July 10, 2014

Human Nature

We seem to be caught at present in a terrible battle of evil extremism. But the sad fact is that human beings have always been and continue to be this way. For all that Stephen Pinker might argue in The Better Angels of Our Nature, and even if one were to agree that on balance the world is a safer place now for more people than it was in the past, still the amount of evil and suffering we humans inflict on each other is simply inexplicable. And I do not just mean in the Middle East, where as Jews we feel it most.

The problem of why we do such things as humans was tackled in the Talmud.

“When Adam was created he reached from the Earth to Heaven. But when he sinned God placed His hand upon him and shrank him.” (TB Hagigah 12a) You could not ask for a more simple and unequivocal expression of humanism. That humans have the potential to span the world, to make it a wonderful place. But because we have the capacity to make the wrong choices, we end up diminishing ourselves.

If this is true of humanity in general, it is equally true of the Children of Israel.

“Why are Israel compared to the stars of the heaven and the dust of the earth? Because when they rise they can rise to the heavens, but when they sink they sink to the dust.” (TB Megilah 16a)

And from the very start, the story of Adam and Eve in the primordial Garden of Eden, human beings always tend to blame someone else. Whether we blame evolution or creation, the very nature of human beings is one that Hobbes described as “nasty and brutish”. It is almost as if the Bible is telling us that this is the human condition, and it calls upon us to live with it, to try to ameliorate it, but not to expect it will be different. Not in this world anyway. This is probably why “life after death” seems to offer the only solution in rabbinic literature. But in reality that is both pessimistic and sad for us now on earth.

Indeed, what could be sadder than the debate between Beit Hillel and Beit Shamai in TB Eruvin 13b over whether it would have been better for a person not to have been born? They debated for two-and-a-half years before agreeing with the proposition, but added the conclusion that we have no alternative other than to check our own actions and try our best.

But we fighting humans use whatever means are at hand physically, whether it is a fist or a bomb, to impose our selfish wills on others. We start with personal antipathy, move on to tribal rivalry, and end up with national conflict. Indeed, we see some of this progression in the Bible. We start with spitting, throwing stones, beating up, go on to throwing acid, and then using guns.

Ideologies make matters worse. No matter whether they are political, religious, social, or even sporting, the idea that my ideology is better than yours has led to the greatest catastrophes and orgies of destruction that humanity has caused. Millions of humans are currently seeking an escape from hell, and many die in the process. It shows no sign of letting up. Historians debate the causes of world wars, and in the end one concludes, like Plekhanov, that the inevitable always happens through the accidental. Politicians are constrained by personal and political considerations, by constituencies, votes, trade-offs.

We are about to start a three-week period of mourning for the destruction of two temples and two thousand years of exile. The Talmud consistently blames the Jews themselves for what happened. They betrayed their spiritual traditions; they betrayed their social obligations; they made all the wrong political decisions, and the few good people were simply outnumbered by the selfish and the corrupt. It sounds exactly the same today. Fanaticism exists with our people just as much as tolerance and sensibility. We like to think we are better, that we set an example. In some ways we might. But the sounds of internal conflict and brutalism towards the other, be it a different gender, a different religious position, or a different people, is so painful one can understand why so many prophets fled to avoid having to deal with the impossible.

It does not help at all to say “the others” are worse than we are. Two wrongs do not make rights. Most of us desperately want to see an end to conflict, needless deaths, and occupation. I cannot see the light. We are like two punch-drunk fighters slugging it out until one drops or the referee separates them. Then after a few years of recovery we are at it again.

None of the so-called solutions I have seen, on the right or the left, work in practice. And it is not good enough to say that the Almighty will get us out of this mess. It did not happen in the past. So what can we do, we ordinary human beings who care about humanity and about our ways of life? We can pray, and that helps soothe. But practically? Nothing! The politicians will decide. We can only get on with doing our best, wherever we are, to increase the amount of goodness around us, and to try to shine a little light in a dark world.

6 Comments:

At 8:31 AM , Anonymous Keiko Atsumi said...

As a Far Eastern Asian, who cannot understand the Middle East situation but deeply hurt to read about all the endless tragedies involving Israel and Palesrine, I can only sympathise with the agonies of Rabbi Rosen and other like-minded Jewish people. But if you resign yourselves from seeking a light ahead, who can help the suffering innocent on the spot? Since you said that only the politicians can solve the problems, why don't you try to mobilize public opinions for a more determined political will?

 
At 8:46 AM , Anonymous Keiko Atsumi said...

As a Far Eastern Asian, who cannot understand the Middle East situation but deeply hurt to read about all the endless tragedies involving Israel and Palesrine, I can only sympathise with the agonies of Rabbi Rosen and other like-minded Jewish people. But if you resign yourselves from seeking a light ahead, who can help the suffering innocent on the spot? Since you said that only the politicians decide, why don't you try to mobilize public opinions for a more determined political will? Is this too naive a question for someone who has no knowledge of the Middle East complex situation?

 
At 8:28 AM , Blogger Rabbi Jeremy Rosen said...

So if two sides to a conflict cannot seem to agree and have totally different perspectives and if the rest of the world refuses to force one side or the other to resolve the conflict, what do you suggest?

 
At 4:14 AM , Anonymous Elkan Presman said...

The essay was brilliant, Jeremy, but the conclusion was indeed disappointing. Surely the prophetic legacy leads us to speak out about behaviour that we believe to be bad?
But the sometimes vicious tone of intra-communal debate causes all but the apostates to remain silent. So the worthy ideal of Jewish Unity brings about the suspension of all moral debate. Is that right?

 
At 8:50 AM , Blogger Rabbi Jeremy Rosen said...

There are only two ways I can think of of trying to intervene in a meaningful way in modern politics; wealth or political power. The first needs money in huge amounts which I dont have and m not repared to devote myself to acquiring. The second involves getting into a position of power in either politicalo parties, unions or NGOs all of which take years of time I just do not want to spend climbing up ladders, sitting on committees and dealing with people in the main I despise. So please suggest a practical alternative.

 
At 8:08 PM , Blogger Rabbi Jeremy Rosen said...

Elkan:
Yes of course you are right. Speaking out, shouting on the mountain tops is absolutely essential. My point though was that the expectation of immediate change should not be high. For all the great prophetic messages, they actually seemed to have changed nothing in their day! That doesnt mean they were wrong or shouldnt have said what they did.
J

 

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