Moral Imperatives: A Balancing Act

Moral Imperatives: A Balancing Act

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

Can acts based on moral imperatives lead to appalling results? Knowing that I am a rabbi, a friend troubled by the daily doses of ever more dreadful news these days — by the dilemma of what is considered ethical and what is not — has just asked me this question. Yes, I think this statement can be true. The reverse is also true: acts based on moral imperatives can also lead to wonderful results. (That’s why Kabbalistic thinking presents a life-long balancing act as the pathway to increasing moral and spiritual growth.)

So here goes:  Early societies committed acts we consider appalling now, but they didn’t then: They sacrificed designated tribe members on altars to propitiate their gods and thus protect their society.  Some societies, like the mathematically brilliant Maya, tore out their victims’ hearts before consigning them to the volcano. They believed it was the moral thing to do to protect their society. The Spartans thought it was moral to throw malformed babies and people they considered physically or mentally unfit off cliffs to their death. Thus their society would not be contaminated by misfits. Today in America, our political “rulers” aspire to eliminate the elderly by simply denying them medical care. At the age of 82, it’s nice to know I won’t be thrown off a cliff.

In my own life span, the Nazis thought ridding society of “mongrel” Jews (labelled as globalists, communists, and fascists, all at the same time) was good to maintain the purity of the German master race. Although many Nazis remained Christian at heart, the moral imperatives of the Nazi philosophy were secular. Similarly, Communist societies horribly punished those who did not conform to their (and later Chinese Maoist) ideology with prison or death. So yes, acts based on moral imperatives can lead to appalling acts. Think of 17th century Salem in the U.S. or the McCarthy period in the 1950s. Or now. Unfortunately, for our current U.S. administration, the prevailing moral imperative appears to be the push of Mammon — with its battle cry sweeping “Me Too” under the carpet in favor of “Me First”.

By contrast, think of what the Bible tells us: The purpose of the seven Noahide laws was to instill universal moral laws into a new society after the old one was destroyed by flood for disgusting moral behavior. These Noahide values were divinely enhanced on Mount Sinai with the giving of the Ten Commandments (and perhaps, as some Orthodox Jews still believe, the whole Torah as well), precepts later carried into Christianity and adopted into early Islam. Most great Eastern religions like Buddhism and Hinduism (or Confucianism, which is a philosophy rather than a religion) also try to enunciate and instill universal values, but, in practice, their followers don’t always live by them. Or subvert them for self-interest. 

Over the centuries, the Catholic Church has committed appalling acts in the name of righteousness. The Crusades — and the Inquisition — were prime examples of appalling behavior that resulted from moral imperatives, much like the violent Islamic jihads of today.

It was unsettling, to say the least, to read in an Israeli newspaper that “righteous” elements in Israel are advocating a new Nation-State law (allowing particular communities to vote to keep non-Jews out) that supposedly will keep them pure. History reminds us that the 19th century European Nation-States turned out to be venal. As for the U.S., we are supposed to be a nation “under God, indivisible.” Our still valid currency declares “In God We Trust.”

I am a rabbi. I believe in the Judaic purpose “to do” in accordance with a moral code intended to be both particular and universal. Our laws are supposed to be particular to Jews, who in turn, by their behavior will be a light unto the nations; that is, set an example of moral behavior accompanied by good actions that will encourage other nations to do the same. “Believe in God because God is good.” God is “Tov “(good). Think “tov,” do “tov” (to yourself and others). Study why we do “tov.” Study how to do more “tov.” That is our moral code. The difficulty is in interpreting what is “good,” something we have debated in our Talmud, in our houses of study, in our congregations, in our hearts and souls, for thousands of years. And now, in our open society in 2018, we are asking, “Is everything relative, a moral equivalent? What’s good?”

The Hebrew Bible sets it out plainly. “He has told you, O man, what is good, and what the Lord requires of you: Only to do justice and to love goodness, and to walk modestly with your God. Then will your name achieve wisdom.” (Micah 6: 8-9)

That’s it.

These requirements seem to me to be a worthwhile political agenda too: Do good, be just, be humble (love the widow, the orphan, and the stranger — treat others the way you would like them to treat you).

©️Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2018. All rights reserved.