a very thoughtful and passionate man responding to my earlier post “I am not Open-Minded.” This gentleman found my basic philosophy empty of any intellectual value whatsoever. I posted both letters in the comments section of that blog entry so you can read them for yourself.

I read his two emails carefully, hoping that I might see where my logic is faulty, and where I need to rethink what I think. The truth is I am still convinced that what I say is not only true, but also compelling.

This of course doesn’t prove either point. All it proves is that I am failing to grow from the efforts of my Yetzer haRah. I’m sorry about that for two reasons. First because it might mean I have reached my intellectual plateau, and, second, because it might mean my Yetzer haRah will try harder.

Disagree with me all you want, but be nice. I bruise easily.


Grégoire said...

Dear Rabbi Rami:

This is so interesting. I wish I could sit in on your discourse re: Islam. From your photograph it doesn't look like you're either a terrorist or the skinhead type. People say the darnedest things.

One of the Mussar teachings is that each of us contains an Inner Adversary (Yetzer haRah) perfectly tailored to our own psychology, and designed to challenge us to grow ethically at every state of our moral development. It is as if we were each born with an inner moral coach who comes up with tests designed to both test the quality of our present level of attainment and push us toward an even higher one.

This sounds like a sort of cross between psychoanalysis and the dialectical process of history.

Not a perfect analogy, but it also sounds a little like Satan, at least in the way the fundamentalist Christians describe him - as someone who one is always supposed to fight against, and through the struggle she achieves a higher measure of self-awareness.

I'm curious as to the conclusion of Jewish ethics. Is there a Hegelian synthesis with a new antithesis, or is there a communion with one's own 'Shadow' (in Jung's terms) and an achievement of wholeness at the end?

Disagree with me all you want, but be nice. I bruise easily.

I need an internet chant which goes something like: 'forgive me for the nonsense I post in response to your articles. I'm a mere chucklehead who types quickly and without thinking. Let my insults not be insults...'

Anyway, I appreciate your articles, and the fine diversity of people here. If I've appeared to be insulting (which I'm sure I have) it's more a reflection of my thoughtlessness than the quality of your thought. Perhaps it's my own Yetzer haRah at work.

Eruesso said...

Since I'm just a student I don't have the years of wisdom to debate, agree, or disagree.

So I do the only thing I can do, listen. I do not listen because you are right or wrong, but I listen because you have interesting things to say.

Patti said...

Why do you think your Yetzer haRah is not growing because of this interaction? Are we supposed to become hard and unmoving towards others reactions to us? When we do, we will become hard and unmoving towards them...and that can not be ethical or moral. I think we are supposed to hurt, it reminds those of us who seek to love what it feels like and should propel us to protect others from it.

I am sure I do not understand what a Yetzer haRah really is, but it sounds like a conscience to me. Am I missing something?

Rabbi Rami said...

Thanks for the comments. Yetzer haRah isn't conscience, it is your inner impulse to act selfishly, thoughtlessly, at the expense of others. In the Mussar context I mentioned the Yetzer haRah constantly puts obstacles in your way challenging you to deal with them in a manner that either cultivates holiness or demeans it. There is no synthesis here. Rather as you become more holy, your Yetzer becomes more clever in its obstacles. The Talmud says: The greater the person the more powerful the Yetzer haRah.

dtedac said...

Dear Rabbi Rami:

I took a look at the two critical letters you posted. For someone who is supposed to be looking for logical flaws in your presentation, it seemed to me that his posts were more sophistry than anything else. Not convincing.

As for the Islam talk, I really see the opposition you are getting as part of a greater lack of tolerance for Islam as a whole. Many people are insisting that Islam is intrinsically evil and thus no good could ever come from it. I believe that's all wrong. There is a lot of good and a lot of wisdom in Islam, as well as some unpleasant content. The Al-Fatiha (first chapter of the Qur'an) says that God is compassionate, merciful, Lord of the universe, the one whom we worship and approach. How is this much different from other faiths?

Hang in there, Rabbi. Everybody's got an axe to grind, it seems.


Peter M. Schogol said...

The Reform rabbi and the imam of the Islamic community center in the town I live in are friends. The rabbi gets a lot of support for this from his congregation. The imam gets a lot of shit from his. Nevertheless I see this odd couple frequently huddled over Turkish coffee and bakhlava at the local Lebanese restaurant.

"Tout ce qui monte, converge," said Teilhard de Chardin. Everything that rises converges. When Jews and Muslims can see over the barbed wire of their own deploying a golden city can emerge. At the very least, a sacred silence of shared compassion.

It's easy for me to ask you to forbear, Rami, as I'm not the one receiving death threats. But whether it's your yetzer hara or your yetzer hatov that is motivating you to want to rise above, consider that you may be a lamed-vovnik in training.

Bobby said...

I consider you a prophet and you must remember the reception prophets receive. Truth tellers are never popular.

anam cara wppc said...

Your description of Mussar & Yetzer haRah resembles an application of Calvin's total depravity for Presbyterians. His use of this term meant that we should assume that individuals act in their own self interest. Our form of government reflects this by balancing pastors with the same number of elders in regional bodies & only allowing the pastor to be the “moderator” of the local church governing board. Spiritually, this could be reflected in pairing group discernment with individual discernment.
Thanks for sharing this with us.

AaronHerschel said...


I like the quote. But if everything that rises converges, then what happens when those things meet? If they're anything like lines, they diverge again. Unless they're infinitely converging and never meet. A sort of spiritual version of Zeno's dichotomy paradox?

Peter M. Schogol said...

Aaron Herschel,

The French words "monte" (rise) and "montagne" (mountain) are related. I believe that when Teilhard was thinking of things rising and converging he had in mind ascents to a summit, in which case there would be nothing beyond, no lines to continue and diverge.

Best to you,

AaronHerschel said...


Of course. The idea is quite clearly that at the summit of knowledge, all upward tending systems meet. I just can't help but think of this part of William Carlos Williams "To A Solitary Disciple:"

Rather grasp
how the dark
converging lines
of the steeple
meet at a pinnacle—
perceive how
its little ornament
tries to stop them—

See how it fails!
See how the converging lines
of the hexagonal spire
escape upward—
receding, dividing!
that guard and contain
the flower!

Peter M. Schogol said...

Aaron Herschel,

I am not the teleologist that Teilhard was. Konkōkyō, the religion I practice, does not posit an endtime, and even if it did I would demur.

There is to my mind a difference between a little ornament at the pinnacle trying to stop the converging lines of a steeple and the summit of a mountain which rests assured of its non plus ultra. By quoting Teilhard in respect to Jews and Muslims reaching a modus vivendi I had in mind an I-Thou relationship such as between the rabbi and the imam where the relationship itself rather than the content of the conversation was the summit.

Best to you

Peter M. Schogol said...

Make that "ne plus ultra."

Jordan said...

Shalom Aaron Herschel,

You wrote: "But if everything that rises converges, then what happens when those things meet?"

They'll meet the Anchor at Infinity; HaMaqom, the Place from which the Beginning and All Else since flows.


Peter M. Schogol said...


Beautifully put.


AaronHerschel said...


I may have posted this same comment elsewhere, but I wonder if there isn't some danger in mistaking the anchor at infinity for the water it displaces.

I'm thinking of Derrida here, and the idea of the absent center, which more or less says that there is no transcendental signified. Classical philosophical systems always posit a central presence which "orients and organizes the coherence of the system." Call it God, or Reason, or Truth, whatehaveyou--there is always some fundamental thing not subject to signification, whose existence outside the system guarantees the functioning of the system.

Derrida, however, suggests that the center is not a "being-present" but a being-absent, like a function in mathematics. The function is not an answer; it enables the production of answers. Signification, meaning making, depends upon the absence, or suspension, of some final equivalence. In Derrida's words: “the absence of the transcendental signified extends the domain and the play of signification infinitely” (197).

We can see this in Genesis, when God speaks the world into existence, imposing an order of linguistic signification (of differentiation, and thus of being-present) on tohu va-vohu, the being-absent, the absurdity at the heart of life.

This is why the ascending lines of the steeple in the Carlos Williams poem move on past the symbol whose presence marks their pinnacle. The "flower" Williams mention in the final quoted line is, in fact, the moon, floating above the steeple of the little church. Williams establishes this at the opening of the poem: "the moon is tilted above the point of the steeple." But the moon is a symbol of madness, or lunacy. Moreover, it is one of the most versed, and re-versed, symbols in poetry. The moon, it seems, provides poets with endless opportunities for meaning making, while remaining itself always inscrutable, and thus always productive of new metaphors.

Aron said...

Aaron Hershel: I've never heard of this idea by Derrida, but I'm very sympathetic to it, probably coming from an influence of Godel's incompleteness theory or Heisenberg's uncertainity principle. As an agnostic, I always have a degree of skepticism about whether any system can transcend all others. How would anyone know it did?

I tend to lean more towards the that systems are "turtles all the way up and down", the notion that there is no ultimate system that includes all others, however small or large we label it.

AaronHerschel said...


I thought of Godel and Heisenberg, too; however, since my abortive attempt to read Godel, Escher, Bach, and my frustrated attempts to follow his theorums as presented on, er, wikipedia, I haven't done much Godel-ing. Heisenbergury also so far eludes me: though, yes, I have a layman's grasp pf the uncertainty principal... which, of course, means no "grasp" at all. Ha ha.


I reread your posts and was struck this time by the idea of the "conversation" at the summit. I rather like this idea--it feels like it fits with the Derrida stuff, exchanging signifiers rather than proposing a signified.

Immanuel said...

Sometimes I pity the charedi yidden
with their tsholent bellies
and their fish bowl eyes
who never know a moments rest
except on shabos
and even then
they still have to
and remember

My cell phone is a goy
its predicative texting doesn't
words like shabat
or oyvey

Peter M. Schogol said...

Hak mir nit kayn cholent. If you can make one as good as mine, one even Kentucky mountain folk like --I'll forgive my inlaws for calling it Jew Burgoo -- then you can make fun of "tsholent bellies," a finer specimen of which you'll never find beyond mine belt.

Aron said...

Aaron H: I also admit I know only little about Heisenberg and and less Godel in reading introductions to science and mathematics (not my strong suits), but in both, they point out to me the limitations of knowledge that I think it's inherent in our capacity to know and model-make.

And somehow were's back to what we can know about God. (;

Lauren B. Davis said...

How awful you've been so pilloried for your efforts. Please know that while the voices of such angry people may scream loudly, there are many people who support the idea that there is much to be learned from sharing our diverse perceptions of the sacred.

Such negativity only casts a light on how frightened some folks are, and ultimately, isn't that about a lack of faith?

I look forward to reading more of your writing, Rabbi. Keep going.

Lauren B. Davis said...

Hi Rami,

I received an email from you through my website, and tried to answer, but the email bounced back. In case you'd like to email me directly, you can do so at:


Patrick said...

"His Sacred Majesty the King does reverence to men of all sects, whether ascetics or householders, by gifts and various forms of reverence... The sects of other people all deserve reverence for one reason or another... He who does reverence to his own sect, while disparaging the sects of others wholly from attachment to his own, with intent to enhance the glory of his own sect, in reality by such conduct inflicts the severest injury on his own sect. Concord is therefore meritorious, namely, hearkening and hearkening willingly to the Law of Piety, as accepted by other people."

- Asoka, Emperor of India (c. 270 -230 B.C.)