Friday, June 1, 2012

Gut Instinct


Parshat Naso
11 Sivan, 5772
June 1st, 2012

I occasionally ask people how God lets us know whether an action is moral or immoral. What I mean is that, when a person has a moral dilemma, what source should she trust to tell her whether she is acting well? Most people answer, “trust your gut,” and believe that God has put an innate sense of morality inside all of us.

I have found, after much experience, this belief to be untrue.

As Proverbs says, mikol melamdai hiskalti – I have learned from all who teach me. And what I have learned is that plenty of people have exactly the opposite gut instinct over precisely the same dilemma. Just think about various cadres’ reactions to homosexuality.

Secondly, I have found over the course of my life that my gut has changed. I remember the first time I saw a female rabbi, and how much I hated the experience. Last year I was unsettled by a promo picture for an Orthodox yeshiva: why were no women learning in the beit midrash?

The point, I think, is that the gut is trained.

Here’s an analogy: when people stumble, it is natural instinct to put their hands out to block their fall. It’s also a really stupid idea. The lower arm bones, caught between the ground and the weight of the body, shatter easily. But if you go to an Aikido or Ju-Jitsu class, you’ll see people being thrown all over the place, and falling from six feet or more without ill effect. This is because they have trained themselves to fall.

To live morally is to live one step beyond the gut: to train one’s self in compassion, in wisdom, in understanding, in Torah – and then to let the intuition free.

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