Never underestimate the power of evil, say scholars

Yet Judaism has much to say about the existence of this poisonous, elusive figure as well.

"In general, Satan is a common Jewish figure beginning already in the rabbinic era, but usually never developed with the personality that it enjoys in Christianity," says Rabbi Yoel Kahn of San Francisco's Congregation Sha'ar Zahav.

In other words, the Satan that appears in the Bible, Talmud, Midrash and other Jewish texts is rarely the personified tempter — or Antichrist — who appears in the New Testament. Rather, Satan is a force or adversary, according to rabbinic sources, equal to the serpent-tempter of Genesis, and the yetzer ha'ra, the evil inclination that Judaism says exists within all of us alongside our better impulses.

Judaism teaches that these images "are different manifestations of the same [force of evil]," Kahn says. "Not that there is a physical person or an angel out there doing things, but that it's the way in which we hold or characterize the destructive or negative forces that exist in ourselves or in the world."

Recently, Satan has revived into a hot topic in scholarly debate. "The Death of Satan," a new book by Andrew Delbanco, explores the post-Enlightenment movement away from concepts of Satan and evil. Rejecting the concept of moral relativism, the Columbia University English professor says the idea of evil is vital to a healthy society. His book has garnered a good deal of critical attention.

In addition, Robert Pinsky's new translation of Dante's "Inferno," the classic Italian epic poem about one man's imaginary journey through hell, was a Book of the Month Club editor's choice and is now in its sixth printing.

On Saturday, Jan. 27, Pinsky will appear at San Francisco's Congregation Sherith Israel at an all-day forum exploring Dante's "Inferno." The event is being billed as a day of "art, spirituality and study."

Part of the larger Dante poem "Divine Comedy," "Inferno" "is a great work about the self-injury of souls," says Pinsky, a professor of creative writing at Boston University. "Potentially anyway, once you are reading it, it's a profound answer to spiritual questions, more profound than a lot of pop psychology."

For Pinsky, who was raised in a traditional Jewish home, the questions raised in the fires of Dante's "Inferno" burn deeply into today's consciousness. The character in the poem "begins his journey with despair, which in the American middle class seems to be a kind of pandemic," Pinsky says.

Despair, of course, is timeless.

In trying to understand the cataclysmic forces of nature, ancient humans envisioned demons. Jews were no exception.

Today, people may have a more familiar, scientific grasp of what makes the earth quake or the skies thunder. But events such as the Holocaust or mass killings in Cambodia or Rwanda pose equally baffling questions. How can evil on such a grand scale exist?

Jews have been preoccupied with such questions since ancient times. How could a caring, all-powerful God present man with such painful challenges to happiness?

In the explanation presented in the Book of Job, Satan is depicted not as a devil but as an angel of God sent to tempt and badger the weak individual — to test him. The word Satan, in fact, is Hebrew for "obstacle."

The image of Satan as tester persisted in the post-biblical era. That perception resulted from the concept of good-evil duality that Jews adapted from the Parsees in ancient Persia — the notion "that virtue, without first being tried by the temptations of evil, proved but a fragile reed," the "Book of Jewish Knowledge" says.

Rabbi Yisrael Rice ascribes to that view. The fact that God places obstacles in our path "is not a drag. It's an opportunity for growth," says Rice, of Chabad of Marin. "Without tension, you cannot have growth."

While the Jewish view of Satan tends to focus on evil as an intangible force, Satan is personified in some Jewish texts. In the Bible, he becomes tangible in the books of Job and Chronicles.

The author of the Zohar, the chief work of Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism, stuck to impersonal representations, except when naming Samael — the kabbalistic equivalent of Satan — and his female mate, Lilith. Together, says the Zohar, the pair occupied central roles in the realm of evil.

But Satan, in person, does not manifest himself in the same way as say, Elijah the prophet. "Even in the Bible where he's personified, he's personified in terms of dialogue, not in terms of form," Rice says.

The Jewish belief in the reality of Satan was in full force from the rabbinic era — the first through the sixth centuries — through the 17th or 18th century, according to Daniel Matt, a professor at the Center for Jewish Studies at Berkeley's Graduate Theological Union.

During that time, Jews decorated their homes and even themselves with amulets and talismans and said special prayers aimed at warding off Satan, or the evil eye.

But that fear and hatred of Satan began to change as Judaism moved toward the realm of the rational.

"Because of 19th-century rationalism and the birth of Reform Judaism, there was really an attempt to cleanse Judaism of many of the superstitious, supernatural elements," Matt says. "It became convenient to say Satan is not personified."

Today, Matt says, a belief in the metaphysical force of Satan primarily appears in ultra-Orthodox or Chassidic Jewish circles.

But awareness of evil in the world and in ourselves has broad application today, says San Francisco Congregation Sherith Israel president Margaret Kaufman, a poet who organized the forum on Dante.

"The idea that you may have lost direction and not know where the straight road is seems to me very human," she says, "and something that we as Jews are very concerned with."

For Jews, as well as for others, belief in the evil one may well be a transformational force. As Delbanco points out in a recent Newsweek article, "We have an obligation to name evil and oppose it, in ourselves as well as in others."

Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is a former J. staff writer.