August 25, 2014 § 1 Comment
In one of his closing speeches toward the end of Deuteronomy, Moses presents us with a choice: “See, this day I set before you blessing and curse…” Set before us, of course, is a choice between doing good and doing evil, between doing the right thing and doing the wrong thing.
When it is put that way, it seems so easy, really: do the right thing or the wrong thing. It is a choice that you make. And it appears to be really quite clear which way is the right way.
Some things are in fact that clear: when you are standing in line at the cash register, it is indeed wrong to take one of the items on the counter and put it in your pocket without paying for it.
You may have had the sudden awareness when standing there – at a moment when the cashier’s back is turned – that you could do something like that. Maybe it startled you, or frightened you: why am I thinking of such things?
But you should know that this awareness that it is possible to do something wrong is actually your moral insight at work. It means, in fact, that you are making an active moral choice.
In the course of your moral development, you will encounter these decision-points and have to choose. And eventually, through the force of repetition, these decision-points become second nature.
The shoplifting scenario I just mentioned – the awareness that you could take something without paying for it – is one that adults don’t usually have much trouble resisting.
It’s primarily a teenage dilemma, at an age when impulses are strong and the control of those impulses is still quite weak. As a teenager, your brain chemistry is primed to take risks but your thinking skills are not fully developed. You are not fully able to understand the implications of those risks. That’s when the candy at the cash register is a temptation.
That fact is precisely why we have juvenile courts, and that fact is precisely why it’s possible to have your record wiped clean once you’re an adult.
For adults, moral dilemmas regarding stealing are more likely to appear when other pressures are involved– such as when one is experiencing a serious shortfall of cash alongside a pressing need to pay bills. As an adult, you should have the ability to resist the temptation, having learned impulse control as a teenager.
So let’s talk about Judaism for a moment.
What is Judaism’s basic understanding of human nature? Judaism teaches that we are born with competing impulses – the impulse to do wrong, called yetzer ha-ra, and the impulse to do good, called yetzer ha-tov. These two impulses pull us in opposite directions. The image of an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other is really a Jewish image: the idea that we have these competing views, urging us to make a choice.
Note that this is profoundly different than the Christian view, which is the dominant view in American society: Christianity argues that we all are sinful on account of the Original Sin. Because Adam and Eve ate of the fruit of the tree, they became sinful and mortal. In this view, sinfulness will always win, because that is our basic nature, which is why a savior is needed. That’s why Christians refer to their testament – their gospel – as the ‘good news.’ For them, Jesus’ sacrifice offers the good news that sin can ultimately be overcome.
So, to get back to Judaism: Our view is that we have a dual nature. Sin does not always win. In fact, it shouldn’t always win. You are presented with a choice between doing good and doing wrong. And you are expected to choose to do good.
In some areas of your life, that choice is easy. Once you’ve mastered your impulses and grown into adulthood, you don’t need to be congratulated for ignoring the temptations of the candy on the gas station cashier’s countertop: of course you pay for what you take.
But there are other places, other points in your life, where that choice is much harder.
Every one of us has a decision-point where it is necessary to make an active choice: to lie or tell the truth. To gossip or to refrain from gossiping. To fudge the numbers or to give full disclosure. To give in to temptation or to remain chaste. All of these things have the potential to be a decision-point.
One of those decision-points, for example, might relate to issues of race and class: how do you approach someone who is different than you – someone who comes from a different background? Do you choose to learn about the other, to find out what makes that person tick, so that you might find common ground? Or do you retreat into stereotypes?
Do you assume you know a person’s motivations? Or do you ask to hear a person’s story?
I will give you a hint: if you ever find yourself saying ‘but they’re just like that’ you are engaging in a generalization – a stereotype – and haven’t yet done the work of finding out what really is motivating this group’s behavior.
Ask yourself: how do I know that’s true? Have I actually ever met someone who’s like that? And did we ever have an extended conversation to learn why that might be true?
We are fed a steady diet of stereotypes in our movies and television shows. If you don’t actually know a black man personally, for example, it’s easy to start believing the stereotypes, whether you intend to or not, whether you think of yourself as racist or not.
And if you were to rely on those stereotypes, you might decide that an unarmed teenager is a dangerous black man who needs to be subdued. Yet you would be wrong, very wrong, for shooting to kill a child. A man-sized child is still a child. It is your fear that makes him into something larger than he is.
So what is Judaism’s solution to this ongoing dilemma? What does Judaism have to offer us?
As I mentioned earlier, Judaism’s position on human nature is that we are torn between conflicting impulses. We are easily misled by these impulses, so that it is entirely possible to do wrong while convinced of the rightness of our behavior.
Not convinced? Try this little thought-experiment for a moment: think of something you did in the past that brings you a sense of shame.
At the time that you did it, were you convinced that it was the right thing to do? Did you have all kinds of reasons why you ‘had to’ do it or ‘were forced’ to take that action?
Judaism’s answer to this difficulty is found in the edifice of the commandments. We have this elaborate list of do’s and don’ts as a way to give us a way to structure our lives. In the midst of the chaos of competing impulses, the commandments provide an external grid by which we might measure our response.
But there’s a catch: it is entirely possible (in the words of the ancient rabbis) to be ‘a scoundrel within the bounds of the law.’
You can’t just give over all of your moral authority to the law and assume that its literal fulfillment will save you from any wrongdoing. That’s really a variation on the traditional Christian viewpoint: something wholly good that is external to you will save you from your own evil desires. We don’t believe that.
The Jewish view is that you must save yourself. And, in fact, only you can save yourself. And furthermore, you have to do so by working painstakingly through the moral code that you have inherited, deciding point-by-point how to act. It can be excruciatingly difficult.
But that’s the whole of Judaism, as encapsulated in Hillel’s dictum: ‘what is hateful to you do not do to another. That is all of Judaism. Now go and study.’