What is the Jewish View of The Devil?
Hi Jew in the City-
What’s the Jewish view of the Devil?
The Jewish view of the Devil? That’s easy: there’s no such thing.
Now, if you had asked me about Satan, it would be another story. You see, Judaism does have a concept of Satan but he’s no Devil. He’s an angel – and not a “fallen” one, either!
Satan makes his big appearance in the Biblical book of Job. Let’s look at his debut in chapter 1, verse 6:
There came a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before Hashem, and Satan was among them.
The first thing you’ll notice is that the angels are called “sons of God” and Satan was one of them. Let’s now continue with verses 7-12:
Hashem said to Satan, “Where are you coming from?” Satan answered God, saying, “From going back and forth on the Earth, and from walking up and down in it.”
Hashem said to Satan, “Have you noticed My servant Job? There is no one like him on Earth – such a wholehearted and upright individual, who reveres God and avoids evil!”
Satan replied to God, saying, “Does Job revere God for nothing? Haven’t You made a boundary all around him, his house and all his possessions? You have blessed everything he does and his wealth increases in the land. If You would only reach out and touch what he has, I bet he would curse You to Your face.”
God said to Satan, “Okay, everything that he has is in your power, just do not put your hand on him personally.” So Satan departed from before God.
The story escalates, with Satan being given increasingly freer rein until he is able even to bodily afflict Job, short of killing him.
I guess at this point it makes as much sense as any to point out that, while many of you have probably been reading that as “Satan” (pronounced “say-tin”), that’s not the Jewish way of saying it. We actually call this concept “the Satan” (pronounced “sah-tahn,” with a “the” in front of it). The Satan is “the accuser.” He is not a demon, a fallen angel, or the ruler of Hell. He doesn’t want your soul, nor would he have any use for it. Rather, the Satan is an angel like any other, a servant of God with an assigned job to do. His job is something like District Attorney – he prosecutes our sins in the Heavenly courtroom. That doesn’t make him evil, at least no more so than the prosecutors on Law and Order and, generally speaking, we root for them to get a conviction.
The Talmud (Baba Basra 16) actually equates the Satan with both the yetzer hara (the evil inclination) and the Angel of Death. The idea is that the Satan comes down to Earth to try and entrap humans into sin (as he did with Job), then he ascends to Heaven to testify against them. If the person is convicted, he serves as executioner. (This is inferred from the fact that God cautioned the Satan not to take Job’s life, from which we see that such was otherwise within the Satan’s purview).
Of course, one can use one’s own judgment as far as how much (or how little) one chooses to personify the Satan, the yetzer hara, and/or the Angel of Death. To clarify, let’s talk about the yetzer hara. Is that a spiritual being with its own consciousness and personality, or is it a part of each of us? Each of us has a yetzer hara and a counterbalancing force in the form of the yetzer hatov (good inclination). These could be understood as the little angel and devil that sit on a person’s shoulders in cartoons and such, as a person’s Id and Superego, or in other ways. There’s no obligation to personify these metaphysical concepts as humanoid, that’s merely a device to facilitate our understanding. Not everyone’s religious disposition is quite so literal and that’s okay.
So, does Judaism believe in a Devil? No. A Satan? Yes, but not the way you might think. His role as Heavenly prosecutor calls for fewer pointy tails and pitchforks than normally depicted. But if you’ve ever been in a courtroom, you know that expensive suits and attaché cases can also be pretty frightening.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
JITC Educational Correspondent