Do Jews Believe in the Devil?

Image: An image of a devil. (by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay)

The very short answer is: No, Jews do not believe in the Devil of Christian theology.

A longer, more complete answer:

Jewish scripture has a character known as HaSatan, the Adversary. HaSatan appears in the beginning of the Book of Job:

One day the divine beings presented themselves before the LORD, and the Adversary came along with them.

The LORD said to the Adversary, “Where have you been?” The Adversary answered the LORD, “I have been roaming all over the earth.”

The LORD said to the Adversary, “Have you noticed My servant Job? There is no one like him on earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and shuns evil!”

Job 1:6-8

In this and in chapter 3 of the book of Zachariah, “HaSatan” is not a personality. HaSatan is the title of a role, a job description. “Ha” means “the.” “Satan” means “adversary.” In Job, HaSatan plays the persecutor, taunting God that Job only loves God because God has been good to him. God allows HaSatan to inflict suffering on Job so that Job can demonstrate his faith in God. In Zachariah, he is the Accuser, and an angel (malach) is God’s mouthpiece, rejecting the accusations of HaSatan.

The figure in the adversary role has little or no volition: it cannot do anything without the permission of God. It plays a role equivalent to that in English of a “devil’s adversary:” it is an expression of opposition. Angels have a similar role in the Jewish Bible: they function as messengers or as extensions of God, but they do not have agency of their own.

Sometimes in other texts HaSatan is an expression of the yetzer harah, the evil or selfish inclination. It never acquires the independence, to say nothing of the raw power, of the Satan figure in Christian tradition.

There are a number of Talmudic texts about HaSatan, for instance:

Reish Lakish says: Satan, the evil inclination, and the Angel of Death are one, that is, they are three aspects of the same essence. He is the Satan who seduces people and then accuses them, as it is written: “So the Satan went forth from the presence of the Lord, and smote Job with vile sores” (Job 2:7). He is also the evil inclination, as it is written there: “The impulse of the thoughts of [the human] heart was only evil continuously” (Genesis 6:5); and it is written here: “Only upon [Job] do not put forth your hand” (Job 1:12). The verbal analogy between the various uses of the word “only” teaches that the evil inclination is to be identified with the Satan. He is also the Angel of Death, as it is written: “Only spare his life” (Job 2:6); apparently Job’s life depends upon him, the Satan, and accordingly the Satan must also be the Angel of Death.

Bava Batra 16a

HaSatan has these roles (a named figure in Job, the evil inclination in humans, and the Angel of Death) as it is picked up as a theme in Jewish mystical writing and in folklore, but it is in those sources that it takes on a role more like that of the Christian Satan. That may be from cross-pollination of Jewish and Christian ideas in golden-age Spain and in northern Europe. It may also have arisen from the need of a suffering people to separate the suffering in life from the all-good person of their God.

At any rate, most modern Jews do not believe in “Hell” and do not believe in “Satan” as an independent figure busy in the world. We are much more inclined to attribute the evils that come from human misbehavior to human beings, and to attribute “evils” from the natural world (earthquakes and other natural disasters) to the balance of nature established by God.

Jews have been and continue to be ferociously monotheistic, so that an independent and equal opponent to God is a logical impossibility.

What do you believe, and why?

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Who or What is Chazal?

Image: A page from a medieval Jerusalem Talmud manuscript. Found in the Cairo genizah. Public Domain.

“Chazal say…” a more advanced rabbinical student said to me, in answer to a question. I heard, “Chagall says…” and was very confused. I’d asked a question about halakhah (Jewish law) – why is he quoting a Jewish artist?

Chazal (Kha-ZAHL) is a collective noun meaning “the sages,” the ancient rabbis, from the “Men of the Great Assembly,” up through the closing and final redaction of the Babylonian Talmud, roughly from 500 BCE until about 650 CE. Think of it as a fancier way of saying “the ancient rabbis.”

Rabbis talk about those rabbis in terms of eras of rabbis:

First there was the age of the Men of the Great Assembly, which ran from the time of Ezra the Scribe up until about the time of the Maccabees. One of the last of that era was Shimon the Righteous:

שִׁמְעוֹן הַצַּדִּיק הָיָה מִשְּׁיָרֵי כְנֶסֶת הַגְּדוֹלָה. הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, עַל שְׁלשָׁה דְבָרִים הָעוֹלָם עוֹמֵד, עַל הַתּוֹרָה וְעַל הָעֲבוֹדָה וְעַל גְּמִילוּת חֲסָדִים:

Shimon the Righteous was one of the last of the men of the great assembly. He used to say: the world stands upon three things: the Torah, the Temple service, and the practice of acts of piety.

Pirkei Avot 1:2

Then there was the age of the Zugot, or Pairs of teachers, the last and most famous of whom were Hillel and Shammai. They all lived in Palestine, the land of Israel. They saw Rome come to power in the land, and were alive during the time of a fellow called Jesus.

Next came the Tannaim, which means “repeaters.” They were the rabbis who formulated the Mishnah. They taught during the difficult period just before and after the destruction of the Temple, from about 20 BCE – 200 CE.

The rabbis after the redaction of the Mishnah are called the Amoraim, which means “those who speak.” They are the rabbis of the Talmud. Some of them lived and taught in Babylonia, and some lived and taught in Palestine. They lived from 200 until 500 CE.

The last era of rabbis who are Chazal is a rather shadowy group called the Savoraim, the “reasoners.” They lived in Babylonia, and were responsible for putting the Talmud into its final form from 500-600 CE.

So now you know that Chazal is not Chagall! Had there been no Chazal, likely Chagall would have painted differently; most of his subject matter was deeply embedded in the Jewish tradition shaped by Chazal.

Free Sample for Regular Readers!

Image: Studying from a Torah Scroll with my study partner, Fred Isaac. Photo by Linda Burnett.

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you know that I teach an online class called Introduction to the Jewish Experience. In the winter, the topic is “Israel & Texts,” an exploration of the library of books that have shaped Jewish experience since the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE.

Tomorrow, Feb 3, 2019, I’m going to open that class to auditors for one meeting only. In other words, you can get a free sample of the class simply by clicking the link below.

Class meets from 3:30 to 5 pm Pacific Time (6:30 Eastern, 5:30 Central, 4:30 Mountain, etc.) The topic will be “Torah, Tanakh, and Midrash.” I’ll explain what those are, and we’ll learn where they came from and what Jews do with those texts.

Why am I doing this? I have several bees in my bonnet about the NFL and American football. I’d like to give anyone who forgoes the annual concussion-fest of “SuperBowl” a little treat, and this is what I have to offer.

I am not going to publicise this via Twitter for obvious reasons – only those who subscribe to this blog or is a friend on Facebook will see it.

Three requests. By clicking on the link below you agree to all three of these requests:

  1. When you click the link and enter the Zoom classroom, your microphone will be muted. Please leave your microphone off during the class and let the registered students do the talking and asking questions.
  2. You are welcome to send me your questions at my email rabbiadar-at-gmail-dot-com, and I will answer them in upcoming blog posts.
  3. Please do not publicise this offer via social media of any sort. I am not set up to wrangle vast numbers of pop-in visitors.

And now, THE LINK.

See you in class!

Sometimes Silence is a Mitzvah

Image:  A woman sits silently, arms folded. (ivanovgood/pixabay)

And Rabbi Ile’a said in the name of Rabbi Elazar, son of Rabbi Shimon: Just as it is a mitzvah for a person to say that which will be heeded, so is it a mitzvah for a person not to say that which will not be heeded. Rabbi Abba says: It is obligatory for him to refrain from speaking, as it is stated: “Do not reprove a scorner lest he hate you; reprove a wise man and he will love you” (Proverbs 9:8). — Yevamot 65b

In the midst of a discussion of the command to “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth,” (Genesis 1:28) the Talmud goes on a little side trip. The wording is a bit awkward in this translation (from the excellent Sefaria.org website).  I shall rephrase:

Rabbi Ile’a said, according to Rabbi Elazar ben Rabbi Shimon, “It is a mitzvah to rebuke another person when the rebuke will be heeded. It is similarly a mitzvah for a person to refrain from rebuking another when they know their words will not be heeded.” Rabbi Abba agreed: “That one is obliged to refrain from speaking, as Proverbs 9:8 says, ‘Do not reprove a scorner lest he hate you; reprove a wise man and he will love you.'”

This passage reminds me of times when I have engaged in arguments with online trolls – people who enjoy starting quarrels and upsetting people for the fun of it. A fictional example:

TRUEBELIEVER: COFFEESHOPRABBI is a stupid libtard!

COFFEESHOPRABBI: Please don’t use words that stigmatize people with disabilities.

TRUEBELIEVER: Stupid libtard! Stupid libtard! #StupidLibtard!

COFFEESHOPRABBI: I’m not calling you names. Why are you calling me names?

TRUEBELIEVER: MAGA! MAGA! MAGA!

As Maureen points out in the comments, the “Block” function on most online systems is the best option at such times. When I’m thinking clearly, I answer the first line – namecalling – with a block. No conversation, no second chances, just silence.

My time is better spent encouraging voters to get to the polls, or calling my representatives. So is yours.

Rabbi Ile’a was right.

Who’s Afraid of the Big Blood Moon?

Image: Giuseppe Petricca took this image of a “supermoon” total lunar eclipse on Sept. 27, 2015, from Pisa, Italy.

Periodically the news has stories about “blood moons.” According to Space.com:

A “blood moon” happens when Earth’s moon is in full eclipse. While it has no special astronomical significance, the view in the sky is striking as the usually whiteish moon becomes red or ruddy-brown.

This are normal, predictable natural events, but you would not know that from much of the news coverage they get. The longest total eclipse of the 21st century will take place on July 27 and will be visible from South America, Europe, Africa, Asia and Australia. For more about the science of this remarkable event, read “Blood Moon 2018: Longest Total Lunar Eclipse of Century” on Space.com.

Some Christian preachers are making much of the fact that this particular “blood moon” (aka eclipse) will be visible from Jerusalem. They believe that this moon is a harbinger of the end of the world. They cite verses in the prophet Joel, chapter 2, and in the Christian scriptures of Acts of the Apostles, chapter 2 and Revelations, chapter 6.

So what’s in that passage of Joel?

Before them earth trembles, heaven shakes, sun and moon are darkened, And stars withdraw their brightness.

And the LORD roars aloud at the head of His army; for vast indeed is His host, numberless are those that do His bidding. For great is the day of the LORD, Most terrible—who can endure it? 

“Yet even now”—says the LORD— “Turn back to Me with all your hearts, and with fasting, weeping, and lamenting.” 

Rend your hearts, rather than your garments, and turn back to the LORD your God. For He is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, and renouncing punishment.  – Joel 2:10-13.

This passage is typical of the Hebrew prophets: it is a call to repentance. Scholars disagree about the time when it was written. It has few details to identify a particular date. What is clear about it is the call to a return to just ways: “Rend your hearts, rather than your garments, and turn back to the LORD your God.”

What we can take from the “blood moon” is a sense of wonder at the mysteries of creation. We get lost in our smartphones, in our computer screens, and we forget to see the miracles all around us.

Then, having taken notice of the natural world, perhaps we will be moved to take better care of it, lest in our foolishness and waste we so alter creation that we destroy it.

A Bitter Psalm for Our Times

Image: B&W Photo of a crying child. (PublicDomain/Pixabay)

We live in a time when terrible things are happening to our nation and the world. Sometimes I cannot believe what I see on the news, then I talk with people who’ve been there and seen that with their own eyes, and I am forced to believe that there are babies in cages, children shuttled all over who knows where, and a nation built by immigrants led by someone who uses words like “infestation” to describe human beings.

People that I trust have personally witnessed the detention of children. They are not in “summer camp” or “boarding school.” They are held in prison-like conditions, without their parents knowing their whereabouts, and without knowing when or how they will see their parents again. Some appear to have been transported around the country to foster care, which sounds good until we realize that the foster parents have no information about the parents, or how long the separation may last. There seems to be a lack of concern at both the Department of Homeland Security and at the Department of Health and Human Services, as well as in the Oval Office itself.

Discussions about the alleged guilt of the parents is completely beside the point. The persons receiving this punishment are children, innocent children who have done nothing to anyone. To those who blame the parents, I say, “Do you know for a fact that each individual parent is a fraud?”

What we DO know for certain that such a separation from family is permanently damaging to children. We know it from Holocaust survivors who were “hidden children” or “kindertransport children” , even those who were able to reconnect with relatives, and even those who were adopted by very nice people. Without exception, the people I know who survived in that way are grateful for their survival, and feel a profound sense of loss even in old age.

It is only human to weep in the face of such trauma and such evil – but what are we to do besides weep? Many good people have been demonstrating, reporting what they know about the locations of children, calling their elected officials, and doing other good works – gemilut hasadim – acts of lovingkindness – to right these great wrongs.

Meanwhile, our Congress has been busy remaking the safety net that stands between the working poor and utter disaster. They have made use of our distraction (by the great crime on our borders) to pass a budget that gives tax cuts to billionaires while cutting  Medicare and Medicaid.

These wrongs are nothing new in history. Here is what the psalmist had to say about cruel and unjust rulers in his own time:

Psalm 58

For the leader; “Do not Destroy.” Of David. A michtam.

O mighty ones, do you really decree what is just? Do you judge mankind with equity?

In your hearts you devise wrongs; your hands you deal out violence in the land.
The wicked are defiant from birth; the liars go astray from the womb.
Their venom is like that of a snake, a deaf viper that stops its ears
so as not to hear the voice of charmers or the expert mutterer of spells.
O God, smash their teeth in their mouth; shatter the fangs of lions, Eternal One!
let them melt, let them vanish like water; may their arrows be blunted when they aim their bows;
like a slug that melts away as it moves; like a stillborn child that never sees the sun!
Before the thorns grow into a bramble, may God whirl them away alive in fury.
The righteous man will rejoice when he sees revenge; he will bathe his feet in the blood of the wicked.
Men will say, “There is, then, a reward for the righteous; there is, indeed, divine justice on earth.”

This is an ugly psalm, with shocking sentiments. It gives voice to the anger that a good person feels when such cruelty is done by the powerful. It is also a reminder that while such evil may prevail for a while, in the end there is only the judgement of history and, for believers, the judgement of God.

If you are angry at what is being done to innocent children, know that you are in good company. But know, also, that all of us who are U.S. citizens are complicit in these evils: our tax dollars are paying for these crimes. We must raise our voices in any way we can, keeping in mind that we want to do less harm to the families, not more. In my next post I will address some specific actions we can take.

Woe to those who have done such things, and woe to those who do not care.

Have Mercy: more on suffering

Image: Statue of a man holding his head. (strecosa/pixabay)

One of the strangest books in the Bible is the Book of Job.

The book begins with God and Satan (“The Adversary” for Jews) having a little bet. God points out to Satan that Job is a really good guy. Satan retorts that Job is only good because God protects him.

“Stop protecting him,” taunts Satan, “And he’ll curse your Name.”

God says to Satan, “Do what you like! Just don’t kill him.”

So Satan showers troubles upon Job. He takes away Job’s wealth, kills his children, and destroys his health. But throughout it all, Job never curses God. Friends come to Job saying that he must have sinned and he must repent, but Job keeps insisting that he has done nothing wrong. Finally God appears in a whirlwind, declares them all fools, and Job collapses, declaring himself “dust and ashes.” (Job 42:6)

There’s a bit at the end of the book in which God gives Job new wealth, a nice new house, new children, and everything seems super. Most scholars agree that it seems to be a very late addition, as if someone later insisted on a Hollywood ending. Anyway, any parent will tell you that you cannot simply replace dead children and make it all better.

Job admits to us that sometimes life really, really stinks despite everything we do.

That is exactly why I think the book of Job ought to be read more often, and with greater attention. Tsuris (Yiddish for trouble) finds many people who don’t deserve it. This is a terrifying fact of life.

In our terror that tsuris will find us, we attempt to find reasons for bad luck. We ask the cancer patient if he smoked, we drive only “safe” cars, we explain every ill in terms of something that someone did wrong. But there is no vitamin, no regimen, no diet, no car, no product, no magic talisman that will keep all bad things from happening to us. We are human, and we are prone to trouble. (Job 5:7)

I am all for medicine, and science, and research, and doing what we can with our brains to make life easier, better, and longer. I wear my seatbelt, and I do what my doctor tells me to do. Certainly science has given us wonderful tools to reduce human misery. But it is arrogant foolishness to look at a suffering person and say, “I would not have made her mistakes” with its corollary “…so that will never happen to me.” It is arrogant foolishness and it is cruel.

The book of Job is an extraordinary admission in a book that often seems to say “Be good and you are guaranteed only good things.” Job admits that sometimes life stinks, no matter what we do.

The true comfort in Job is hidden in plain view. Job’s wife suffers all the same losses that Job did. She loses ten children to death. She, too, is reduced to poverty. She becomes the caretaker for a sick husband. And yet only once, early on, does she speak, and for that commentators have vilified her ever since:

“Do you still hang on to your integrity? Curse God and die!” – Job 2:9

She is standing by him, caring for him, watching him suffer, suffering herself, and her rage and pain erupt. Then we don’t hear another word from her. But at the end of the book, there she is, ready to bear ten more children. She loved him, and she stuck by him. Their covenant held solid. Archibald MacLeish got it right in the play J.B.: the answer to human misery is love.

We need to consider as a society that when people have troubles, we often abandon them. We assure ourselves that it must be their fault. We worry about freeloaders. We worry about frauds and fakers. And people with genuine trouble, people who have been given steep challenges are left to become homeless, to starve, to struggle with impossible scenarios.

Mention “disability” and someone will pipe up about fakers. Mention “food stamps” and someone will tell you about frauds. Mention “homelessness” and some helpful soul will tell you it’s really about moral degeneracy, and drugs, and mental illness – and mention “mental illness” and someone will say that poor parenting is to blame.

Real people sometimes have real troubles and need help. We have to find our way out of the morass of fear, selfishness and arrogance and deal with that fact.  May that day come soon.

God put us here for one another. Whether it is a spouse, or a friend, or a stranger, anyone who reaches out to another with love and kindness is an agent of the Holy One.

May we all have mercy on one another.