Written by Hector Osegueda.
Graphic by Emma Robinson.
Originally published as part of the Spring 2019 “Challenge” Issue.
Since time immemorial, humans have struggled with the concept of good and trying to understand what makes a good person. Conversations about the relativity and subjectivity of goodness go back thousands of years to the earliest civilizations and carries onto the floors of modern day’s governmental institutions. Although the majority of people aren’t Jewish, myself included, I’ve found that Judaism and its teachings of ethical cultivation is an interesting starting point to discuss what it means to be a good person, simply because ancient rabbinic sources teach of a moral concept, the yeser, and the improvement of the yeser through a process called ethical cultivation.
Ethical cultivation is the process in which a person deliberately changes their motivations and desires in an attempt to improve morally as an individual. For many, religion serves as a vessel for an ethical life, and specifically within Judaism, there exists a traditional focus on ethical cultivation. Classical rabbinic writings teach that human beings are inherently evil and that ethical cultivation is necessary in order to become a good person. In other words, humans are born innately evil (evil being highly subjective) and must undergo a conscious effort to become ethical.
At the stem of human nature is the yeser, which is hard to explain but easy to understand. We’re all familiar with those old cartoons, when a character has to make a decision and suddenly the dichotomy of good and evil appear; the devil and angel, each attempting to sway the character to follow their respective advice. A person’s yeser is similar to this.
The idea that humans are born evil comes from the yeser, which has a natural inclination towards selfish and destructive impulses. A “bad” yeser has the property of immaturity attached to it, a result of young age, “for the yeser of the heart of the human is bad from his youth” (Gen 6:5). It is not until the age of 13 for boys, and 12 for girls, that the “good” yeser begins to manifest itself. Once the good yeser emerges, it requires constant upkeep; the yeser acts as an advisor, whether or not the advice from the yeser is heeded is dependent on the individual. The yeser requires constant feeding of knowledge, the more one engages with the Torah or the community, the more material the yeser will have to pull from when in a situation that requires a conscious, moral decision.
Intertwined with the yeser is the concept of moral agency, the capacity that individuals have to make moral decisions. Moral agency exists in the context of a community with specific values and laws; it is within respect to that community that an individual can act as a moral agent. As mentioned earlier, a good yeser, through the lenses of an ancient Jewish perspective, is tied to the Torah, the law of God. A good yeser recites and reminds an individual of the law, to keep them from committing unjust acts. The ability for one to cultivate a good yeser was especially crucial to the Israelites of the Old Testament, so that an individual may act in such a way that brings prosperity to the community.
Moral agency comes from the cultivation and maintenance of one’s good yeser, in order to successfully avoid any and all evil inclinations. Rabbinic sources teach that the good and bad yeser exist as two separate entities – one will never replace the other. They are innate within a person, and like plants, will grow if nurtured. It is helpful to think of the bad yeser as synonymous with immaturity; it is innate, primordial, and doesn’t know any better.
One doesn’t necessarily have to be Jewish to apply this to their own lives. For Jews, ethical cultivation includes reading the Torah in order to feed their yeser with knowledge, in order to make ethical, good decisions. Whatever your religious background, or if you’re not religious at all, the same concept can apply. Give yourself knowledge. Consume all the intellectual material you possibly can that aligns with your way of life. Take care of your mind and your mind will take care of you. Ignorance is dangerous, the cultivation of one’s yeser is the opposite of that. As Plato once said, “ignorance, the root and stem of all evil,” cultivate your mind with knowledge and reap the benefits.
Jonathan Schofer, The Redaction of Desire: Structure and Editing of Rabbinic Teaching Concerning Yeser
Anne W Stewart, Moral Agency in the Hebrew Bible
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