Kingdom of Priests

Can you control your own evil impulses? Can you decide when to feel happy, angry, afraid? It sure doesn’t feel that way to me. Yet the premise of cognitive therapy, which a lot of people swear by, is that by thinking about your thoughts in a different way, you can change them. Interestingly, I came across this very idea in S.R. Hirsch’s explanation of Genesis 6:5. That great German Orthodox sage wrote almost a century before Aaron Beck came up with the concept of cognitive therapy.

The verse comes in the context of God’s disapproving evaluation of the generation of Noah. The King James Version translates, “And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” The Hebrew there, given in KJV as “imagination of the thoughts of his heart,” is yetzer machsh’vos libo
The word yetzer is often translated as “inclination” — as in the evil inclination that besets us all. That seems to suggest it’s a force acting from outside you, not of your making, that tempts you to do wrong. But Hirsch shows from the grammar that yetzer is not an active form of the verbal root but the passive. The active would be yotzer.
If so, what forms this inclination? Answer: the “thoughts of his heart.” In Hebrew, “thoughts” or machsh’vos is cognate with the verbal root for a weaver, choshev. Our own thoughts weave our imagination, our inclination or temptation.
Writes Hirsch, “Our soul is a weaver…Out of the material given us we can make whatever we like. But at the same time God has given us the ‘pattern’ according to which we are to weave.”
This casts, I think, a relevant light on questions like whether homosexuality can be the subject of curative therapy. Cognitive therapy is also relevant to the evolution controversy, as I point out over at Evolution News & Views. So you see how these ideas all “weave” together?
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