Yesterday my daughter declared she would not be riding south on I-75 for, oh, the next couple of months: turns out there is a billboard advertising the movie The Devil Inside right next to the highway, and as you drive along, the possessed nun’s freaky pupil-less eyeballs follow you. One good look at that, and she would be sleeping in between my husband and me until high school graduation.
I like a good horror movie with a religious twist as much as the next person who never has to sleep alone in a darkened house. And we sure do seem to like ‘em in our culture, beginning with the Mac Daddy of them all in 1973:
The Omen, Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, not to mention The Exorcist II and the Exorcist III – all of them are about supernatural evil that erupts inside humans like a festering pimple. Oh, and then there are all the movies about evil that eats us, from Poltergeist to Paranormal Activity I through XIV. It seems like the more we encounter the truth that evil’s origin is inside us, the more we want to believe that evil could be coming from a supernatural, external force. It wasn't us! It was this thing inside of us that really has nothing to do with us at all!
Jewish tradition says there is no supernatural external evil – no Devil, no Satan. Well, okay, there is a Satan (ha-satan just means the adversary) but in the only available text that references him (the book of Job) he is apparently an angel who functions kind of like opposing counsel in the court of heaven, reminding God of legal procedure and the strict letter of the law. He and God are kind of buds, in fact. In Job, the Satan persuades God to strip Job of everything worth living for, to completely destroy this poor guy, basically, and see what happens. And while they’re waiting to see, they go out for beers together. God and Satan are kind of assholes together, like young thugs hanging out at the corner bodega and beating people up with sticks.
So yeah, from a Jewish point of view, no real place to go, if you’re hoping for an overarching evil that can invade you and be held responsible for bad things in the world and in us. It’s just us and God, locked in this terrifyingly intense co-dependent relationship.
Stick that one on a greeting card, whydoncha. Or how about a sympathy card? Thinking of you and your loss at this time of sorrow THAT IS COMPLETELY GOD’S FAULT. Isaiah’s God is not an easy one to love, to say the least.
Jews like to talk not about external evil, or internal evil that came from somewhere else and infected us, but about yetzer ha-ra: the evil impulse. Everybody’s got one, and it’s just the way we were made. It’s the part of us that wants things for ourselves, and turned to right purposes it is the basis for lots of good stuff, like ambition and drive and purpose. Of course, when allowed free rein, it turns us into douchebags. It’s interesting that the ancient rabbis evolved a concept of the self not too far off Freudian understandings of the id and its quest to dominate the ego. Freud was raised with a pretty solid Jewish education, so I’ve always wondered to what degree his construct of the self was informed by the rabbinic notions of yetzer ha-tov and yetzer ha-ra, the good impulse and the evil impulse.
But the point is, if there’s no Evil Incorporated out there somewhere, there’s no one to blame when things go wrong but ourselves or God. We can blame ourselves (clearly no fun) or we can blame God (way more fun, but also way more disturbing in the end.) In a universe filled with only God, who else is there? No devil, no saints, no lesser agents, no rivals, no Only Begotten Son, no Holy Spirit, no comforting crowd of Heavenly Hosts. I am the Lord, and there is no other, says the God of Isaiah. Stop dialing other numbers like it’s going to get you somewhere. There is no one else to turn to for help and protection, and the flip side of that is, there is no one else to blame when the going gets rough. God is the source of all things, and if that is the belief you are going to order your world around, then God is also going to be the source of bad things along with the good. It makes for an inscrutable, uncomfortable God – but it also makes for a terrifying kind of intimacy, the intimacy that fuels Isaiah’s fulminations, Deuteronomy’s fire and brimstone, and centuries of Jewish prayers, song, and literature.
I’m still gonna see the shit out of that movie, though.