Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Purity and Man

Well, I think it's time I picked up מנחה טהורה, Rav Daniel Wolf's book on Seder Taharot...

The Centrality of Man in Severity of Tumah

One interesting point Rav Wolf makes in the opening chapter is about the pattern in how Tuma is passed between objects, with a decreasing severity the further they get from Mankind:

נראה כי ההסבר לדיני העברת הטומאה מבוסס על השקפה שלפיה האדם הוא מרכז עולם הטהרות. לפיכך, דברים מקבלים טומאה על פי מידת קרבתם לאדם ומעמדם כמשמשיו.

As such, the greatest level of Tuma is a dead body, while at the other end of the spectrum, objects that belong to nature cannot become impure:

  1. A Person can become Av Hatuma in life or Avi Avot Hatuma(Rashi's term) in death
  2. A metal kli, which requires a high technological level to make, can also become Avi Avot Hatuma
  3. Ohel, Moshav, and Mishkav serve Man so they can become an Av
  4. Other Kelim can become an Av depending on how closely they serve Man
  5. Earthen Kelim "serve the servants of Man" i.e. hold food and water. Therefore they can't become an Av
  6. Food Serves sometimes serves man directly, sometimes through a kli, so it can become, at best, Rishon
  7. Drink only serves man though a kli, so there is a machloket whether they can become Tamei. The Rambam says that only the 7 important liquids can mideoraita.

 A Lesson in Mindfulness?

The laws of Tumah and Taharah create an aura of respect and awe around the service of God. They raise the bar on our avoda of bringing Korbanot, Trumah, and visiting the Temple Mount.

At the same time, I wonder if there is a broader moral lesson here. We are taught to keep track of the purity/impurity of our bodies, our creations, and even our food. Perhaps this mindfulness, this consciousness of purity in the service of God, are meant to spill over to our broader pursuits, ultimately touching on the realm of טומאת הנפש.

Purifying the Impure

Continuing on in Mincha Tehora, Rav Wolf points out a similar pattern with regards to purifying Tamei items. The closer they are to Man, the easier they are to purify. As Rav Wolf describes it, "החמור בטומאה הוא קל בטהרה":

  1. Avot Hatuma are purified in a Mikva
  2. Earthen Kelim are purified only once broken
  3. Food is purified by making it inedible
  4. Impure drinks cannot be purified

This somewhat counter-intuitive result has interesting implications. It seems that the laws of טומאה וטהרה put everything on an axis of Man vs. Nature. That which is closer to Man falls under our realm of responsibility to keep pure or to purify, while that which is Natural is outside our sphere of influence.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Heart and Mind

So, yet another topic from Jonathan Haidt's book "The Righteous Mind". Although, I think the psychological insights the book has to offer are really great, there are some parts that I thought were a bit weaker. In particular, let's look at the conclusion about Reason vs. Emotion derived from the studies in Chapter 2.

Three Approaches

David Hume
Haidt builds for us a 3-way model based on Great Thinkers and their thoughts on the interaction between "Mind and Heart".

    1. He begins with David Hume(An Enquiry Concerning the Principals of Morals, 1777) "reason is, and ought to be, the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them."
    2. On the other end of the spectrum is Plato(Timaeus), which Haidt paraphrases as "The passions are and ought only to be the servants of reason, to reverse Hume's formulation."
    3. Finally, Thomas Jefferson, presents a more balanced approach in a letter to Maria Cosway, which Haidt summarizes as "reason and sentiment are(and ought to be) independent co-rulers."

Having set up this three-way model, Haidt then describes his Psychological studies. Based on his Harmless Taboo interviews, he concludes:

"These results support Hume, not Jefferson or Plato. People make moral judgements quickly and emotionally.  Moral reasoning was mostly just a post hoc search for reasons to justify the judgments people had already made."

The Limits of Science

Ignoring the hubris to think that one is going to resolve one of the great philosophical debates of all time with some well thought-out psychology interviews, what Haidt is breezing over is his assumption that "are" and "ought to be" are one and the same. That may be true, according to his own secular materialistic philosophy, but many people would disagree. The Torah perspective, certainly, is that we have free will and must strive for an ideal which is often hard to achieve fully in practice.

This brings us to a topic that we've touched on before: the limits of Science. The scientific method is great at determining "what is". On the other hand, it's a rather weak tool in determining "what ought to be". Philosophy, on the other hand, with it's own methodology, is much better at this. In fact, the Plato and Hume quotes above are chiefly concerned with this question. Plato feels the need to argue for more intellect because he is acutely aware that people often make bad decisions from following their hearts without thinking rationally. Even in the Hume quote above, which explicitly mentions what is, his major point is not that, in practice, people follow their hearts, rather it is his assertion that doing so is a good thing.

In Defense of Rationalism

Thomas Jefferson
There's another point in favor of the intellect that Haidt never makes, that I'd like to touch on. It may be true that, when confronted with various stimuli, we generally follow the quick judgements of the intuitive part of our brain, rather than engaging in a long process of rational thought. It also seems likely that Haidt is right that this is necessary, since there is usually not enough time to consider the all the possibilities rationally before we act.

But that doesn't make it true, as Haidt asserts, that the intellect is of secondary importance. How is it, as we grow and develop, that our intuitions become such efficient decisors? It is not merely our raw experience which teaches our intuition those lessons. That experience must be filtered through the scrutiny our our intellect, reflecting on past experience and drawing non-trivial conclusions. Only then can we convert experience into learning. As such, I much prefer Jefferson's model. Intellect and Intuition are co-rulers, whose interaction produced the wonderfully dichotomous intelligence that is Man.

Monday, 6 October 2014

Haidt and the Psychology of Purity Laws

Having made it through the first two of three sections of Jonathan Haidt's "The Righteous Mind", let's take another look at what he has to say about "Purity Laws"(I should just mention that Professor Roberts recommended that I check out Haid's approach to this topic). We'll start with a summary of Haidt's more general thesis.

Intuition vs. Rationalism

Diagram of Haidt's model from the book

In the first section "Intuitions Come First, Strategic Reasoning Second", Haidt builds a Biological/Psychological model for Human decision making. He divides our mind's function into two parts: the intuitive/emotional part("The Elephant") and the rational/verbal part("The Rider"). He argues that, when confronted with a stimulus, the intuitive part of our mind responds first, within a fraction of a second, with a snap judgement. The rational part of our mind uses this judgement as a starting point, seeking to justify the judgement with reason.

Haidt ultimately posits that "The Elephant" is more important than "The Rider" because it's initial intuitions are almost always accepted in the end. The exceptions to this rule occur sometimes when we are exposed to others with differing opinions or, more rarely, due to independent rational introspection.

Moral Cognitive Modules

So how do our brains produce those intuitions. Haidt argues that, with regard to moral questions, our brains contain six Cognitive Modules that produce a moral intuitive response:

  1. Care/harm
  2. Fairness/cheating
  3. Liberty/oppression
  4. Loyalty/betrayal
  5. Authority/subversion
  6. Sanctity/degradation

Different cultures rely on these modules in different ways and to differing degrees. Haidt focuses largely on the Right vs. Left political divide in the US(liberals rely primarily on Care, Fairness while Conservatives have a more even balance), though he gives examples from other cultures by citing anthropological studies.

Evolutionary Psychology of Purity Laws

Indian Caste System
In Chapter 7, part 5, Haidt discusses the relation of these models to what he calls "Purity Laws". These can take many forms such as Food Taboos(like Kashrut or the various trends of Vegetarianism and Health Food) or social norms(like the Indian caste system). Haidt argues that we have this module because it gives people various evolutionary advantages. He gives a number of reasons for why this is so, but the one that most interests me as a religious Jew is what he calls, at one point, the "rally round the flag" effect.

In Chapter 5, Haidt describes his theory on the moral theme of Divinity, part of the Sanctity/degradation module:

"Our theory, in brief, was that the human mind automatically perceives a kind of vertical dimension of social space, running from God or moral perfection at the top down through angels, humans, other animals, or perfect evil, at the bottom...it seems to be a kind of archetype or innately prepared idea"

Haidt points out that this common belief, found in one form or another in so many different cultures, unites people into moral communities. This allows Humans to work together in a way that is not seen among primates, and contributes to Humans being what Haidt describes as "90% chimp and 10% bee". He argues that this combination of intelligence and tendency towards cooperation provided Humans with the ability they needed to spread out and conquer the globe over such a short period.

Taamei Hamitzvot

This brings us to mitzvot like Kashrut, burial rights, or even Tfillin. What is the reason behind these mitzvot? Some will offer mystical explanations(which I admittedly often have trouble relating to), but Haidt's observations suggest another answer. These mitzvot psychologically reinforce the innate notion that we are holy beings, a maxim that the Torah states explicitly from the very beginning:

וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים נַעֲשֶׂה אָדָם בְּצַלְמֵנוּ כִּדְמוּתֵנוּ וְיִרְדּוּ בִדְגַת הַיָּם וּבְעוֹף הַשָּׁמַיִם וּבַבְּהֵמָה וּבְכָל הָאָרֶץ וּבְכָל הָרֶמֶשׂ הָרֹמֵשׂ עַל הָאָרֶץ: וַיִּבְרָא אֱלֹהִים אֶת הָאָדָם בְּצַלְמוֹ בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹהִים בָּרָא אֹתוֹ זָכָר וּנְקֵבָה בָּרָא אֹתָם: (בראשית א' כ"ו-כ"ז)

Man's stature as ruler over the land and all it's creatures follows from his being created in the image of God i.e. he is higher on the Divinity dimension.

Emphasizing this point in our daily lives through these mitzvot hopefully brings us to better behavior and greater yirat shamayim. This Divine origin also helps the Jewish people perform their function in the world from generation to generation by uniting us, as Haidt points out, into a single Moral Community--a community that has held together for the past three and a half millenia through a vast array of changing circumstances and surrounding cultures.

Sanctity/Degradation Redeemed

This idea of the Torah building on top of an innate instinct is not new. For example, Rav Soloveichik speaks about the Maternal instinct(presumably Haidt would categorize this under the Care/harm module) and how it is redeemed by Torah Motherhood:

"The mother is bound up with the child...Motherhood is an experience -- unredeemed and hence brutish...Sarah became the first mother in the sense that her motherhood stemmed not only from instinctual involvement due to biological pressure but from free commitment as well...Mother's job changed into a great mission; her preoccupation with the child was endowed with ethical meaning." (Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveichik, "Parenthood: Natural and Redeemed", Family Redeemed)

Mitzvot such as Kashrut that build on our innate Sanctity/Degradation module act to Redeem that instinct. It may be true, as Haidt suggests, that we evolved this module as protection from pathogens and as a way to help build cooperative communities. But when we treat our body as a temple, eating only animals that the Torah has labeled טהורה and avoiding those it called טמאה, then we have elevated this instinct to be an essential part of our ethical development and our service to the Creator.