The three women favored one point of view; the six men were evenly split, three siding with the women, the others disagreeing vehemently.
In my class in which I use Genesis as a text for teaching matters of contemporary relevance, the topic was leadership in the Jewish community. The students had been selected by a national Jewish organization that had identified them as potential synagogue leaders.
I began by urging them to consider the major themes of Noah, and then to find the connection between one or more of those themes and our topic.
Carol spoke up first. “This may seem paradoxical,” she began, “but I see this parsha as demonstrating the human being’s potential for good.”
Alex reacted with incredulity. “What on earth are you talking about? Perhaps you read a different text. Let me quote: ‘…the inclination of the heart of man is evil from his youth….’ That’s about as clear a statement as I’ve ever heard about the wickedness of human nature. And why did the good Lord find it necessary to threaten, ‘Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed…’ if He didn’t fear man’s inherent murderous nature?”
Carol was far from intimidated, countering, “Why don’t you complete the rest of that verse? It reads, ‘…for in His image did God make man.’ I take that to mean that human beings are Godlike and benevolent in their innermost selves.”
A heated debate ensued between the majority, who insisted upon the goodness of humankind, versus those who could not believe that human nature was anything but selfish and malicious.
I was about to steer the conversation toward the topic of leadership, but Priscilla did it for me.
“This discussion,” she said, “is directly related to the question of leadership. I think there are many leaders, and they may be successful, who would affirm the essential wickedness of man. That would necessitate a leadership style that emphasizes clear guidelines and standards, and possibly even rewards and punishments, to control their subordinates or followers.”
Miriam followed: “I am certain that we have all experienced such leaders. But I question whether such a leader can ever be truly successful. The successful leader is the one who helps her followers reach their potential. That can only be done if the leader’s concept of human nature is basically positive, and if she allows individuals the freedom to develop and improve.”
It was left to me to articulate the basic lesson here. “We all have a personal theory about human nature. Some believe humans are basically good, others that they are fundamentally evil. An individual’s leadership technique is likely to reflect his or her opinion of human nature.”
I then responded to Othniel’s raised hand.
“Whenever I participate in discussions such as tonight’s,” he said, “I appreciate all the more the wisdom of the great German writer Goethe. He said it best:
“‘If you treat a person as he is, he will remain as he is.
But if you treat him as he ought to be and could be,
He will become what he ought to be and could be.’”
Othniel then said: “It is not a matter of the basic nature of man. He has potential for good and potential for evil, potential for excellence as well as potential for mediocrity. The secret of leadership is to be able to bring out the best in man.”
He looked around the room, meeting the stares of Carol, Priscilla, and Miriam. With a big smile, he exclaimed, “And to bring out the best in woman.”
This final remark evoked satisfied smiles from the other members of the class.