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Jewish Values for a Secular World

Jewish Values for a Secular World

For 3,500 years, Jews have been telling their children and the rest of the world the most revolutionary message in human history.

by

Once in the fourth grade, I got caught in a lie. It wasn't an especially egregious lie; it endangered no one's safety or property. I simply avoided a school activity by falsely claiming that I had my parents' permission not to take part. Somehow I was found out.

Here is how seriously the Hebrew Academy of Cleveland took that small lie.

The assistant principal came to my classroom, interrupting the lesson that was in progress. He wrote a quotation from Exodus on the blackboard: "Midvar sheker tirchak." He asked what the words meant, and made a point of calling on me to give the answer. "Keep away from lies," I said.

When he finished this impromptu exercise on the gravity of lying, he had me go back with him to his office. Only then did I find out that he knew about my lie. He took a book from the office safe, turned to a clean page, and wrote down the lie that I had told. I had to sign the page and date it; the book went back into the safe.

Needless to say, I was mortified. But I learned some important lessons that day. I learned that my lies could disgrace me, that words are not easily erased, and that the adults in my life noticed when I did something wrong.

WHY JEWISH VALUES MATTER

Why is a Jewish education -- a Torah education -- so important? So that our Jewish heritage will be reinforced in the present and transmitted to the future? Yes. So that the rhythms of the Jewish day and the Jewish week and the Jewish year will continue unabated in every Jewish community? Yes. So that Jewish families will be better able to observe the holidays and perform the commandments? Yes.

But those don't answer the real question: Why does Jewish tradition -- Jewish values -matter?

The timeless mission of the Jews is to make the world better by making people better.

Let me suggest at least a small part of the answer: Judaism matters to the whole world because it is a system for making human beings decent. For turning men into menschen. The timeless mission of the Jews is to make the world better by making people better. We do so by standing for the proposition that there is one God Who created and rules this world and Who cares profoundly about the way people act.

For 3,500 years, Jews have been telling themselves, their children, and the rest of the world: Be good. Be kind. Be honest. Be ethical. Be moral. It is the most revolutionary message in human history, and we are the people who were chosen to deliver it -- to be, as the prophet Isaiah said, an "or lagoyim" -- a light unto the nations.

FEEL GOOD VERSUS DO GOOD

Contemporary society says, "The important thing is to feel good about what you're doing." Judaism says, "The important thing is to do good, regardless of what you feel."

The belief that feeling good is more important than doing good is all too prevalent in the secular world around us. That is one reason many of us send our children to religious schools. We know that they are far more likely to grow into ethical young men and women than if they're encouraged to believe that how they feel about themselves matters more than how they act toward others.

Judaism would love for you to be passionate about giving charity, visiting the sick, avoiding gossip, telling the truth on your tax return. Judaism would be delighted if you performed those mitzvot from the heart. But what if your heart isn't in it? What if you don't really feel like doing one of them?

It is beautiful to feel charitable, but it is far more beautiful to actually give charity.

Judaism says: Do it anyway. It is beautiful to feel charitable, but it is far more beautiful to actually give charity. It's wonderful if you never feel the temptation to say bad things about other people, but it is considerably more wonderful to refrain from saying them even when you are tempted.

CONSISTENT ACTS OF THOUGHTFUL KINDNESS

There's a popular bumper sticker that says: "Practice random kindness and senseless acts of beauty."

At first glance, it seems a warm, uplifting sentiment. In a world filled with random cruelty, what could be more welcomed than some unexpected kindness? With all the senseless violence human beings inflict on each other, we can all use a little more beauty in our lives. Who wouldn't welcome anything that can inspire us to deeds of kindness and beauty -- even if only an expression on a bumper sticker?

Yet the more I see this expression, the more it bothers me. The words are sweet. But taken literally, they convey a troubling message.

For what our society needs more of is not random kindness, but sustained and dependable kindness; not senseless acts of beauty, but beautiful behavior that is deliberately cultivated. Of course a random kindness is better than no kindness at all. But it is the ethical equivalent of sitting down at the piano to bang out "Chopsticks": quick, easy, and not very serious.

The meaning that lurks in the interstices of "Practice random kindness" is that treating others with compassion and decency is something to be done as a lark. That is not a philosophy that promotes kindness as an essential element of good character. It is a philosophy that promotes kindness as a fun activity for a slow weekend.

This attitude suffuses the recent spate of "kindness" books. "Random Acts of Kindness," for example, suggests buying coffee for strangers in a diner or secretly washing a neighbor's car.

Something called "The Kindness Society" offers this on its web site:

"Random acts of kindness are those sweet or lovely things we do for no reason except that, momentarily, the best of our humanity has sprung into full bloom. When you spontaneously give an old woman the bouquet of red carnations you had meant to take home to your own dinner table, when you give your lunch to the guitar-playing homeless person who makes music at the corner…, when you anonymously put coins in someone else's parking meter…, you are doing not what life requires of you, but what the best of your human soul invites you to do."

I am all for spontaneously giving bouquets to old women. Any good deed is to be encouraged, even if it is only done on a whim. But if kindness is merely spur-of-the-moment gestures, if it is "not what life requires of you," why bother? Because it feels good? Then what happens when it doesn't feel good? What happens when it takes a real effort of will -- or a financial sacrifice -- or a significant commitment of time -- to treat someone with kindness and charity?

How different is the understanding of kindness conveyed by Abraham, the father of the Jewish nation. Each of the three Biblical patriarchs is regarded as the exemplar of a particular trait, and Abraham is remembered above all for his acts of loving-kindness. (Isaac's trait is self-sacrifice; Jacob is the paradigm of scholarliness.)

Jewish tradition teaches that kindness is what life requires of you.

The Bible portrays Abraham as a man intensely concerned with the comfort and well-being of others. He leaves his sickbed when he sees strangers in the distance, ignoring his pain in order to show them hospitality. He pleads with God to spare the cruel sinners of Sodom and Gomorrah. So thoroughly does he inculcate the habit of kindness in the members of his household that when his servant Eliezer journeys to find a wife for Isaac, the litmus test he applies is one of compassion: He looks for a girl who is willing not only to offer him a drink of water, but to draw water for his camels as well -- a backbreaking chore.

This is kindness of a far higher order than washing your neighbor's car or handing out carnations in the street.

"Jews are the compassionate children of compassionate parents," the Talmud teaches. "One who is merciless toward his fellow creatures is no descendant of our father Abraham." Jewish tradition teaches that kindness is what life requires of you.

The sages taught that God Himself is the original model of kindness: He clothed Adam and Eve when they were naked, visited Abraham when he was sick, comforted Isaac in his grief, buried Moses after he died. We, who are commanded to follow in God's ways (Deuteronomy 13:5), must likewise clothe the naked, visit the sick, comfort the bereaved, bury the dead. We pray on Rosh Hashana for God to treat us with charity and kindness -- asei imanu tzedaka va'chesed -- not randomly but daily, not on a whim but constantly. He wants the same from us. "For I desire kindness, not sacrifices," said the prophet Hosea 2,700 years ago.

FIGHTING EVIL

"Of course I dislike the Nazis," one student said, "but who is to say they are morally wrong?"

A few years ago, Robert Simon, a philosophy professor at Hamilton College, wrote about the inability of his students to make a definitive moral judgment -- even a judgment that the Holocaust was evil. "Of course I dislike the Nazis," one student said, "but who is to say they are morally wrong?" At Harvard, James Q. Wilson encountered a similar reluctance to condemn the Holocaust: "It all depends on your perspective," one student told him. Another commented: "I'd just have to see these events through the eyes of the people affected by them."

Something has clearly gone awry when students at prestigious institutions of higher learning cannot bring themselves to denounce Auschwitz and Treblinka. Too many Americans now shrink from appearing "judgmental" or "moralistic" -- the very words themselves are now used only as pejoratives. The prevailing attitude is: "Who's to say what's right or wrong?"

We live, these days, in a sea of nonjudgmentalism. In schools, on the campuses, in the media, there is a belief that all cultures and ways of life are equally valid, that no one is entitled to judge another person's behavior or views.

Even after September 11, there were prominent voices that refused to categorically condemn the terrorists who had slaughtered so many innocent people. Reuters, the British wire service, decided as a matter of policy not to call Al Qaeda and the hijackers "terrorists" -- on the grounds that "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter."

Worse than this caution against distinguishing between good and evil is Stephen Jay Gould's assertion in a New York Times op-ed written shortly after 9/11 that goodness is common and evil infrequent.

"In this moment of crisis," wrote Gould, the late Harvard biologist, it is important to affirm the "essential truth" that "good and kind people outnumber all others by thousands to one" -- as at Ground Zero, which has now become "a vast web of bustling goodness, channeling uncountable deeds of kindness from an entire planet." The horrors of history are caused not by a "high frequency of evil people," Gould said, but by the terrible destructiveness of "rare acts of evil."

It is true that there has been an outpouring of benevolence since Sept. 11; it is natural for members of a community to come together in a crisis. But it is not true that human nature is essentially good or that evil is rare. And it is the worst kind of wishful thinking to believe otherwise.

Decency and compassion may be conspicuous at the moment, but where were decency and compassion during the centuries of slavery, when men and women were reduced to chattel? Where were decency and compassion when the Nazis killed two-thirds of Europe's Jews with the approval of a vast legion of "willing executioners?" Where were decency and compassion when 800,000 Rwandans were butchered by their fellow citizens? When Bosnian women were herded into camps to be raped? When Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death in her middle-class New York neighborhood as dozens of neighbors ignored her cries for help?

The unwelcome truth is that most people are not innately good and kind. Our willingness to commit or acquiesce in cruelty and meanness is considerable. Gould's belief in humanity's essential goodness is an act of blind faith -- touching, in a way, but harmful. For if people are naturally decent and moral, there is no urgent need to teach decency and morality. If "good and kind people outnumber all others by thousands to one," it isn't necessary for people to hone their character, to work at virtue and ethics as diligently as they might work at pitching or piano playing.

As a secular humanist, Gould had to believe in human nature: For him there was no higher authority. But those who believe in God and a transcendent moral code do not need Gould's rose-colored glasses. We are able to acknowledge humanity's moral weakness and capacity for evil without despairing. For we understand that even though goodness and kindness don't outweigh evil by thousands to one, each of us can become -- with effort -- a better and kinder person. Only in that way can the fight against evil in the world make any real progress.

A child who grows up with a Torah education knows that there is good and evil in the world, and knows that he is expected to strengthen the good and counter the bad. Wrote King David in the 97th Psalm: "Ohavei Hashem sin'u ra" -- if you love God, hate evil! That is the moral passion that Judaism has encouraged for 3,500 years -- and that is why those who are imbued with its values understand that the evil of this world is very real indeed, and that all of us have an obligation to do our best to fight it.

 

Published: October 6, 2003


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Visitor Comments: 47

(47) George Mavros, July 17, 2012 10:29 PM

Religions & Ethics

In today's world one does not need a religion or a God to know what is ethical and what is not. All religions offer the highest standard for ethics. The sad reality is that most people today cover behind their 'religiousness' to hide their immoral & unethical life-styles. I am an atheist and yet I follow a very ethical, compassionate & Spartan life-style, re; I am repulsed to big money, power and possession of material things. I earn an honest living and keep only what I need, giving most of my money to the needy, usually to disadvantaged, disabled, poor children, and that makes me feel real good. Yet I see most of today's religious leaders hold enormous private wealth.

(46) David, October 21, 2008 4:42 AM

Us versus them mentality

I'm generally a fan of Judaism, it's intelligence, compassion, and vast contributions to human heritage. But when I read an article like this, I start to feel queasy. Judaism does not have any primacy nor monopoly on virtue. Virtue is found in many societies, and some of those societies pre-date Judaism. And the Jewish community is not free of immoral or unethical conduct: sometimes individual, but also sometimes communal. This column has an aura of presumed superiority about it, of "we are better than everyone". Is that a Jewish value, too? If so, perhaps one that needs to be reconsidered.

(45) Jessica, March 29, 2008 11:56 AM

I have hope...

I'm a teenager in the Jewish community and I would like to say I have hope. I see the mizvot of Jews my own age, of the students I teach in Sunday school, and of my peers in my secular public school. My peers fear moral deterioration in this world where morality is set aside for self-gain. I am happy to be a part of a community that provides teens with the opportunity to better themselves through camps, Jewish education, and other programs designed to develop individual views on morality. I'm not saying we're on route to immediate perfection through the progress I've seen around me but I am confident in the influence of few to affect many.

(44) Meg, February 4, 2008 8:27 PM

This is very valuable and well-said.

I am not Jewish, but am realizing that the standards, or rather lack of standards, in the world out there, are not acceptable. The mainstream disregard for childhood innocence, for adult responsibility, and for morality in general, is unacceptable. Desensitization (the loss of compassion) is nearly glorified in mainstream American culture.
I want to raise my children to be moral, compassionate, fair, honest, modest, and humble, rather than simply smart and successful. But my values are scraped together from the chaos of no particular culture growing up, and my knowledge and discipline for transmitting these values is shaky. The concept of Menschlekheit (forgive the probable misspelling)is something missing, yet desperately needed, in all society.

(43) Dan Kustudich, December 22, 2007 4:45 PM

Virtue does NOT belong to ANY ONE "religion" !

In describing how you learned that lying is not good, you concluded:
"We (The Jewish people )do so by standing for the proposition that there is one God Who created and rules this world and Who cares profoundly about the way people act."
Well, whether "God" even exist or not, the negativity of lying is known to many other groups of people, even to those for whom "gods" are a fiction of our imagination. My father ( a secular humanist ) used to say "Lies have short legs" teaching me that the consequences of lying are undesirable.
So, in my view, we need to encourage wisdom, honesty and jusice through ALL , and not only ONE "selected" ideology, especially not religious one. Dan Kustudich

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