Thursday, June 19, 2008

Doing The Right Thing

What matters most to me about Judaism (and religion in general) is how -- or, regrettably, in some cases, whether -- it empowers people to "do the right thing." Making better people and making people better is more important to me than abstract philosophical inquiry and speculation. To put it another way, I am much more interested in Jewish values than Jewish metaphysics.

One way to think about how Judaism makes me, or anyone, a better person, is to describe how Jewish values and practice operate as a sort of two-step process: 1) helping people to understand what the "right thing" is, and 2) helping people to actually DO the right thing once they know what it is.

When we think about the first step -- figuring out "right and wrong" -- Jewish law and wisdom is obviously encyclopedic and, in my opinion, Jewish values are remarkably subtle and penetrating. But there is a further distinction with regard to this first step that I find useful.

On one level, Jewish values identify ethical behavior in a variety of contexts that most people (read: most people I know, or know of, including non-Jews) would immediately identify as "ethically charged." That is, in situations where wide agreement prevails that there "is" an "ought to" -- sometimes very easy to identify, sometimes not so easy, and sometimes very difficult.

But on another level, Judaism expands the universe of normative ethics into contexts that I do not believe most people would find to be obviously a matter of ethics at all. By way of example, this might include being cheerful, not smoking, or observing kashrut. (I find the line between "ritual" and "ethical" mitzvot blurry at best.) So, Jewish values not only help provide the right "choice" in moral dilemmas (or where no dilemma presents itself -- people are rarely "torn" about whether to commit wanton murder); they also define the landscape of ethical human action to include many things that might not so obviously have a moral component. Insofar as we find these Jewish values important and worthwhile, this is a very good thing. Indeed, the farther we move away from the obviously ethical -- that is, those questions of human action where there is vast agreement of a moral component and vast agreement of the "right answer" -- the more important these values become as an agent for positive change in people and in the world.

Turning to the second step, Jewish practice provides a rigorous web for reinforcing and living these values. Jewish prayer is replete with admonitions that are designed not so much to teach us what the right thing is as to help us actually do it, if by no more subtle a method than putting certain obligations in the forefront of our mind. I agree wholeheartedly with non-religionists that one does not need God or religion, neither as a conceptual nor a practical matter, to know right from wrong or to do right and not wrong. But I also point out that it helps me a lot to regularly pray, "to honor father and mother," "to visit the sick," "to make peace where there is strife," "keep my tongue from evil and my lips from lies," "let me be humble in the presence of all," and so on.

In addition, the Jewish synagogue and the Jewish community obviously provide a communal structure for living Jewish values -- of tzedakah, of tikkun olam, of acts of loving kindness. Again, while these religious institutions are by no means the unique agent of reinforcing positive values and putting them into action, they have been doing quite a good job of this for quite a long time. And because these institutions are so integrated into the daily lives of their members, as individuals and as families, they can be more effective than most other civic and charitable organizations that promote similar values. (Naturally, as has been discussed elsewhere on this blog, there are also lots of other reasons for Jews to live a Jewish life and, correspondingly, affiliate with a synagogue.)

At the intersection of these two "steps" -- which are much more intertwined than this discussion implies -- is sensitivity. Speaking very personally, I see this process of moral education and reinforcement as a process of making me more sensitive to people and to doing the right thing. I can't possibly overstate the importance of this type of sensitivity. I know too many people who spend a lot of time thinking and debating about moral philosophy and political philosophy, but are not all that kind, or loving, or generous. They sometimes appear to be more interested in ideas than anything else. Of course, far more common, are people who simply do not have these values in the forefront of their mind or their behavior. This doesn't mean they are bad or evil people; in most cases, thankfully, it is quite to the contrary. But my personal experience has taught me that I become a better person -- a better husband, a better father, a better friend, a better boss, a better teacher -- when I keep these values vitally present in my mind and in my heart.

Finally, I want to stress that my discussion here is obviously personal, and furthermore focused on personal ethics -- that is, how I conduct myself in my interpersonal relationships (not merely with friends and intimates, but with all other people). I have completely ignored a set of questions raised in other threads about how to demonstrate or "prove" that these Jewish values are good, and on what basis they might be "enforced" on others. ("How do we convince the would-be murderer that he's wrong and we're right, and on what moral authority do we restrain or punish him?") As has been debated in these other threads, I believe questions of how governments or other rule-making authorities -- who can promulgate and enforce values as laws -- function ethically or morally ("legitimately" might be more apt) is a different (albeit related) matter. Questions of how these governments relate ethically or morally to each other on the international stage is still another step removed. I plan to address these matters in a future post.

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