Jewish Understandings of Human Nature

Jewish Understandings of Human Nature: The Good and Evil Inclinations

With several millennia of history and experiences behind them, it is reasonable to posit that many people of the Jewish faith have sought to better understand human nature and its dichotomous aspects of good and evil. The purpose of this paper is to provide a systematic review of the relevant literature concerning the history of the Jewish understanding of the good and evil inclinations of humankind and the various approaches to it taken by different Jewish religious scholars. In addition, an examination of the contemporary relevance of the good and evil inclination to Jews, Judaism, and Jewishness is followed by an analysis of the similarities and differences between different Jewish ways of thinking about these issues. Finally, a summary of the research and important findings concerning the Jewish understandings of human nature are presented in the paper’s conclusion.

Review and Analysis

Jewish understanding of the good and evil inclinations of humankind

Because humankind is comprised of mere mortals with all of their good as well as less desirable qualities, the vast majority of humankind is both good and evil during various points in their lives. Therefore, it is the preponderance of one tendency over the other that tends to shape contemporary views about human nature and what constitutes good or evil. For example, Griffith (2011) advises that, “The term ‘human nature’ is much more than a reference to human behavior; it actually refers to our species’ less-than-ideally behaved, seemingly-imperfect, even ‘good and evil’-afflicted, so-called human condition.”[footnoteRef:2] [2: Jeremy Griffith, “Human Nature” World Transformation Movement (2011). Available:]

On the one hand, the Jewish people have had abundant time to consider the good and evil inclinations of humankind. In fact, the Jewish people have been witness to the good and evil qualities of human nature longer than anyone today. For instance, according to Hanukoglu (2018), “The people of modern day Israel share the same language and culture shaped by the Jewish heritage and religion passed through generations starting with the founding father Abraham (ca. 1800 BCE). Thus, Jews have had a continuous presence in the land of Israel for the past 3,300 years.”[footnoteRef:3] [3: Israel Hanukoglu, “A Brief History of Israel and the Jewish People” Israel Science and Technology (2018). Available:]

On the other hand, though, these issues are sufficiently complex that they defy easy understanding. Nevertheless, the modern understanding of the good and evil inclinations of humankind is firmly based on the empirical observations of the Jewish people over the four millennia of their history, lending particular credence to their views about people. In this regard, Rayner (1998) emphasizes that, “We have been conquered, enslaved, expelled, scattered, persecuted, and subjected to every crude and subtle pressure to abandon our distinctiveness, and more than one tyrant has tried to put an end to our very existence on earth, to make the world judenrein.”[footnoteRef:4] [4: John D. Rayner, A Jewish Understanding of the World. Providence, RI: Berghahn Books (1998), 14.]

Arrayed against this genocidal backdrop, it would be readily understandable for the Jewish people to develop an understanding of human nature as being inherently evil, an understanding that is further reinforced by Jewish religious practices. For example, Rayner adds that the miraculous survival of the Jewish people over the millennia in the face of overwhelming evil is memorialized in Jewish prayers. According to Rayner, “The Midrash, for instance, observes: ‘Kingdoms come and kingdoms go, but Israel endures for ever’ and we recite the words of the Passover Haggadah: ‘God’s promise has sustained our ancestors, and it sustains us still. For not only one enemy has sought to destroy us, but in every generation evil forces seek to destroy us, yet the Holy One, ever to be blessed, delivers us from their power.’”[footnoteRef:5] [5: Rayner (1998), 14.]

Notwithstanding this important but isolated dogmatic reference to Jewish vies about human nature, one Jewish scholar points out that, “On the question of human nature, as in most areas of abstract belief in Judaism, there is a lot of room for personal opinion. There is no dogma on the subject, no required belief about the nature of humanity.”[footnoteRef:6] Moreover, the varying views about human nature held by modern Jews are highly subjective, and the extent to which individual Jews view different actions and qualities as being inherently good or evil do not make them good or evil in the process. In other words, the enormous variety of beliefs held by Jews the world over make it problematic to characterize one set of beliefs as good or evil. For instance, Mare (2018) emphasizes that, “There are a variety of contrary opinions expressed on the subject, and one is no less a Jew (and no less a good Jew) for disagreeing with any or all of these opinions.”[footnoteRef:7] [6: Mechon Mare, “Human Nature.” Torah 101 (2018). Available:] [7: Mare (2018).]

While regarding non-Jewish peoples that have persecuted them for centuries as being evil incarnate would be human nature and therefore understandable, the historic and modern trends that have affected the Jewish people fail to include an understanding of the good and evil nature of the Jewish people themselves. Rather than regarding themselves as possessing strictly good or evil natures, some Jewish scholars suggest that the millennia of evil that the Jewish people have faced have resulted in something of an inferiority complex that continues to adversely affect the manner in which they view themselves in general and Jewish males in particular as well as people of other faiths today.[footnoteRef:8] For instance, Hoberman (2009) cites the view of Jewish males as “timid and sickly” that prevailed following the end of World War II. Although this view did not mean that Jewish men of this era were in fact either timid or sickly or that these qualities made them evil, it is reasonable to posit that these views translated into an overarching perception of Jewish people being less than good. [8: John Hoberman, “Legacy of Rage: Jewish Masculinity, Violence, and Culture, by Warren Rosenberg.” Shofar (Winter 2005), 23, no. 2, 175.]

While this type of conceptualization does not necessarily translate into a view of the Jewish people as being either good or evil, it does underscore the sea change in views about the human nature of the Jewish people that has taken place over the past half century or so. Indeed, past views about Jewish males as being the “99-pound weakling” have been replaced with a more masculine version that prizes the “the gentleness, the intellectuality, the commitment to justice, and the humorous garrulity that positively mark the Jewish male.”[footnoteRef:9] These assertions indicate that the Jewish people tend to regard their basic human nature as being fundamentally good, even when they are surrounded by the forces of evil intent on their destruction. It is important to note, however, that there are also some variances in views about human nature that are related to the Jewish people, their faith and how they demonstrate and celebrate it as discussed further below. [9: Hoberman (2005), 175.]

Good and evil inclinations in Jews, Judaism and Jewishness

Any similarities and differences in the conceptualization of good or evil inclinations in Jews are founded in the original covenant that created the religion 3,300 years ago. For example, one rabbi points out that, “Judaism originates as a result of the covenantal relationship between God and Abraham.[footnoteRef:10] Many of the foundational qualities of the origin can be easily regarded as being inherently good. For instance, according to Freeman (2018): [10: James S. Glazer, “What are the main differences between a Jew and a Christian?” Reform Judaism (2018). Available:]

The Torah covenant established a society that was radically different from other societies of the time. For one thing, the rulers were held to the same law as everyone else. Every child had to be educated in the law. Equality before the law placed all citizens on equal ground. Furthermore, all members of society became responsible for the welfare of one another. And God was understood to be equally accessible to all who call upon Him—especially to the oppressed and downtrodden.[footnoteRef:11] [11: Tzvi Freeman, “Who are the Jews?” Chabad (2018). Available: library/article_cdo/aid/3852163/jewish/Who-Are-the-Jews.htm.]

The high priority that this religious guidance placed on the mutual benefit of all members of Jewish society likewise points to the inherently good nature of the Jewish people, but Judaism has been criticized by Jewish and non-Jewish scholars alike for its views about the relationship between humankind and the natural world. For instance, according to Schwartz (1995), many scholars regard “Jewish religious life to be transcendental and apart from the natural world, while [other Jewish scholars] believe Jewish religious life has always had a place for a complementary model of spirituality contained within the relationship of the Jew to the natural world.”[footnoteRef:12] [12: .Eilon Schwartz, “Judaism and Nature: Theological and Moral Issues to Consider While Renegotiating a Jewish Relationship to the Natural World.” Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought (Fall 1995), 44, no. 4, 437.]

While this relative emphasis on the natural and spiritual worlds may seem unimportant to the analysis of the good and evil inclinations of the Jewish people, some authorities maintain that the higher priority placed on the transcendental versus the natural world tends to make Jews and their enterprises less environmentally responsible than people of other faiths, a tendency that can be viewed as evil in an increasingly polluted world. Indeed, this prioritization has created a situation today wherein Jews are vulnerable to attacks for their lack of concern over the world in which everyone is compelled to live. As Schwartz concludes, “The conventional wisdom of modern Jewish thought maintains that Judaism came about as a radical distancing of the Holy from immanence within the world [and] Judaism came to assert the transcendental, wholly other nature of the Holy.”[footnoteRef:13] [13: Schwartz (1995), 438.]

This is not to say, of course, that all Jewish people are environmental terrorists or major polluters, but it is to say that these priorities tend to shape views about the inherent qualities of human nature and what it means to be a Jew today and whether genetics, religion or culture play a role. In this regard, Telis (2012) reports that, “In the Bible, the roots of Jewishness reach back 4000 years to Abraham and his descendants. But historians have suggested the story of Jewishness is more complicated, and may not include a single ancestor. Some have even argued that most modern Jews are descended from converts to Judaism and don’t share genetic ties at all.”[footnoteRef:14] [14: Gisela Telis, “The Roots of Jewishness.” Science (6 August, 2012). Available: news/2012/08/roots-jewishness.]

Based on his study of the subject, Ely (2014) identifies four models concerning the relation of good and evil as follows:

1. Based on the historical movement of Manichaeism, this model presents evil as having a substantive existence over and against good — and God.

2. This model deals with theodicies, the classic religious treatments in the West that vindicate the divine ‘in the light of the terrible sufferings human beings experience.’

3. The penultimate model develops the attempts of Nietzsche and others to move ‘beyond good and evil’ by showing the essentially subjective character of ‘evil,’ that is, its dependence on perspective: depending on perspective, one can see suicide bombers as terrorists or as heroes.

4. The final model is Augustine’s ‘evil as the privation of good.’[footnoteRef:15] [15: Adapted from Peter B. Ely, “Moral Evil.” Theological Studies, 75, no. 4, 929.]

Because everyone has good and evil inclinations, it would therefore be wrong to suggest that Jewish views about human nature are genetically based but are rather the result of religious teachings in Judaism.

Despite the numerous differences that exist among Jewish people around the world, the majority of them believe that any evil that manifests is the result of individual traits rather than the product of Satan or satanic forces. For example, according to Mere (2018), “The idea that ‘the devil made me do it’ is not in line with the majority of thought in Judaism. Although it has been said that Satan and the yetzer ra[footnoteRef:16] are one and the same, this is more often understood as meaning that Satan is merely a personification of our own selfish desires, rather than that our selfish desires are caused by some external force.” [footnoteRef:17] [16: This term refers to the innate yin/yang or good and evil qualities of human nature as discussed further below.] [17: Mare (2018)..]

It is also important to note, though, that the foregoing models of the relation of good and evil are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but Jewish teachings place a higher priority on the innate dichotomous qualities of human nature due to their relative importance in serving God’s will. In this regard, Jacobs (1999) reports that, “In the typical Rabbinic doctrine, with far-reaching consequences in Jewish religious thought, every human being has two inclinations or instincts, one pulling upwards, the other downwards. These are the ‘good inclination’ — yetzer ha-tov—and the ‘evil inclination’ — yetzer ha-ra.”[footnoteRef:18] [18: Louis Jacobs, A Concise Companion to the Jewish Religion, New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Available: 20110803125333955.]

There are some sometimes-subtle nuances involved in these two Jewish classifications of human nature, and both include all-too-human characteristics that define the general human condition among all peoples around the world today. Indeed, the duality of the evil and good aspects of human nature means that people frequently do good things for evil reasons and vice versa. For example, according to Jacobs, “The ‘evil inclination’ is frequently identified in the Rabbinic literature and elsewhere with the sex instinct but the term also denotes physical appetites in general, aggressive emotions, and unbridled ambition.”[footnoteRef:19] [19: Jacobs (1999)]

Although the most pious believers of many monotheistic faiths would likely argue that all physical appetites are evil because they detract from the worship of God, human existence depends on these drives to procreate future generations as commanded by God in Genesis 9:7 (“As for you, be fruitful and increase in number; multiply on the earth and increase upon it”). Similarly, physical appetites are essential for providing mere humans with the drive they need to persevere in the face of overwhelming odds and seemingly insurmountable challenges in their lives. In this regard, Jacobs adds that, “Although it is called the ‘evil inclination’, because it can easily lead to wrongdoing, it really denotes more the propensity towards evil rather than something evil in itself. Indeed, in the Rabbinic scheme, the ‘evil inclination’ provides human life with its driving power and as such is essential to human life.”[footnoteRef:20] [20: Jacobs (1999)]

This means that from the Jewish perspective, people are both good and evil simultaneously depending on the time, place and circumstances, but even the evil inclination has its place in God’s plan for the Jewish people. As Jacobs emphasizes, “As a well-known Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 9: 7) puts it, were it not for the ‘evil inclination’ no one would build a house or have children or engage in commerce. This is why, according to the Midrash, Scripture says: ‘And God saw everything that he had made and behold, it was very good’ (Genesis 1: 31).” [footnoteRef:21] Anyone who has engaged in any of these activities can well attest that even the best intentions can have evil outcomes regardless of how hard people try to direct things towards good outcomes. [21: Jacobs (1999)]

Given that rabbinical teachings hold that everything God made is very good, this would also mean that even the evil inclinations that are part of human nature are likewise very good when they serve to further the interests of humankind in their service to God and each other. In this context, it is important to operationalize the terms in order to achieve definitional clarity. In this regard, Jacobs (1999) reports that, ‘Good’ refers to the ‘good inclination’, ‘very good’ to the ‘evil inclination’. It is not too far-fetched to read into this homily the idea that life without the driving force of the ‘evil inclination’ would no doubt still be good but it would be a colorless, uncreative, pallid kind of good.”[footnoteRef:22] [22: Jacobs (1999)]

In sum, Jewish thinking holds that evil inclinations including base physical appetites as well as purely selfish desires are necessary components of goodness. What appears to be the distinguishing characteristic that makes the “evil inclinations” of human nature acceptable and even good is the ability of people to leverage their innate evil inclinations in ways the help them survive and thrive in a toxic environment. As Jacob points out, rabbinical teachings also include the notion, “That which makes life ‘very good’ is the human capacity to struggle against the environment and this is impossible without egotistic as well as altruistic, aggressive as well as peaceful, instincts.”[footnoteRef:23] Taken together, it is clear that the good and evil inclinations in Jews, Judaism and Jewishness are relative, and depend on the extent to which individuals subscribe to the respective teachings of their branch of the religion and these issues are discussed further below. [23: Jacobs (1999)]

Similarities and differences in Jewish ways of thinking about these issues

It is important to note at the outset of this section that the Jewish people are not necessarily a homogeneous collection of like-minded individuals around the world, but rather a collection of millions of different peoples who share some commonalities with respect to the basic tenets of Judaism only. For example, Telis (2012) points out that:

Modern Jews, who number more than 13 million worldwide, are traditionally divided into various groups. They include Middle Eastern Jews, who live in Iraq, Iran, and other places in the Levant; Sephardic Jews from Spain and Portugal; Ashkenazi Jews from Europe, who comprise 90% of American Jews; North African Jews from Morocco, Algeria, and other countries north of the Sahara; Ethiopian Jews; and many other communities scattered across the globe.[footnoteRef:24] [24: Telis (2012).]

Given this widespread division of Jewish groups, it is little wonder that that are differences in Jewish ways of thinking about human nature and its good and evil qualities that are culture specific. In addition, the belief systems of reform, conservative and orthodox Jews likewise differ with respect to what makes a person “good” or “evil,” but share the same dual view of human nature as being both at once and the same time depending on a subjective analysis of propensity and motivation.


Are humans inherently evil? The findings that emerged from the research suggest that everyone is evil from time to time and over time, just as they are likewise inherently good in the same fashion. One of the more perplexing findings that also emerged from the research was the highly subjective aspects of assigning good or evil qualities to other people since one man’s terrorist (and therefore inherently evil) while he is also another man’s freedom fighter (and therefore inherently good). Furthermore, there are also temporal and cultural issues that affect the perception of the good and evil aspects of human nature, with slavery being formally countenanced in the past but widely condemned today. The history of the Jewish understanding of the good and evil inclinations of humankind and the various approaches to it taken by different Jewish religious scholars have therefore varied widely with respect to these issues, and there were also some profound differences identified with respect to the contemporary relevance of the good and evil inclination to Jews, Judaism, and Jewishness. Notwithstanding these differences, however, the research was consistent in showing that Jewish people share similarities with respect to their religious belief systems if not their overall religious world views. In fact, the finding that rabbinical teachings include the notion that people must be “very evil” in order to achieve the “very good” outcomes that are essential for human existence and the perpetuation of the species was especially interesting and noteworthy. Finally, it is reasonable to conclude that most people of other faiths would likely agree with the concept of the duality of human nature held by the Jewish people even if they do not agree with their other beliefs.




Ely, Peter B. “Moral Evil.” Theological Studies, 75, no. 4, 929-933.

Freeman, Tzvi, “Who are the Jews?” Chabad (2018). Available: library/article_cdo/aid/3852163/jewish/Who-Are-the-Jews.htm.

Glazer, James S., “What are the main differences between a Jew and a Christian?” Reform Judaism (2018). Available:

Griffith, Jeremy, “Human Nature” World Transformation Movement (2011). Available:

Hanukoglu, Israel, “A Brief History of Israel and the Jewish People” Israel Science and Technology (2018). Available:

Hoberman, John, “Legacy of Rage: Jewish Masculinity, Violence, and Culture, by Warren Rosenberg.” Shofar (Winter 2005), 23, no. 2, 175-179.

Jacobs, Louis, A Concise Companion to the Jewish Religion, New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Available: 20110803125333955.

Mare, Mechon, “Human Nature.” Torah 101 (2018). Available:

Rayner, John D., A Jewish Understanding of the World. Providence, RI: Berghahn Books, 1998.

Schwartz, Eilon, “Judaism and Nature: Theological and Moral Issues to Consider While Renegotiating a Jewish Relationship to the Natural World.” Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought (Fall 1995), 44, no. 4, 437.

Telis, Gisela, “The Roots of Jewishness.” Science (6 August, 2012). Available: https://www. news/2012/08/roots-jewishness.

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