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March 2, 2022 3:45 pm

Is Man Good, Evil, or Something in Between? A Response

avatar by Joel Alperson


A Torah scroll. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

The question of man’s innate goodness has been debated recently in The Algemeiner, beginning with a column by Rabbi Pini Dunner arguing both that man’s nature is inherently good and that this is the position of Judaism. Dennis Prager later argued that Judaism in fact rejects this view — drawing a response from Dunner, as well as a response by Benjamin Kerstein that landed somewhere in the middle but was more sympathetic to the rabbi’s position.

In his reply to Prager, Dunner contrasted his belief in the innate goodness of human beings with that of those who “believe that humanity is irredeemably evil.” In fact, Prager never wrote or implied that humans are “irredeemably evil,” either in his article nor elsewhere in his writings. Prager’s position is simply one of disagreement — holding that the genuinely Jewish view is that man is neither irredeemably evil nor inherently good. 

Why did Rabbi Dunner raise the point that Prager sought to “cancel” him? Does Rabbi Dunner equate disagreement with cancelling? 

Dunner invokes Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook to argue that man’s soul is pure, but is corrupted by the material world. There seems to be some intellectual sleight of hand here, as nowhere was man’s soul mentioned in Rabbi Dunner’s first article; his contention was that man is inherently good. To say that man’s soul is pure and only corrupted by the material world is like saying that cars are perfect, but are corrupted only when taken on the road.

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Even more important, Dunner’s initial claim that “we will be instinctively inclined towards altruism and caring for others” as long as we “don’t give in to our animal instincts” should essentially end the argument. Since man has animal instincts — a fact both Prager and Dunner acknowledge — man simply cannot be basically good. 

How can any parent (and I understand Dunner to be one) believe man is inherently good, given the time parents devote to preventing unkind and even nasty behaviors by their children? How many thousands of times have parents had to teach their children to say, “thank you”? And why? Because children are not naturally grateful.

The arguments by both Dunner and Kerstein also criticized Prager’s expertise and authority, with the rabbi dismissing Prager as “a radio talk show host [who] wades into territory about which he has scant knowledge.” 

“Scant knowledge”? Dennis Prager taught Judaism and Jewish history as a member of the Department of Judaic Studies of Brooklyn College. At the age of 25, he coauthored with Rabbi Joseph Telushkin the widely read English-language introduction to Judaism, “The Nine Questions People Ask about Judaism,” still in print and read today. The pair also wrote “Why the Jews? The Reason for Antisemitism,” a book praised by Rabbi Harold Kushner as “the wisest, most original and provocative book on antisemitism I have ever read.” 

Prager is currently completing the fourth volume of his five-part commentary on the Torah, “The Rational Bible,” the bestselling Torah commentary in America. His work has drawn high praise from the likes of Ben Shapiro, who brings honor to Judaism wearing a kippah on his worldwide podcast, and Prager was invited by the Bible Department of Bar-Ilan University to speak on his Torah commentary.

In fact, Dennis Prager has arguably brought more Jews to Judaism than any other living Jew. As perhaps the best-known religious Jew in America, he has also introduced millions of non-Jews to Judaism and made the case for Israel to tens of millions of people worldwide through Prager University, with its billion views a year.

Kerstein’s column, in turn, referred to Prager as a “professional moralist.” Whether this was meant as a compliment or a jibe, it is actually quite accurate. Dennis Prager has been addressing the great moral questions of life for nearly 50 years — indeed, that is his profession. Noble work if you can get it.

You don’t need Judaism to tell you people aren’t basically good. One only needs to conduct a basic review of history.

In a comment posted below Rabbi Dunner’s rebuttal, I suggested that he and Prager hold a public debate on the important topic of man’s innate goodness. Both Rabbi Dunner and Dennis Prager have since agreed to participate, and I’ve started working to coordinate a Los Angeles-area event.

Joel Alperson is an Orthodox Jew and former national chairman of the United Jewish Appeal campaign.

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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