David Sedley
David Sedley
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Parshat Ki Teitzei – Nature vs. nurture

The notion that those born to a given nation will have certain character traits borders on racism; indeed, the rabbis limited the legal reach of such claims
Sir Francis Galton, by Charles Wellington Furse. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)
Sir Francis Galton, by Charles Wellington Furse. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

Sir Francis Galton was a cousin of Charles Darwin. Born in 1822 in Birmingham, he was a child prodigy. He went on to become an expert in almost every sphere of knowledge, and invented a couple of new fields. He was a statistician, sociologist, psychologist, anthropologist, tropical explorer, geographer and meteorologist. he wrote over 300 books and papers, popularized statistical methodology and pioneered surveys and polls.

He advanced the field of forensics with his contribution to classifying fingerprints and created the first weather map. He gave his name to the Galton board, Galton distribution, the Galton-Watson process, the Galton problem and the Galton whistle.

In 1859, Darwin published, The Origin of Species, which had a revolutionary effect on Galton’s thinking, leading him to switch his focus to further developing his own ideas of evolutionary theory.

He first tried to discover whether eminence was hereditary. In 1869 he published Hereditary Genius in which he claimed that famous men were more likely to have famous close relatives, but this percentage dropped from first to second and from second to third degree relatives.

This led him to the conclusion that society would be improved by only allowing the best members of society to have children and leaving the poor and unfortunate to live a monastic life. He wrote:

The best form of civilization in respect to the improvement of the race, would be one in which society was not costly; where incomes were chiefly derived from professional sources, and not much through inheritance; where every lad had a chance of showing his abilities, and, if highly gifted, was enabled to achieve a first-class education and entrance into professional life, by the liberal help of the exhibitions and scholarships which he had gained in his early youth; where marriage was held in as high honour as in ancient Jewish times; where the pride of race was encouraged (of course I do not refer to the nonsensical sentiment of the present day, that goes under that name); where the weak could find a welcome and a refuge in celibate monasteries or sisterhoods, and lastly, where the better sort of emigrants and refugees from other lands were invited and welcomed, and their descendants naturalised.

In fact, Galton invented the term eugenics.

Writing of the feeble-minded Galton said:

The persons in question are naturally incapable of standing alone. If protected and supervised they may lead harmless, and even useful, lives and do something towards earning their living. But when unprotected and cast upon the world, they go to the bad. They do so, not necessarily through vicious propensities, but from the absence of will-power to resist temptations; and quickly sink into the pauper and criminal classes. The women commonly become prostitutes. The feeble-minded, as distinguished from the idiots, are an exceptionally fecund class, mostly of illegitimate children, and a terrible proportion of their offspring are born mentally deficient. A decorous family life among their children is obviously impossible; the conditions of their nurture prevent it.

Galton envisaged a society where the intelligent, rich, and famous would be allowed to breed, but the poor, downtrodden and those who did poorly on his intelligence tests, would be banned from having children. It was Galton who came up with the phrase “nature or nurture.” He came down clearly on the side of nature.

Ironically, he and his wife of 43 years, Louisa Jane Butler, were childless.

Galton’s ideas sound horrific to us today, but were eagerly taken up, and even became public policy, in several countries and groups. Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Japan and Sweden all carried out forced sterilization on mental patients (and women could be sent to asylums for crimes such as having a child out of wedlock).

The British Eugenics Society was formed in 1907 and its transatlantic counterpart, the American Eugenics Society in 1921. Both organizations still continue to this day (though under different names). US race laws were loosely based on Galton’s eugenic theory. Henry Goddard’s book The Kallikak Family: A Study in the Heredity of Feeble-Mindedness became a best-seller after it was published in 1921.

Eugenics fell somewhat out of favor after the Nazis adapted eugenic policies they saw in the US and made it part of their manifesto. In 1934, California eugenics leader C. M. Goethe bragged:

You will be interested to know that your work has played a powerful part in shaping the opinions of the group of intellectuals who are behind Hitler in this epoch-making program. Everywhere I sensed that their opinions have been tremendously stimulated by American thought… I want you, my dear friend, to carry this thought with you for the rest of your life, that you have really jolted into action a great government of 60 million people.

As we now know, almost all of Galton’s research and theory was mistaken. Those who followed in his footsteps made similar errors, or in some cases intentionally falsified facts to reach the conclusion they held to be true (for example, the images of the Kallikak family were touched up to make the family appear more sinister and feeble-minded).

Galton’s student, Pearson, who continued his work, unintentionally touched on a major flaw in the data when he wrote about his teacher:

Men who leave their mark on the world are very often those who, being gifted and full of nervous power, are at the same time haunted and driven by a dominant idea and are therefore within a measurable distance of insanity.

Yet in Victorian England (and around the world) Galton’s ideas were accepted by many.

Angela Georgina Burdett-Coutts c. 1840. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

Two people who argued against Galton’s theories were Angela Georgina Burdett-Coutts and Charles Dickens. Burdett-Coutts was probably the wealthiest woman in Britain (after Queen Victoria). Edward VII is reported to have described her as, “After my mother, the most remarkable woman in the kingdom.”

She was known primarily for her philanthropic work, mainly feeding, educating, and caring for the poor who had left the countryside for the capital city as a result of the industrial revolution. (She funded many international projects as well, including funding several archeological and cartographical expeditions to improve life for Jerusalem residents.)

Dickens needs no introduction. He was a very close friend of Burdett-Coutts and dedicated Martin Chuzzlewit to her.

Together, the philanthropist and novelist founded Urania Cottage, a home to rehabilitate London’s prostitutes and offer them a better life.

Dickens wrote that after a woman was welcomed to the home:

It is explained to her that she is degraded and fallen, but not lost, having this shelter; and that the means of Return to Happiness are now about to be put into her own hands, and trusted to her own keeping… It is in her own power and nobody else’s, to adjust to her advantage.

Urania Cottage, Shepherd’s Bush. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

Belief that the poor and degraded were victims of circumstance rather than of genetics was radical, and not widely accepted until well into the 20th century. After all, they could claim, wasn’t Galton’s theory supported by the Torah, which states, “For there will never cease to be in the land,” (Deuteronomy 15:11)? The verse continues with the command to give charity, “You shall open your hand to your poor and needy brother, in your land,” but the implication is that poverty is part of the natural world, not something that can be changed through hard work or improved circumstances.

Rambam takes the commandment to give charity and uses a verse in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tetzei, to show how far it extends:

The Torah correctly says, ” You shall open your hand to your poor and needy brother.” Our Sages bestow much praise upon him who is kind to his relatives… [But] the Torah teaches us how far we have to extend this principle of … treating kindly everyone with whom we have some relationship, even if he offended or wronged us; even if he is very bad, we must have some consideration for him. Thus, the Torah says: “You shall not hate an Edomite, for he is your brother” (Deuteronomy 23:7) … The Torah [also] tells us: “You shall not hate an Egyptian, because you were a stranger in his land” (ibid.), although the Egyptians have subsequently oppressed us very much.

Even though we are commanded not to hate the Edomites or Egyptians, they may not intermarry with Jews, even if they convert. We also find in this week’s portion that there are other nations who may not intermarry with the Jewish people, because of the actions of their ancestors, which shaped their behavior for all generations (Deuteronomy 23:4-5).

“An Ammonite or a Moabite shall not enter into the congregation of God; even the tenth generation shall not enter into the congregation of God forever; because they did not greet you with bread and with water in the way, when you came out of Egypt; and because they hired against you Balaam the son of Beor from Pethor of Aram-naharaim, to curse you.”

This is proto genetics and borders on racism. Anyone born to a certain nation will have certain character traits and may not join the Jewish people.

However, the rabbis later limited these laws to the point where they no longer had any validity.

Initially, the rabbis were forced to “bend” the rules when it turned out that King David, the pinnacle of Jewish leadership, was a descendant of Ruth the Moabite. Furthermore, although King Solomon had 1,000 wives, the mother of his successor as king of Jerusalem was Naamah the Ammonite (1 Kings 14:21).

So, the rabbis reinterpreted the law, and said that it only applied to male Moabites and Ammonites, but not to the women. The fourth-century Babylonian rabbi, Rava, attributed this view to the prophet Samuel (Yevamot 77a). And the reason women were not included in the prohibition is because their behavior was not cruel like that attributed to their ancestors. In fact, the book of Ruth is a study in kindness to others who are from different backgrounds.

Earlier, in the second century, the rabbis of Yavne had already made the law irrelevant (Berachot 28a).

On that day, Yehuda, an Ammonite convert, came before them in the Beit Midrash. He said to them, ‘Am I permitted to marry into the congregation?’ Rabban Gamilel said, ‘You are forbidden to enter the congregation.’ Rabbi Yehoshua said, ‘You are permitted to enter the congregation.’ Rabban Gamliel said to [Rabbi Yehoshua], ‘But doesn’t it say, ‘An Ammonite or a Moabite shall not enter into the congregation of God’? Rabbi Yehoshua replied, ‘Do Ammon and Moab still dwell in their places? Sanherib, King of Ashur, has already come and mixed up all the nations.’

In effect, the rabbis of the Talmud made all the laws implying racial or genetic traits irrelevant.

Furthermore, they took the Torah rules and turned them into behavior traits, which, as Dickens would have said, “Are in their own power and nobody else’s.”

The rabbis did this to Ammon and Moab, but also to the most infamous enemy of the Jewish people, the tribe of Amalek. At the very end of the Torah portion (Deuteronomy 25:17-19), the Israelites are commanded to utterly destroy even the memory of the tribe of Amalek. Amalek is portrayed as the mortal enemy of God.

However, the entire enemy tribe of Amalek was killed by Saul and Samuel (1 Samuel 15) near the very beginning of Jewish history in the land of Israel. So, the rabbis turned the racial imperative of the Torah into a disdain of certain personality traits and theological views.

Throughout the ages, the worst enemies of the Jews – Haman, the Romans, Chmielnicki, Hitler, Stalin – have all been called descendants of Amalek – not because of their ancestry but because of their actions.

Furthermore, Moab, Ammon, Edom, Egypt and Amalek are not only (or primarily) external threats today. Rather, modern rabbis (and especially Hasidic thinkers) use them as paradigms of how Jews should (or should not) behave.

For example, the 19th-century Hasidic leader, Rav Tzadok Hacohen writes in Resisei Laila that the seven nations that the Jews expelled from the land of Israel represent seven different character traits. Amalek is described as the “first of nations” because Amalek represents the trait of imagination, which is the king of all the others. Amalek is that part of us that believes the lies, the falsehoods and the “fake news” of this world, making us unable to see the truth. Amalek, he says, is within us, encouraging us to choose lies over truth.

When we read this week that we must destroy Amalek, we should look inwards at our own traits and behavior. To paraphrase Dickens again, “The means of return to happiness are now about to be put into our own hands.”


For a view of life in Victorian London, I highly recommend Terry Pratchett’s “Dodger.”

Beginning on August 24th, I will give a new, two-part online series of classes at WebYeshiva about The Ten Martyrs which are mentioned in the Yom Kippur mussaf service. You can listen to the live or recorded Torah classes on WebYeshiva. I’ve also started sharing more of my Torah thoughts on Facebook. Follow my page, Rabbi Sedley.

About the Author
David Sedley lives in Jerusalem with his wife and children. He has been at various times a teacher, translator, author, community rabbi, journalist and video producer. Born and bred in New Zealand, he is usually a Grinch, except when the All Blacks win. And he also plays a loud razzberry-colored electric guitar.
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