Shemini: Ted Talks Down to Religion

While driving around town lately, I’ve been listening to short “Ted Talks.” (  These are short lectures by philosophers, scientists, academics, business leaders, inventors -- anyone with a grand (and politically correct?) idea or story to share.

One of this week’s posts was a very clever animated (meaning animation and passionate) Socratic dialogue between a psychologist and a philosopher.  The psychologist argued, at least initially, that we are emotional, not rational, beings.  The philosopher countered that, nevertheless, all human progress – especially moral progress, such as the abolition of slavery and legalized torture -- has derived from reason. 

Called “The Long Reach of Reason,” it is highly entertaining, thought-provoking, and creative. It is accessible here: But even though I highly recommend it, I strongly disagree with at least one of its assertions!  In my view, religion, not reason, has been the principal foundation of moral progress. 

This week’s Torah portion, Shemini, is a case in point. G-d explicitly commands, “Sanctify Yourselves and be Holy.” (Leviticus 11:44).  Although the specific context concerns dietary laws, the overall context is clearly to promote moral behavior.  

Torah is replete with such directives (e.g. “Do the Right and the Good;” “Justice, Justice Shall You Pursue,” “Do not Bear False Witness (Steal, Murder, Testify Falsely, etc.),” “Honor Parents,” “Don’t Stand Idly By the Blood of Your Neighbor,” “Don’t Place a Stumbling Block Before the Blind,” and “Love Your Neighbor as Yourself,” among many others).  The central concern of the Prophets is moral behavior, most especially fair and compassionate treatment of those lacking power and/or otherwise in need. They argued that G-d commanded moral behavior; they were not arguing out of rationality! But even seemingly (to us) irrational rituals were aimed at elevating attitude and behavior. 

As a student of both history and politics, or simply as a Jew, I am by no means unaware of the great (and continuing) evils that have been perpetrated in the name of religion.  But neither am I unaware of the many hospitals, orphanages, charitable drives, and progressive social movements founded and pursued in the name of religion.  

I reject the Ted Talk’s claim that every “rights” movement from abolition to vegetarianism has been the result of reason.  Moreover, “reason” has led to Fascism, Communism, nuclear weapons, and environmental damage.  Reason does not equal moral progress and is not even an essential element in it.  

Neither reason nor religion is necessarily, nor exclusively, good, because both are effectuated in the world by humans, who are driven by a myriad of conscious and unconscious forces. I’m not suggesting that religion is exclusively emotional, nor that religion and reason are mutually exclusive.  If they were, how could one man, Maimonides, have arguably been Judaism’s greatest rationalist, religious scholar, and philosopher?

Anyway, the Ted Talk’s presenters failed to appreciate the apparent paradox that religion, or at least Judaism, seeks to apply reason in order to temper emotion. Bachya [Rabbenu Bahya ben Joseph ibn Paquda, Spain, First classical Jewish ethicist; author of Duties of the Heart, published 1040]: wrote,

Sanctify yourself through the practice of the commandments and thus you will become holy. Such observance will help you to gain self-control so that your intelligence can govern your appetites. For our intelligence is doubly handicapped in this struggle: We have the appetites from birth, while intelligence develops slowly; and, our environment encourages us to yield to our urges, whereas intelligence is a lonely stranger in the world.

Or, as stated in the Palestinian (Jerusalem) Talmud, “The Holy One, Blessed Be He, created the evil inclination, and He created the Torah as its antidote.”  (Kiddushin 30b)
The psychologist in the Ted Talk presentation, who initially defended emotion, concludes: “I have become convinced that reason is a better angel that deserves the greatest credit for the moral progress our species has enjoyed and that holds out the greatest hope for continuing moral progress in the future.

I disagree.  Despite the immorality perpetuated in the name of religion, I contend that human aspirations for moral conduct have been primarily fostered by religion, not reason.  As the psychologist himself conceded at the beginning of the talk, we are not “brains on a stick.”  Our “better angel,” to use his ironic term, is religious.  

Why be moral?  Yes, there’s an argument that universal moral behavior is in the common interest.  But isn’t it more rational to take advantage of others when I can, or whenever I calculate that the benefit to me exceeds the cost?  The “Long Reach of Reason” doesn’t extend to ultimate truths or values.     

The Ted Talk’s presenters claim that to challenge their conclusions is to prove their point, since one must use one’s reason to challenge them.  But I don’t just think that they are wrong; I feel that way. And I’ve experienced it.  

In any event, dismissing religion’s aspirations and contributions to more moral individuals and societies is … irrational. 

Shabbat shalom! 

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A bird that you set free may be caught again, but a word that escapes your lips will not return.
Jewish Proverb