Montreal Kollel 2007
The father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, related that the French parliament held a symposium investigating the abolishment of the death penalty. Speech after speech illustrating how the death penalty was a degrading, inhumane, and unworthy mode of punishment, which should be abolished, was met with great approval and agreement by the members of Parliament. One of the sessions was interrupted when a delegate burst forth shouting, “Tell the murderers they can get to work!”
A state that has no appropriate penal system may degenerate into a safe haven for murderers. Freud explains that those who favour reducing the penalty for murder believe that man is essentially good, yet it is the suspicion with which he is treated by society that leads him to become a criminal. Reality – in Freud’s view – however, proves the opposite. He writes, “The reality behind this, a reality we are oft to deny, is that man is not a pleasurable creature which requires love, and which at best is capable of self-defence when attacked, (but rather) that among the impulses with which he has been endowed, can also be counted a great measure of tendency to aggression.”
Our parashah, Parashat No’ach, also expresses great doubt as to man’s natural tendencies. After the flood, God declares, “I will never further curse the ground for man, for the inclination of man’s heart is evil from his youth” (Bereshit8:21). God takes man’s negative inclinations into consideration as justification for easing the penal code – one may not expect too much of man, since his heart is defect from birth. However, this consideration is only partially employed. At the very same instance, God emphasizes that a murderer is to be punished by death, “He who sheds the blood of man, shall have his blood shed by man” (ibid. 9:6).
Since many people possess aggressive and negative inclinations and impulses, there must be a system, which will deter criminals from transgressing the law. We may not merely rely on man. Man is not a compassionate being that knows only good and kindness, rather man has a fair share of selfishness and aggression that must be contained. The previous parashah, Parashat Bereshit, also concludes with a very pessimistic evaluation of man, “And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only entirely evil. And God repented that He had made man on the earth, and He became saddened to His heart” (ibid. 6:5, 6).
In his “Lord of the Flies,” William Golding relates how a group of youths who become marooned on a lone island during an atomic war develop all the attributes and evils of adult society. The values of hatred, competition, wickedness, cruelty, and violence all take hold, forming this group of youths into a microcosm of the outside world. Golding’s message is quite clear – evil, cruelty, and aggression are not traits that the pure human acquires from his interactions with society and its institutions, rather these are inbred, natural traits of humanity. Even a society founded during the innocence of youth will develop into that same harsh society with the course of time.
One must however stress that the Torah far from supports all of Freud’s observations and conclusions. Whilst Freud specialized in revealing the evil and the ugly within every man, Judaism stresses that man is created with many positive attributes, and he was created in the image of God. Man has the potential to overcome his base inclinations. The Torah stresses that man has the tremendous potential to rejuvenate, to enhance and to construct but equally recognizes his ability to destroy. Judaism teaches us that – much like classic Western movies – the good, the bad, and the ugly often appear together. “Kabdehu v’Chashdehu” – “Honour him yet suspect him” – is Judaism’s stance towards man. It recognizes man’s potential for good as well as his ability to self-destruct.