In a famous experiment he conducted in New York (in the days before mobile phones) an accident was staged – someone dropped all her papers on the pavement – outside of a phone booth in which someone was making a call. Sometimes a single coin, a dime, (enough to make the call), had been left in the booth; and sometimes not. If there was no dime in the phone booth, only 4% of the exiting callers helped to pick up the papers. If there was a dime, no fewer than 88% helped.
Our ‘innate’ generosity, our capacity for caring for others, is not hard-wired into us. It is not even a constant in us. It comes and goes. It depends on our feeling-mood at the time. And, as we know, our feeling-moods go up and down, change all the time. This raises a large question, both psychological and spiritual: can we educate ourselves, train ourselves, to be more consistently generous, more compassionate, more considerate – i.e. not so much unconsciously at the mercy of our everyday feeling states?
Judaism offers us Torah – teachings for life, a moral/ethical vision of how to be as a people. On this fleeting summer festival we call Shavuot (Pentecost, we celebrate this. We don’t have to make up everything anew – we are inheritors of guidelines, directions, provocations towards reflection and action.
But this mythopoeic vision rests on the assumption that we are totally free to consciously choose our behaviour; that following the ways-of-being, teachings and vision laid down at Sinai, or by the rabbis of the past, rests on free-will decisions we make moment by moment, season after season. But what Kahneman has taught us is that this assumption is deeply flawed. The “ secret author”/authority within us is writing us a subversive script that might well be at odds with our conscious wishes and intentions. So where does that leave ‘Israel’, as a people? And ourselves as individual Jews?
Maybe the rabbis of old intuited that things were more complex than they seemed. For, basing themselves on the Biblical narrative that shows how the patriarch Jacob’s name was changed over the course of his life to Israel, they suggested that this represents a struggle inside each human being: the struggle - that lasts a lifetime - for the ‘trickster’, the ‘heel’ in us (the root meaning of the name Ya’akov/Jacob), to be transmuted into some more refined aspect of our selves, Yisrael/Israel. Though even that name – to our glory – retains a reminder (the word can be understood as ‘the one who struggles with the divine’) that the struggle to live out the best part of ourselves is never completed. It is part of our essence.
Something to ponder as Shavuot flashes past us almost before we have time to reflect on the unsettling paradox of the human heart at the festival’s own heart.