By Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried
Dear Rabbi Fried,
As part of my psychology studies in college, I recently heard a lecture on the relationship between the conscience and the ego. Is there a Jewish view of these topics? Are the two contradictory or one and the same?
In the words of Stephen Covey: “Conscience is the still, small voice within. It is quiet. It is peaceful. Ego is tyrannical, despotic and dictatorial.” (“The 8th Habit,” p. 78) This very closely parallels the Jewish view, but differs as well.
Jewish tradition teaches that all of us have within us two opposing powers or pulls, known as the yetzer hatov and the yetzer hara, which loosely translate, respectively, to the inclination toward good vs. the “evil inclination.” These two pulls or powers within a person stem from the two very roots of our existence, our physical bodies and our spiritual souls.
Mankind was not, initially, created in a way that we contain within us a proclivity to evil alongside our desire for goodness. The first man and woman created in the Garden of Eden were completely pure of any internal tug toward negativity. This means that the original bodies of Adam and Eve were barely physical, rather nearly transparent vessels perfectly crafted to hold their souls. Like the glass case which houses the crown jewels of a monarch, the case itself attracts almost no attention; its value is in its ability to expose the beauty of the gems. Those original bodies were showcases for their brilliantly shining souls.
After the sin, their bodies and souls were poisoned with the consumption of the forbidden fruit. The decree was that from then on, mankind would be plagued by evil being mixed together with the good. The body took on a totally new role; it became an end in itself, demanding its own attention besides that of the soul. This new, very physical body and its inclination would attempt to pull the owner toward itself and away from its soul. This gives birth to the ego, which pulls each person to make themselves the center of the world, even at the expense of others. Going back to Covey: “Ego focuses on one’s own survival, pleasure and enhancement to the exclusion of others and is selfishly ambitious…. Conscience, on the other hand, both democratizes and elevates ego to a larger sense of the group, the whole, the community, the greater good. It sees life in terms of service and contribution, in terms of others’ security and fulfillment.”
There is, however, a point where the general understanding of these two concepts and that of Judaism part ways. In Judaism, even the penchant toward evil has a positive side. Evil, in of itself, is not an independent force which runs contrary to G-d’s plan. The potential for evil was allowed to proliferate in the world by G-d Himself in order to leave room for free choice. The test put before man by the choice, indeed the pull, of good vs. evil is in order to attain higher and higher levels of morality and closeness to G-d by choosing the good over the evil. In that sense, even the evil itself, deep down in the source of its existence, is really rooting for man to overcome it and select the good.
Ego, as a manifestation of that potential evil, also has a good side to it by which a person has the urge to accomplish, make a name for oneself and expose the hidden greatness within. There are no absolute bads and goods in Judaism; it depends what you do with them. This is implicit in the words of the classical commentator Rashi when he explains the verse of the Sh’ma which says you should serve G-d with all your “hearts” in the plural: We need to serve G-d with our inclination toward good and with our “evil inclination” as well. We’re out of room, but ponder this point; it’s a key which unlocks much of Jewish thought.
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at email@example.com.