The Moral Self

by hamiltonmj1983

I read an interesting article this week entitled, “Models of the Moral Self: Hebrew Bible and Second Temple Judaism” by Carol Newsom in the Spring 2012 issue of the Journal of Biblical Literature.

The basic purpose of this article was to track the Hebrew view of the moral self through the history of Judaism. It started off with the Deuteronomic perspective, which declares that humans are free to choose between the good and the bad. This is what Newsom would call the “default model of moral agency in the Hebrew Bible” (10). Ultimately, the לב, or “heart,” of each person is responsible for a person’s decision making, their words and actions.

Newsom then goes on to explain four other views that cropped up over time: (1) moral agency is confirmed (a reaffirmation of the Deuteronomic view); (2) moral agency is internally impaired but the impairment can be overcome (basically there is a flaw within the human being that prevents him or her from making good choices, although it can be resisted or defeated); (3) moral agency is externally impaired but the impairment can be overcome (something on the outside of a person is preventing them from making moral choices, although this external force can be resisted or defeated. The biblical example used is that of spirits or demons, although the idea of demons functioning in this way comes very late to Judaism); and (4) moral agency is denied – with certain exceptions [based on Genesis 1-3, “the majority of humanity, as created, is simply not capable of moral agency” (15)].

This argument is not necessarily whether or not human beings have free will, but whether or not human beings are capable of making moral choices. I do, however, think that the idea of free will plays a part. Deuteronomy 30:19, which has been appropriated as a title for a book on theology and ethics, “Now Choose Life,” represents the basic idea that human beings are capable of making choices through free will, and that they have the free will to make the wrong choice and choose death (otherwise Deuteronomy 30:19 would be unnecessary!). This is the initial foundation of the first view that Newsom explains.

What say you? Are human beings capable of making moral choices? Do we have to overcome either our inner nature or outer demons first? Or are we so flawed (through the way we are created) that we are unable to freely choose moral or immoral paths?

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