Judaism has a sophisticated view of human nature. It unambiguously asserts that we are not born good, but at the same time holds that human beings have, on the one hand, a conscience and a will to do good — the yetzer hatov, and, on the other hand, an urge to do bad — the yetzer harah. As I learned as a child in yeshiva, the two inclinations are at war with one another.
What I have learned as an adult, however, is that the deck is stacked in favor of evil.
The reason is this: The yetzer hatov often leads to as much or even more evil than the yetzer harah. This sounds counterintuitive. But it is tragically true.
I first encountered this truism, when I was in my 20s, from Rabbi Wolfe Kelman of blessed memory, then-vice president of the Rabbinic Assembly, the organization of Conservative Rabbis. I went to him for professional advice and, during our discussions, he told me something very wise.
“Dennis,” he said, “I pretty much have my yetzer harah under control. It’s my yetzer hatov that gets me into trouble.”
Over time, I realized how right he was about the harm the yetzer hatov can cause in the personal realm. To cite but one example, think of parents who, out of love for their children, fail to discipline them and consequently spoil them. It is fair to say that many parents’ yetzer hatov does great harm to their children.
But let’s return to large-scale evil.
It has, I would posit, three primary causes.
The most obvious is the yetzer harah, that is, the urges of the worst parts of human nature: greed, lust for power, jealousy, sadism, cruelty, unchecked appetites, etc.
The second is psychopathology. Think of the young men with mental illness who engage in mass murder.
The third is the yetzer hatov — a desire to do good that leads to evil.
At least in the 20th century, the most enslaving and murderous century in recorded history, the great majority of evil was caused by the third — the yetzer hatov. Vast numbers of people supported evil causes because they believed they were good.
Communism, by far the greatest cause of 20th-century genocide, was the most obvious example of evil unleashed by the yetzer hatov. With promises of equality and economic and moral progress, communism seduced tens of millions of people, including a disproportionate number of the best educated. In the free West, communism had support among the well educated, not among hard hats. Indeed, until the 1960s, organized labor was a leading force in the anti-communist movement.
Even Nazism appealed, at least at first, to many Germans’ good side. Hitler’s initial appeal to Germans was economic and psychological: He would remedy Germany’s terrible poverty and inflation, and he would restore German dignity after the humiliations of the Versailles Treaty that ended World War I. Every historian of this period whom I have read agrees that Hitler actually downplayed his Jew-hatred in order to get elected in 1933.
In his play “Incident at Vichy,” Arthur Miller depicts a Jewish doctor who desperately tries to escape Nazi-occupied Vichy France. In order to do so, the doctor needs to find a corrupt Nazi whom he can bribe. If he finds an honest Nazi — a Nazi who believes in the rightness of the Nazi cause — he is doomed.
There is virtually no evil doctrine that people have not rationalized as being good.
This is why we cannot rely on the human heart alone (emotions can easily mislead us), or the conscience alone (the conscience is easily weakened by self-interest, emotion and irrationality), or reason alone (it was reasonable for a non-Jew during World War II to refrain from risking his and especially his family’s life to hide Jews) to determine what is good.
All of those are necessary but insufficient. We also need revelation. We need a source of morality that transcends human beings. Otherwise, morality is nothing more than subjective opinion.
We Jews have that in the form of the Torah and the prophets.
Now, it is true that even revelation is not always sufficient. God, for example, tells us not to murder. But in order to understand what constitutes murder, we still need to use our conscience, our faculty of reason, our yetzer hatov and even our heart. The only alternative would be for God to tell every one of us every day what the good is before we engaged in any activity.
But revelation or not, what needs to be clear is this: The yetzer hatov — the desire to do good — is so often disconnected from actual goodness that it is almost as dangerous as the yetzer harah. Without objective moral standards, the yetzer hatov is as valuable as a compass without a North, South, East or West.