Sunday I had the honor and pleasure of speaking at an “Artist Beit Midrash” presented by Jewish Artists Initiative in Los Angeles. Traditionally, a Beit Midrash is a study group in which weekly Torah readings are mined for deeper meanings. This group was unique in that it centered on a specific theme instead of a chapter of scripture. That theme was the Jewish doctrine of Yetzer HaTov and Yetzer HaRa—the good and evil inclinations in the human soul.
Are human beings fundamentally good or essentially evil? Jewish philosophy proposes we’re both, observing that we seem to show equal potential for doing right and wrong. In classical Judaism, the Yetzer HaTov is analogous to an angel on our shoulder reminding us to obey moral law; the Yetzer HaRa is like the devil on our other shoulder urging us to break it. Our work is to side with our angels.
From a more spiritual perspective, our good inclination can be thought of as a tendency toward altruism, prioritizing our community, environment, and sense of God over our immediate self-interest. Our evil inclination can be thought of as a tendency toward greed, pursuing self-gratification even at the expense of the people, ecosystems, and divine energies that surround and support us.
Spiritually speaking, our work is to accept both our good and evil inclinations—and to keep them in equilibrium. Judaism asks that we balance the self-concern necessary to honor our God-given individuality with the social, environmental, and spiritual conscience needed to love and sustain the world.
Nature asks a similar effort of all its creatures.
Evolutionary biology theorizes that those of us best suited to our natural environment survive and reproduce, passing our genes to the next generations. If we don’t fit well with our surroundings, we can become better adapted using two approaches: competition and cooperation. Competition requires us to become more powerful than those around us also striving for food, shelter, etc. The predator with the sharpest teeth wins; the prey with the fastest legs also wins. Cooperation requires us to become more sociable with those whom we share a habitat. Here, whoever partners best wins: bee and flower, algae and coral, etc.
It seems to me that the energy of competition is analogous to Yetzer HaRa and the energy of cooperation to Yetzer HaTov. In nature, either inclination pushed to its extreme can cause a creature to ruin itself, its community, and/or its environment. Only a dynamic balance of self-concern and care of others, rivalry and mutualism, creates an environment in which we can evolve, and keep evolving.
So… Since the 16th century, religion and science have been competing for a vital title: Truth. Many people believe these two ways of interpreting our world can’t ever be harmonized. This blog exists to point out commonality-after-commonality between spirituality and science, begging this question: After centuries of competition, isn’t it time we consider some cooperation?