Santiago Ramon y Cajal was a remarkable man. Born in Spain in 1852, he won the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1906 in recognition for his work on the structure of the nervous system. The brain was his element, and not in vain he is considered to be the father of modern neuroscience.
In 1897, Ramon y Cajal wrote: “Consider the possibility that any man could, if he were so inclined, be the sculptor of his own brain” (“Advice for a Young Investigator, p. XV). Many years before the actual confirmation of what we know today as neuroplasticity – meaning that our brains are shaped, changed and attuned in an ever-ongoing process based, among other things, on our context, decisions and actions – Ramon y Cajal already had a more than educated guess about that fact. We are not only the masters of our fates or the captains of our souls; we are also the sculptors of our brains.
Before moving forward, let me be clear about this: I am neither a neuroscientist nor the son of a neuroscientist. I’m a congregational Rabbi serving in a great congregation in Nashville, Tn. Yet, as a Rabbi, I came to understand the centrality of learning sciences in order to develop a meaningful theology. Too many people were – and still are – disengaged with Judaism because of the unnecessary and discrediting rift created between science and faith. This far into the twenty first century, we cannot afford to speak of the divine without some basic knowledge of physics and chemistry, and we cannot develop a covenantal Jewish anthropology that leaves aside the insights of biology or neuroscience, just to name a few.
The whole issue of gun control can serve as a good example of how modern sciences can enrich with their voices the spectrum of Jewish sources available on the subject. Going back to our basic texts, it is clear that our Sages were not unanimous in their opinions related to weapons. Rabbi Eliezer thought that it was fine if a person wanted to use a sword (or a knife) as an adornment for Shabbat (Mishna, Shabbat 6:4) and he was certain that men could always tame dangerous animals like wolves and lions (Mishna, Bava Kamma 1:4). To the contrary, other Sages said that wild animals were not to be tamed and wearing arms as ornaments was absolutely shameful. In a similar contradictory vein, the Talmudic Sages stated that dangerous dogs – a pretty harmful tool of assault – should always be kept on a chain, although when near the frontier, you could set them loose at night (Talmud, Bava Kamma 83a). Finally, more recent legislators stipulated that you could not sell weapons to non-Jews (who might use them to attack innocent people) but you could sell them shields that are only for defensive purposes (see for example: Maimonides, Mishne Torah, Laws of Murder and Preserving Life 12:12). “Recent,” in this case, means medieval!
Applying the classic Jewish discussion on weapons and dangerous animals to the contemporary question of gun control does not help us clarifying the issue unequivocally and that is something that could upset many people on both sides of the dispute. I am even willing to confess that a part of me would prefer the Jewish sources to be clearly against the proliferation and use of guns. But, at the same time, the possibility of finding voices in favor of or against the legislation to control weapon in our traditional texts opens an ongoing conversation that every generation has to have for itself. Since there is no definitive answer, every generation will have to elicit a response that will serve the needs of that particular era and maybe – just maybe – contribute to the conversation for generations to come. I believe that the inclusion of modern science insights can help us find an answer for our times.
A few years ago, the Italian neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni published “Mirroring People,” a book dealing with a special type of neurons known as Mirror Neurons. These neurons fire every time we see another person (or animal) doing an action like eating, jumping or dancing. According to Iacoboni, those neurons are the basic biological structure that makes for the development of empathy. We are wired to feel other people’s pains and joys.
Since our neuronal system is reinforced by the actions that are most common to us – that’s the whole idea behind neuroplasticity – our exposure to violence will have a decisive role in shaping our brains. Iacoboni discusses in his book a research that started in the 1960s and continued for twenty-two years. The study included almost one thousand kids and demonstrated that watching media violence in early childhood corresponds to heightened aggression later in life.
Understanding how culture molds our brains should raise some important questions. For instance, what kind of society do we seek for our children and for us? If we know that exposure to violence will bring an increase in imitative violence in the same way that “a transgression brings another transgression” (Mishna, Avot 4:2) we should stop arguing over the legal viability of owning guns and start questioning the long range impact of having guns around our children. If we know that the strength of our neuronal firing will depend on the assiduity of our actions, we should reinforce a praxis that will bring with it a kinder and more benevolent society. That is, I think, the bigger conversation we should be having today.
At the same time, accepting how the brain works should help us realize that human beings who have already been shaped by a need for guns and violence will require much more than just inspiring words to rewire their neuronal circuits. Research teaches us that a person who wants to quit smoking will have a serious challenge succeeding in that goal since her brain will fire every time she watches somebody else lighting a cigarette. Similarly, it will be a challenge for us, daily witnesses of a world loaded with aggression to rewire our own neuronal circuits, and even more challenging to those who have or used to have guns.
We are fairly free to shape our cultures and brains through the actions we decide to embrace on a daily basis. Borrowing the words of the Prophet Jeremiah (echoed in the High Holiday liturgy), we could say that cultures and brains are “like clay in the potter’s hands” (Jer. 18:6). And, even if the clay won’t adopt every possible form – the clay will always remain clay – the options are enormous, and the final result will be based mainly on the potter’s craftsmanship. Hard work, a clear understanding of the raw materials we have at hand and a serious commitment to a gentler society could bring us closer to laying the foundations for the ancient prophetic voice that still claims: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore” (Is. 2:4). The answer, we are told, lies in our brains, in our praxis and in our hands.