Use Your Brain & Be Responsible

It has been reported in a study by the Journal “Nature” the latest research on brain damage. That damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex of the brain causes an array of emotional responses. The report claims that in a study of twelve people with damaged prefrontal cortex that in decisions of life and death, those damaged had a completely different attitude to the sanctity of life. The capacity to sacrifice a person to save others was highlighted. The report, funded by the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and private sources, stated that the damaged brain person is less likely to show hesitation in hurting others to save a large group. In extreme circumstances people with brain damage would even endorse suffocating an infant if it would save more lives. An example of tossing a person off a bridge in order to save five others was given as proof to this study. A damaged brain would do that but a healthy brain would not. I disagree since we constantly endanger and sacrifice our fire, police, and defense personnel for the greater good of mankind. This study is faulty as everything is up to free will. A damaged brain may think differently but the report and experiment is ludicrous.

When studying the new findings I am astounded and quite confused. I remember a story told to me by my Rebbe in cheder – Jewish school – that had a large population of Holocaust survivors. My Rebbe had survived a terrible war. He related the following story.

It was Passover, April 1943 in the capital of Poland. An area of Warsaw was divided into a ghetto area and some half a million Jews were forced to live in unbelievable conditions. Three hundred thousand Jews were deported to the Treblinka Death Camps while some eighty thousand Jews were left in the ghetto starving a slow, but sure, death. On April 19th a revolution, led by the Jews, began. The battle for the Warsaw ghetto became known as the Warsaw Uprising which lasted less than thirty days. But it stood longer than the Polish resistance against the German armies.

At the end of the uprising fifty six thousand Jews were captured and sent to death camps while seven thousand were killed. It was a horrendous and murderous time. The Germans burnt block by block, killing indiscriminately. 

My Rebbe told us the following story that happened at that time:

German troops came to search and destroy the ghetto and entered a house which had an underground bunker that held thirty family members. They were children, parents, grandparents. They all prayed that they would not be found because if they would be discovered they would be immediately shot. As the Germans shot into the floor frightening the hiding people a little child, a darling girl of two began to cry, the mother quickly covered the mouth of the crying child until the search ended and the German troops left. As soon as the mother uncovered her daughter’s mouth she realized that she suffocated her child in order to save the group. Her heroic act was dictated by sane reasoning and not by brain damage. She was not brutal or uncaring. If anything the mother did the right thing and was saddened beyond comfort. 

Now we read that brain damage is the reason for moral decisions and that sacrifice of one to save many would not be performed by fully functioning undamaged brained people. 

Thinking about this a bit more I remembered reading about the Egyptian atrocities to the Jewish slaves in Egypt over 3,000 years ago. The Egyptians were a highly intelligent civilized nation that mastered hieroglyphics, pyramids, and created scientific wonders. Yet when running out of supplies they would take Jewish babies and cement them into the walls to fill gaps. They too were not brain damaged or impaired. 

In both of these cases we see that moral views are conducted by free will and moral conscience. 

On Monday evening, April 2nd, Jewish people the world over will be celebrating the holiday of Passover. This holiday commemorates the redemption of Jews after years of slavery in the Land of Egypt over three thousand years ago. On this night families gather and observe the holiday by reciting the story of the Jewish exodus and slavery, from a book called the Hagaddah. The meal is replete with many symbols. The wine represents wealth and happiness. The bitter herbs represent the bitterness of slavery. The matzah represents bread baked hurriedly by Jews before their departure from Egypt. Four cups of wine are drunk as a sign of freedom. The Passover celebration marks the liberation of the Jewish people from Egyptian bondage, and commemorates liberation from all oppression and persecution.   The Seder message reminds us of man’s choice to be good and decent or inhuman, causing the enslavement of millions of people. No study can explain the atrocities of slavery experienced by the Hebrews except that the Egyptian leaders were cruel and despots. 

The recent report of brain damage altering moral decisions confuses and distorts our personal responsibilities. It gives excuses for all kinds of diabolic behavior. We need to be responsible for out actions and not blame it on brain damage.