Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Problem #5: God Corrupts our Character

Once again, let me begin by arguing the opposite point - that belief in God can help improve a person's character. One who is predisposed to violence, thievery, or other behavior which is destructive to others or themselves, can utilize faith in (and fear of) God as a catalyst for self-correction, teshuvah, for "turning over a new leaf." Of course this also applies to people who are not "criminally" predisposed per se, but are simply susceptible to the many weaknesses which naturally afflict human character, such as the propensity to get angry, speak harshly, act selfishly, become jealous, adopt unhealthy behaviors, get involved in shady dealings in pursuit of honor, glory, money and power, and so forth. The belief that God detests/punishes such traits and loves/rewards higher, more noble traits, is often a motivating factor for people to "work on themselves," whether in a Mussar framework or otherwise.

However, belief in God, and particularly the God of the Torah and Orthodox tradition, comes with a flip side - it has the capacity to bring out darker character traits in people as well. These traits stem in large part from elitism. This is connected to the notion of "chosenness," the belief that God holds the Jewish people in "higher" regard than other nations, due to our accepting/keeping the Torah. It is the belief that learning Torah and doing mitzvot are the only things that truly matter, and that all other people, pursuits, things - and not merely on Earth but in fact all things in the entire universe - are simply "props" on the stage which revolve around Jews keeping and learning God's law. Yes, the Torah teaches that all human beings are created in "God's image" and therefore possess a certain sanctity, but that notion is largely placed on the back burner, and what comes to the fore in the religious mentality too often are attitudes of condescension and pity, apathy, antipathy and disgust, toward non-Jews and commonly toward non-religious Jews as well. It is a belief that religious Jews "know better" and therefore need to "fix" non-religious Jews. It is a feeling that non-Jews are "in the way," busy creating distractions, "stumbling blocks" from which Torah Jews must guard themselves. They are a "tamei" (impure) influence, tainting the holiness of Torah and Torah Jewry, an affront to God's mission, to Creation itself. These are the goyim, the shiktzes and sheigetzes of the world, who one day will find out the "real truth" and beg forgiveness from God and the Jewish people, and will fall over themselves just to be able to serve us... That is sadly the kind of thinking that persists in many religious circles.

One wonders how walking around with a sense of contempt for the non-Orthodox world, looking down one's nose and thinking, We're better than them, can possibly be indicative of a "holy" people. Without a doubt, sensitive and conscientious religious Jews would say that such an attitude comprises quite the opposite - a truly unholy and loathsome brand of character, and a corruption of true Torah. It is that last part with which I disagree. Sensitive religious Jews must come to recognize that such attitudes are unfortunately not a "corruption" of Torah - they can be learned out of the Torah itself, and are aided and abetted by standard Orthodox theology and metaphysics. For instance, if the Jewish people are the only people possessed of God's true teachings, does this not imply that everyone else is "wrong," of second-order status, or at the very least "less connected" to God? If the Jewish people are the only people possessed of neshamot/souls (or at least "higher souls"), does this not imply that everyone else is somehow "lesser," "lower"? This is where Orthodox theology and triumphalism brings us.

It pains me to have to say all this, because there are a great many religious Jews in the world who possess a wonderfully developed sensitivity toward others, highly refined character traits, and would not hurt a fly, let alone disparage or harm another human being in any way. And in fact the same people who hold these objectionable beliefs are often otherwise decent people, even sometimes extraordinary people, individuals involved in chesed (charitable work), people who are kind, gentle and giving. The Orthodox world is an odd phenomenon in this way - it places much emphasis on personal refinement and self-development, discussing certain areas of the human psyche with a great deal of sensitivity and sophistication, and at the same time it also abounds in glaring omissions, where either little or no self-development is taking place, or development of a negative or destructive type is being perpetuated based on traditions handed down.

But the time has come for all of us to own up to the traditions and attitudes in Judaism's own backyard which help to cultivate what has become a superiority complex of the most obnoxious kind, which dehumanize or otherwise breed antagonism for other peoples and cultures, or for Jews who do not "conform to God's will." The time has come to strongly, loudly and unequivocally repudiate these attitudes, expunge them once and for all from our hearts and minds. It is time for Orthodox Judaism to "clean house." And a critical step in doing this is to remove the transcendental/theological justifications which underlie these pernicious attitudes. Once we renounce the belief that we have been chosen by God as the very pinnacle and purpose of His creation, that we are inherently "higher," "better" or "more important" than others, then the sense of arrogance and superiority will dissolve away. If we purge ourselves of metaphysical beliefs, we will recognize what should be patently obvious: A person is only as "good" as their character and their treatment of others, period.

The Orthodox belief in God leads to other "darker" character traits as well. One is selfishness - on the individual level, manifested in the constant pursuit of "my mitzvah" - worrying about me being "yotzei" (satisfying my mitzvah obligation), me davening on time, me hearing every word of the Megillah, removing every crumb of my chametz, picking out my lulav, or protecting/securing "my Olam Habah" (the reward of the "World to Come"), for instance in asking someone for forgiveness not out of genuine regret for having harmed them, but so I myself don't incur the wrath of Heaven... On the communal level, selfishness manifests as apathy about what goes on outside the four cubits of the frum community, an attitude that unless it impacts the religious world, "it's not my problem."

Another negative trait which (counterintuitively, one might say) is propagated by Orthodox theology, is the nearly relentless focus on externals. Is there another community in the Jewish world so obsessed with measuring sleeve length and skirt length, so focused on knees, elbows and collar bones, watching for closed-toed shoes vs. open-toed, sheitels vs. snoods (vs. God forbid no hair covering at all)? Is there another denomination of Judaism which so scrutinizes and prejudges people based on beard length, shirt color, jacket length and hat style, kippah color and material (or again, God forbid no kippah)? The award for religiously-based neurotic attention to externals clearly goes to Orthodoxy. Is there is a role for modesty, or a place for a culture to retain a certain style of dress as a part of self-identification? Of course there is, but again the sense of transcendent/theological importance which is attached to dress, the sense that God is watching and cares (and judges) whether a handsbreadth of a woman's hair is showing, turns it from a potentially benign cultural norm into an obsession on externals - not exactly a noble (or particularly "religious") character trait.

Without question, the non-Orthodox world is rife with its own brand of selfishness, lack of concern for others, and excessive focus on externals. And indeed, within the Torah tradition can be found countless teachings which combat such attitudes and promote higher character traits. As we discussed above, belief in God can be a motivator for people to work through such issues and develop more refined modes of thinking and conduct. The Orthodox world in fact excels in utilizing belief toward these ends. But that same belief in God can also corrupt people's character, causing them to cultivate attitudes which are truly ugly and demeaning of other human beings. The suggested remedy? Emphasize and cull from those teachings in Judaism which bring out the best in our character - but do so completely "lishma" (for its own sake), without attaching to it any metaphysical or theological justifications whatsoever, but simply because that is the kind of people we choose to be, that we seek to become.

The best way to develop a "lev tahor," to be truly pure of heart and mind, is to rid ourselves of belief systems which inevitably sully our character, and to develop and demand of ourselves no less than the best, highest and most noble of human traits. If we do, there is abundant and beautiful material within Torah to glean from and to help inspire us along the way.

27 comments:

  1. This is one of the best pieces I've ever read, given that it reflects my own feelings almost 100%.

    :)

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    1. I feel the same way

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  2. "One wonders how walking around with a sense of contempt for the non-Orthodox world, looking down one's nose and thinking, We're better than them"

    Well, first of all, I don't do that and I'm not sure most people I know do. This may say more about you than it does about Jews.

    However, besides that, isn't everyone that way basically? Take for example Americans. In America, that great land of liberty and justice for all, it's illegal for me to hire a non-American to mow my lawn. God forbid I should be employing a NON-AMERICAN! Does the Torah have laws like that about gentiles? And if terrorists would take 100 Americans hostage in Pakistan it would be a heartrending crisis for all Americans. If 100 Japanese were taken hostage in Pakistan, no big deal. Let the Japanese worry about it. A famine in America would be taken care of immediately by Americans. A famine in Nigeria, not so much.

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    1. "Well, first of all, I don't do that and I'm not sure most people I know do."

      Then I guess most people you know aren't Orthodox Jews.


      "In America, that great land of liberty and justice for all, it's illegal for me to hire a non-American to mow my lawn. God forbid I should be employing a NON-AMERICAN! Does the Torah have laws like that about gentiles?"

      That is such a lie. It's not about being non-American. It's about being illegal and that has to do with preventing harm to the country. You can't help people at the expense of others. Also, I am a Mexican Jew and didn't become an American until I was 19. I was a non-American but since I came here legally I was able to work legally. There is a reason why my family left Mexico and if we would have no laws about illegal immigration, soon my family would be right back where we started.

      "And if terrorists would take 100 Americans hostage in Pakistan it would be a heartrending crisis for all Americans. If 100 Japanese were taken hostage in Pakistan, no big deal."

      Americans were beyond concerned with the Chilean Miners and the victims of natural disasters like in Haiti, Sri Lanka, and JAPAN.

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    2. "It's about being illegal and that has to do with preventing harm to the country."

      If we love all humans equally why should care if you were born in San Diego or in Tijuana?Americans don't want to see "foreigners" "harming" them by moving in next door to them.

      "Americans were beyond concerned with the Chilean Miners"

      It's not comparable to how concerned we would be about fellow Americans.

      The US government routinely blows people up in other countries.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drone_attacks_in_Pakistan

      Would it be allowed to do so inside American borders? If not, why not? Because blowing up Pakistanis is OK, blowing up Americans not OK.

      The biggest issue is that AMERICANS are sometimes also killed

      http://www.naturalnews.com/034869_ACLU_Obama_drones.html

      however I think that the consensus is that if the guys are living in a foreign country and are Muslims, it's kosher.

      Bottom line, Americans don't want foreigners living in their neighborhood and the don't consider foreign lives to be nearly as valuable as American lives. Does any of this sound a little familiar?

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    3. Most Americans aren't claiming to be holy and aren't claiming that a particular attitude toward foreigners is mandated by God's command. See the difference?

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    4. I don't see how that makes them less corrupt. And the same is probably true of every country.

      Orthodox Jews actually are better than other people, in terms of violent crime and substance abuse. What other nationalities are so proud of beats me.

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    5. "If we love all humans equally why should care if you were born in San Diego or in Tijuana?Americans don't want to see "foreigners" "harming" them by moving in next door to them."

      We don't care where they are born; this is a country of immigrants. And it's not about love. I love my gay cousin, but that doesn't mean I think we should redefine marriage. You are confusing micro issues with macro ones. Also, no one feels harmed by foreiners who come here legally and move in next door. The harming has to do with the economy. One can say, on a micro level I feel nothing but compassion for illegals looking for a better life and at the same time say, on a macro level, it is not right to ruin the economy of those here (including legal immigrants) because of that compassion.

      You're claim that Americans devalue others like religious is false.

      "'Americans were beyond concerned with the Chilean Miners'; It's not comparable to how concerned we would be about fellow Americans."

      So what? You would also care about someone in your family more than you would a stranger. But that wouldn't mean that you think strangers are inherently less valuable from an objective perspective. Again, you are mixing feelings on a micro level with values on a macro level. Refer to what tesyaa noted above.

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    6. Ok, you got me. Americans love Pakistanis and Mexicans. Just love them.

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    7. Again with the feelings. You claimed that everyone views those outside of their "tribe" as inherently less valuable to minimize the bigotry of many O-Jews and you used America to support your claim. I don't think that your claim or your evidence is accurate. What does love have to do with it? Whatever, we will just end up going in circles the way this is going....

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    8. Are you a Tina Turner fan??

      Oh what's love got to do, got to do with it
      What's love but a second hand emotion
      What's love got to do, got to do with it
      Who needs a heart
      When a heart can be broken

      http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/tinaturner/whatslovegottodowithit.html

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  3. JP - I agree that other societies are egregiously apathetic toward the lives/suffering of others. I mentioned that in the post. What I'm saying is that if we want to be a "holy nation" we need to be better than that, demand more of ourselves.

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  4. My impression is that this would be biting off more than any human can chew. People who claim to love everyone really love no one.

    I think immediately of John Lennon. On 25 June 1967 he first publicly sang the song which he composed All You Need Is Love.

    "Love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love."

    "It's easy."

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/All_You_Need_Is_Love

    http://allspirit.co.uk/allyouneed.html

    On 22 May 1968, Lennon brutally rejected Cynthia, his faithful, loving wife of nearly six years and the mother of his five year old son.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cynthia_Lennon#Divorce

    So much for love.

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  5. Tesyaa:Most Americans aren't claiming to be holy and aren't claiming that a particular attitude toward foreigners is mandated by God's command. See the difference?

    JP:I don't see how that makes them less corrupt.

    JP,

    You really don't see the difference between people/countries who are morally flawed and calling the moral flaws virtues in the eyes of God?

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  6. You betcha. There is a huge difference between baseless predjudice and God's Holy Torah.

    Anyway, I fail to see how God is "corrupting" anyone. Jews are no more "corrupt" than anyone else.

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  7. That's a devastating critique, AJ. But I think it's an argument to keep God and get rid of religion.

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  8. JP:

    You said a lot of different things here.

    Regarding illegals – the problem is largely that they don’t pay taxes – but use our hospitals and schools.

    Secondly – they’re here illegally. We are a nation of laws – they are here illegally and this rubs us the wrong way. Also, they have not been “okayed” by customs. They could be drug dealers or worse. This is unsettling.

    Your second point:

    Nations exist. There is such a thing as national pride. Each nation also has a civic culture that all citizens are fluent in. It binds people.

    That is why Americans are somewhat more concerned about Americans.

    The flipside is America is a land of immigrants and people from all over the world and every race. And in the US, there is more mixing of people from different backgrounds than ever before. There is more acceptance of people who are the “other” than ever before.

    The reality is that Orthodox Jews – even well meaning ones – do learn that Jews are special. And not just in the sense of ethnic pride we see all around us. But that Jews have special divine qualities.

    At the very least – it’s a bit too convenient. Can’t work because of Torah study. Can’t join the IDF because the secular society is immoral and unholy – but we still expect them to empty our garbage bins and come in case of a fire. We also expect them to subsidize our Torah study.

    It is convenient and self-serving. Being self serving feels good – which is why we are all somewhat guilty of it.

    But in the ways that Orthodox Jews are self serving, almost all of us “others” consider not so great.

    Tuvia

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  9. Regarding Jews hating gentiles, I think you'll find that Judaism does not mandate this and it's a feeling which varies widely from one Jew to the next.

    Regarding Judaism legislating against gentiles, American law likewise legislates against foreigners. Probably most countries have similar laws.

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  10. I feel like I say this every time, but I trust you'll forgive my redundancy - great post, AJ!! :)

    re: Your solution: "The best way to develop a "lev tahor," to be truly pure of heart and mind, is to rid ourselves of belief systems which inevitably sully our character, and to develop and demand of ourselves no less than the best, highest and most noble of human traits. If we do, there is abundant and beautiful material within Torah to glean from and to help inspire us along the way."

    I think here is where it gets really sticky. OJ gives people LOTS of busy work - people can obsess over hair, clothes, crumbs, etc. From a sociological perspective, this can be detrimental for reasons that you listed - mainly that it shifts individual or community focus from character traits that are actually important to those that are superficial. On an individual level, however, these minutae seem to give individuals a sense of control, and a sense of active contribution to fate. (I heard a closet OTDer once complain that in response to an ailing rabbi, his wife was organizing a large group of women to bake challah. How would challah baking POSSIBLY help the ailing rabbi? I think most of us know, it won't. However, that action made the women feel that they had some sense of control, that they were doing _something_.)

    >is to rid ourselves of belief systems which inevitably sully our character and to develop and demand of ourselves no less than the best, highest and most noble of human traits.

    The solution you provide is very general. OJ gives people plenty concrete attainable actions through which they pursue their lev tahor. So it's not just ridding oneself of the belief system, since the belief system harnesses the actions which serve to give people a sense of control towards a higher goal - but refocusing the belief system in such a way that the actions adherent in that belief system serve altruistic goals. Hope that makes sense!

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    1. CL,

      Re: "busy work", are you saying it's sticky because people need stuff to do in order to feel a sense control, and that by taking away the supernatural/metaphysical element we effectively render some people more passive and helpless? That's a fascinating critique!

      I suppose I'd say: 1) Superstitious beliefs may not represent the best and brightest thinking, but they don't necessarily "sully our character" either. So if a specific superstitious belief provides comfort for people, and doesn't have harmful "side-effects", that's ok. The needs of people should always come first. Otherwise, demands of "mental purity" can easily devolve into a form of totalitarianism. 2) There's usually plenty of "busy work" that people can attend to which isn't the least bit superstitious - like organizing visits, having a class make get well cards, putting together a tribute/show of appreciation for a person at the end of their life, etc. etc. So I guess I'm not terribly concerned about there being a lack of other proactive stuff to do.

      refocusing the belief system in such a way that the actions adherent in that belief system serve altruistic goals

      Actually, I'm not sure I understand fully. Are you saying that removing God is not enough - that we also need positive action, as in promoting a belief system which supports the pursuit of higher values? Or are you saying that the belief in God itself could/should be refocused so that God represents the higher values we want to pursue? Or something else?

      I hope you'll excuse MY redundancy if I say thanks for your outstanding comments, as usual!

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    2. >Re: "busy work", are you saying . . .
      Pretty much, yes.

      >Are you saying that removing God is not enough - that we also need positive action, as in promoting a belief system which supports the pursuit of higher values?

      This one :). A combination of a belief system with higher values, and concrete actions tied directly into those values.

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  11. As a frum individual, I think this is an important post. Indeed the same theology that has all these pluses, also has all these minuses as well. I would not put it on the God's doorstep, but more on the theology that has developed over the centuries of living in the diaspora. And at the very LEAST, frum Jews need to recognize that parts of our theology do indeed bring out the bad in people.

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    1. Thanks HH. As far as putting it "on God's doorstep," I've gotten that critique from others as well. I think it has to do with the way I've packaged this blog, with post titles that I admit are a bit sensationalist. But since I'm not a God-believer, then really it's only the theology I'm criticizing, since if it were God I'd be at a loss to find the doorstep!

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    2. The rabbi's end of the year sermon was about the recent phenomena's of rabbis being arrested for fraud and other such large white collar crimes. I agreed with him that there is a lot within Judaism that is against such behavior, but at the same time (on an email) I told him that the same religion that has solution for the problem is also causing the problem. After all, why WOULDN'T you steal from a goyish nation if you think they are soulless? I'm not looking for people to scratch these theological opinions out of our historic memory, but at the very least there should be clarity as to what it can cause.

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    3. I'm not looking for people to scratch these theological opinions out of our historic memory

      That's a really good point. I was thinking about this but never really addressed it - and I should. I also don't want to erase/delete chunks of the tradition, as if they never existed. But at the same time I'd want to teach against those things which are objectionable, try not to bring them up more than necessary, mention them (for example when reading a troubling passage in the Torah) in an undertone. I'm about to get into this in my next post, but positive interpretations and apologetics aren't enough.

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  12. Nice comment.. As I am quiet new in Jewish, looking around for some Jewish information> Got something important here. Nice to get it.
    Have you seen this video goo.gl/Fvyjz ? It helped me get over my internal anger.

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