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Judaism Rejects the Idea That Human Nature Is Good

avatar by Dennis Prager

Opinion

A Torah scroll. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

In a December column published in The Algemeiner, Rabbi Pini Dunner presented a case that Judaism holds people and human nature to be fundamentally good.

While no doubt sincerely held, his argument reflects a dangerous secular notion that has intruded into parts of modern Orthodox life, just as this and other secular ideas have influenced Catholic and Protestant Christian life.

In fact, no Abrahamic religion — not Judaism, not Christianity, not Islam — asserts that people are basically good. This idea is a product of the secular age and a major reason for the moral confusion that characterizes our era.

With regard to Judaism, the Torah completely rejects the notion that man is basically good. God Himself states that “the will of man’s heart is evil from his youth” (Genesis 8:21) and that “every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time” (Genesis 6:5).

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In addition, the Torah and the rest of the Bible repeatedly warn us not to follow our hearts. In fact, Orthodox Jews cite this admonition from the Torah three times every day: “Do not follow your hearts and your eyes after which you prostitute yourselves” (Numbers 15:39).

If the human heart is basically good, why does the Bible repeatedly warn us not to follow it?

How can one reconcile an understanding of human history with the contention that people are basically good? Did basically good people murder six million Jews?

But we don’t need references to the Holocaust to make our case. In the 20th century alone, more than a hundred million people — civilians, not soldiers — were murdered by vile regimes and their vile followers. These include the approximately 20 million killed in the Gulag Archipelago; the slaughter of the Tutsis in Rwanda; the genocidal murder of Armenians; the deliberate starvation of about 60 million Chinese; the Japanese mass rape of Korean “comfort women” and hideous medical experiments on Chinese civilians; and the torture and murder of approximately one out of every four Cambodians.

And that is only a partial list. What about the universality of slavery and the tortures and rapes that accompanied slavery — or how men have behaved in wartime throughout history? Were all the people who engaged in these evils aberrations?

In fact, most were quite normal. The aberrations in history have been the truly good individuals. During World War II, the Germans, French, Poles, Hungarians, Lithuanians and others who aided the Nazis genocide — let alone those who did nothing — were normal people. The handful who aided Jews were the aberrations.

And what about childhood bullying? Are fat, or slow, or unattractive boys and girls generally treated with kindness and empathy? Or child sexual abuse? The WHO in 2002 estimated that 73 million boys and 150 million girls under the age of 18 years had experienced various forms of sexual violence. Quite remarkable for a world of basically good people.

The belief that people are basically good is not only not Jewish and foolish, it is dangerous.

One reason is that the most important, and most difficult, task of parents and of society is to raise good human beings. Yet, those who believe we are born good will not concentrate on making good people. Why bother if we’re already good?

A second reason is that those who believe people are basically good blame the evil that people do on outside forces, not on the individual who committed the evil. Belief in the basic goodness of human nature is the major reason people claim that poverty, or guns, or racism causes crime — anything except the perpetrator.

Rabbi Dunner cites a Yale study purporting to show that babies are not only moral agents but are actually moral beings. This study explains why more and more Americans have lost respect for universities. The idea that babies know right and wrong is preposterous; the idea that babies are moral is even more so.

Babies are selfish — as they have to be to survive. And babies are innocent; but to be innocent is not the same as being good. The rabbi’s argument conflates “innocent” with “good.”

It also conflates “in God’s image” with “good.” He writes: “the Torah stating that human beings are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27) (is) a statement that underscored humanity’s inherent goodness.”

Not so. Created “in God’s image” has never meant man is basically good. Rather, it means that human beings, like God (and unlike animals), know good from evil and have moral free will. In Genesis 1:27, Rashi explains “in God’s image” as “the power to comprehend and to discern.”

Second, it means that human life (again, unlike animal life) is infinitely precious.

Finally, if people are basically good, what is the Torah for? What are all the commandments for? Why didn’t God just say, “Follow your heart”? If people are basically good, why would God need to command us not to murder? Don’t basically good creatures know this?

It is troubling to see an Orthodox rabbi offer an idea that runs contrary to what the Torah and Judaism teach concerning one of the most fundamental issues of life. As more Orthodox Jews attend college and graduate school, we will probably see this more and more. That’s why it is imperative that Jewish schools teach the distinctiveness of Jewish values.

Increasingly, they do not.

This is a condensed version of an article first published at Creators.com.

Dennis Prager is the founder of Prager University, one of the largest educational video sites in the world, with a billion views a year. He is a nationally syndicated radio talk-show host and columnist. The third volume of his commentary on the Torah, The Rational Bible —  Deuteronomy — will be published in October 2022. His commentary on the Haggadah, The Rational Passover Haggadah, will be published this March. He may be contacted at dennisprager.com.

The opinions presented by Algemeiner bloggers are solely theirs and do not represent those of The Algemeiner, its publishers or editors. If you would like to share your views with a blog post on The Algemeiner, please be in touch through our Contact page.

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