There’s a myth that Sigmund Freud, the famous ‘father’ of modern psychology, was the first Jew who ever managed to start working out that human beings have a whole subconscious thing going on. Freud started speculating about ‘ego’ and ‘id’ and a bunch of other now discredited theories about what was causing emotional and mental issues in people, and voila, he was lauded for the better part of a century for his amazing (yet completely unproven…) insights into the human character.
But here’s the ironic thing: while the secular-but Jewish Freud got a lot of the credit for putting psychology on the map, authentic Judaism has been teaching people about how to deal with their subconscious inner struggles for centuries.
Pick up pretty any book on Jewish self-development (known as ‘mussar’ in the original Hebrew) and you’ll find hundreds of references to the fact that people are created with two distinct, and opposing sides to their personalities. On the one hand, we have what’s called the inclination for good, (or the ‘Yetzer HaTov’, in Hebrew); and then we have the ‘Yetzer HaRa’, aka the Evil Inclination.
In a nutshell, the Evil Inclination berates a person, drags them down, fills them with paranoia, anger, hatred and fear (and whole bunch of other negative emotions, too), and encourages them to do a lot of nasty things - but it always has a rationalization and justification as to why it’s OK to do all this stuff.
The Yetzer HaRa’s primary arena of operations is the subconscious mind, and more than two thousand years’ ago, our Rabbis were already teaching us that the main goal of the evil inclination is to literally kill a person – and unfortunately, it often does a pretty good job.
Just look at all the people who smoke themselves to death, or eat themselves to death, or worry themselves to death, or work themselves to death…
By contrast, the inclination for good encourages us to see the good in ourselves and others, to have self-compassion, to accept that we’re limited human beings, and to strive for self-improvement. It fills us up with positive emotions and thoughts like love, happiness, acceptance (of the self and others), humility and faith.
So that’s the basic paradigm we’re dealing with when it comes to understanding human nature, and it’s been part and parcel of the orthodox Jewish tradition for millennia, already.
In 1940, the famous mussar authority Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler wrote the following to one of his students:
“You asked me about the relationship between the spirit [called the ‘nefesh’ in Hebrew] and the soul [called the ‘neshama’] and the good and evil inclinations. You should know that the spirit of man is his ego…which has both good and bad qualities.” Rabbi Dessler then went on to describe how most people are completely clueless that it’s their spirit / ego that’s in the driving seat, and that if they’d only stop for a moment to really contemplate their true intentions and desires, they’d be shocked to discover how murky and unholy they so frequently were.
Rabbi Dessler explains: “Whenever the Yetzer HaRa is involved no one can distinguish between good and bad. The only way to do this is by fear of God and constant struggle with the Yetzer HaRa.”
But that’s not all: Judaism also teaches that there is an additional Evil Inclination that people have to deal with, that takes the form of an external Heavenly angel, or ‘accuser’. And this is where things start to get really interesting, because while Judaism teaches that a person is able to get on top of their innate ego, or natural evil inclination (albeit with a huge struggle), the angelic Evil Inclination is a whole different story.
If we go back to the Rabbis who redacted the Gemara, they tell us clearly that if God didn’t help us, this angelic Evil Inclination would mash us into the floor every single time.
So far, we’ve learnt that each of us has an innate inclination for good (aka, the ‘soul’) and an innate inclination for evil (aka, the ‘spirit’, or life force) that are battling it out inside of us on a daily basis; and that there’s also an angelic Evil Inclination that there’s no way we can beat, unless we get God involved in the process.
Here’s something else that you should know about human psychology: each person’s inclination for evil and inclination for good are evenly matched, in order to maintain free choice. That means that if someone is struggling with some hugely unpleasant character traits, habits or emotional difficulties, it’s only because their capacity for good is actually so enormous!
Can you imagine how different most therapy sessions would be if instead of focusing on all the bad, the emphasis would shift to emphasizing how much potential for good the patient actually has, just waiting to be discovered?