Human Beings Are Not Basically Bad or Good, We Choose

These pages have recently seen a rather impassioned debate on one of the more fundamental questions of human existence: are human beings essentially good or essentially evil? And more specifically: does Judaism say that human beings are essentially good or essentially evil?

Rabbi Pini Dunner and professional moralist Dennis Prager weighed on either side of the debate, with Dunner coming down squarely on the side of good. “The fact we are all born in God’s image means that if we don’t give in to our animal instincts, which seek self-gratification even if this will result in the calamitous downfall of others, we will be instinctively inclined towards altruism and caring for others,” he says. “Human beings are not innately evil and selfish. On the contrary, that kind of nature is an aberration, a deviation from the norm.”

Prager disagrees in rather strident terms. “The Torah,” he claims, “completely rejects the notion that man is basically good.” He cites as proof the biblical admonitions “the will of man’s heart is evil from his youth” (Genesis 8:21) and “every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time” (Genesis 6:5).

“How can one reconcile an understanding of human history with the contention that people are basically good?” he asks. “Did basically good people murder six million Jews? … If people are basically good, what is the Torah for?”

In an impassioned response, Dunner takes exception to all of this. Citing the revered Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, he states, “Everything good in man, and everything that can be defined as virtuous, exists from the moment of birth. Not that this means everyone is good throughout their lives, or that humans are incapable of evil. Rather, says Rabbi Kook, this means that the human soul is good by default, and it is the animal aspect which leads man astray.”

This, Dunner says, means that “goodness is the natural force, not evil.”

Both Dunner and Prager make compelling cases, though Dunner’s is somewhat stronger. Indeed, Prager’s view is more akin to Christianity, with its “original sin,” than Judaism. On certain points, moreover, Prager is simply wrong; for example, the citation from Genesis 6:5 refers specifically to the generation of the Flood, not to any essential aspect of humanity.

Still, he makes an excellent argument that history contains copious examples of human evil and, were this not inborn, the Torah would be unnecessary.

Given that both men have points to make, it seems worthwhile to examine some of the rabbinic texts on the subject. A brief tour indicates that the issue tends to boil down to the idea that human beings possess an evil inclination (yetzer hara) and a good inclination (yetzer hatov). The rabbis struggled, however, with the nature of these inclinations and their relationship to human beings.

For example, in the Talmudic tractate Berakhot (I have consulted the William Davidson edition), Rav Nahman bar Rav Hisda asks, “What is the meaning of that which is written: “Then the Lord God formed [vayyitzer] man” (Genesis 2:7), with a double yod? This double yod alludes to that fact that the Holy One, Blessed be He, created two inclinations; one a good inclination and one an evil inclination.” This sparks a debate among the sages, but it is worth noting that, while Rav Nahman acknowledges that the evil inclination is inherent to Creation, he does not say it is the essence of human beings.

Tractate Nedarim states: “And there came a great king against it and besieged it,’ this is referring to the evil inclination; ‘and built great bulwarks against it,’ these are sins.” It continues: “‘Now there was found in it a man poor and wise,’ this is referring to the good inclination; ‘and he by his wisdom delivered the city,’ this is referring to repentance and good deeds that are caused by the good inclination.” Here, the two inclinations are seen as essentially equal in nature. While they are in perpetual struggle, neither dominates the other.

Tractate Sukkah adds another element to this, which is the idea that the inclinations are, in some sense, alien to human beings: “In the future, at the end of days, God will bring the evil inclination and slaughter it in the presence of the righteous and in the presence of the wicked. For the righteous the evil inclination appears to them as a high mountain, and for the wicked it appears to them as a mere strand of hair.” The evil inclination, then, stands apart from its subject, and can be observed and/or destroyed as a separate entity.

The essential alienness of the evil inclination is also emphasized in tractate Bava Batra, in which Reish Lakish asserts, “Satan, the evil inclination, and the Angel of Death are one.” This implies that the evil inclination is a supernatural force, one that affects human beings, but is in no way their essence. Tractate Shabbat takes this even further, with the haunting phrase, “What is the strange god that is within a person’s body? Say that it is the evil inclination.” In other words, the evil inclination exists within human beings, but is in no way of human beings; it is a “strange god,” foreign to us.

It would seem that at least according to these particular sages, Prager is mistaken in asserting that Judaism sees human beings as essentially evil. However, if the evil inclination is alien to us, is Dunner correct to say that human beings are essentially good?

It does not appear so. As stated above, the claim that God “created two inclinations; one a good inclination and one an evil inclination” implies that the inclinations exist in a state of equality. This appears to be confirmed by the role assigned to the Torah in regard to the inclinations, which also answers Prager’s question, “If people are basically good, what is the Torah for?” Tractate Kiddushin states, “The Holy One, Blessed be He, said to Israel: My children, I created an evil inclination, and I created Torah as its antidote. If you are engaged in Torah study you will not be given over into the hand of the evil inclination. … And if you wish you shall rule over it.”

At first glance, this seems to buttress Prager’s claim that only the Torah makes people good. But this is countered by the astounding statement with which the passage ends, the most essential part of which is the words “if you wish.” That is to say: we have a choice. We make a conscious decision whether or not to rule over the “strange god” within us. The Torah exists to guide us to and strengthen us in this decision, but the ultimate choice is, and can only be, ours.

Given this, it is notable that both Dunner and Prager elide the issue of choice. They both concentrate on the essence of human beings, but — as an existentialist would put it — the sages appear to be much more preoccupied with existence. The yetzer hatov and yetzer hara exist, and they affect us; but the real question is, what do we do about them?

It would be foolish to say that Judaism is an “existentialist” religion, but it seems clear that, at least on the question of good and evil, it contains elements akin to that school of philosophy. In particular, the sages appear to believe that man exists in a state of radical freedom. After all, if man did not have freedom, and a radical freedom at that, the choice between the good and evil inclinations would be meaningless.

In fact, it is only in this radical freedom that morality — the ultimate subject of Dunner and Prager’s debate — can be found. If man is essentially good or essentially bad, then he is responsible for nothing; he is simply complying with an inclination. He has no choice but to comply. It is only when freedom is accepted as the essence of the human being that morality and ethics are possible.

That Judaism is a religion of freedom would seem to be confirmed by one of the Torah’s most essential admonitions: “I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse — choose life, so you and your seed will live.” This directive to “choose” may be one of the most telling commandments in the Torah, because if the Israelites were not free to choose, it would be absurd. Since God does not present us with absurdities, we must conclude from this that the creature he created in his own image is neither essentially good nor essentially evil, but essentially free. What we should do with this freedom is the great question of Judaism, one with which the sages contended, and with which we today continue to struggle.

This article was originally published by the Algemeiner

Photo: Chajm Guski/Wikimedia

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