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Rabbi's Blog

rabbi 05 smallsf badge lgRabbi Joel Landau  (rabbi@adathisraelsf.org) has been the Rabbi of Adath Israel since May 2013. He was ordained by the Chief Rabbinate in Jerusalem and has served previously as a congregational Rabbi in Charleston, South Carolina and Irvine, California. A full biography of Rabbi Landau is available here.


Inside the Mind of a Psychopath

In 2005, neuroscientist James Fallon was conducting two studies, one studying the unique brain scans of psychopathic murderers, and the second studying Alzheimer’s patterns in his own family. As he was examining the scans of his family members, he noticed that one of the scans matched the brain scan of a psychopathic murderer. He thought that perhaps there was some sort of mix up or mistake, but he double checked, and there wasn’t. He then decided to break the code and unseal the records as to whose brain scan matches the scan of a psychopath. After all, it was someone in his family. When he unsealed the record, he found out that it was his own brain.

Fallon has since reflected on his discovery and written about it in a number of articles and interviews, and subsequently wrote a book about it. Let’s highlight two important points that he made.

First, Fallon speaks about the argument of nature versus nurture:

But why, in the light of the fact I have all of the biological markers for psychopathy … did I turn out to be a successful professor and family man? One most likely reason is that although I have the genetic makeup of a ‘born’ psychopath, some of those very same ‘risk’ genes in someone showered with love (versus abuse or abandonment), from childbirth through the critical first few years of life, appear to offset the psychopathy-inducing effects of the other ‘risk’ genes.

Second, Fallon explains how his discovery impacted his later behavior:

Since finding all this out and looking into it, I’ve made an effort to try to change my behavior. I’ve more consciously been doing things that are considered ‘the right thing to do,’ and thinking more about other people’s feelings.

One of the most important questions when learning Va’era, Bo and Beshalach is the question of Pharaoh’s free will. According to R. Menachem Meiri (1249 – 1306 Catalonia, Spain) we are all born with certain tendencies and each person’s tendencies are different. If those tendencies lead us towards certain inappropriate behaviours, we have complete free choice to overcome those tendencies, but if we don’t try, our natural tendencies take over. HaShem didn’t harden Pharaoh’s heart at the time of the plagues. Rather, HaShem created Pharaoh with a set of tendencies to commit the most heinous acts and to be one of the most stubborn people in history. Pharaoh always had the chance to work on himself, but he never did so, and therefore, this was a natural outcome.

R. Yisrael Lipschitz (1782–1860 Danzig, Poland) got into a bit of trouble by suggesting that Moshe Rabbeinu was born with many evil tendencies and what made him great was that he was able to overcome them. While many rabbanim objected to this passage, their objection was about his denigration of Moshe Rabbeinu or the accuracy or source of the story.  The principle that he was trying to teach us – that we all have the ability to overcome even the worst tendencies – is a principle that seems to be universally accepted.   

One tendency that many of us share in common is the tendency to think that we can’t change. We may justify our shortcomings by saying that this is the lot we were given in life. We may feel guilty about our actions but that guilt may not translate to change. Yet we can all learn from James Fallon, who has the most evil of tendencies, and came to realize that his life’s mission is to overcome them and teach others to do the same.