Moral Coherence

September 18, 2012 § Leave a comment


There is a battle between good and evil being waged in my living room. The forces of good are represented – of all things – by small plastic pirates. Evil, on the other hand, is represented by a motley group of Vikings, barbarian hordes and a handful of knights.  How it came to pass that the pirates are the forces of good – that I do not know; perhaps it’s because they have the really cool boat.

But this battle between good and evil – it’s a battle we all fight, throughout our lives, first using toys in symbolic play and later casting the various actors in our personal dramas to fulfill their assigned roles.

When we first learn to play, we require that these roles are quite rigid. When my son was five, he would get very upset with me if I would suggest that the various figures might change places. In this miniature world, genuine repentance is not allowed; the Vikings must be the bad guys – as my son would explain to me sometimes patiently sometimes not: Mommy, can’t you see he’s wearing a helmet with horns?  That means he’s a bad guy. And if I were to suggest that we could change his hat, then he would lose all patience with me.  Mommy! Don’t you know anything? That’s not how it’s played!

That’s not how it’s played. A five-year-old needs to have the bad guy remain a bad guy so that he can always be the good guy. If these categories are allowed to be flexible, then his constructed world becomes uncertain and unpredictable. The categories must stay put: in this stage of development he is simply not able to allow for any other situation.

At the age of five, naturally, he was not able to process the subtle differences between ambiguous moral positions. It is all good or all bad, entirely right or entirely wrong.  And changing the bad guy’s hat only changes him into a bad guy wearing the wrong hat.  We do not switch sides!

But that is the problem, of course: adult living is full of ambiguity and difficult choices. The choices we truly regret are those we make when we seek to define our world in the rigidly simple terms of good guys versus bad guys.

When we are completely right, and the other one is completely wrong, we are capable of committing the worst offenses. We think that our actions are fully justified. When we create this kind of dichotomy, we lose the ability to recognize our own role in the drama.  But true atonement requires that we take responsibility for our own behavior.

In the Talmud, in Yoma 86a, it explains that there are three kinds of atonement. First, it explains, “if one transgressed a positive commandment and repented,” then that person is forgiven immediately.  What qualifies as a positive commandment?  An example would be the commandment to honor your mother and father. If you have acted in a manner that was less than honorable in your relationship with your parents, then a sincere apology is sufficient to atone for your actions.  In this case, you do not need Yom Kippur to achieve forgiveness from God. Here, acknowledging that you have a responsibility that is rooted in your relationship to them is sufficient for atonement.

The second kind of atonement is for the transgression of a negative commandment – for violating the ‘thou shalt not’ commandments, such as the prohibition against stealing. In this case, “if one transgressed a negative commandment and repented, the repentance suspends [God’s] punishment and Yom Kippur atones for the sin.”

True repentance requires that the amount stolen be repaid, that the thief ask for forgiveness, and that the thief never does it again. Then, if these requirements are met, participation in the rituals of Yom Kippur atones for the sin.  Note that the rituals of Yom Kippur are communal in nature: the thief must find a way back to the community, to participate once again in communal worship. Then atonement has been achieved.

The third kind is most serious. If a person committed sins of such gravity as to be punished by death or by removal from the community – murder, for example – then “repentance and Yom Kippur suspend” God’s punishment “and suffering purges the sin.”  Here atonement is possible – but the requirements are fairly steep, even beyond serving jail time.

In this case, true repentance requires that the perpetrator asks forgiveness from those who were harmed. Thus, repentance is much harder than it sounds, for it requires taking full responsibility for your actions. That means, in the case of the murderer, facing the victim’s family and asking for forgiveness.

But that alone is insufficient – in this case, the perpetrator must also know what it means to really suffer, to be able to understand the family’s own grief. Thus, atonement is possible only after the perpetrator has made sincere repentance, participates in the rituals of Yom Kippur, and has experienced genuine suffering.

Interestingly, after listing these three kinds of atonement, the Talmudic passage then includes a caveat: “But as for one who bears the sin of desecration of the name, repentance does not have the capacity to suspend punishment, nor Yom Kippur to atone, nor suffering to purge.”

This situation is the most extreme – it requires the most difficult kind of atonement – but what exactly is meant by the phrase ‘desecration of the name’? It is when a person of authority, someone who commands the respect of the community, acts in a way that is less than honorable. It can be something small, like neglecting to pay for services rendered. But this person’s actions set the tone for the community, and are symbolic of the community’s values. Thus, the desecration of the name of God occurs when a leader violates the trust of the community by acting in a manner contrary to its values.

In other words, this passage explains why we are so outraged when our leaders commit sins that would be tolerable in lesser people.  Leadership – whether it is political leadership, intellectual leadership, or spiritual leadership – includes the added symbolic role of representing the moral voice of the community.

To give an example, the philosopher Martin Heidegger may be held morally responsible for his membership in the Nazi party, even if it was for purely political motives, because as a leading philosopher he was a symbolic exemplar. His participation helped to give Nazism a sheen of respectability for the German populace.  To the Talmud’s way of thinking, what he did was worse than murder – because his endorsement helped to make murder seem acceptable.

In this case, when a leader has sinned, then the Talmud argues that the leader must engage in the process of repentance and atonement and do so in the context of community, including attending Yom Kippur services. But, even after doing so, this sin follows the perpetrator for the length of his or her life. As the Talmud explains, only “death purges the sin,” as it says in the Bible, “This sin will not be atoned for you until you die.” Some things follow you always.

So, for example, this special burden of leadership means that former President Clinton will always be fair game for adultery jokes on late-night TV, all the way up to the date of his death, regardless of the amount of repentance, suffering, and atonement that takes place during his life. A leader is held to a higher standard.

In the Bible, parents are singled out as recipients of honor for a very specific reason – they are the persons of the greatest symbolic importance to us. Which is why a parent who lets us down is also the hardest for us to forgive. For the child, the parent represents the forces of good, serves as the model for good behavior, and provides the guidelines for creating moral coherence. Failing to do so, or violating the trust that is inherent in the parental role, destabilizes the child’s moral foundation. That sin – the failure to properly fulfill the parental role – may be repented and atoned for but it is truly purged only at the end of the parent’s life, because it is only then that the child can fully mourn what was lost.

What is interesting here is that this higher standard of behavior for parents is needed is for the very same reason as to why my son’s toys cannot switch sides. The little plastic pirates are the symbolic exemplars of the forces of good, much in the same way a leader is symbolic of the forces of good. What my son is playacting is our need for our rulers to be honorable and morally upright. This need originates in the dynamics of our relationship with our parents, and is acted out with our toys. As our horizons broaden, it is applied to the greater world. It is only in our later years that we are able to accept that the forces of evil may repent.

In other words, we have a strong need for moral coherence. We need to know that good is good and bad is bad. We need the people around us – particularly those who have the greatest symbolic importance – to act in an honorable manner. And if they have not acted honorably, the need for atonement reaches beyond mere repentance and ritual activity; we need to have the world set right again. Rarely, of course, are people all good or all bad. But we are much better equipped to accept this spectrum of behavior in persons who are not invested with the responsibility of maintaining the moral coherence of our world.

And what if we ourselves have been less than honorable? What do we do if we are the ones who have sinned? The common theme running through the Talmudic description of various kinds of atonement is the requirement that we ask for forgiveness of those who have been harmed. And we must sincerely vow never to do it again. Then, having done this work, we may ask for forgiveness of God and experience the healing power of true atonement.

And in so doing, we discover the true function of Yom Kippur: we are here to assert  moral coherence by affirming that there is justice in this world – even when that sense of justice has been violated. We are affirming that what has been wronged can be made right again.


Copyright 2012 Kari Hofmaister Tuling

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