Sympathy for the Devil or The Gentleman from Cracow

I’m afraid I’ve been thinking about evil. Recent events in this country have seen to that. But evil—or the devil—isn’t very central in Judaism. As far as I know, the devil appears only in Job, and there is seen doing what the devil does best—walking around on earth, and stirring up trouble. Then the devil and God make a bet about Job. But throughout, at least from my perspective, the devil is seen as subsidiary to God, even a part of God. For in Hebrew the word Satan simply means adversary.
But Milton and Mick Jagger aren’t the only ones who have some sympathy for the devil. The great I.B. Singer goes into quite a bit of detail about this personage in his short story “The Gentleman from Cracow”—a tale which has fascinated me ever since I read it as a teenager.
In a classic set-up, a suave outsider comes to town. He lends money, encourages orgies, and before much time has passed the formerly pious villagers are partying full out. Every kind of vice prevails.
Singer writes: “And then the gentleman from Cracow revealed his true identity. He was no longer the young man the villagers had welcomed, he was a creature covered with scales, with an eye in his chest, and on his forehead a horn that rotated at great speed. His arms were covered with hair, thorns, and elflocks, and his tail was a mass of live serpents; for he was none other than Ketev Mriri, Chief of the Devils.”
Vanishing as suddenly as he arrived, the devil leaves the villages embarrassed, ashamed, shocked, and horrified. Only the pious rabbi hasn’t been taken in—but he is a pretty ineffectual fellow. So…what happened?
Singer seems to say that evil—or, a more classic Jewish way of putting it—the inclination to do evil—comes from within and without. Those villagers would never have gone berserk on their own. But the tendency to bad behavior was inherent, or latent. And then, like a match to deadwood (or, dare I say it, a racist president to the KKK and neo-Nazis) the outside influence corrupts everything.
Are Singer’s villagers punished in the end? Not really. In an odd but thought provoking twist Singer cites the “kindness of the Jews” as the reason that neighboring villages help out and restore the community. Surely at the end of “Gentleman” Singer isn’t proposing that Jews—or humanity in general—is basically kind. Rather there is a balance here, with the inclination to do good.
The pious rabbi’s grave shines a beacon of light. Life returns to normal. The devil has gone back to the big city and left our village alone.
Let’s hope so.

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