Monday, June 22, 2009

Is it Wrong to be Immoral?

I’ve been reading lately about the biological origins of morality. Researchers presented subjects in MRI machines with various scenarios. They found that thinking about altruism lights up the pleasure centers in the brain the same way that thinking about food or sex does. It is speculated that this reaction evolved because individuals who cooperated with the group were more likely to survive.

I think the biological root of morality raises two issues.

Firstly, it negates the claim that without divine laws humanity would descend into anarchy. It also comes down firmly on the “good” side of the “is man inherently good or evil” debate.

Secondly, if morality is a biological drive instead of a metaphysical imperative (whatever its source) is there any value in being good? There is a practical value in it, as it makes our group more likely to survive and pass on our genes. But suppose that I could get away with stealing money from the elderly, is there anything wrong with it other than a bunch of cells in my brain firing and causing an emotional reaction that says “don’t do that.” After all, we can and do suppress other reflexive reactions, and it is of no consequence or even good. If a nurse suppresses her gag reflex while treating a person covered in sores, we would say that’s good. But then, that may be because the circuits in her brain that trigger good feelings when she behaves altruistically are overriding the circuits that cause her to feel nauseas when she smells putrefying flesh (and that second set of circuits probably evolved to keep us away from disease-ridden rotting corpses).

There are pragmatic reasons to be moral, such as avoiding censure from society, creating social institutions that we ourselves benefit from, keeping society going and preventing it from descending into anarchy, etc. But when a cost-benefit analysis shows that we stand to gain more from being immoral, why shouldn’t we do what is best for ourselves?

We seem to assume that morality is metaphysical, and whether divine or not, there is a value in being moral. Yet if it is merely a biological drive, like the drive to eat, then why can’t we, as rational beings, override this biological drive in cases where it is in our best interests to do so?

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Don’t Be A Baal HaBayis

It was a special occasion. The Rosh Yeshiva’s father, the original founder of the yeshiva, was visiting from Eretz Yisroel and was going to address the bochurim. I and my fellow students at the small yeshiva where I went to bais medrish sat at the tables waiting respectfully as the elderly rabbi made his way to the shtender at the front of the room.

For the next half hour he regaled us with anecdotes, witticisms, and quotes from Torah sources on the importance of learning. Drawing up to his conclusion, he leaned forward on the shtender.

“Rabosai, what you are doing here, sitting and learning, sustains the world. There may come a time when you are no longer able to sit and learn, when you have other responsibilities. Make sure that you always have a seder, and that learning remains your focus. Don’t become ballei baatim. Make sure that learning remains the ikkar.”*

I was disturbed. Not by the assertion that learning sustained the world and was of utmost importance: that was standard yeshiva rhetoric and while I didn’t like learning I still implicitly accepted that this was true. What bothered me was the characterization of baalie baatim, the members of the community who juggled jobs, families, and mitzvos, as “less than.”

This was an attitude I had encountered numerous times in the yeshivish world. Baalie baatim were the nebachs who couldn’t sit and learn. They were less intelligent than those who sat and learned - simple seforim and shiurim were called “ballei baatish.” It is a term that seems to be the modern equivalent of the gemara’s am haaretz.

The gemara portrays the am haaretz, the simple farmers who were the average Jews of the period, as unintelligent ignoramuses. While insulting to these people, this probably at least had some basis in truth. Most people of that period were uneducated. The baalei baatim of today, however, are by and large former yeshiva bochurim. Many of them continue to learn when they have the time. They are also the ones who financially support the yeshiva world.

I found the sneering condescension directed towards those who didn’t spend their lives sitting and learning reprehensible. A decade later I can add elitist and psychologically scarring for those who do not spend their lives learning. Even now, when I am around a yeshivish person, there’s a little voice in the back of my head telling me that I need to convince them that I too am a talmid chochem.**

*This happened a long time ago, and I don’t remember most of what he said, let alone word-for-word. This is an approximation which relays his main points.
**A voice I try to ignore, and which has gotten quieter and quieter over the years.