Honor

January 12, 2015 § 2 Comments

What does it mean to honor someone?

In our adult education course this year, we have been studying Mussar, which is a school of applied Jewish ethics. That is to say, it’s a program of study for personal improvement from a Jewish point of view, through the Mussar Institute, using Everyday Holiness by Alan Morinis. This week, we have been studying the soul-trait of honor, known as kavod in Hebrew.

The idea, expressed in the lesson itself, is that every human being, by virtue of being created in God’s image, is worthy of honor.

As we discovered in our discussion, that concept causes difficulties for a lot of folks – and it does so for two reasons.

The first reason has to do with God.

How is it that we derive our value from being created in the image of God?

For me, when I interact with people, what motivates my behavior, is a deep faith. The value that each person has as a human being is directly tied to this sense that we are all creatures of God. I try to keep in the forefront of my consciousness the sense that each of us is a reflection of what is right and good in the world.

I sense it when I am holding a baby, or when I am sitting with the dying. I sense it in my day-to-day interactions with others, with my family, and in this congregation.

Yet the objection may be raised, and rightly so, that you don’t have to believe in God to honor the humanity of others. Secular humanists, in fact, do precisely that. It would be false to claim that they could not possibly be doing the same kind of thing as I am trying to do in the context of my faith.

In other words, you can honor others and see their intrinsic value without dragging God into it. And, more to the point: if you can honor others without invoking God, then why invoke God? God, it would seem, is superfluous to this conversation.

Part of the issue here, however, is a matter of words. I suspect that they key difference that separates our positions is not a fundamental difference in the way that we see the world – though there certainly are differences here – but rather, a difference in what we name ‘God.’

If you are thinking that God is wholly and exclusively synonymous with the character in the Bible with that same name, then no, it’s not necessary to drag that guy into it. You can be a moral, upstanding person without having a literal faith in God.

I have a much more abstract way of thinking about God, one that is likely to be a lot more intelligible to those who agree with the positions of secular humanism.

There is a creative force in this world, a sense of order and joyousness that pervades all reality. It’s not blind chance. But it certainly allows for variation and chance. It seems to love us, though not in the sense we would usually use that word. But there is so much more to our lives than suffering. There is a dimension to our lives that seems, in my sense of it, to transcend matter. Perhaps it is an energy, or something else entirely. But there are times when it is as close as breathing.

Every human being, by virtue of being created in God’s image, is worthy of honor.

The second difficulty raised by this idea has to do with the question of honor itself: is every human being really worthy of honor?

What of the abusers, the sociopaths, the murderers, the hostage-takers? How can we find it within ourselves to honor these individuals? And is it not an outrage to even suggest that we ought to honor them?

It is, of course, one thing to suggest that we should give people the benefit of the doubt, or to adopt a non-judgmental attitude regarding the people we meet. But it is another thing entirely to use this approach to excuse the behavior of known killers.

This particular problem was thrown into high relief by the events in Paris. We are appropriately horrified by the murder of innocents.

But to return to the question at hand: is every human being really worthy of honor?

There were those in the class groups who argued that it is possible for a person to extinguish that holy light within, so that he or she is no longer a reflection of the divine.

Others argued that there’s always a hope for redemption, a possibility for repentance. That latter position, by the way, is very well represented in our High Holiday liturgy.

And still others argued for a distinction: there’s honor, and there is respect. It is possible to honor the humanity of a person but not respect their deeds.

Many of us, it turns out, have family members who might fall into this category: people who have treated us or others badly, who have abused their power and position to dominate others, or who have created endless drama in their lives and the lives of the ones who try to love them.

And this discussion led to a new place: the realization that honor is not the same thing as cooperation.

Sometimes the best way to honor someone is to refuse to be a codependent in the bad behavior. Sometimes the best way to honor someone is to say no: you and I both deserve better than that.

It doesn’t start out like that, however. And that’s what’s so painful when things devolve: this awareness that it could have been so much more.

What makes us so filled with awe when we hold a baby is that sense of potential, that awareness that there is something here which is worthy of honor.

That we can love others, and do so selflessly, is perhaps the best argument that I have for the existence of God.

§ 2 Responses to Honor

  • Stephen Cahill says:

    In the Mussar course a mediation phrase for honor is “each and every one, holy soul”. A faculty of soul is called neshama. This is a soul’s seat of the “image and likeness” in which we are created. This is why every human is inherently holy and always worthy of honor. But I have seen, In Brooklyn on Flatbush Ave and east 36th street, a man shoot another man in the head. From under a car I saw him dance around and his comrades cheer. I have seen a street brawler hit with his fists, and kick bloody another human. I have seen the brawler’s face of gladness, joyousness and triumph. I have seen a gardener’s happiness at a bite of tomato. I have seen enjoyment in a father’s face watching his children at play. Can the neshama abide equally in these humans? Does the neshama remain the intersection of all sets of human acts? I reason that neshama, the Devine Light, withdraws or is immovable and participates in doing harm.

  • Stephen Cahill says:

    I made a typo. The Neshama, Holy Light within, does not participate in doing harm and withdraws or is extinguished.

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