Reincarnation as argument for Jewish Morality

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz presented an argument in the Jewish Week, positing for a Jewish Moral Argument for Reincarnation.  His primary argument seems to be that we should be moral beings because of our interdependence, not just with other people who are alive but with all the souls past and future.  His piece reminds me of the present story from the Gemara about the old man who planted a Carob tree knowing that he would not benefit from it.  His reason for planting the tree was for the future, just as his grandparent had done for him.  Our actions are often needed not for ourselves but for the future. 

To take a more specific approach, if the soul I am entrusted with is an incomplete soul, then my goal would need to be to improve on the soul.  However, if I have a sense of that improving the soul is a timeless task, I might be less inclined to work too hard for whatever gets left over will be made up by the next person responsible for my soul.  At the same time, if I cannot be aware of what is left to be done for this soul, then it could be less work might be more than enough. 

Regarding Rabbi Yanklowitz’s opening presentation, I am caught off guard as to how his fear of death and dwelling on dying might be detrimental to morality.  Is he arguing that recognizing our mortality would be an impediment to our striving to be moral?  I look at death and dying as a motivator to take advantage of doing valuable things for the world and for humanity, not as an opening for hedonism. 

Overall, I find his piece to be food for thought.  What does ground us in life?  Is life about the here and now or is it about the collective existence of all throughout history?  To see additional thoughts on this editorial, see Shmuly Yanklowitz: Reincarnation and a Moral Conscience, comments on that post and the subsequent response by Rabbi Yanklowitz.

Heart of Darkness (?)

Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks addresses a fundamental principle of humanity in the following thought of the day. 

We must never forget the danger that lies beneath the surface of the human heart
Thought for the Day – BBC Radio 4 – June 2010
Our thoughts continue to be with the families of the victims of the shootings in Cumbria that left 12 dead, 25 injured, and families and communities torn apart. And in the aftermath people have been asking, how could it have happened?
The killer, Derrick Bird, was described by those who knew him as quiet, unassuming and friendly. He had just become a grandfather. He looked after his elderly mother, enjoyed his hobbies and had just come back from a holiday. A close friend said: “He was a really nice guy. Something must have clicked in his head. He must have just snapped.”

People do just snap, and there have been other similar tragedies in recent times, in Dunblane in Scotland, and in America in Columbine and Virginia Tech. Usually the killers are younger but it can happen in the most unpredictable way, leaving behind a trail of grief and bewilderment.

One of the great errors of modern thought was to believe that we are rational creatures who make decisions on the basis of deliberation and calculation. Reason, said the heroes of the enlightenment, can cure of us the passions and prejudices of the past. We now know that the human mind doesn’t work that way.
Neuroscientists have shown how decision making is inseparable from emotion. There are two systems at work in the human brain: the amygdala which generates highly charged emotional reactions, and the prefrontal cortex, more rational and deliberative, capable of thinking beyond the immediacy of the situation. The second system is significantly slower, so it’s always at risk of being overridden under stress or fear or anger. That’s how we often act irrationally and how, in extreme cases, ordinary people can commit terrible crimes.

Christianity called this original sin. Jews called it the evil inclination. “The heart,” said Jeremiah, “is deceitful above all things, and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” The Bible traces this back to the first two human children, when Cain in a fit of anger killed his brother Abel — then said, in sudden realisation of his guilt, “My sin is more than I can bear.” That’s why perpetrators of violence like Derrick Bird often end by turning it against themselves.
So for all our everyday calm, we must never forget the danger that lies, like an unexploded mine, just beneath the surface of the human heart. Meanwhile to the injured and the bereaved, we send our shared grief and our prayers.

We human beings constantly struggle with the duality of being animatistic and cognitive beings with souls.  As such, we must continuously work towards overcoming the animal, base nature in order to better serve the world around us.  We must put our divine side forward, acting with justice and in accord with our fullest emotional, spiritual and intellectual potential.

Should this be the last generation?

Peter Singer, the often controversial philosopher, is at it again. In a post online, entitled Should This Be the Last Generation, he posits a seemingly timeless philosophical question; should we continue to populate the planet and why? 

His arguments are based on the following assumptions (which seem to be premises for many of his other notions):
1. Most of life is about suffering and chasing after illusionary satisfaction.
2. Human beings have no intrinsic value (Singer is also a proponent of euthanising those who are physically and mentally challenged).
3. Bringing unborn into the world is a form of cruelty because we are bringing people into a world to suffer.

While he presents an argument that seems in favor of this crazy scheme, Singer comes to the conclusion that life is worth living for most, so therefore, ending human life is not worth it.   After presenting his argument, he poses the following questions:

1.  If a child is likely to have a life full of pain and suffering is that a reason against bringing the child into existence?

2.  If a child is likely to have a happy, healthy life, is that a reason for bringing the child into existence?

3.  Is life worth living, for most people in developed nations today?

4.  Is a world with people in it better than a world with no sentient beings at all?

5.  Would it be wrong for us all to agree not to have children, so that we would be the last generation on Earth?

To answer his questions in one shot, I would argue that of course life is worth living.  To even begin questioning whether the world would be better without us is coming from a place of arrogance.  How would we even know or how would a comparison be possible as no sentient beings would be able to judge a world without humans. 

For those of us who believe a higher power, regardless of title, many of his questions can be answered as follows:  Life has an intrinsic value for each and every one of us.  Most of us never fully grasp what that value and purpose is, yet we recognize a certain quality of being special.  I would assume that this thinking is somewhat across the board, even in third world countries (maybe especially so, as reproduction continues to remain higher).  Yes, life is depressing at times, a theme we find as far back as the book of Ecclesiastes (Qohelet) and other works of that genre, but, as to quote a commentor on the piece by Singer, better to have lived and loved and lost than never to have lived at all.  Bringing a child into the world is a joyous occassion with hopes and dreams.  Very often those dreams get shattered, but it does not mean a mistake was made, or that the parent should then be considered harmful as they brought the unborn into the world to suffer.  Rather, it means life is never what we plan it to be, which for some can be quite sad, while for others brings about greater, more lasting joys.

Update Jun 17, 2010:  Peter Singer responds the critiques of his piece in the following post.