An excerpt from The Long Shorter Way
Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz
Concerning the Permitted and the Forbidden
As we know, the definition of what is permitted and what is forbidden may be clear enough; and yet, the individual may easily err, for instance, by unwittingly eating prohibited food. Even if he has conducted himself properly, blessing the food and consuming it with the noblest of motives, there is no evading the objective reality of transgression. Once again, it is a question of the essential nature of holiness and of its opposite. The permitted and the forbidden are not subjective concepts related to one's personality, preferences, or opinions, but are derived from the fact of the existence of the holy and the profane. What is more, ignorance of the forbidden does not make it any less prohibited. The essence of the forbidden resides in the nature of the thing itself and is absolute, not relative. One may reach for beer in the refrigerator and draw forth a similar bottle of something which is in fact undrinkable: the fact that the intention was correct can have no influence on its disagreeable effects.
So it is with the sin of the individual who unknowingly does that which is forbidden. It makes no difference whether the act was performed in total ignorance, whether it was done under duress, whether it was a severe transgression of an injunction from the Torah or a trifling infringement of a rabbinical ruling. The fact that it is a forbidden act places it in the category of the three "unclean shells," from which there is no simple and easy way back.
In certain strange passages in the book Tana d'vei Eliahu dealing with the difference between ugly sins and transgressions that are not so repulsive, a parenthetical addition claims that the former are transgressions that are unsuited to Jews and can occur only through the agency of "alien" demons. Naturally, one can lust after all sorts of things, but there is nonetheless a distinction between normal and abnormal desires. When a person lives within the framework of a Jewish life, his struggles and misdemeanors are confined to the realm of the more or less permitted; and when he is attacked by desires that have their origin and quality in the absolutely forbidden, one says that they are not characteristically "Jewish."
The reason for the "Jewishness" of the demonic craving for the permissible is that this can be converted back to holiness. Anecdotes about the demons in yeshivot describe these impish creatures as quite well versed in Torah and adept at arguing issues of Halachic code. They are part of the Jewish domain of influence, and they assume the appropriate manners and language. We are able to converse with them, so to speak. Ultimately, our defeat at the hands of such an evil influence is never complete because there is something in us which says: ''Well, so I've committed such and such a transgression, but I am really a good Jew.... " This saving factor consists of an inner hesitation or refusal to cut oneself off from one's Jewishness.
A story about two school friends, pupils of a certain famous rabbi in Russia, tells of their meeting again after many years. In the interim, one had become a Bolshevik commissar while the other had remained a simple God-fearing Jew. After their initial greetings, the pious disciple of the rabbi asked the commissar, ''What have you retained of all that we once studied together?" The commissar answered: "I'll be frank with you, I remember practically nothing, but though I certainly sin without regret, I cannot enjoy it or even justify myself."
There is a question about the nature of these demons which slip into our lives. It is difficult to answer because of the sly way in which they masquerade. In our imaginations, they are portrayed as only partly human and rather grotesque, so that we fail to identify them in the perfectly normal dress and features of passers-by or even of persons we know fairly well-those we meet, perhaps, twice a day. Another point is that we ourselves create demons in our lives, not in the form of a dybbuk who enters into us and causes trouble and consternation, but rather in the form of creatures to which our thoughts give birth. For every human being continually brings into existence a long line of spiritual offspring. According to certain traditions, these demonic offspring can also multiply themselves. It is written in the Talmud that the first man, Adam, gave birth to the first demons and since then they have been our stepbrothers. Altogether, the relationship between good and evil, man and demon, is most complex. It is not a straightforward opposition of one against the other. It is more in the nature of a mutual dependence, or of a parasitical relationship, made up of compounded love and hate. The unclean does not only endeavor to destroy the holy, but also loves it because it is the source of its nourishment. There is a kind of attraction which becomes destructive upon contact but which nevertheless persists; the two forces strive to unite with one another in a process of exchange, of give and take.
It would seem that in this exchange of good and evil the demonic flourishes at the expense of the human. However, in certain instances it is otherwise, and this is the essence of Tikun, the process of repairing damage, of correcting wrong thoughts and actions. The difficulty in every attempt at Tikun, or making right the evil - and, perhaps, one of the central problems of repentance as a process and not as a decision - is the fact that when a person tries to return to the good by way of correcting the evil, he has to struggle with the evil, enter into it, and recall it. To feel remorse is to experience the curse and the pain of a sinful act. At the same time, it leads to temptation yet again, for dwelling on the evil act is itself a very involved and complex process, with love and attraction still alive behind the intention to overcome and abandon. The monster still loves and is loved, and there is a closeness, a kinship, which is capable of drawing one back to that from which one is trying to flee. Anyone who has sincerely worked at repentance will know the complexity of the matter, that evil is capable of breeding more evil in many ways, breeding itself independently of the good, and yet in such symbiotic association with it that it becomes capable of destruction of that good without intending or wishing to do so. Evil is a kind of parasite which chokes the thing it lives on. This is one of the ways in which "the sin lies in wait at the opening, and his desire is for you" (Genesis 4:8). Sin wants you, lusts after you, not because you are sinful and desire him, but because you are the substance from which sin draws life. Therefore, when a person lusts for that which is permitted, he creates a Jewish sort of demon that is amenable to the rectification process of Tikun. Although, to be sure, it is still Sitra Achra and belongs to the shell.
Let us take again the example of eating whereby food instantaneously becomes part of the individual. If the food is not holy, that is, not eaten with proper kavanah for the sake of Heaven, then, at that moment of partaking of the food, an opening is provided for the Sitra Achra to enter. In the same way (and every metaphor has, of course, a limited application), all harmful substances (such as radiation), though they affect different people in different ways, still have a cumulative effect of varying degree. So too, a person can destroy himself with infinitesimal amounts of uncleanness, even if he eats only according to what is permitted. If one adheres only to the external act of that which is allowed by law, this can lead to a decline and fall.
One of the problems with demons is that they are usually represented in surreal forms, so we do not recognize them in actuality. Literature and art represent demons in half-comical forms, and therefore, when we look for the chicken's claw or the goat's horns, we fail to identify the very human demons in our life. The truth is that the demon is not a stranger to man; he does not come from without but from within. Man himself produced him, with his thoughts, speech, and actions; and from that point on, the demon is attached to him; it is his offspring; it feeds on him, sucks him dry, and ultimately destroys him.
The verse "Sin crouches at the door and its desire is to you" (Genesis 4:7) expresses the complex relationship between a person and his evil. It is not a confrontational relationship but a complex, mutual, love-hate relationship. Evil is a parasite that strives to attach itself to man, for man is its only source of nourishment; evil devours man because it lives and feeds by consuming its host.
This complex relationship exists even when a person rejects evil. Even as he strives to do teshuvah ("repentance") and rectify his evil deeds, his desire for evil still exists, and if he is not careful, he is liable to sink into the very morass from which he is seeking to extricate himself. Often, in the very midst of the regret, distress, pain, and disgust for evil one experiences while doing teshuvah, a person might repeat the very sins he is repenting and with an even greater intensity than before. The demons, "the plague of man," are created by man, but they then assume an existence of their own, reproducing and multiplying until they strangle a person. This is not because they desire his demise but because they must destroy him in order to continue to exist.
Jewish demons, then, are the demons created by Jews, out of the Jewish yetzer harah and Jewish sins.