What makes us human?

April 25, 2013
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Published in The New Statesman on 25th April 2013

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As an answer to the question what makes us human, even in the age of neuroscience, it’s hard to improve on the Bible’s answer.

First comes the good news of Genesis 1. We are each, regardless of class, colour or culture, in the image and likeness of God. This is the most important statement in Western culture of the non-negotiable dignity of the human person. It is the source of the idea of human rights, most famously formulated in the American Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.”

Like God we are creative. Like God we are free. All other life forms adapt to their environment. We alone adapt the environment to us, sometimes with disastrous results, but always extending our powers, making us ever less vulnerable to the random cruelties of fate and the indignities of powerlessness.

Then comes the complication from which all human history flows. “It is not good for man to be alone.” We are supremely the social animal – part cause, part effect of our ability to use language. What makes us human, according to Judaism, is the strength and quality of our relationships. Jean-Paul Sartre was never more wrong than when he said, “Hell is other people.” Hell is the absence of other people. Solitary confinement is the worst punishment there is.

So the book of Genesis is about relationships, focusing on the most important of them: husbands and wives, parents and children, and sibling rivalries. Only in Exodus does the Bible turn to the politics of slavery and freedom. Much of the Bible is about what makes a good society, but it insists on the primacy of the personal over the political. As long as family feeling is alive, said Alexis de Tocqueville, the opponent of oppression is never alone. Without strong families standing between the individual and the state, freedom is eventually lost.

The centrality of the family is what gave Jews their astonishing ability to survive tragedy and centuries of exile and dispersion. I knew this in my bones long before I was of an age to step back and reflect on the human condition. My parents were not well off. My father had come to Britain as a refugee fleeing persecution in Poland. The family was poor and he had to leave school at the age of fourteen to help his father earn a living.

He had a small shop in London’s East End, but he was not made to be a businessman. My mother came from a religious family at a time when it was not considered seemly for a Jewish girl to continue in education after the age of sixteen. So, though we never knew poverty, our parents had little in material terms to give us, their four boys. But they took immense pride in us and wanted us to have the opportunities they lacked. We all duly went to university and on to good careers. Ours was a story shared by many of our contemporaries.

When it works, the family is the matrix of our humanity. It is where we learn love and self confidence and the basic values that will serve as our satellite navigation system through the uncharted territory of life. It is where we learn responsibility and the choreography of turn-taking and making space for others. It is where we acquire the habits of the heart that help us take responsibility and risks, knowing there is someone to lift us if we fall. A childhood lived in the stable presence of two loving parents is the greatest gift anyone can have, which is why so much of Jewish ritual and celebration is centred on the home.

Family life isn’t easy or straightforward. The Bible does not hide that fact from us. The stories of Genesis do not contain a single sentence saying, “And they all lived happily ever after.” Families need constant work, sacrifice and mutual respect. But if you get home right, your children will have a head start in making their own fulfilling relationships, and relationships truly are what make us human.

Which is why I sometimes worry about the future. A recent report by the Mental Health Foundation found that one in ten Britons is lonely, and the proportion amongst the young is higher and rising. We invest immense time and energy in electronic communication: smartphones, texts and social networking software. But are virtual relationships the same as face-to-face ones? A 2012 survey carried out by Macmillan Cancer Support revealed that the average eighteen-to-thirty year-old has 237 Facebook friends. When asked, though, on how many of these they could rely in a crisis, the average answer was two. A quarter said one. An eighth said none.

This is where, I believe, religion has an immense contribution to make at every level: spiritual, personal and collective. Spiritually, the Judeo-Christian ethic teaches us to see the trace of God in the face of the human other, the most sublime idea I know.

Personally it teaches the importance of love and forgiveness, the two great dimensions of a lasting relationship. Collectively, religions create strong and supportive communities where you have friends on whom you can rely.

Faith is the redemption of solitude, and this is its most humanizing gift. God lives in the space between us when we come together in love and joy.