Everything here is just like a simile, and almost completely alliterative.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

The Devil Inside My Blog

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.

I am Y-H-V-H, and there is no other; there is no God beside me. I form the light, and create darkness; I make peace, and create evil. (Is. 45:5, 7)

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.

Don’t disappoint me! God demands, and through the ages Jews have muttered back, Yeah, well, don’t you disappoint us either. Because the reciprocal nature of covenant means that if we are stuck with God, and there is no other, then God too is stuck with us, and there are no others for him, either. Maybe that’s a good working definition of covenant: mutual co-dependent bitching.

I’m still gonna see the shit out of that movie, though.


  1. Is there actually a verse that says that there are no others for God? It would be understandable if God took a look at us and went "NEVER AGAIN" to himself, seeing how much of a handful we've been. But considering the number of parents who go through the trials of rearing a child and decide for some reason to do it again, coupled with the vast number of inhabitable planets we've recently discovered relatively nearby says to me that there might plausibly be some older/younger siblings of ours God can turn to whenever we disappoint him.

  2. I was quoting Isaiah chapter 45: "I am the Lord, and there is none else, there is no God beside me." This is actually a statement of radical monotheism that the Torah, for instance, never makes; most of the rest of the Hebrew scriptures are about how much God kicks the ass of all the other gods rather than suggesting that there aren't even any other gods out there at all, which is more of a later development in the history of God-conceptions.

    As for our older or younger siblings out there, it would be nice to think that when we disappoint him, God has other children to turn to. But the universe's silence remains one of the more disturbing questions out there. Where the hell IS everybody else? Carl Sagan's famously pessimistic answer to that question is that intelligence is invariably fatal. Intelligent civilizations, he theorized, learn all too quickly how to exterminate themselves, and we appear to be proving his point quite nicely.

    I should point out that in talking about God and the like, I am always talking about human conceptions of God. The universe's controlling personality, whom for ease of handling I call "God" and connect with in Jewish prayers and rites, is far beyond our petty and sweetly silly speculations, which I hope he finds vaguely endearing. Maybe on good days they even amuse him, and keep him from flicking us off the face of the universe like hibernating stinkbugs.