Jewish Beliefs about Human Nature
What does Judaism teach about human nature?
A fundamental to Jewish beliefs about human beings is that they are created in the image of God. This does not mean that people look like God, for God is incorporeal. The general rabbinical interpretation of this concept is that humans have the ability to reason.
When Genesis 2:7 says "God formed man," it uses the Hebrew word vayyitzer ("formed"). The Talmud finds special meaning in the unique spelling of the word in this context, with two yods instead of one.
The two yods, the rabbis explain, stand for the two impulses found in humans: the yetzer tov and the yetzer ra. According to this view, the yetzer tov is the moral conscience that reminds a person of God's law when one considers a specific action or choice. The yetzer ra is the impulse to satisfy one's own needs and desires.
There is nothing intrinsically evil about the yetzer ra, as it was created by God and is natural to humankind. It is also what drives us to good things such as eating, drinking, having a family, and making a living. However, it can easily lead to sin when not kept in check by the yetzer tov.
The idea of human free will is fundamental to Judaism. The concept of original sin is rejected, and every person has the ability to choose good or evil. The following rabbinical teaching is illustrative of the Jewish view of the soul:
This may be compared to the case of a king who had an orchard containing excellent early figs, and he placed there two watchmen, one lame and the other blind. He said to them: "Be careful with these fine early figs."
After some days the lame man said to the blind one: "I see fine early figs in the orchard." Said the blind man to him: "Come let us eat them." "Am I then able to walk?" said the lame man. "Can I then see?" retorted the blind man. The lame man got astride the blind man, and thus they ate the early figs and sat down again each in his place.
After some days the king came into that vineyard and said to them: "Where are the fine early figs?" The blind man replied: "My lord, the king, can I then see?" The lame man replied: "My lord the king, can I then walk?" What did the king, who was a man of insight, do with them? He placed the lame man astride the blind man, and they began to move about. Said the king to them: "Thus have you done, and eaten the early figs."
Even so will the Holy One, blessed be God, in the time to come, say to the soul: "Why have you sinned before Me?" and the soul will answer: O Master of the universe, it is not I that sinned, but the body it is that sinned. Why, since leaving it, I am like a clean bird flying through the air. As for me, how have I sinned?"
God will also say to the body: "Why have you sinned before Me?" and the body will reply: "O Master of the universe, not I have sinned, the soul it is that has sinned. Why, since it left me, I am cast about like a stone thrown upon the ground. Have I then sinned before You?"
What will the Holy One, blessed be God, do to them? God will bring the soul and force it into the body, and judge both as one.
(Leviticus Rabbah 4:5)
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- Tracey R. Rich, Judaism 101.
- George Robinson, Essential Judaism (Pocket Books, 2000).