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Nature or Nurture?

If we take a moment to reflect on our personalities, we may begin to wonder how we came to be who we are today. What were the contributing factors that led to our development? In classic philosophical and psychological literature there is what is known as the nature/nurture debate. Are we who we are because of what we would refer to now as our genetic coding and our biological make up (nature) or were we born with a blank slate, our personality being later determined by our experiences (nurture)? This debate in secular literature goes back to Plato and Aristotle, continued through Descartes and Locke, and reappeared in the early 20th century in the form of various psychological theories.

In psychology, the most extreme advocates of nurture were the radical behaviorists who argued that everything is shaped by the environment. John Watson wrote in 1930, “Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select—doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors.”

Watson grossly underestimated the power of genetics and heritability. Behavioral genetic research has demonstrated that many of our core components of identity have genetic influences, including, intelligence, personality, mental illness, religiosity, job satisfaction, and even television watching (see Turkheimer, 2004). Yet, even most behavioral geneticists agree that environment also plays a role in the development of these factors. The level of interplay between genes and environment may differ depending on the trait being studied, but the predominant view is that there is an interaction between the two.

These concepts play out in an interesting fashion when it comes to the praise that Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai gives his students (Avot 2:9). As mentioned in the previous Psyched for Avot, Rabbi Yochanan provided specific praise for each of his five students. Rabbi Eliezer is praised as having a good memory, Rabbi Yose is commended for his piety, Rabbi Shimon is acclaimed for his fear of sin, and Rabbi Elazar is extolled for his intellect. Rabbi Yehoshua’s compliment, however, is not even about him: “Praiseworthy is his mother.” What does this cryptic statement mean?

Some commentators simply state that it is just a way of complimenting his fine character. Others connect the praise more directly to his mother. But why should his mother get the credit for his character? Opinions differ as to what exactly we are attributing to his mother and the approaches vary along the spectrum of the nature/nurture debate.

Some focus on nurture. When she was pregnant, his mother used to go to the Beit Midrash and ask the Sages to pray that her son will be wise (Rashi). Once he was born, she took him in the stroller to the Beit Midrash, so he could experience the environment of learning (Magen Avot). Others focus more on nature. Following the scientific and philosophical understanding of his time, Rabbi Yosef Hayyun (15th century) argues that the fetus is made up from the blood of the mother and this causes the baby’s nature and temperament to be dependent on her biology.

Others take more of an interactionist approach. Rabbi Mattityahu HaYitzari seems uncomfortable with the idea intimated by Rabbi Hayyun, that character is dependent on biology and can be developed and refined without any human effort. He therefore writes that biological nature interacted with nurture, i.e., his mother’s free-choice and actions (such as davening for him and bringing him to the Beit Midrash) to help develop his personality.

Yet, whether it was his mother’s genetic contribution or her stellar parenting practices, there is still a glaring question: to what extent is Rabbi Yehoshua himself responsible for his praise? Is the message that Rabbi Yehoshua gets absolutely no credit for his pristine personality, and all acclaim goes to his mother?

Rabbeinu Bachya seems to address this question, when he explains that although Rabbi Yehoshua received his innate dispositions (chomer) from his mother, that just made him more susceptible to developing good traits. It was up to Rabbi Yehoshua to take advantage of his natural tendencies and cultivate his character.

What emerges from Rabbeinu Bachya is that while determining the precise percentage of nature and nurture in our personality traits is a stimulating academic exercise, the more important question is how we go about relating to these predispositions and predilections. If we are not as gifted as Rabbi Yehoshua with great genes and dedicated parents, can we work hard to overcome these shortcomings and become the best versions of ourselves possible? And if we were so blessed with pristine DNA and an ideal upbringing, can we maximize these advantages, earning praise for ourselves and for those that contributed to our success?


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