Human Nature & Jew­ish Thought: Judaism’s Case For Why Per­sons Matter

Alan L. Mittleman
  • Review
By – June 17, 2015

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.

Relat­ed Content:

Wal­lace Greene, Ph.D., has held sev­er­al uni­ver­si­ty appoint­ments, and cur­rent­ly writes and lec­tures on Jew­ish and his­tor­i­cal subjects.

Discussion Questions