REASON VERSUS PASSION
“When the boys grew up, Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the outdoors; but Jacob became a mild man, a man of the tent.” (Genesis 25:27)
As a philosophy professor, I have always enjoyed the worldview of Friedrich Nietzsche. I disagree with almost everything he says, beginning with his most famous lines “God is dead.” But I have always learned from him. He taught that Western culture had taken a wrong turn since Socrates, emphasizing reason over passion. This was particularly true during the Enlightenment, with Kant’s famous teaching sapere aude, “dare to reason.” To Nietzsche, it was time to reject the life of reason for the life of passion.
Nietzsche spoke of two brothers, sons of Zeus, Dionysus and Apollo. Dionysus was the god of wine, dance, pleasure, and irrationality. Apollo was the god of the sun, art, music, and rationality. In his book The Birth of Tragedy, he calls for a return to a Dionysian rather than an Apollonian approach to living, a life of passion rather than a life of reason. One of the reasons is that Nietzsche taught a doctrine known as Eternal Return. We will be forced to continually live our lives over and over. If we must live life over and over, we ought to live a life that fulfills our passions. Nietzsche said that each of us should seek to become an Übermensch, “superman” long before Clark Kent. We should live by our emotions rather than by our logic.
Nietzsche was not the only Enlightenment figure to say this. Philosopher David Hume taught, “Reason is the slave to the passions.” Passion is certainly important. But Jewish tradition teaches that our reason ought to control our passions, not the other way around. The Talmud teaches, “Who is strong? Whoever controls their passions.” (Avot 4:1)
The idea of two brothers, one who embodies passions and one who embodies reason, is at the center of this week’s Torah reading. Twin brothers Esau and Jacob fight one another while they are still in the womb. Esau is an outdoorsman, a hunter, a man of passion. He is willing to give up his birthright for a bowl of lentil soup. Satisfying his hunger is more important than his family heritage.
Jacob, on the other hand, is a man of the tent. The Rabbis see him as a man who loves learning, an intellectual, a thinker who sought answers to life’s deepest questions. Rebecca, mother of Esau and Jacob, understands that although Esau is the older son, the covenant must go to Jacob. Jacob becomes the patriarch of a people who devote their lives to intellectual pursuits. To be a Jew, one can live a passionate life, but that passion must be tempered by reason.
Nietzsche had no love of Judaism, nor its daughter religion Christianity. (However, Nietzsche was not an antisemite, unlike his sister who was a vicious Jew hater.) In fact, he was a deeply decent person, who went insane after being attacked for trying to rescue a horse. But Jews have followed a different path. They have realized throughout their history that passion must be ruled by reason. Jews must not give up their heritage because they are hungry for a bowl of soup. They have always treasured the life ruled by reason.
Later Malachi, in the prophetic portion we read this week, says that God loves Jacob and hates Esau. Protestant leader John Calvin learned from this a doctrine of predestination, that God rewards some people and punishes others from the beginning. But perhaps we can reinterpret the prophetic verse. Perhaps God loves people who think before they act, who try to live by their reason. And God dislikes people who act out their passions, without thinking about the consequences of their actions.
The conflict between reason and passion is as old as Greek mythology and the Bible, and as new as today’s headlines. We need a life of passion. But that passion must be ruled by reason. That is why God chose Jacob over Esau to continue God’s covenant.