Descartes’ Error


So this week we read parshat Chukat, which begins with the strangest ritual in Judaism, the most baffling, the one that is called zot chukat haTorah par excellence, it’s the chok, the statute, the thing we can't understand. This is the prime example of it. It is the para aduma, the Red Heifer.

There you are, one Red Heifer [shows slide]. This is “Ge’ula from Texas. So somebody's been breeding Red Heifers in Texas just in case the Temple is rebuilt.

But there it was. You found a Red Heifer, completely red, never carried a burden, all the rest of it. And the Red Heifer is killed, it is burned it together with cedar wood and hyssop and scarlet wool. You mix its ashes with maim chayim - water from a living source - and somebody who had been defiled by contact with the dead and wanted to enter the Temple precinct had to be purified by this water, by a special kohen sprinkling this water on him on the third and seventh day, and that purified you to enter the Temple. The Red Heifer purifies from contact with death.

Now, this was taken by the rabbis as the absolute supreme example of an irrational ritual. And even the wisest of men, King Solomon, did not understand it. [shows new slide] They you are, he's really trying to wrestle with this one.

 He didn't understand it. It's a problem. And the result is that according to the Sages, chokim are the things that have no reason. And the world derides them as superstitious because they seem to be irrational.

The assumption is, if it's rational, it's good. If it's irrational, it's bad. And that is why people criticise the chukim because they are irrational. You know, the kind of thing don't with mixed seeds, don't wear shatnez - wool and linen mixed together - don't eat meat and milk. All those things seem to be irrational and therefore they are criticised.

However, it turns out that in the last few years, neuroscientists have made some fascinating discoveries. And it turns out that in the brain we have two different mental systems. [shows new slide] One of them based on the amygdala, which is, you know, in terms of developmental terms, the earliest bit of the human brain, and another system that works on this very brainy, rational deliberative thing called the prefrontal cortex. And the result is when something happens to you, you know… how many wild beasts do you meet in the streets of a Jewish suburb? I don't know. But imagine you're out there in the midst of wherever it is and you meet a lion, you know. You do not sit down and have a philosophical discourse. You know, “are we fated to hate one another?” or “Has the Isaiah vision come true for lions to lie down with lambs?” to survive that you just get out of there as fast as possible. That's called the amygdala. That is the instinctive emotional reaction that kicks in immediately.

If, however, it is a reflective lion and it's sitting down and considering its philosophical position, then you have a little time to think the matter through and take it to the prefrontal cortex. So you have this conflict between instinct and rationality. But the difficult thing is this: the instinct kicks in first. It's faster.

You haven't got time to sit and think if a car is coming at you, and you’ve got to slam on the brakes or change direction. You do not have time to think. Instinct kicks in immediately. If you want time to think somehow or other, you've got to give yourself enough time to kill the instinct, to just silence it. And that way you can act rationally.

It turns out that the more we discover about the human brain, the more we find that our behaviour which we think is rational is in fact instinctual. [Shows new slide.] And there's the prefrontal cortex and there's the amygdala with all the emotional reactions. And it turns out that Antonio Demasio who's been leading some research here in his book Descartes’ Error talks about somebody who suffered brain damage which killed of the emotional bit of his brain. The result was you presented him with any problem, he could sit there for an hour and give you every single reason to do X and every single reason to do Y. The one thing he could never do was decide, shall I do X or shall I do Y?

Every time he felt like deciding, he'd think of another reason to contrast his thinking. The discovery here is, although we seem to act rationally, without emotions we would never act at all. So a lot of what strikes us as rationality is in fact rationalisation. And we can prove by brain science that we've already made the decision before we've even started thinking about making the decision.

So the result is that a lot of what we think is rational conduct is just rationalising conduct that's very instinctive, intuitive, pre-rational. And that really is Demasio's point, that this amygdala, which kicks in first, really is the operative system very often and not rationality.

And there you are. You want a team? You really want to form a team of people, they will follow the leader’s emotions, right? He makes everyone cheerful, he makes everyone sad, and the rationality of sitting around committee meetings deliberating endlessly “Shall we do this?” “Shall we do that?” It has less effect on the team than its emotional coloration.

And I think we can now begin to understand what chukim are. It is precisely the fact that these are not rational commands. That they bypass the prefrontal cortex. I mean, nobody’s going to sit round and say, give me a reason for the para aduma. The Torah says this is what you do, and that's what you do. It doesn't give you a reason for it. And the result is it bypasses the rational brain. And by getting you to act in certain ways, it creates neural pathways, new instinctual behaviour.

And we now begin to understand that the chukim are incredibly powerful precisely because they're not rational. You just do. And if you do often enough, you develop new behavioural instincts. And the result is behavioural change that you cannot achieve in any other way.

What particular behavioural change are we talking about in the case of the para aduma?

Sigmund Freud [shows new slide] - he really should stop smoking those cigars - had a fascinating principle. He looked at instinctual behaviour more profoundly than anyone before him because he believed in what he called the unconscious, which is what we're talking about in instinctual behaviour. And his most dramatic statement was that there is a drive that he called thanatos. Thanatos is the death instinct. There it is [shows new slide].

It is very paradoxical. Freud said that every one of us has Thanatos, a death instinct.

 It's one of the primal instincts in human behaviour. It leads to violence, it leads to aggression. In extremists, it leads to murder. All of which is never done for rational reasons. You merely rationalise. But somehow the human being has an Eros - which is a drive to life - and a Thanatos which is a drive to death, from which all destructive behaviour comes.

How do you cope with Thanatos? How do you create something other than this impulse for destruction, decay and death, even when that means you do things that are very unpleasant? How do you deal with that? The answer is you have to bypass the rational brain and that actually is what a chok is [shows new slide].

What does chok actually mean? It comes from the Hebrew word to engrave. When you engrave, you don't do it on the surface, you get deep in there and you carve new behavioural patterns deep into the brain. You create new neural pathways. Rational commandments cannot defeat irrational instincts. Chukim by bypassing the rational mind reconfigure our instincts. And the result is behavioural change that cannot be achieved in any other way.

Now, the result is that chukim are an important element in Judaism because rationalism is only half the story of why we are as we are. And we'll need the other half if we are successfully to conquer the instinct to aggression, violence, and death that lurks not far beneath the surface of the conscious mind.

What is the chuk of the para aduma? It is telling us that if you want to enter God's Presence, if you want to enter the Temple, don't have contact with death. If you've had contact with a dead body, if you've been to a funeral, been there in the same room, you've been under the same roof as a dead body, you are defiled. What is the para aduma telling us? Death defiles.

That is exactly what it is telling us. But not in some rational way but deep in a commandment. That if we have had any contact with death whatsoever, and we want to go to the holy place, then we’ve got to go to the priest and he's got to sprinkle over us, the ashes of the Red Heifer. And we have to purify ourselves because death defiles.

And if death defiles, then God isn't to be found in death. He isn't to be found in some other world. He isn't to be found as the Egyptian made in these giant graves called pyramids. God is found in life.

And therefore the para aduma is God's way of getting beneath the conscious mind, deep down to our instinctive reactions, and telling us the two words that sum up the whole of Judaism. Uvecharta vechaim: choose life.

Now, I think chukim, by establishing new behaviour at the deepest level of instinct, are truer to what we actually are as human beings than all the rationalism in the world.

I am not a fan of the irrational. But if you want to cure conduct that has its roots deeper than rationality, then you're going to have to have a command that goes deeper than rationality. And if we really, really remember the message of the para aduma, hopefully we will all choose life.

Shabbat Shalom

Main Essay: Descartes’ Error

In his 2011 bestseller, The Social Animal, New York Times columnist David Brooks writes:

We are living in the middle of the revolution in consciousness. Over the past few years, geneticists, neuroscientists, psychologists, sociologists, economists, anthropologists, and others have made great strides in understanding the building blocks of human flourishing. And a core finding of their work is that we are not primarily products of our conscious thinking. We are primarily the products of thinking that happens below the level of awareness.[1]

Too much takes place in the mind for us to be fully aware of it. Timothy Wilson of the University of Virginia estimates that the human mind can absorb 11 million pieces of information at any given moment. We can be conscious of only a tiny fraction of this. Most of what is going on mentally lies below the threshold of awareness.

One result of the new neuroscience is that we are becoming aware of the hugely significant part played by emotion in decision-making. The French Enlightenment emphasised the role of reason and regarded emotion as a distraction and distortion. We now know scientifically how wrong this is.

Antonio Damasio, in his Descartes’ Error, tells the story of a man who, as the result of a tumour, suffered damage to the frontal lobes of his brain. He had been known to have a high IQ, was well-informed, and had an excellent memory. But after surgery to remove the tumour, his life went into free-fall. He was unable to organise his time. He made bad investments that cost him his savings. He divorced his wife, married a second time, and rapidly divorced again. He could still reason perfectly but had lost the ability to feel emotion. As a result, he was unable to make sensible choices.

Another man with a similar injury found it impossible to make decisions at all. At the end of one session, Damasio suggested two possible dates for their next meeting. The man then took out a notebook, began listing the pros and cons of each, talked about possible weather conditions, potential conflicts with other engagements and so on, for half an hour, until Damasio finally interrupted him, and made the decision for him. The man immediately said, “That's fine,” and went away.

It is less reason than emotion that lies behind our choices, and it takes emotional intelligence to make good choices. The problem is that much of our emotional life lies beneath the surface of the conscious mind.

That, as we can now see, is the logic of the chukim, the “statutes” of Judaism, the laws that seem to make no sense in terms of rationality. These are laws like the prohibition of sowing mixed seeds together (kelayim); of wearing cloth of mixed wool and linen (shaatnez); and of eating milk and meat together. The law of the Red Heifer with which our parsha begins, is described as the chok par excellence. As it is written: 

“This is the statute of the Torah.”

Num. 19:2

There have been many interpretations of the chukim throughout the ages. But in the light of recent neuroscience, we can suggest that they are laws designed to bypass the prefrontal cortex, the rational brain, and create instinctive patterns of behaviour to counteract some of the darker emotional drives at work in the human mind.

We know for example – Jared Diamond has chronicled this in his book Collapse – that wherever humans have settled throughout history they have left behind them a trail of environmental disaster, wiping out whole species of animals and birds, destroying forests, damaging the soil by over-farming and so on.

The prohibitions against sowing mixed seeds, mixing meat and milk, combining wool and linen, and so on, create an instinctual respect for the integrity of nature. They establish boundaries. They set limits. They inculcate the feeling that we may not treat our animal and plant environment however we wish. Some things are forbidden – like the fruit of the tree in the middle of the Garden of Eden. The whole Eden story, set at the dawn of human history, is a parable whose message we can understand today better than any previous generation: Without a sense of limits, we will destroy our ecology and discover that we have lost paradise.

As for the ritual of the Red Heifer, this is directed at the most destructive pre-rational instinct of all: what Sigmund Freud called thanatos, the death instinct. He described it as something “more primitive, more elementary, more instinctual than the pleasure principle which it over-rides”.[2] In his essay Civilisation and Its Discontents, he wrote that “a portion of the [death] instinct is diverted towards the external world and comes to light as an instinct of aggressiveness”, which he saw as “the greatest impediment to civilisation.”

The Red Heifer ritual is a powerful statement that the holy is to be found in life, not death. Anyone who had been in contact with a dead body needed purification before entering the sanctuary or Temple. Priests had to obey stricter rules, and the High Priest even more so.

This made biblical Judaism highly distinctive. It contains no cult of worship of dead ancestors, or seeking to make contact with their spirits. It was probably to avoid the tomb of Moses becoming a holy site that the Torah says, “to this day no one knows where his grave is” (Deut. 34:6). God and the holy are to be found in life. Death defiles.

The point is – and that is what recent neuroscience has made eminently clear – this cannot be achieved by reason alone. Freud was right to suggest that the death instinct is powerful, irrational, and largely unconscious, yet under certain conditions it can be utterly devastating in what it leads people to do.

The Hebrew term chok comes from the verb meaning, “to engrave”. Just as a statute is carved into stone, so a behavioural habit is carved in depth into our unconscious mind and alters our instinctual responses. The result is a personality trained to see death and holiness as two utterly opposed states – just as meat (death) and milk (life) are.

Chukim are Judaism’s way of training us in emotional intelligence, above all a conditioning in associating holiness with life, and defilement with death. It is fascinating to see how this has been vindicated by modern neuroscience.

Rationality, vitally important in its own right, is only half the story of why we are as we are. We will need to shape and control the other half if we are successfully to conquer the instinct to aggression, violence, and death that lurks not far beneath the surface of the conscious mind.

[1] David Brooks, The Social Animal, Random House, 2011, x.

[2] Sigmund Freud, "Beyond the Pleasure Principle" in On Metapsychology, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1984, p. 294.

questions english 5783 Around the Shabbat Table
  1. How do you think emotion plays a role in decision-making?
  2. How does the Red Heifer ritual address the death instinct?
  3. Can understanding our unconscious mind help us control aggression and violence?

With thanks to the Schimmel Family for their generous sponsorship of Covenant & Conversation, dedicated in loving memory of Harry (Chaim) Schimmel.

“I have loved the Torah of R’ Chaim Schimmel ever since I first encountered it. It strives to be not just about truth on the surface but also its connection to a deeper truth beneath. Together with Anna, his remarkable wife of 60 years, they built a life dedicated to love of family, community, and Torah. An extraordinary couple who have moved me beyond measure by the example of their lives.” — Rabbi Sacks

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