Philosophers generally write for other philosophers. Often the writing is impenetrable without full access to previous writings on the subject, and the jargon necessitates a prior familiarity with the subject matter. Every so often, however, a book comes along which deals with an important philosophical concept and is written in a style that is at once academically rigorous and accessible to the non-philosophers among us. Human Nature & Jewish Thought is such a volume, thanks to Alan L. Mittleman’s lucid writing and clear articulation of his positions.
What does it mean to be human, in Judaism, in the face of neuroscience, evolutionary biology, biotechnology, and creeping scientism? It is a question of who we are versus what we are. What is the role of culture and community in defining this humanity? Are we just the result of genetics? Are we more than the sum of firing neurons, synapses, and biochemistry?
Mittleman explores the gap between biology and personhood through philosophical anthropology. It is not a work of theology, although he draws many conclusions from rabbinical sources about why we as persons matter. Man is finite, yet he has infinite possibilities. We have consciousness, memory, and ambition. We experience joy and sorrow, and we have free will. We have rights, duties, and obligations as well as a social dimension. As persons we are subject to the “ought” as opposed to the “is.” We are capable of moral imagination, piety, and commitment. We are conscious of our physicality and relation to nature but we are also aware of our otherness.
The Torah recognizes and values the biological facets of human nature but facilitates the elevation of the organic, via free human action. Personhood emerges from nature by means of ethical imperatives, choice, judgment, and action. The capacity to sin is also human. We share much with animals but we rise and are transformed by our differences. The Bible sees humans as integrated wholes.
The book grapples with concepts of the soul, agency, and responsibility. Judaism is less concerned with what consciousness is than with how we use it. Mind and brain are not the same.
The significance of our physicality is our personhood. Consciousness and judgment are brain-based, yet there is an intangible evolutionary and environmental aspect that goes beyond science. Human will resists scientific investigation.
Mittleman marshals ancient, medieval, and modern philosophers, Jewish and secular, to defend personhood and human dignity. We are not merely exquisitely created organisms with finely-tuned working parts. Our mind and soul are what make us human.