A few days ago, David Brooks wrote an article entitled “The Problem of Meaning.” In our society today, and especially in more liberal Jewish circles, “meaning” has become a high value. We want our prayer services to be “meaningful,” we want our social justice activities to be “meaningful,” we want our text study to be “meaningful.”
But, as Brooks notes, meaning can potentially be very self-centered. It is often less about making our world better and more about making ourselves feel better. As he says,
If we look at the people in history who achieved great things — like Nelson Mandela or Albert Schweitzer or Abraham Lincoln — it wasn’t because they wanted to bathe luxuriously in their own sense of meaningfulness. They had objective and eternally true standards of justice and injustice. They were indignant when those eternal standards were violated. They subscribed to moral systems — whether secular or religious — that recommended specific ways of being, and had specific structures of what is right and wrong, and had specific disciplines about how you might get better over time.
In other words, “feeling good” is not enough to drive our lives — and Judaism would agree. Our goal in life is not simply to feel warm and fuzzy inside, it’s to repair our world. If that’s the case, morality, not meaning, should guide us.
The challenge is that while meaning is certainly subjective, morality is also not completely objective, either. Different people place different priorities on different values. So what are we to do?
Rabbi Ralph Mecklenburger, in his book Our Religious Brains: What Cognitive Science Reveals about Belief, Morality, Community and Our Relationship with God, suggests the following:
There must be a best way to construct human morality, though people may never fully agree what that way is…To guide our lives we must rely on some specific cultural synthesis. We “hop” to Judaism or Christianity…believing that in the process we can live largely moral lives. Lest we be paralyzed by uncertainty and indecision, we live as if our set of moral values captures absolute right and wrong, knowing, though, that as a human system, a cultural expression, it may at best come close to that ideal.
So even if we don’t know with certainty what “the right thing to do” would be, we still have to live by principles. And if that’s how we look at morality, that’s where meaning can come back into the equation.
Meaning, at its core, is how we make sense of the world. It allows us to figure out what our lives and our world “mean.” If we view meaning in this way, then our morality, even if it is imperfect, truly is a form of “meaningfulness.”
Yes, meaning can be fluff — or, as Brooks phrased it, “the NutraSweet of the inner life.” But it can also be the driver to a more just and more peaceful society, because it is what allows us to discover how we can best bring our gifts and talents in the service of our world.
If we are looking to better ourselves and our world, morality might be more important. But meaning might be more effective.
I am sad. I am scared. I am angry.
Like many of you, over the last few weeks, I’ve been following the news about the kidnapping and murder of Naftali, Gilad and Eyal, followed by the revenge killing of Muhammed, followed by increased rocket attacks by Hamas towards Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, followed by military response from Israel into Gaza. And I am particularly sad, scared and angry about what might follow next.
But what has been most challenging for me personally has been the internal tension between my liberal values and my loyalty to Israel—and I don’t think I’m alone in feeling this way.
Last month, I mentioned how much I value Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind: How Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. He uses a framework that has helped me understand why I have felt so torn these last few days.
Morality, Haidt argues, isn’t just one thing. It has five main different facets to it—care for others, justice and fairness, loyalty, respect for authority, and a sense of sanctity. Liberals, he notes, tend to focus mainly on the first two (care and justice), and feel much less strongly about the other three (loyalty, authority and sanctity).
Most of the time, liberals are deeply focused on caring for others, so when people are in harm’s way, we simply see that they need our support. When we see Boko Haram kidnap girls in Nigeria, or genocide in Darfur, or millions of immigrants unable to enter the United States, we feel motivated to act.
But when it comes to Israel—especially when it is under attack—many liberal Jews also embrace a sense of loyalty, as well. And the result is that our “care” foundation comes into direct conflict with “loyalty” foundation.
On the one hand, our sense of care is aroused when we see the citizens of southern Israel under constant rocket attacks from Hamas, as well as innocent Palestinians who are caught in the crossfire. On the other hand, when we see how poorly the media portrays Israel, or when we feel like other Jews are not rallying to defend Israel, our sense of loyalty rises to the forefront.
And that’s the reason why so many liberal Jews are feeling so torn about what is happening in Israel right now—two of our foundational beliefs are in conflict.
Now, we may never resolve this conflict within ourselves, let alone the conflict in the Middle East. But when we do feel this tension, we need to remember two things.
First, both care and loyalty are strong foundations for our sense of morality. Indeed, if you are feeling torn right now, that’s a good thing, because it means that you have a broad and deep sense of what right and wrong might entail.
Second, care and loyalty are not the same thing. They motivate different types of actions, and different people may prize one over the other. So when we get angry at people because we think they are being either disloyal or uncaring, we need to recognize that they may be valuing a different element of their morality than we are.
Ultimately, when we are feeling torn between our loyalty to Israel and our care for others, we should remember the words of Walt Whitman, ““Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”
May we be large enough to embrace both our sense of loyalty and our sense of care, and finally create the peace that we all so desperately want.
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I am on Kibbutz Ein Dor, near the city of Afula in Northern Israel, visiting my 18-year-old son, a participant in the HabonimDror Workshop program. A road lined with trees circles the kibbutz. My late cat Yogi – my dreamtime wisdom guide — and I sit on a bench by the road, quietly contemplating. The air is still; the sky glows with twilight; the temperature is neither too hot nor too cold; the world is absolutely perfect for a human being.
Cosmic, messianic; a perfected world of beauty and peace; good for the human body, heart, and soul; the kind of dream I want to dwell in forever.
Until my alarm clock – an iPhone app — rings.
As I reach to turn it off, I see the notification: an unusual early morning email from the HabonimDror office. What parent would not be concerned?
I just wanted to inform everyone who may have heard about the suspected terrorist incident in Afula today that all of the Workshoppers are safe and on kibbutz. Nothing to worry about.
In an instant, my cosmic dream turns practical. My parent radar had received J’s reassurance. Relief at my son’s safety and trust in my parental connection fill me. Who needs email when your dream guide takes you astral traveling?
When I enter the kitchen, my husband says, “A stabbing on a bus. I noticed it in The New York Times. You might get more info from Haaretz.”
Sure enough, Haaretz, a liberal Israeli newspaper, already has a full article posted. There I read that a Palestinian who entered Israel illegally has stabbed an Israeli soldier, claiming revenge for his jailed relatives. A 16-year-old Palestinian and a 19-year-old Israeli. The 16-year-old is in custody and the 19-year-old is dead.
What parent would not be concerned?
Strip away all the politics and that’s what you have here: children. Motivated by terrible beliefs, traumatic experiences, a sense of responsibility, a desire for meaning, or a social current beyond their control, children take on what they imagine to be adult decisions.
At least, that’s how I see it through my parental eyes. Through my eyes still heavy with the dream of a world perfect for all human beings. I see two boys, not two representatives of countries or social movements, caught in tragedy. A universalist perspective, to be sure.
Just one year ago, the blogosphere buzzed with commentary on an exchange between Rabbis Sharon Brous and Daniel Gordis. Rabbi Brous suggested we try empathizing with our enemies as fellow human beings. Rabbi Gordis wrote that if we do so, we betray our own people.
Their exchange raised a familiar philosophical problem: moral vs. ethical commitments. And the double demand they place on us.
Israeli philosopher Avishai Margalit defines morals as imperatives based on our connection with a group. A moral mode disposes us to favor those closest and most like us. Ethics, Margalit says, are formulated when we step outside the group’s perspective. Ethics express a reasoned view about what is best overall.
Margalit does not favor one approach over the other, but notes that both have a role to play in healing trauma. Group solidarity gives meaning to loss and turmoil; universal awareness makes clear that evil anywhere affects all human life.
On Wednesday morning, I felt a double demand. My first concern was for my own son. When that was satisfied, I stepped into a larger view. The relationship that connects me so deeply with my son became a basis for empathy towards the sons of others.
Of course, I am not in Israel or Palestine. My personal traumas come from non-ideologically motivated injuries. Though I try to understand others, I do not stand in their shoes. It might well be harmful to preach empathy when self-protection is needed. Or to preach self-protection when empathy is needed.
Small-group solidarity is only one part of the fullness of human experience.
The symbolism of my dream seems so much deeper now.
I sit at the edge of a circular road. Inside the road sits the kibbutz, home of a tightly knit group. As I look outwards, I see a world perfect for all human beings. I sit with Yogi the cat, who embodies the full experience. She is both inside my family and outside my species. In her calm cat pose, she watches as I shift between seeing her in these two ways. She does not judge either one as better or worse, but understands that both are living parts of our relationship.
She brought me all the way to Afula so that I could see what she sees.
Image: Kibbutz Ein Dor, kibbutzimofisrael.netzah.org. Cross-posted at OnSophiaStreet.
You may have caught a couple of stories that have been spreading virally over blogs and Face book the last couple of weeks. Both share one theme in common – in simple and unassuming ways, ordinary people acting morally or compassionately. In the first story, a fellow traveler on a subway line caught a picture of an African-American man taking a nap on the shoulder of a white man wearing a kippah. I mention the specifics of ethnicity and religious identity here because I believe they are relevant to the impact of the story and the way it went viral. More on that in a moment. In the second story, a rabbi in New Haven bought a second hand desk and, upon taking it apart to fit it through a door at home, discovered $98,000 hidden inside it. He called the previous owner and returned to her what happened to be an inheritance that she had hidden there years ago.
Why have these two stories caught the imagination of so many? They may have particularly moved Jewish readers, pleased (or perhaps even relieved) to see a story featuring a fellow tribe member in such a positive light, but clearly these stories have spread far beyond our own community. Are we surprised to see such acts of kindness, compassion and honesty in a world where we have come to expect only self-interest and getting ahead? That might be the cynic’s response, but I think there’s more to it than that.
First, let me back to the detail of ethnic and religious identity in the first picture. While I don’t believe for a moment that this had anything to do with the motivations of the individuals themselves, from a purely pragmatic perspective, I do think it had something to do with why the picture went viral. Think for a moment; if it had been two white or two black people side by side, with no distinguishing garb to demonstrate the difference in some aspect of their identity, would this have caught the photographer’s eye? There might have been an assumption that these were two friends, boyfriends or girlfriends. So, while it might detract a little from the overall ‘feel good’ of this story, I think it is hard to deny that part of the impact of the image is the underlying assumption that these two individuals were not previously connected in any way. There’s a whole other narrative we could write about that but, for now, let’s stay with the positive. What I see here is a visual cue that is largely interpreted as ‘the kindness of strangers’.
Likewise, the Rabbi who returned $98,000 had made a transaction for a second-hand desk with someone with whom he previously had no connection. So we see two examples of people acting kindly and morally toward others because of some inner calling that directs them to interact with others in these ways in these particular moments. And, in both cases, what drives that decision is consideration of the ‘other’. As Isaac Theil was reported to have said to the traveler who took the photo, “He must have had a long day, let him sleep. We’ve all been there, right?”
I’d like to suggest one other frame for both of these stories. We are presented with individuals who, by appearance or title, are assumed to be observant Jews. While I know that many others without such an identity may have acted in exactly the same way in these circumstances and, in fact, people are demonstrating these acts of kindness every day (but rarely to this attention because there is nothing remarkable about their identity to make them stand out from the crowd), I think that many may be assuming that an underlying spiritual ethic is at least a part of the story here.
And certainly, Jewish ethics are in alignment with the choices that were made in these stories. So often, when I talk about Jewish ethics as abstract theory, I will find my students (teenagers or adults) reflecting on what feels like lofty ideals to aim toward but that are hard to truly live up to in practice. Many of the stories we have to illustrate these values are drawn from times and places that seem so distant from our own, featuring exemplary figures who are hard to emulate. Take, for example the following ethical statement that can be found in our morning liturgy:
“May one always revere God in private as in public.” [L’olam yehay adam y’ray Shamayim ba-seter u’va-galui]. It’s a bit like the question, “Does the tree make a sound when it falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it?” (cited from The Wisdom of Judaism: An Introduction to the Values of the Talmud, By Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins, Jewish Lights Publishing).
And here is a story that illustrates this principle:
The Chaffetz Chayyim was once given a ride in a horse-drawn carriage. The driver, unaware of the identity of his passenger, stopped the carriage near a grove, and stepped down. After instructing the Chaffetz Chayyim to ‘call out if anybody sees me,’ he started to gather fruit from the trees in the field. Within a matter of seconds, the Chaffetz Chayyim called out in an agitated voice, ‘We are seen, we are seen.’ The frightened driver dropped the fruit, rushed back to the wagon, and drove off in great haste. After he had driven for a minute or two he turned around and saw that the road behind them was empty. He turned to the Chaffetz Chayyim in anger, saying, ‘Why did you yell out like that? There was no one watching me.’ The Chaffetz Chayyim pointed skyward: ‘God saw what you were doing. God is always watching.’ (as told by Joseph Telushkin in A Code of Jewish Ethics Vol 1: You Shall be Holy, p. 489).
Perhaps what we have in these two recent stories are simply contemporary examples of a spiritual ethics story; ones that we can relate to, that we can discuss and debate, find ourselves in more easily and, ultimately, be inspired by.
Two days ago my colleague, Amy Small, wrote a powerful piece putting the news glut on the Petraeus scandal into perspective as neighborhoods continue to reel after Hurricane Sandy and many are still without light or heat in their homes. While I wholeheartedly agree with her call for priorities, particularly when it comes to what gets the media’s attention and our own, I find myself reflecting on the Petraeus case this week, and looking at another aspect of the story. I think it is because I can empathize with many who feel such disappointment in a man who was held in such high esteem.
And what I notice is that it is not unusual in these situations, when the esteemed fall off the pedestal that we have put them on, for our society to take things to the other extreme. Disgust is expressed; more than disappointment, so often the whole being and legacy of an individual is put down and not just the specific behavior that is the focus of attention. I’ve noticed many commentators on the radio and TV in recent days questioning Petraeus’ judgment on all matters, given his clear poor judgment on the matter of an illicit relationship.
My reflections and empathy stem, I think, from my own experience of watching an admired teacher fall from grace. When it happened, it also involved inappropriate relations that, as is so often the situation with men in positions of power and influence, were largely inappropriate because of the unequal power relations involved. While it was questionable whether the behaviors were illegal, there was no question that they were morally and spiritually deeply flawed.
How do we react when someone we have learned from and admire acts in a way that deeply disappoints or, more, causes hurt and harm to others? Is it possible to maintain a connection or a friendship? As a rabbi, should I continue to share wisdom in the name of the teacher I learned from? Should one simply stop speaking of the person, or do we have an obligation to speak out and loudly about their deficiencies so that they become known to all?
Clearly the answers to these questions will depend on the nature of the behavior. Sometimes we must speak out. Sometimes we simply walk away in disappointment.
In my own life I have tried to walk the line, distinguishing between the behavior and the broader legacy, teaching or guidance received. I continue to share the wisdom of my teacher and recognize its value. I do not speak of him, knowing that we live in a society that so often conflates words with personality, and I do not wish to lead others to flock around him. But the line that I try to walk is one where I recognize, with humility, that our leaders who disappoint are often holding up a mirror to our own souls. We may be repulsed, but is it solely because of our leaders’ behavior, or because we are reminded that even people who do great things are flawed human beings?
And, if those we mistakenly placed on pedestals can fall off them so easily, that must surely mean that each and every one of us, even if we think of ourselves as good people, are equally capable of revealing our flaws and weaknesses at any time. And that is a picture we don’t like to look at. So we ostracize and demonize the one, blotting out their good, so that we can more easily label them and their actions as ‘not us.’ But, in the quiet of a moment alone, if we are willing to take a good, hard look in the mirror, we find that its really not quite that simple.
For some of us in New Jersey and New York the last couple of weeks post-Sandy have been very difficult. Tensions have been high among those who have endured considerable disruption in their lives. Some people have suffered terrible losses.
Every time I heard complaining about the stresses of living without power or heat, without fuel for our cars or mass transit, I thought of the many people who were living in dark apartment buildings without elevators or heat. I thought of the poor and infirmed, and I thought of those who had no family or friends to help them.
I was reminded of the tremendous challenges of income inequality and the growing divide between the haves and the have-nots in our country. Will this storm’s aftermath teach us to create a more equitable society? Will we remember the outpouring of compassion in the days post-storm and work to help those who are struggling in the months ahead? Will the hard hearts of the self-protected be softened?
Many people in my area are talking about installing permanent generators onto their homes. The “new normal” for the middle class who can afford it will now include storm preparedness. But what about those who can’t afford it?
These thoughts consumed me as we struggled to return to normalcy in my area this week. But that is not what I heard as the lead story on the news this morning. The airwaves were filled with the scandalous story of our CIA director’s affair. With every possible angle of analysis being discussed on the radio, I became more and more agitated as I listened. The personal tragedy of the Petraeus family is sad. But it is just that – a personal tragedy.
When one commentator emphatically exclaimed that Petraeus’ indiscretion was “morally reprehensible!” I winced. It is not that the general’s extramarital affair wasn’t a sin. Of course it was immoral. But for goodness sake, if we are going to invest such intense emotional energy in decrying “morally reprehensible” behavior, why not direct it at the greed and insensitivity to human needs that is so rampant in our culture? Continue reading