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May 1, 2016 6:37 am

What Is Good?

avatar by Jeremy Rosen

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A Torah scroll. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

A Torah scroll. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

The core question of any discussion about ethics is: What is “good”? If we humans think we ought to have some standards of behavior and this behavior is “good” (whereas going against it is “bad”), how do we decide what is good and what is bad?

Is it “good” if I kill grandma to eat her brains, because my cannibal tradition tells me that this is the way I can absorb her wisdom and life experience? Is it good if I do not work on the Sabbath as defined by my tradition as being a Saturday, but is it okay to work on Sunday or Friday? Is it good if I kill in self-defense, or should I rather be a pacifist and allow whatever happens to happen?

There is no way I am going to settle a debate that has raged on throughout human cultural history. It is no nearer to being settled today than it was when Moses introduced the Ten Commandments or when Aristotle wrote his Ethics two-and-half-thousand years ago. But the fact is that we all do have ethical systems one way or another, regardless of how well thought-out or consistent they may be.

I have dabbled with most theories. I once liked the idea of utilitarianism, that we should be guided by the greatest benefit to the greatest number. But, then, who would decide what benefit is? Is it pleasure, hedonism? What if most people are sadomasochists? And why should “number” have any significance in making ethical decisions? That is the weakness of democracy, of deciding “good” by vote. Hitler was elected democratically. Did that make his “good” more valid than Stalin’s? My father often quoted the phrase, “Where the heart wants to go, the mind is sure to follow.” We humans have an infinite capacity to convince ourselves that we are right to do whatever we feel like doing. How else does one explain a major philosopher like Heidegger justifying his compliance with Nazism?

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Religion comes along and tells us that “the good” is that which has been revealed. And this revelation usually comes from some supernatural source. And each religion adamantly assets that its revelation is the only valid one. But on what basis do we decide to accept the revelation? Logic? Hardly. Accident of birth? Maybe, but look at how many people many switch in and out of different religious groups and sects and ideas. What happens when one religion insists on persecuting another one or killing its own heretics? Can that possibly be good? I know the persecutors think they are doing good and acting in the name of Allah or whoever. But do those who suffer from persecution believe it is good?

At a certain moment in my search for the meaning of life, I decided to commit myself to Torah. In principle it met my requirements for a coherent, adaptable ethical system designed to deal with every aspect of human behavior. It was like committing oneself to a marriage knowing one will have challenges and disagreements. I particularly liked the flexibility of belief, in that although there were a few very definite principles, they were not too rigidly or dogmatically defined, which gave one a degree of flexibility in deciding how to believe.

I soon realized that it was not black and white (what is?). On the one hand, the Torah instructs us to follow all the commandments, and yet also insists on a further meta-legal dimension of “doing that which is upright and good.” Not only that but there were things commanded once that now had either been abandoned or simply cancelled. Where could one, should one draw the line? But who and how decided such matters? Was it public opinion, a select group of rabbis, accident or simply necessity? So how do we decide when things in the Torah are no longer applicable while others remain in force? The Torah itself says that such matters are decided by the judges, priests, or whoever is the authority at the time. So clearly there is a human agency here. But which humans? That is the question.

But isn’t it simply a matter of following the law? Obviously not, if one can also be “an ugly person within the framework of the law.” Doesn’t even the Torah itself refer to an external standard when it insists that its laws should appear to be wise in the eyes of “the nations”?

However hard religions try to justify their own absolute truths, the reality is that to some degree or another they are all subjective and we all struggle with challenges from within and without. No man is an island. It is understandable that any specific culture, religion or ideology will try to defend itself. Agreed principles and standards of behavior are the tools of social cohesion. That is why if one keeps one’s thoughts to oneself and follows whatever the specific behavioral rules are, one can be accepted almost anywhere (except by racists of course).

Yes, it is an undeniable fact that circumstances, pressures, and influences affect and impact on the greatest of rabbis, however hard they might struggle against them. We do not believe in infallibility — at least officially, though some rabbis nowadays claim it. To give an example, the most Orthodox of religious authorities have tried hard to ban or restrict television, telephones and the Internet. But the fact is as anyone familiar with the reality on the ground will tell you that, although there is outward agreement and acceptance, the restrictions are kept in the breach and overwhelmingly ignored in private.

Attitudes toward women are an example of a dialectic between the outer world and the inner that continues to be fought in various ways, and usually the full frontal attack is the one that fails. Religions tend towards the conservative, the secular towards the radical. Religions are too slow to adapt, but the secular is too impetuous and often proven as wrong with hindsight. The mere fact that the Torah can say that new situations will arise, new challenges emerge, and they should be brought to the authority of that particular time, means that someone has to arbitrate between the old and the new, and not necessarily always in favor of one or the other. Religion has as legitimate a role in holding back as the secular has in pushing forward. But do we have the right to question authority? In all humility I believe we do and should. With respect of course.

We ought not want our religious leaders to be like Medieval monarchs surrounded by sycophants and those who want to restrict access and other points of view. But conversely it would be ridiculous to think just anyone can challenge, any more than just any citizen can sit on the Supreme Court. In the end, community trumps individuality and if one wants to belong, somewhere, anywhere, there are conventions one has to accept.

The truth is that our “good” is made of different elements, different goods, the religious and the secular, all competing with each other; sometimes we tend in one direction and sometimes in another. Someone who gives greater weight to the religious can be said to be a religious person. Those who include no religious dimension are secular.

I suggest that almost all of us are on a complex, sometimes inconsistent spectrum in between. So Torah is my predominant arbiter of “good,” but I have absorbed other values, too. Just because the Torah has not specifically forbidden torture or rendition or greenhouse gasses does not mean that I cannot have other ethical positions that supplement the Torah. In effect, I have three “goods”: the good of Torah as law, the good of Torah as ethics and the good of society in general. That is why I so distrust black or white. Life is not like that. Gloriously, humans are not like that. One may not be able to resolve all conflicts but one must seriously try. Above all, to try to be honest with oneself and others (at least in private)!

So whether you kept one day of Yom Tov or two, or indeed none at all, try to be a good person too! Just make sure you think about what that means. Which is one of the things a festival is supposed to remind you about.

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  • Jay Lavine

    In the terminology of normative ethics, Judaism is essentially deontological: we perform mitzvot whether we understand their meaning and intent or not.

    Yet, there is much more to it than that. We want to perform each mitzvah in the most beautiful way possible (hidur mitzvah), and we want to do so according to the true spirit of the law, avoiding a rote kind of performance that almost becomes a worshiping of the framework of the law as if it were an idol, as the Kotzker rebbe suggested. That is where virtue ethics helps out.

    Finally, Judaism is anything but consequentialist in its orientation: the process is important, not just the end result. But even consequentialism can, on occasion, play a role in our thinking. For example, in discussing stem cell research involving fetal cells, we may take into account the potential good that could accrue from this research in terms of improving the lot of people who are sick.

    We do, by and large, have the right to question, however, always in an educated and respectful way. Keeping our minds active in that way also has its benefits.

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