Do Jews believe in Satan and demons?

Jews are no different than people of other religions. There is no subject that every Jew accepts. Even rabbis differ in what they think is right. Many Jews reject the notion of the existence of demons and even angels. They feel, like Maimonides, that there is no mention of demons in the Hebrew Bible and the term angel in the Bible is a metaphor for the laws of nature. Satan in the book of Job is not a demon, but simply an advocate for a differing opinion. Also, the story of Satan in Job is only a fable. Many others, like Rashi, are convinced that demons exist. The first group insists that God is all-powerful and needs no helpers. Those who accept the existence of angels and demons think that they serve a divine purpose. The following is a sample of both ideas.

Rationalists repudiate the notion of Satan, angels and demons

Rational Jewish thinkers like Saadiah Gaon, Abraham ibn Ezra and Maimonides insist that biblical, midrashic, and talmudic declarations that contradict reason, science, and philosophy must be interpreted in a rational manner.

Saadiah asserts that Satan in Scripture’s Job is a human, a contemporary of Job, who despises Job. The “sons of God,” also mentioned in Job, are members of a religious group. God, the book is telling us, does not interfere and allows Job’s human enemies to torment him.

Ibn Ezra offers four possible explanations of Genesis 6, which speaks about b’nei haElohim marrying women: (1) The b’nei haElohim are children of nobles, (2) people of lofty character, (3) exalted descendants of Seth who yielded to lust and cohabitated with the ethically inferior descendants of Cain, or (4) people with astrological knowledge (ibn Ezra, like most people of his age, believed in the efficacy of astrology) who chose proper wives based on their superior knowledge. He rejects the definition “sons of God,” implying the existence of angels.

Maimonides contends that since God is good, God created only good things. Thus, it is inconceivable that a Satan or evil heavenly beings exist. In his Guide of the Perplexed2:6 he states that the term “angel” does not refer to heavenly beings but denotes anything that implements the laws of nature, even rain and snow. In his Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Avodah Zarah 11:16, he flatly denies the truth of the existence of angels and demons: “All of these things are lies and untruths with which the ancient idol worshippers deceived the people, to entice them to follow them. It is not fitting for Israel, who are a really wise nation, to be attracted by such vanities, or to suppose that they have any value…. Whoever believes in these things and their like and thinks that they are genuine and a kind of wisdom, but that the Torah forbids them (even though they work) belongs to the fools and the deficient in knowledge.”

Others, like Rashi, relying on Midrashim, were convinced that demons exist

The eleventh century French Bible commentator Rashi (1040–1105), who explained Scripture with Midrashim that he felt fit into the plain meaning of the text, explains the story of Jacob and Joseph in Genesis 37:2 by paraphrasing the Midrash Genesis Rabba (edited in the beginning of the fifth century C.E.). “Jacob wanted to dwell in peace, but the troubles of Joseph sprang upon him. The righteous want to dwell in peace, but the Holy One Blessed Be He said, ‘Isn’t what is prepared for them in the world-to-come enough for the righteous, but they want to dwell in peace (also) in this world!’”

The Midrash itself uses stronger and more figurative language, “When the righteous wish to dwell in tranquility in this world, Satan comes and accuses them: ‘They are not content with what is in store for them in the hereafter, but they wish to dwell at ease even in this world!’ The proof (that the righteous are acting improperly) lies in the fact that the patriarch Jacob wanted to live at ease in this world, whereupon he was attacked by Joseph’s Satan.”

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