Posts Tagged Morality
I can always count on my friend Daniel Jacobsen to pose simple questions with complicated answers. Whenever I see him coming at me with that look in his eye, I know my brain is in for some heavy lifting.
This time was no exception. “I’ve been wondering about the rainbow,” he began. Here we go, I thought. And I was right.
“Why did God choose something so beautiful as a symbol of destruction?”
Much has been made of the shape of the rainbow: even as the Almighty points the arrows of divine wrath away from us, it is only His promise to Noah that protects us from the natural consequences of our own moral corruption.
But what do the colors and the beauty of the rainbow signify? Here was another simple question that had never occurred to me. I told Daniel that I’d have to get back to him.
What is a rainbow but the refraction of white light into a multitude of colored bands? Like the air we breathe and the water we drink, we take white light for granted; by doing so, we fail to appreciate the very blessings that are most essential to our existence. Indeed, as Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato observes in the introduction to his ethical classic Mesillas Yesharim, those things that are most obvious to us are the things most easily forgotten.
Only when moisture in the air disperses photons into a spectrum of color do we stop and marvel at the beauty of light.
In the same way, the unity of the Almighty that we declare daily when we recite Hashem echad is far too abstract a concept to guide us as we seek to infuse Godliness into our lives. We therefore partition the Divine “white light” of the Creator through the prism of human comprehension into 13 individual descriptive qualities on which we can focus one at a time.
When we do so, the primordial beauty of God’s indivisibility manifests in a rainbow of separate middos, or characteristics. Individually, they represent our journey; collectively, they represent our goal.
Now let’s apply the same principle to the Jewish nation as a whole.
An old joke tells of the Jew who proclaims his love for the Jewish people but denounces Steinberg as a cheapskate, Lebowitz as a crook, and Schneiderman as a nogoodnick. The sad reality, however, is that too often it isn’t a joke.
What does the bar-headed goose have to teach us about striking spiritual balance in our lives? Is the separation of church and state really as fundamental to the constitution as everyone thinks it is? When is stress really a good thing?
If you’ve been following my new blog, you know the answers.
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In an old stand-up routine, comedian Steve Martin proposed his way to get out of anything with two simple words: I forgot. As in the statement, “I forgot bank robbery is a crime.” Absurdly funny, since we’ve all learned by middle school that ignorance is no excuse for breaking the law.
Even those who consider themselves religious are quite capable of rationalizing their way around almost any moral impediment. People whose aversion to murder makes them challenge the morality of capital punishment may be equally passionate in their support for euthanasia, partial-birth abortion, and the “selected non-treatment” of handicapped newborns.
Even the most righteous among us are not immune from moral indiscretion. As the sages taught: Most people are guilty of theft; a few are guilty of sexual immorality; and everyone is guilty of loshon hara (malicious gossip).
So what makes some of us more moral than others? Is moral conduct simply the absorption of cultural values or submission to some doctrinal code? Are we nothing more than products of our environment, or is there some moral imperative programmed into the human psyche that we can channel through sheer force of will? Why is the path of virtue often so hard to find and why, even in moments of moral clarity, do we experience such dissonance between our minds and our hearts?
Apparently, I’m not the only critic of Dennis Prager’s last column. In a follow-up piece, Mr. Prager presses the point that competence is a more important requirement for leadership than character.
I agree. But that is beside the point. I would much prefer a Bill Clinton in the White House than a Jimmy Carter. But far more than either I would prefer a Washington or a Lincoln, a Teddy Roosevelt or a Harry Truman.
To ask whether we are better off with an adulterous statesman or a virtuous bungler merely muddies the waters. Needless to say, we often have to choose between the lesser of two evils, but my objection to Mr. Prager is that he is rationalizing immorality into irrelevancy. We need moral leaders as desperately as we need capable governors. That we may have to make compromises when there is no Harry Truman to be found is an unpleasant fact of life, not a reason to diminish the value of virtue.
Mr. Prager goes on to prove, anecdotally, that not every case of adultery is as bad as every other. This is obviously true, just as not all acts of robbery are equal and not all acts of spilling blood are equal. But that is the point precisely. It is only when we have leaders of moral stature that we retain the ability to make meaningful value judgments and not slip into the moral anarchy that characterizes so much of our society by elevating “nonjudgmentalism” to the highest strata of virtue.
Regarding Biblical interpretation, Judaism operated for over 3000 years within a system of rabbinic authority built upon the authority handed down to Moses at Sinai. Separatist groups like the Hellenists, the Sadducees, and the Kaarites attempted to overturn those conventions with only fleeting success. They all disappeared, and authentic Torah tradition endured.
But their spiritual descendants keep coming back. The lessons of Jewish history rest upon a solid understanding of how the prophets and sages chose to transmit their teachings. We cannot reinvent them to fit the sensitivities of our times, although sometimes we have to try to find a new way of explaining them to which modern ears will be receptive.
Of those who have commented, some clearly have not read or do not care about what I wrote in the linked essay about David and Bathsheba. Others have offered explanations, even in David’s defense, that have no basis in Torah tradition that I know of. Oddly enough, the same people who would never argue against going to a doctor for medical advice, going to an accountant for tax advice, and going to a mechanic for auto advice, believe that they are fully justified in offering their own unschooled interpretations of manuscripts that have been analyzed and annotated by the most brilliant minds over the last hundred generations.
This is what we call chutzpah.
I have a lot of admiration for Dennis Prager. His ability to articulate common sense conservative values and politics without resorting to dogma or hyperbole is refreshing; his passionate defense of Israel against the groupthink of Western academics and politicians is reassuring.
However, even the best and the brightest sometimes wander off the reservation.
Read my rebuttal here. Then go to the JWR homepage to read Mr. Prager’s sincere but unconvincing response to his critics. More on that soon, I hope.
Rabbi Moshe Eisemann remarks — only slightly tongue in cheek, I believe — that the most destructive invention of modern times is the electric light bulb. Rabbi Eisemann is neither reactionary nor waxing nostalgic. He argues, with his characteristic elegance, that the blurring of the natural boundaries between day and night gave human society an indelicate shove down a slippery slope whereby all moral and cultural boundaries have become irretrievably eroded.
Historian Paul Johnson makes a similar point in the introduction of his History of Modern Times, wherein he observes that Albert Einstein unwittingly unleashed the forces of moral relativism with his theory of relativity. If the natural rules of the universe are malleable, why not the rules of right and wrong as well?
Now columnist George will reviews a book that illustrates how relatively small cultural phenomena either cause or signal a radical change in the course of human events. It’s worth a look.