Nature Versus Nurture: Is It An Appropriate Comparison?

Last August I saw two movies in the theater: Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (referenced last week) and Three Identical Strangers. The latter details what occurs when triplets who were separated at birth become reunited. These boys did not know each other at all during their formative years and yet they all became wrestlers, smoked the same cigarettes, and had the same taste in women. The brothers had a happy reunion, settling in New York City and opening the rowdy and popular SoHo delicatessen Triplets. Each brother had a different upbringing: one was from a blue-collar family in Queens, another from a middle-class family in New Hyde Park, the third the son of a prominent doctor in Scarsdale.

Unfortunately the story takes a dark turn. They discover that in being given up for adoption by the Louise Wise Adoption Agency, they were put into a psychological experiment conducted by the Freudian psychologist Peter Neubauer on separating twins and triplets at birth.  The brothers meet their biological mother and have a difficult encounter with her. They have in-fighting, one of them leaving the Triplets business and stopping communication with his siblings. That brother was also charged in the slaying of a woman during an armed robbery. Another brother (the son of the prominent Westchester physician and the “popular” one of the three) commits suicide.  All three end up in psychiatric hospitals at different times in their lives.

Most of us would be horrified if such an experiment took place today; the cruelty of separating biological siblings. It is especially difficult to fathom that it was conducted by a man who fled Nazi persecution, as we know Mengele’s infamous experiments with twins. Three brothers with identical genes have completely different turn of events. This leads to the famous question: does nature or nurture dominate-and is it even worth looking into?

In this week’s parasha, we have the birth of two siblings who cannot be more different. We have the ruddy haired hunter Esau and the quiet Jacob. Isaac favors Esau for his hunting, whereas Rebecca favors Jacob. As twins both brothers grew up in the exact same home at the exact same time, so why are they so different? Even if Jacob and Esau are fraternal, I would not imagine them to be polar opposite in personality and temperament.

Three Identical Strangers gives us insight into this. The age-old question of nature versus nurture is not what we should be asking. Rather, our focus must be on what makes each person unique from his/her peer and how we can find a place for both of them. It is not supporting Jacob while castigating Esau but rather finding things to love about both personalities. Even three siblings with identical genes have completely different fates. The one with the hardest economic background, David Kellman, the son of a grocery store owner, appears to fare the best of the three. Is that because his parents were around more, or perhaps because he had to struggle more with adversity? Should we even be asking this question-after all it seems hutzpadik.

We are so quick to make comparisons, so eager to view things in black-and-white rather than in shades of gray. We do that all the time with Jacob, ignoring his faults while looking to vilify Esau, the one who threw away his inheritance over a bowl of stew. Yet what if we look at these characters through the complexities that comprise each human being’s life? What if instead of jumping to conclusions in our brains, we take a step back and appreciate each person for who s/he is and what s/he can contribute? It’s far too easy to look for answers: Why did Eddie Galland kill himself, why did Bobby Shafran disassociate himself from the other brothers? The answers are far more complex than the questions. Similarly, why did Esau want to kill his brother? Was he just talking, as many of us do when we are angry? Why did Jacob deceive Isaac? Did he want to do this or did his mother Rebecca manipulate him into doing it?

The goal is not to come up with “the answer” but rather to ask the questions and leave space for silence. Maybe we will get a satisfactory answer, maybe not. The bottom line, however, is we cannot wrap it in a nice, neat little bow. That’s what I found most powerful about the film Three Identical Strangers: the triplets and their parents never get a satisfactory answer as to why they were separated at birth for this eugenic, sickening psychological experiment. Anyone watching the film can come up with his or her own conclusion but the key question is left open-ended. That ambiguity has a realness to it; just like life.

May each of us, when we have uncertainty, whether about a major event in our lives, the Torah portion we are reading, the film we have just watched, the book we have just read, find comfort in knowing that life is about the uncertain. We can look for an answer but that doesn’t mean we will find one. Life is not a Hollywood film with a “happy ending” where everything makes sense. It is, rather, complicated. So too is Torah. There are 70 faces to the Torah, meaning one can continuously turn it over and arrive at an answer only to see something else and jump to a completely different conclusion. If our understanding of God or of characters such as Jacob and Esau remains where it was in 4th or 5th grade, then we have a stunted Judaism. My hope and prayer instead is that we continue to ask the questions with open eyes and an open mind, not knowing the answer our outcome we will reach. Ken Yhi Ratzon, may it be our choice to do so.

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