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Human Nature: Inherently Good or Evil? Ethics of the Fathers 1:7

May 9, 2009 | by Yaakov Astor

Avoiding the negative clears the path for our inherent goodness.

"Nitai HaArbeli said: Distance yourself from a bad neighbor; and do not bond with a degenerate person; and do not abandon [the expectation of] difficulties."

Ethics of the Fathers 1:7

Is the human being inherently good or evil? This is one of the classic debates in the history of philosophy and religion.

The non-Jewish concept of Original Sin, for instance, assumes the latter, i.e. a person is destined for hell, unless s/he does something to alter that course, because the first man's sin made human nature inherently sinful.

By contrast, the Talmud teaches: "All Israel have a portion in the World to Come," i.e. a person is destined for the place of True Reward -- unless he or she does something to lose it.

The Torah is centered on the idea that the human being is endowed with a deposit of divinity1 and made in "God's image." This doesn't contradict Genesis 6:5, for instance, which says, "And God saw the great evil of man in the world, and that the entire impulse of the thoughts of his heart were evil all day." First, the verse doesn't say that the "heart" itself was evil, but only the "impulse of the thoughts" of the human heart. In other words, side-by-side with this natural spirituality (i.e. the "heart" fashioned in the "Divine Image") is an impulse for evil.

This impulse may be very strong and capable of overcoming the good to a great extent, but not enough to supplant and entirely eclipse the original state in which the human being was created, namely "in the Divine Image." Ultimately, an impulse can be repulsed; an inherently evil nature cannot2.

This misconception about the Torah stance on human nature is pervasive. Famed mythologist Joseph Campbell, for instance, declared in his books and to millions of viewers on television that the Bible emphasizes the "castration" of human nature. According to him, by declaring that God came down on Sinai and gave humanity laws and statutes, the outlook of the Bible demonstrates that it sees human nature as inherently evil. Otherwise, why else would the Deity feel the need to impose laws that repress human nature? This, Campbell claimed, was one of the most destructive philosophies Western Civilization had ever imbibed. It resulted, according to him, in the West's history of war, rape, pillage, domination, etc. -- in general, to use his term, in the "castration" the evil it called nature.

Unfortunately, Campbell seems to have confused "castration" with "circumcision." There is a difference, you know.

Nature -- including human nature -- cannot be trusted if it is unchecked.

The Torah does indeed display a certain degree of mistrust toward nature. Generally, nature -- including human nature -- cannot be trusted if it is unchecked. Like the ground that was cursed after Adam's sin, it will grow "thorns and thistles" if it remains uncultivated. However, this doesn't mean to imply that nature is inherently evil and therefore we must seek to "castrate" it. To the contrary, just as thorn and thistles can be cleared to allow the earth to give forth fruit, the very idea of circumcision implies that nature is inherently good; it's just that it has a "foreskin" around it. It has something superficial and external to it that does not allow the true creative pulse within to manifest itself in a fully positive way.

The spiritual may have certain advantages over the physical, but the physical, too, after all is said and done, is a creation of God just the same. ("In the beginning the Creator created heaven and earth.") As a creation of God it is not an obstacle but a potential vehicle for the divine. It can even be formed into a Temple, a "Dwelling for the Divine Presence." And therefore even the earthly must have a natural goodness to it that can be harnessed in a productive way.

Castration implies the earthly potential is inherently evil and must be destroyed. Circumcision -- the Torah's true stance -- implies the natural state is essentially good. Castrate -- and the good as well as the bad is eliminated. Circumcise -- and the inherent good will shine.

Given this introduction we can now turn to the simple profundity of Nitai HaArbeli's above teaching.


Nitai HaArbeli begins: "Distance yourself from a bad neighbor and do not join with an evil person." The underlying assumption in this statement is that human nature is profoundly good. That's why the main thing for moral and spiritual self-improvement is withdrawal from negative influences. Avoiding the negative, including the negative impulse within your own being,3 clears the path for our inherent goodness.
By contrast, Yehoshua ben Perachiyah, in the previous Mishnah, emphasized the positive: "Make yourself a rabbi and acquire a friend." He felt one's primary focus should be to surround oneself with positive influences. He agrees with the essential goodness of man, and that "evil" is only caused by the environment one is raised in, but that it's not enough to clear out the "thorns and thistles" of negative influences and impulses. One has to create and nurture a counterforce, an impulse for good -- a habit-reinforced instinct to do good -- to repulse the impulse to do bad.

King David wrote: "Turn away from evil and do good." (Psalms 34:15, 37:17). This would seem to support the view of Nitai HaArbeli: first one has to "turn away from evil" and then "do good." However, the Chidushei HaRim, a great Chassidic master, interpreted this verse in a novel way. He said: "How does one turn away from evil? By doing good." In other words, sometimes by focusing so much on the negative one can get bogged down in it. It's like a person kicking mud to this side and that but never getting out of the mud. Therefore, don't necessarily wait to rid yourself of evil before pursuing good. Do the good, bypass the evil temporarily, and deal with it at a later date after you've built up a momentum for the good.

Nevertheless, Nitai HaArbeli thinks otherwise. In the Talmud one who tries to do something good without first ridding himself of the evil is likened to a person immersing in a ritual bath (to cleanse himself of spiritual impurity) while holding a rodent (something that causes spiritual impurity). Doing good without first ridding oneself of the bad inhibits the most important tool in the struggle to attain spiritual excellence and wholeness: the inherent good of the soul, the "Divine Image" in which we are all made. By emphasizing avoidance of the negative, he demonstrates his great faith in the natural goodness of the soul and its ability to carry the person to the heights of moral and spiritual greatness.4


Who are the "bad neighbor" and "evil person" Nitai HaArbeli tells us to "distance ourselves from" and "not join with," respectively? Although there are various interpretations, we can perhaps discern the core of the difference by examining how we are cautioned to deal with both.
A bad neighbor, for instance, is someone we need to distance ourselves from. That would imply that the danger inherent in this person is our proximity to him. He influences by his nearness as much as anything else. He's not necessarily the most dynamic person. The bad influence he exerts is not necessarily obvious. However, therein lies the danger: the influence is subtle. Like undertow at a beach, you find yourself being drawn out to places you don't want to be without realizing it.

Don't let yourself be deceived or drawn in by subtle influences that surround us everywhere.

Distance yourself from such an influence, Nitai HaArbeli cautions. His entire power is in his proximity. Don't let yourself be deceived or drawn in.

In our media driven world, negative influences today don't necessarily need to be measured by physical proximity. A person -- and/or their children -- can sit alone in the comfort of his living room and watch a TV program or movie, listen to a radio show or go on the internet and be influenced by the "bad neighbor."

Therefore, this Mishnah exhorts: beware of subtle influences. We may not be able to change the bad neighbor or rid the world of harmful influences. However, we can choose where to live, who our friends are, what we watch and allow into our homes, etc. If we can avoid the negative we will give space for the natural good in ourselves to shine forth.


The "evil person," rasha in Hebrew, that Nita HaArbeli tells us not to join with is a well-defined quantity in the Written Torah, especially in Psalms and Proverbs. His portfolio includes any or all of the following: arrogance, pride, brazenness, insolence, contempt of others; plotting evil and scheming against the innocent; lawlessness and the use of terror to dominate the lowly and disadvantaged; unbridled lusts; deceitful speech; abusing another's friendship; repaying good with evil, love with hate; abhorring the person of integrity; indifference to the plight of the wretched; feigning compassion.

Nitai HaArbeli tells us not the join with them. Etymologically, "join" is the same Hebrew word (chaver) as "friend." Why would anyone join or want to be friends with such an unsavory character? First, they're deceitful and adept at concealing their true intentions. Second, they're powerful and intimidate others into joining them. Third, they can be very dynamic and persuasive, even erudite and intellectual.

The temptation to join them is powerful, despite the nagging echo in the back of one's mind saying, "Stay away. Stay far away!"

Sometimes an entire society can embody the "evil person," as in Nazi Germany. Despite the obvious evil, not many had the strength and courage to oppose them.

Whether societal or an individual, once caught in the gravitational pull of the rasha's influence, it's very hard to pull away. Under such "peer pressure" the person who merely refuses to join the rasha is well on the way to being a tzaddik, a righteous person. Sometimes all it takes for the inherent good in such a person to shine is to find the inner strength and wherewithal to resist evil.


There's a difference of opinion among the commentators regarding the last clause: "Do not abandon [expectation in] poranut," literally "bad happenings." Is it a direct reference to the previous teaching about distancing ourselves from negative influences? Or is it a clause unto itself?

Despite our inherent goodness, we shouldn't delude ourselves into expecting to live a life devoid of difficulties.

Those who see the former translate the Hebrew word poranut as "retribution [against the bad neighbor/rasha]," and see it as a reassurance to the good person resisting evil: "Don't be deceived when good things happen to bad people. There will be a day of reckoning. Therefore, when you see evil profiting, don't get discouraged in your ongoing efforts to avoid, counter and combat evil. Good will triumph, if not sooner then later."5

Those who understand the last part as a separate clause see poranut, "bad happenings" in the sense of "difficulties." It is addressed to the person struggling to be good. Despite our inherent goodness, we shouldn't delude ourselves into expecting to live a life devoid of difficulties. To the contrary, very often the greater the person the greater the difficulties. Therefore, brace yourself for difficulties. See them as challenges. The true test of character is the ability to successfully wrestle with and resist the powerful influences.

1. God "blew the breath of [His eternal] life" into Adam. (Genesis 2:7) "One who blows, blows of the substance from within himself," the mystics explain on this verse.
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2. That's why the Torah tells us we do teshuva (literally, "return" to our original state of goodness) without the need for any intermediary or even a temple. All we need to do is sincerely repulse the impulse and repudiate any past infractions. See Ezekiel 33:12, Leviticus 16:30, Jeremiah 3:22, Hosea 14:3, Numbers 5:6-7, Leviticus 5:5, Isaiah 1:11-13, Jeremiah 7:22-23.
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3. "The Mishnah may be alluding to our closest evil neighbor, the Evil Inclination, that is embedded within…" (Sfas Emes)
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4. I heard from Rabbi Joseph Grunblatt an explanation that employed a similar underlying dynamic to explain the difference of opinion between Talmudic sages -- and later Maimonides and Nachmanides - over whether the Messianic Era will be literally miraculous or merely an era of peace. Will the wolf literally lie with the lamb, in essence representing a change in animal nature so profound that predators no longer exhibit their predatory nature? Or is the famous prediction merely a metaphor for peace between nations?

Those who opine the latter are optimistic about human nature. All that is needed is for nations to realize the sanity of peace (or the insanity of war). With that obstacle removed the inherent goodness will then be able to shine in its entire splendor.

Those who expect a radical change in nature are apparently not as optimistic about human nature (although they do not go so far as to consider it inherently evil). They feel that the removal of persecution and war is not enough to fully bring out the Divine Image inherent in the human race. God needs to miraculously change that nature - replacing the "heart of stone" with one of flesh.
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In loving memory of
Herbert Hayward

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