If You Could Only Save One Person…

“Because I am a Jew,” one person said. I had asked the participants of a class to tell me why we should care about Israel. This response in many ways summarized the sentiments of the group, who were mostly middle-aged, and highly selective. After all, they showed up in synagogue to have this conversation.

I pointed out that this response reflects an assumed value of peoplehood – that we, the Jewish people, are a mutually bound family. As a family, our identities are rooted in shared history and lineage, and we feel responsible for each other. Israel, as the nation of the Jewish people, belongs to all of us. Right?all-in-family-hp

Well, maybe. It turns out that one’s emotional, spiritual and intellectual reaction to this question depends on how we each understand our identities. Are we part of the “family” known as the Jewish people? Does being a “member of the tribe” bind us to any certain responsibilities or obligations?

There is a good bit of hand wringing in the Jewish community about the eroding sense of Jewish peoplehood.  Do Jews feel responsible for each other? Do Jews continue to prioritize charitable giving to Jewish causes as we did a generation ago? Do Jews choose to affiliate with Jewish communities to be among “family,” as my parents did 50 years ago? The entire Jewish world is being rocked by shifting views of Jewish peoplehood.

For that reason, I was particularly interested to read a fascinating column in the NY Times this weekend, “The Myth of Universal Love“, but Stephen T. Asma. Asma argues for “favoritism,” and what he calls a “small circle care” and family preference. By rebuffing the social scientists whose universalist values have deeply influenced our culture, he demonstrates that commitment to our “small circle of favorites” is actually a crucial ingredient for human happiness. “Favoritists … are very good at selflessly giving to members of their inner circle.”

Wouldn’t we all want to be the beneficiaries of selfless generosity? Doesn’t it feel good to offer kindness to those who matter most to us?

Asma builds his case by punching holes in the theories of two of the leading liberal social theorists, Jeremy Rifkin and Peter Singer, who “think we can overcome factional bias and eventually become one giant tribe.”  These universalist “utilitarian ethics” were developed by an early nineteenth century thinker, William Godwin. Check out this logic:

Godwin asked us to imagine if you could save only one person from a burning building. One of those persons is Archbishop Fénelon and the other is a common chambermaid. Furthermore, the archbishop is just about to compose his famous work “The Adventures of Telemachus” (an influential defense of human rights). Now here’s the rub. The chambermaid is your mother.

Godwin argues that the utilitarian principle (the greatest good for the greatest number) requires you to save the archbishop rather than your mother. He asks, “What magic is there in the pronoun ‘my’ that should justify us in overturning the decisions of impartial truth?”

Singer extends this to the ultimate universal idea: that “we should do everything within our power to help strangers meet their basic needs, even if it severely compromises our kin’s happiness.”

I bristled with displeasure to imagine anyone choosing to leave their mother to die or harming their own family by prioritizing strangers over them in apportioning resources. My thinking is not just a reflection of my training in Jewish texts and ideas – it is simple logic.  We are most satisfied when we sustain mutual relationships with others. As Asma points out, studies show that “the most important element in a good life is close family and friendship ties – ties that bind.”

I didn’t need studies to tell me this. Being a part of the Jewish people has taught me well. And that is worth saving.

Posted on January 7, 2013

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