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Being of Two Minds: Chassidus and Neuroscience

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By Mike Perkins
MyLife Essay Contest 2017

Our Dilemma

One of the great questions is how we should live our life. No matter how we decide that question, the outcome will be dependent on the choices we make. In fact, the choices we make ultimately are the answer. Each day provides us with a bewildering amount of choices from which to choose, but what is the right choice? Proverbs states that “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.” Confounding our predicament even further is our creativity in justifying our actions no matter how wrong, or egregious, they may be. Leszek Kołakowski (Polish philosopher and voracious critic of Communism, 1927 – 2009) describes how we can bring ourselves to believe anything that suits our purposes. According to Kołakowski we can evoke an “infinite cornucopia” of justifications for what we do. There is an infinite number of reasons we can provide to justify our beliefs which in turn determine our actions.

Background to the Problem

Mankind has a long history of finding the right reason to do the wrong thing, and making excuses for our behavior. The Tanakh is full of examples of people who should have known better, who were in fact warned to do otherwise, who did exactly the opposite of what G-d had willed. Yet, they drew upon the infinite cornucopia to justify their actions. Starting in Bereishis (Genesis, chapter 3 with the account of Eve and the serpent), continuing through to the very end of the Tanakh, literally on the last page and chapter, in the text of II Chronicles, we learn that king “Zedekiah “did what was evil in the eyes of HASHEM his G-d, and he did not humble himself before Jeremiah the Prophet, who spoke for HASHEM.” Our rebellion against G-d through bad choices is a pattern that continues throughout history. Everyone who participated in the Shoah (holocaust), or Stalin’s purges, believed they were doing the right thing. At his trial the Nazi Eichmann makes this point for us when he said: “To sum it all up. I must say I regret nothing.” Then we hanged him.

But why? Why is the history of the Jewish people, indeed the history of all humankind, replete with examples of this? This article examines the spiritual and neurological basis of that dilemma, and concludes with how we might begin the process of improving our decision making.

The Struggle Within Us

There is a struggle going on inside of us. A struggle against the Evil Inclination. “The term is drawn from the phrase “the imagination of the heart of man [is] evil” [a term] which occurs twice in the Hebrew Bible, at Genesis 6:5 and 8:21.” That struggle has been documented, discussed, and commented on through the ages by our prophets, teachers, sages and rebbes. How serious is this struggle? The Talmud states that:
“To what is it like, the evil inclination in man? It is like a father who takes his small son, bathes him, douses him with perfume, combs his hair, dresses him up in his finest accouterments, feeds him, gives him drink, places a bag of money around his neck, and then goes off and puts his son at the front door of a brothel. What can the boy do that he not sin?”

The Evil Inclination is a powerful, and seductive foe. Fortunately there is a force within us opposed to the Evil Inclination that we can call upon. The Good Inclination. Maimonides writes:
“…. with regard to the Good Inclination and with regard to Evil Inclination, that is to say, that he might lay to his heart the love of God and his faith in Him, even at an hour of rebellion, or of wrath, or of displeasure…..”

In other words, even “at an hour of rebellion,” our “Good inclination,” which is our love and faith in G-d, can help us prevail. Both inclinations are even alluded to in the Torah. The Mittler Rebbe commented on Deuteronomy, 6:5 (“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.”) when he wrote:
“The word for heart here is levacha, rather than lev. The sages stated that the two letters of levavcha [the extra two letters] mean with both your inclinations, the inclination to do good and the inclination to do bad – the good inclination being a function of the Divine soul, and the bad inclination of the animalistic soul.”

The struggle between our inclinations is a major theme in Chassidus and certainly in the Tanya. In its own way neuroscience recognizes this struggle. A struggle that exists not just within the the spiritual realm, but within the very structure, and function of our physical brains as well. After thousands of years modern science is finally starting to catch up with the Torah.

The Chassidus of Neuroscience

The complexity of the brain defies description. The more we learn about the brain, the more aware we become about how much we do not know about it. Just as there are different levels for understanding Torah, there are different levels of understanding the brain, and they are all true when correctly understood within their context. For our purposes here, taking a lesson from Rashi, the simple meaning of the brains function will more than suffice. We can divide the brain into two parts. The first part is the unconscious: “…the core mechanisms that keep us alive. Next came the primary emotional responses, reward processes, and foundational memory to enhance survival of the individual in the environment.”

That is the most primitive part of the brain. It is reactive rather than contemplative. It acts without thinking. It is important to note that emotions are products of the unconscious parts of our brain. Emotions are in essence physiological response to stimuli and they occur even before we have the chance to think about them. After emotions comes “… conscious thought, executive functioning, and metacognition [thinking about thinking, which as far as we know appears to be a uniquely human trait], which assist with regulating emotions, setting the world in context, and thinking rationally” It is also the part of our brain that allows us to differentiate between right or wrong, and make moral decisions.

Think of it as a continuum. Notice that the structure, and capabilities, get more complex as it moves from the more primitive mechanisms to the more advanced ones. Let’s put it into context. The smallest living thing with a brain is a fruit fly with 250,000 neurons. A Human has 86,000,000,000 neurons. The fruit fly does not have a cerebral cortex, and we do. There are 21,000,000,000 neurons in the human brain devoted entirely to the cerebral cortex (a little over 24% of our neurons are devoted to our cerebral cortex). Some other animals have a cerebral cortex, but our cerebral cortex has the highest density of neurons than any other creature. That makes us different. We have a brain of much more complexity than any other living creature. We have used that brain to go to the moon, develop miraculous technologies, write books, and think about thinking. We have also used it to commit unspeakable crimes, and design horrific weapons of mass destruction. No other living creature even comes close to having any of those abilities. We also have one other thing that other creatures do not have. We have the ability to know right from wrong. And not just that. We have the capacity to choose one over the other and we are held responsible for our moral choices. We have the the free will to choose good or bad, and an equal capacity for both.

The Neuroscience of the Tanya

The Tanya was written by Rabbi Schneur Zalman who believed that:
“The average individual has the moral strength, if he but make the necessary effort, to suppress and hold in check those discordant forces, even if he may not be able to eradicate them completely. Consequently he is confident that personal harmony can be achieved, at any rate, in the whole area of the actual and practical moral life.”

In the very first chapter of the Tanya “the author lays down the foundation of his psychological system, which is based on the doctrine of ‘two souls.’ These souls are conceived as the sources of all human activity, and the conscious and unconscious forces behind them.” The Alter Rebbe, author of the Tanya, was neither naive when it came to the human condition, nor pessimistic. In taking a realistic view of our nature, he reflected a sophisticated understanding of human nature as opposed to some modern thinkers like Marx who saw man as entirely altruistic by nature.

The Tanya offers us a guidebook about how to live our lives, and how to make choices. There are excellent translations, commentaries, and other sources that can be helpful. A short recommended list of study aides for the Tanya is provided below in case your curious. This is a list that I have personally found helpful. Tanya provides us with a GPS for the Soul, which is actually the title of a book I am recommending. This is a path that does not transfer us overnight, but rather a transformative process. How Jewish is that?

Recommended Study Aides for the Tanya:

  • GPS for the Soul, by Nadav Cohen, and translated by Zalman Nelson.
  • Tanya with Rabbi Gordon, Z”L, audio and video versions of shiurim online at Chabad.org. A gifted and inspired teacher. Besides daily lessons in Tanya, the same series also includes the daily Chumash and Rambam. A phenomenal resource.
  • Chayenu: Daily TorahStudy. A daily study guide which includes the Tanya. This is a descriptiom is from their web page at chayenu.org: “Designed specifically for Jews in the English speaking community, facilitates the learning of the daily Torah study cycles (of Chumash, Rambam and more) in a practical, convenient and portable format. Chayenu achieves this by publishing and distributing a weekly English-Hebrew Torah study magazine.”
  • Lessons in Tanya: The Tanya of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, elucidated by Rabbi Yose Wineburg, published and Copyright by Kehot Publication society. Available in print form, and also, in its entirety online at: http://www.chabad.org/library/tanya/tanya_cdo/aid/6237/jewish/Lessons-in-Tanya.htm
    This is just a start, and there are assuredly many other great sources I don’t know about, or have not had the pleasure of trying yet. A lifetime of delightful learning is before you. Time to make the choice. “If not now, when”
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