Human nature, Judaism and liberals: response to my critics

If my mail is any indication, I suspect I aroused considerably more anger among Jews by arguing that man is not basically good (and that the belief in man’s innate goodness is neither rational nor Jewish) than I would have had I argued that there is no God.

If my suspicion is true, it supports my contention that many Jews have substituted faith in humanity for faith in God. Otherwise, why all the anger? Only one letter actually argues that people are basically good. The rest raise unrelated issues or just attack me. (To read the letters referred to here, see Page 4.)

Let’s begin with Michael Tolkin, a self-described “socialist liberal.”

Reading Mr. Tolkin’s comments, one would think I had defamed the universally loved Anne Frank. Yet all I did was differ with one line in Anne Frank’s diary because it is the most frequently cited example of the belief among Jews that people are basically good.

Yet, Mr. Tolkin describes my respectful philosophical difference with one line in Anne Frank’s diary this way: I have “lectured to” Anne Frank, I have “robbed her particular soul of her particular experience,” I have “thrown [her] into the ash heap generalization of ‘young people,’ ” I have caused Mr. Tolkin to “want to scream at this desecration,” and I have engaged in “robbing” and “erasing” Anne Frank’s name because I referred to her as a “teenage girl.”

After excoriating me for differing with Anne Frank, Mr. Tolkin proceeds to the issue itself. He writes that in spite of all of Anne Frank’s suffering, “she believed in goodness.” But belief in goodness was not the subject of my column, nor of the Anne Frank remark I quoted. The subject of my column (and Anne Frank’s comment) was belief in man being basically good. It’s tough to see how Mr. Tolkin missed that. In any event, I passionately believe in goodness. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have written my article, because I believe that we can only increase goodness in the world if we first acknowledge how morally flawed human nature is.

Mr. Tolkin counters my argument that Anne Frank engaged in wishful thinking with this: “She didn’t engage in ‘wishful thinking,’ she engaged in the hardest work of all, finding good where there’s no reason for anything but bitterness. This is the real meaning of the Jewish admonition to choose life.”

Now, every normal human being wants to find good wherever possible. That is not the same, however, as claiming that people are basically good. I don’t understand why this distinction eludes Mr. Tolkin. It is, in fact, quite possible to find good wherever one can and at the same time understand that people are not basically good. I do it every day.

In fact, I would argue that those of us who accept the Torah’s — and reason’s — assessment of human nature are more likely to rejoice in human goodness, precisely because we do not expect it. Moreover, we are also likely to be happier people, because we are not nearly as often disappointed by people as those who walk around thinking everyone is basically good.

Letter writer Martin H. Kodish offers not one word to support the belief that people are basically good. Instead he chides me for “simplicity” and for “not engaging in any level of complex thinking.” Mr. Kodish apparently feels that he engages in complex thinking by observing that we have an id, and that nature and nurture both affect human behavior. I don’t see that as particularly complex. But even if were, it is irrelevant to my article, the subject of which was not what prompts human behavior, but the fact that many Jews believe that people are basically good, a belief that is neither rational nor Jewish.

Elliot Semmelman also attacks me before he, too, gets the issue wrong. I am accused of having “hubris” for speaking “for all liberal Jews on the question ‘Are people basically good?’ ”

Rereading my column, I could not find where I spoke “for all liberal Jews.” But that is precisely what Mr. Semmelman does in his very next sentence: “Liberal Jews believe that everyone comes into this world b’tzelem Elohim.”

I have been teaching the Torah for decades at the American Jewish University (formerly the University of Judaism) and never came across any mainstream Jewish understanding of b’tzelem Elohim (image of God) as meaning man is basically good. Rather, it is usually understood to mean that humans, unlike animals, are uniquely valuable and that, like God, humans know good and evil.

Joshua Berg cites a quote of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav with which I wholeheartedly agree. The quote is lovely — and has nothing to do with my column.

The only place Mr. Berg directly addresses my column is when he writes, “I do not know if people are born good or evil or a mix of the two …”

I happen to think we are a mix.  I also believe that doing evil, or at least doing wrong, in many cases is a lot easier than doing what is right. So Mr. Berg and I are apparently in agreement on man’s basic nature.

Where we differ is another matter. He writes, “[T]he overwhelming evidence [is] that socioeconomic factors like racism, cycles of poverty, desperation, slavery and all manner of ‘evil’ and injustice play significant roles in levels of crime, violent and not.”

On the contrary, the overwhelming evidence is that these factors play a minimal role in explaining evil behavior. The relationship between poverty and crime, for example, is a liberal myth. Even liberal journals and sociologists are rethinking this, given how violent crime continues to decline in America despite the current recession. And the racism explanation for black crime in America is not only false, it defames America and it enables black criminals to excuse their behavior.

Leon M. Salter writes that any God who would declare that “the will of man’s heart is toward evil from youth” is an evil God. I will admit that this is indeed a novel reading of that Torah verse. I read the verse as meaning that God created one being — man — who could choose between good and evil, and that apparently this being has, to God’s everlasting sadness, usually chosen the bad. The Torah says that God Himself was sad over man’s choosing evil (Genesis 6:6). That is not exactly an evil God. It is a God who realistically describes human nature and who is ineffably saddened by it.

John Beckmann takes issue with my thesis that Judaism does not hold that people are basically good by providing examples of biblical characters who do good. But those acts of goodness no more prove we are basically good than all the evil done by people in the Bible proves that people are basically bad.

Most revealingly, Mr. Beckmann writes, “What a sad world it would be if we all believed as Dennis Prager that mankind is inherently evil.”

I did not write that man is inherently evil. I wrote that he is not basically good. And, yes, that does make the world sad. So do disease, earthquakes, death and all the unjust suffering in the world. But sad facts remain facts. A distinguishing characteristic of liberals and leftists is their aversion to acknowledging sad facts (the Soviet Union wasn’t evil; Islam has no more moral problems than Judaism or Christianity; the Palestinians don’t seek Israel’s destruction; there are no inherent differences between boys and girls, just sexist upbringing; the United Nations isn’t a moral wasteland, it’s mankind’s greatest hope; the list is almost limitless).

In closing, I note once again that — with the possible exception of Mr. Beckmann — not one respondent claimed people are basically good. If we were, we wouldn’t need Judaism.

Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio talk-show host, columnist, author and public speaker. He can be heard in Los Angeles on KRLA (AM 870) weekdays 9 a.m. to noon. His Web site is