Interfaith Insight - 2021
Permanent link for "Ancient and modern understanding of true happiness" by Doug Kindschi on October 19, 2021
“But are we happier?”
This is the question asked in one of the last chapters of the best-selling book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Author historian Yuval Noah Harari reviews, in his not so “brief history” (over 400 pages), the development of early human forms, going back over 2 million years to the first homo sapiens some 200,000 years ago and their eventual domination of the planet today. Harari, an Oxford Ph.D., describes the progress since the scientific revolution of the last 500 years as follows:
“The earth has been united into a single ecological and historical sphere. The economy has grown exponentially, and humankind today enjoys the kind of wealth that used to be the stuff of fairy tales. Science and the Industrial Revolution have given humankind super human powers and practically limitless energy. The social order has been completely transformed, as have politics, daily life and human psychology.
“But are we happier?”
There have been impressive medical gains in terms of child mortality and extension of life spans, as well as in the reduction of famines and poverty. Studies have shown, however, that “family and community have more impact on happiness than money and health.” Have our material advances combined with more mobility and individual independence been at the cost of community and family?
Recently, scientists have attempted to measure and study human happiness. Harari notes the most important finding is that “happiness does not really depend on objective conditions of either wealth, health, or even community. Rather, it depends on the correlation between objective conditions and subjective expectations.” He adds, “Prophets, poets and philosophers realized thousands of years ago that being satisfied with what you already have is far more important that getting more of what you want. Still it’s nice when modern research – bolstered by lots of numbers and charts – reaches the same conclusions the ancients did.”
Expectations are also important to our perceived happiness but thanks to the media and advertising, we are continually exposed to idealized images of what we should want and how we should look. We are even presented with both legal and illegal chemical means to improve happiness, although likely providing just temporary pleasure.
Nobel laureate in economics Daniel Kahneman points out a paradox in temporary experiences of pleasure or displeasure versus the long-term sense of happiness. For example, the day-to-day experiences of raising children provide many opportunities for drudgery or discouragement. From changing diapers and dealing with tantrums, to the many disappointments in the growing up years, these are not particularly inspiring. But most parents will reflect back and affirm that their children are their greatest source of happiness. Again, the important distinction between pleasure and happiness points to what Harari concludes, “happiness consists in seeing one’s life in its entirety as meaningful and worthwhile.”
While historian Harari takes a secular and scientific perspective on these issues, he does point to the philosophers, prophets and religious leaders who have taken a different approach to happiness. We know from other authors that happiness is a much different concept than individual pleasure.
Mahatma Gandhi taught for example, “Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.” It has more to do with one’s integrity and consistency with how one feels. There is also the issue of whether we can even seek happiness as a goal, or is it something that comes to us when we are seeking and working toward something bigger than oneself. As Eleanor Roosevelt said, “Happiness is not a goal; it is a by-product.”
In American culture happiness is often connected to individuality and autonomy. The Declaration of Independence declares “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” as a basic right. While this American tradition and law promotes individual rights and happiness, most religious expressions describe happiness in terms of duty and responsibility. It’s not so much having our desires met and being successful and prosperous that bring happiness, but being true to one’s responsibility to God and to one’s authentic self.
Buddhism teaches the liberation from suffering by rising above the craving for particular feelings. Considered one of the greatest thinkers in Islam, al-Ghazali wrote the book, The Alchemy of Happiness, in which he taught that one achieves ultimate happiness by rejecting worldliness and finding complete devotion to God.
Happiness is also a theme of one of the chapters in Rabbi Sacks’ recent book, Morality : Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times. He is very critical of our consumer society’s approach to pleasure as self-gratification. He writes, “a consumer society focusses attention on what we do not (yet) have, rather than on what we do,” and calls advertising the “organized creation of dissatisfaction.” He calls us to a deeper sense of happiness or joy that builds on gratitude, helping others, and concern for the common good.
So, does our modern society with its prosperity, freedoms, and opportunity for pleasure and entertainment provide us with more happiness? Perhaps the answer is not in our current society’s consumerist culture, but from the historians, economists, or scientists who have pointed us toward the poets, prophets, and priests from our ancient traditions.
Permanent link for "Individualism's impact on morality and the markets" by Doug Kindschi on October 12, 2021
“Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.”
This is how the book of Judges in the Bible describes the chaos and immorality that threatened the community in the early days of ancient Israel. The phrase is used by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in his chapter describing the movement from “We” to “I” in his book Morality.
[Note: We continue the Insights following the chapters in his book currently being read by the Kaufman Interfaith Institute’s book group. This week, October 14, a new Zoom discussion group will meet Thursday evenings from 7 to 8:30 pm. If you have not already signed up, you can do so by clicking here.
While humans have been inclined to selfish acts from the beginning of time, Sacks tracks the development of individualism in society, philosophy, and even religion, during the past few centuries. Autobiographies and self-portraits became common from the early 1600s. The philosopher Descartes built his system on the individual realization that his own self-consciousness cannot be doubted: “I think; therefore I am.” Earlier, the reformer Martin Luther built his religious understanding on the primacy of the “individual’s direct encounter with God, the ‘I’ of faith unmediated by the ‘We’ of the church.”
Other philosophers from Hobbes, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche continued the development of a radical individualistic approach to what was right, or even to what is truth. Sacks writes, “Morality thus ceased to be what it had usually been understood as being, a shared code by whose rules the member of a group agreed to abide … and became a mere matter of personal taste.”
Alexis de Tocqueville, the French diplomat, philosopher, and observer of the beginnings of the new nation wrote his famous book in 1830, Democracy in America. He warned of an individualism that could be, as Sacks describes, “the single greatest danger to democratic freedom in the long run. People would simply cease to interest themselves in the welfare of others, and they would leave that responsibility to the state.” Sacks continues, “The only thing that protected America from this outcome was the strength of its families, communities, churches, and charitable organizations: in other words, its moral environments where people actively cared for one another.”
Sacks’ analysis continues with his concern with how individual needs and “desires take precedence over the collective” as he examines, in the next chapter, “Market Without Morals.” With examples from both Britain and the United States, he describes companies experiencing disastrous results when they pursued short-term profit instead of the “long-term benefits to the public, shareholders, and employees alike.”
He further observes that, “If the corporation’s purpose is no more than the pursuit of profit, why should that not apply to individuals in positions of power? Why should they not translate their sense of self-worth into financial reward? When only profit counts, what, then, happens to service, loyalty, and duty to others?”
In evidence of this phenomena, Sacks cites the shift in salaries when comparing the chief executive to worker pay where the ratio went from 20 to 1 in 1965 to the ratio today of 312 to 1. This has contributed to a “profound loss of trust in business, and the capacity of the market to regulate itself in the interests of the common good.” The market economy has been enormously successful in creating wealth and moving millions of people out of general poverty. However, Sacks writes, “The market is better at creating wealth than distributing it, and equitable distribution requires something other than self-interest. It needs a sense of the common good, of the ‘We’ not just the ‘I.’ Markets need morals.”
Sacks does not despair, however, and notes that a basic sense of fairness is built into human instinct and is observed in young children who cry out “It’s not fair” as one of the “first moral propositions we articulate.” This innate sense of justice is not unique to humans but is also observed in other social animals and has been demonstrated by the primatologist Frans de Waal in a now famous TED talk. [You can view the short clip of his experiment with primates expressing their outrage when something unfair happens here. This very short video has been seen by over 17 million people, and you can also watch it by going to YouTube or Google and searching for “Monkeys paid unequally.”]
Sacks also gives credit to the market economy for providing a solution to the problem of personal and national violence. “When two nations meet … they can do one of two things: they can wage war or they can trade. If they wage war, both are likely to lose in the long run. If they trade, both will gain.”
Markets driven by greed rather than integrity and service to others lead to income disparity and damage to the common good. Sacks concludes the chapter, “Markets were made to serve us; we were not made to serve markets. Economics needs ethics. Markets do not survive by market forces alone. They depend on respect for the people affected by our decisions. Lose that and we will lose not just money and jobs but something more significant still: freedom, trust, and decency, the things that have a value, not a price.”
Permanent link for "Are we doomed to despair, or is there still hope?" by Doug Kindschi on October 5, 2021
“Morality is born when I focus on you, not me.”
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks finds reason for despair in the current trends in our society but does not give up hope. His analysis of our situation and his reasons for hope are the themes in his latest book, Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times.
[Note: We continue the Insights following the chapters in his book currently being read by the Kaufman Interfaith Institute’s book group. We hope to open a new group that will meet Thursday evenings. To sign up for this new Zoom discussion group, click here.]
In chapters three and four, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks looks at the way social media and the fragility of family structure contribute to the solitary self. The internet has been remarkable in how it has enabled communication and direct contact around the world. Since our book group was forced to go online in response to the pandemic, we now have participants from Muskegon, Kalamazoo, Ann Arbor, and Pennsylvania. Previous book discussions have included international participants as well. There has been, as well, a certain convenience in attending classes or religious services from the comfort of one’s home. For many, the ability to connect with family by internet and social media has been a great comfort as we have been separated not only by distance but also by health concerns.
Sacks, however, writing before the COVID pandemic, is concerned about the negative aspects of social media in his chapter titled “Unsocial Media.” In recent months there have also been many news stories, and even congressional committees, looking into the algorithms that push users to more and more extreme versions of what they have shown an interest in. The goal is not to present balance, but to get the user hooked. There have been studies that show the negative impact on self-image of young people, leading some to depression and in extreme cases even suicide. The platforms encourage a type of addiction to the screen usually at the expense of true interaction with real personal friends.
Sacks notes that many of the creators of this technology, like Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and Evan Spiegel, founder of Snapchat, have put very tight limits on how much screen time their own children can spend on such media. Early on these developers understood the danger presented to children. He writes, “Social media have played a significant part of the move from ‘We’ to ‘I.’ In the world they create, I am on stage, bidding for attention while others form my audience. This is not how character is made, nor is it how we develop as moral agents. Morality is born when I focus on you, not me. … I learn to be moral when I develop the capacity to put myself into your place, and that is a skill I only learn by engaging with you, face to face or side by side.”
He continues, “To be fully human, we need direct encounters with the other human beings. We have to be in their presence, open to their otherness, alert to their hopes and fears, engaged in the … delicate back-and-forth of speaking and listening. That is how relationships are made. That is how we become moral beings.”
In the next chapter Rabbi Sacks deals with the family and its changing character in the past few decades. Morality, and its basis in love, begins in the family between the parents and their sacrificial love and care for their children. He writes of the care and love he experienced from his own immigrant parents. “It was only,” he writes, “because of the effort and sacrifices of my parents that I was able to go to university at all.”
Marriage is not just a passing passion, but a moral bond. It is different from a contract which is an exchange for mutual benefit. It is a covenant where two come together, he writes, “each respecting the dignity and integrity of the other, come together in a bond of love and trust, to share their interests … (and) their lives, by pledging their faithfulness, to one another, to do together what neither can achieve alone.”
Sacks is concerned that this covenant approach is threatened by new sexual mores and selfish desires that have emerged as we moved from the “We” to the “I” society. In the profound changes that we have experienced, he writes, “Almost everything that marriage once brought together has now been split apart. Sex has been divorced from love, love from commitment, marriage from having children, and having children from responsibility for their care.”
While the analysis of our situation can be alarming, Sacks has not given up hope. Recognizing our situation is the first step in making the necessary corrections. He warns because he believes we can change. We must heed his warning and find our way back to what he calls the three great loves: love of God, love of neighbor, and love of the stranger. It is not too late.
“We’re all in this together” or “I am free to be myself”: the choice
between these two approaches to life is the central theme of the first
two chapters in Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ latest book, Morality: Restoring
the Common Good in Divided Times.
[Note: The Kaufman Interfaith Institute’s book group is discussing this book each week throughout the fall and my Insights will frequently highlight ideas from the chapters that we will be discussing. If you want to join the discussions, we have opened a new group that will meet Thursday evenings. To sign up for this new Zoom discussion group click here.
He notes that a soccer team or an orchestra will not succeed if they do not work together when each person just does his/her own thing. He makes his point with a Jewish joke about the Yeshiva University rowing team that was losing all their races. So, they sent one of their members to observe the team from Harvard University. He came back to report to the team saying, “You won’t believe it. You know what we do. They do the exact opposite. They have eight people rowing and only one person shouting instructions!”
Our society has moved further away from doing things together as the quest for individual freedom becomes more isolated and focused on “doing our own thing,” having our own “facts,” and listening to an increasing cacophony of voices in the broadcast, cable, and internet social media. Our desire for individual freedom is undermining a shared sense of a common morality.
“Morality,” Sacks writes, “at its core, is about strengthening the bonds between us, helping others, engaging in reciprocal altruism, and understanding the demands of group loyalty.”
He points to one of the important contributions of religion to the preservation of our society as a whole. We have begun to lose “that strong sense of being there for one another, of being ready to exercise mutual aid, to help people in need, to comfort the distressed and bereaved, to welcome the lonely, to share in other people’s sadness and celebrations.”
While we find comfort in the small groups of people who think as we do, we are losing the broader commitment to the common good for our larger communities, our country, and the needs of the world.
In the second chapter titled “The Limits of Self-Help,” Sacks tells the story of his honeymoon at a beach in Italy when his inability to swim and lack of knowledge of the local language, brought him to the point of panic. Watching others, he assumed that it was shallow quite a ways out, so he ventured out walking in the water. But as he began to return, he found himself in deep water and kept going under. In his words, “I was sure this was the end. As I went under for the fifth time, I remember thinking two thoughts. ‘What a way to begin a honeymoon.’ And, ‘What is the Italian word for Help?’”
He notes that he did survive, else he “wouldn’t be writing about it now.” Someone saw him “thrashing about, swam over, took hold of me, and brought me to the shore. He deposited me, almost unconscious, at the feet of my wife. I was too shocked to do or say anything. I never found out his name. Somewhere out there is a man to whom I owe my life.”
Self-help has its place -- “God helps those who help themselves” -- but we also need community and the commitment to help each other. Sacks concludes, “The pursuit of the right and the good is not about self but about the process of unselfing, of seeing the world for what it is, not for what we feel or fear it to be, and responding to it appropriately.”
Let us see the larger community as we respond to the needs of our nation and the world. It is the basis of morality, seeking the common good.
“Do not ill-treat a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers
in Egypt.” (Exodus 22:20)
In a time of increasing xenophobia and polarization, we need to be reminded of the religious call for not only love of neighbor but also love of the stranger. Refugees from Afghanistan are also presenting us with the opportunity to respond to this call expressed in our various scriptures.
We are familiar with the summary of the law given by Jesus when asked what must we do to inherit eternal life. He responded, “Love God and love your neighbor,” quoting the passage from the Hebrew Scriptures, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Leviticus 19:18). That same chapter also deals with how to treat the stranger: “When a stranger lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him. The stranger living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were strangers in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.” (Lev. 19:33-34)
The rabbis have counted over 30 references to loving the stranger in their scripture. In a column by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, he discusses two aspects of this command. “The first is the relative powerlessness of the stranger. He or she is not surrounded by family, friends, neighbors, a community of those ready to come to their defense. Therefore, the Torah warns against wronging them because God has made Himself protector of those who have no one else to protect them.”
The second aspect is what Sacks calls the “psychological vulnerability of the stranger. … The stranger is one who lives outside the normal securities of home and belonging. He or she is, or feels, alone -- and, throughout the Torah, God is especially sensitive to the sigh of the oppressed, the feelings of the rejected, the cry of the unheard. That is the emotive dimension of the command.” Care for others is an important theme in his recent book, Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times.
The dislike of those who seem different is an old phenomenon and often the source of racial and ethnic conflict. It is an increasing phenomenon in our own country as well as throughout the world. In times of uncertainty we often find comfort by affiliating with our own people, to those who look or think like we do, by returning to our separate tribes. All of our religious traditions, however, teach us to respect and provide help to the stranger.
Not only did the Torah teach that we should not ill-treat or oppress the stranger, but Jesus also tells of those who would be blessed because, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me. …Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:34-40)
The same can be found in the letter from the Apostle Paul to the Hebrews: “Let brotherly love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” (Hebrews 13:1-2) In addition, the letter from John says, “Beloved, you are acting faithfully in whatever you accomplish for the brethren, and especially when they are strangers.” (3 John 1:5)
We find similar admonishments in Islamic, Hindu and other religious texts. The Qur’an says, “Do good unto your parents, and near of kin, and unto orphans, and the needy, and the neighbor from among your own people, and the neighbor who is a stranger” (from Surah 4:36). In the Hindu tradition we read, “Let a person never turn away a stranger from his house, that is the rule. Therefore a man should, by all means, acquire much food, for good people say to the stranger: ‘There is enough food for you’” (from Taitiriya Upanishad 1.11.2).
The religious traditions promote this approach to caring for the stranger, but also studies show that diversity and inclusion lead to more vibrant communities.
The Jewish and Christian Scriptures recognize another reason to treat everyone with respect, with the concept of all persons being created in God’s image. Rabbi Sacks writes, “What is revolutionary in this declaration is not that a human being could be in the image of God. That is precisely how kings of Mesopotamian city-states and pharaohs of Egypt were regarded. They were seen as the representatives, the living images, of the gods. That is how they derived their authority. The Torah’s revolution is the statement that not some, but all, humans share this dignity. Regardless of class, color, culture, or creed, we are all in the image and likeness of God.”
It was also reflected in the acceptance speech given by Elie Wiesel when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986. He said, “When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.”
In today’s environment, will we allow fear of the stranger or the immigrant, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and other types of discrimination grow? Or, will we heed the lessons of our various faith traditions to respect all persons, love our neighbor and even the stranger? This is “that moment,” the “center of the universe,” calling for all persons of goodwill to affirm human dignity and do the right thing.
Permanent link for "Acting out of crisis, doing what is right" by Doug Kindschi on September 14, 2021
“I long for September 12.”
These words were spoken in a recent PBS News interview with Gordon Felt, whose brother Edward was on Flight 93 on September 11. That flight had been hijacked and redirected to Washington D.C. until a group of 40 passengers and crew took control and crashed the plane in Pennsylvania.
Felt reflected on the events that took place at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, as well as on Flight 93. In just 35 minutes these heroes got information from the ground learning that their flight was also an intended “missile” heading to a target, likely the U.S. Capitol building. He told how these strangers worked together to come up with a plan and then implement it. They voted, prayed together, and then acted. While their effort resulted in the crash in rural Pennsylvania, their sacrifice and courage saved many other lives and averted an even greater tragedy that fateful day.
As the interview continued, the PBS reporter and Felt talked about how the very next day America came together, even as did the passengers and crew the previous day. With sadness, they both expressed the loss of togetherness and common purpose that marked the days following 9/11. Gordon Felt acknowledged that we are much more divided today as he responded, “I long for September 12. It is possible. We have it in us. We have demonstrated that we are able to function together, respectfully, communicate, problem-solve. We have strayed a long way from where we were that day. We have to work diligently to get back on track as a nation so that we can once again be one people working to do good, working to do what’s right.”
In a similar reflection, former President George Bush spoke this past Saturday, September 11, at a special commemoration at the Flight 93 Memorial.
“In the weeks and months following the 9/11 attacks, I was proud to lead an amazing, resilient, united people,” Bush said. “When it comes to the unity of America, those days seem distant from our own. Malign force seems at work in our common life that turns every disagreement into an argument, and every argument into a clash of cultures. So much of our politics has become a naked appeal to anger, fear and resentment. That leaves us worried about our nation and our future together.”
Can we recover that spirit of 20 years ago and be united again as we face the current attacks from an invisible enemy in the form of the COVID virus?
On Wednesday evening this week, our Jewish neighbors will begin the Holy Day of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It is a time of reflection, fasting, prayer, and asking forgiveness. It is based on the unpopular idea today that people can change.
Rabbi Efrem Goldberg, the Senior Rabbi of the Boca Raton Synagogue, also looked to those days of unity and wrote, “As much as September 11, 2001 is etched into my memory, September 12, 13, 14 are equally impressed upon my mind. Who can forget the pride we felt in being Americans?” He continued, “In the days and weeks following 9/11, civility and graciousness were at an all-time high. … Neighbors went out of their way for one another; government agencies and their employees were deeply appreciated by those who needed their services; members of our military, policemen, firemen, and first responders were revered. The sense of unity among the more than 250 million Americans was extraordinary.”
Rabbi Goldberg looked for a similar response to the crisis of today, but instead it has become a “weapon to judge, criticize, condemn and even to hate. Sadly, this pandemic has driven people, even families apart. … Rather than feel a sense of unity and togetherness, there is polarization, divisiveness, and discord.”
Yes, we are divided, but it need not continue that way. Can we learn from the tragedy of 9/11 as we face today’s threat? The latest statistics on the delta variant of COVID show that in just one week over 10,000 have died in the United States. That’s more than three times the death toll of 9/11, as totals now exceed 650,000 in America and over four and a half million worldwide.
Just as those brave ordinary citizens came together to make a life sacrifice to save the lives of others, let us make the needed minor sacrifices of acting to save lives in our current attack.
Let us join our Jewish neighbors and friends during this time of repentance to seek forgiveness for the division in our land and change our ways.
It is a matter, found in all of our religious teachings, of caring for our neighbor, loving the stranger, and just doing what is right.
Permanent link for "Looking to a new year with a warning and a hope" by Doug Kindschi on September 7, 2021
The past year has been a rollercoaster for most of us. On the health scene, we have gone from fear of the pandemic to a sense of relief that it was nearly over, and then back to a new caution and fear coming from the delta mutation. The political scene is still unsettled while the hoped-for phased conclusion of the Afghan war turned into a chaotic scene as Kabul fell in days rather than months. Floods, fires, and dangerous storms intensified as a result of climate change threatening as never before. The hope for a new normal is beginning to be the fear that what still lies ahead could be anything but “normal.”
This week, our Jewish friends celebrate the new year in their religious calendar with Rosh Hashanah, followed by a time of reflection and repentance as they move into Yom Kippur. Academic calendars begin the new year of classes while churches and other groups begin the post-Labor Day restart of programming. (Check out the events for September here)
Our interfaith efforts also begin a “new year” of events and programs starting this month. We begin the month with the annual Interfaith Memorial Service, the 3rd season of our high school Kaufman Interfaith Scholars program, an interfaith ArtPrize walking tour, and our book group beginning its discussion of the new book by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times.
Sacks’ analysis begins by describing a “cultural climate change” that threatens democracy itself. Within the past half-century, we have experienced a shift from “We” to “I” with results that could destroy our society and our ability to work together. It has resulted in a loss of trust in public institutions as well as its leaders. It led to extremism in our politics, lack of shared knowledge, and an inability to address major issues like global change and income disparity. Identity politics has abandoned its focus on the nation as a whole while replacing it with what is best for my group, for those who share my identity.
Sacks describes three basic systems required for a functioning society: the economy, about the creation and distribution of wealth; the state, about the legitimization and distribution of power; and a moral understanding as “the voice of society … the common good that limits and directs our pursuits of private gain.” While the market economy and the state tend toward selfish pursuits, “Morality” he writes, “achieves something almost miraculous, and fundamental to human achievement and liberty… It creates trust. It means that to the extent that we belong to the same moral community, we can work together without constantly being on guard against violence, betrayal, exploitation, or deception. The stronger the bonds of community, the more powerful the force of trust, and the more we can achieve together.”
Morality is critical to a successful society since it broadens our perspective and helps us see that we are a part of something bigger than ourselves. Without a shared morality and with everyone in it for themselves, the rich and the strong will tend to use their power, in the market and in the political arena, to exploit the system for their own benefit.
Rabbi Sacks called for a renewal of our shared sense of morality in order to humanize the forces for wealth and power. He writes, “When we move from the politics of ‘Me’ to the politics of ‘Us,’ we rediscover those life-transforming, counterintuitive truths: that a nation is strong when it cares for the weak, that it becomes rich when it cares for the poor, that it becomes invulnerable when it cares about the vulnerable." It is a call for the future of democracy and a call to “recover that sense of shared morality that binds us to one another in a bond of mutual compassion and care.”
His analysis of our current condition may seem to be negative, but Sacks is not predicting what will happen. He is a prophet who is warning us what will happen if we don’t heed the warning. He is optimistic that we can change. He notes that predictions succeed if they are correct, but prophesy succeeds when what is warned does not happen.
It is up to us all to heed the warning and seek the greater good as we move from the “I” to the “We.”
Last Friday in the Weekly Watch, we heard Andrea Bocelli sing “Amazing Grace.” It concluded with this blind singer’s beautiful voice repeating the line, “I was blind, but now I see.” How can we see grace or even another’s face while being blind? (Watch his short video here.)
David Ford is the former Regis Professor of Divinity at Cambridge University. His book The Drama of Living provides insights into seeing life in terms of the merging of characters and plot of a drama. Through film, plays, and literature, we see that “stories are the heart of the matter, and the most important meanings are conveyed through characters and their interactions, not through general statements.” It is in the face-to-face encounters that we are presented with a basic ethical reality. “The face of the other is not just another element in my world,” Ford writes. “It interrupts my world with an appeal for justice and compassion.”
As a graduate student at Yale University, Ford was introduced to the writings of the Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. Levinas was born in Lithuania, educated and lived in France, and was eventually captured by the Germans and imprisoned during World War II. As a prisoner of war from France, he was spared being sent to the death camps but did lose many family members during the Shoah. In his philosophy it is the face of the other that “cries out to me to be responsible … in facing another we are summoned to welcome him or her and above all to welcome the stranger, the outsider, the one in most need.”
“We rely on each other interacting – speaking, gesturing, or acting. Even less does a third person have a privileged vantage point; on the contrary, what happens between you and me, as we look into each other’s eyes, is unique, a dynamic of summons and response that cannot be fitted into any system or … grasped through a third party’s gaze.”
For Levinas, ethics is the basis of all philosophy, and ethics is derived from the encounter with the other. Only then does one’s own subjectivity emerge and only then can one pursue philosophy as the pursuit of knowledge.
Reading Ford’s chapter and his introduction to the ideas of Levinas brought to mind a video segment that I still consider the most moving hour of television that I have ever seen. It was an episode in the 1973 BBC series of Jacob Bronowski’s “The Ascent of Man.” Bronowski was born in Poland and moved to Germany with his family. Later he studied mathematics at Cambridge University where he received his doctorate in that field. He was also a poet, scientist, and literary scholar, having published in all these areas.
The episode that moved me was “Knowledge or Certainty,” dealing with the limits of knowledge. The opening scene is a blind woman feeling the face of an elderly man and describing it: “I would say that he is elderly. I think, obviously, he is not English … probably Continental, if not Eastern-Continental. The lines in his face would be lines of possible agony. … It is not a happy face.”
Bronowski identifies the man as Stephan Borgrajewicz, also from Poland and a death-camp survivor. In the video he then examines the face using scientific equipment, noting that what one views is dependent on what part of the spectrum of electromagnetic wavelength is used (for example, radio, ultraviolet, x-ray). There is no absolute “scientific” view of the face, or for that matter, anything else that one studies. The point was to demonstrate that all perception, including that provided by scientific investigation, is necessarily imperfect and limited. Some aspects of our knowledge of this man cannot be conveyed by scientific instruments but might rather be seen by an artist, a poem, or by a blind woman actually touching the man’s face.
In the video Bronowski says, “There is no absolute knowledge. And those who claim it, whether they are scientists or dogmatists, open the door to tragedy. All information is imperfect. We have to treat it with humility.” He goes on to discuss how this was given scientific precision even at the atomic level by the German physicist Werner Heisenberg in his Principle of Uncertainty. Bronowski prefers to call it the Principle of Tolerance – no knowledge can be absolutely certain; there is always a range of precision that even theoretically cannot be eliminated.
He continues: “All knowledge, all information between human beings, can be exchanged only within a play of tolerance. And that is true whether the exchange is in science, or in literature, or in religion, or in politics, or even in any form of thought that aspires to dogma.”
Bronowski explains that while this scientific principle was being formulated, in the same country the Nazis were pursuing their own “absolute certainty” of who would be considered worthy of life. “It is a major tragedy that…scientists were refining to the most exquisite precision the Principle of Tolerance and turning their backs on the fact that all around them tolerance was crashing to the ground beyond repair.”
He calls it an “irony of history that at the very time when this was being worked out there should rise, under Hitler in Germany and other tyrants elsewhere, a counter conception: a principle of monstrous certainty…the despots’ belief that they had absolute certainty.”
“Consider the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz, where people were turned into numbers. Into its pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people. And that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance. … When people believe that they have absolute knowledge … this is how they behave.”
The episode concludes with Bronowski wading out into the ash pond at Auschwitz and as he scoops out the ashes with his hand he says: “I owe it as a human being to the many members of my family who died at Auschwitz, to stand by the pond as a survivor and a witness. We have to cure ourselves of the itch for absolute knowledge and power. … We have to touch people.”
As we address the “other” face-to-face, let it be with humility. Science can discover much, but so can the artist and even the blind person who discovers through touch. The desire for absolute knowledge can lead to disastrous results and ignore the basic ethics that should be fundamental in all our human endeavors.
Permanent link for "The Golden Rule: An ancient and current responsibility" by Doug Kindschi on August 24, 2021
The story is told of a man who came to the famous Jewish rabbi,
Hillel, wanting to have the entire Torah explained to him while
standing on one foot. Hillel responded: “What is hateful to you, do
not do to others. This is the whole of the Torah. The rest is the
commentary; go and study.”
This form of the Golden Rule is based on a number of passages from the Jewish Scripture and restated by Jesus a century after Hillel. In Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount he says, “Do to others what you want them to do to you. This is the meaning of the law of Moses and the teaching of the prophets.” (Matthew 7:12) The Apostle Paul reaffirmed this teaching in his letter to the Galatians: “For the whole law is fulfilled in one word, you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Galatians 5:14)
Some form of the Golden Rule is found in nearly every religious tradition and is acknowledged by secularists as well, as a basic principle to living in peace with our fellow humans. The Hindu tradition has a form similar to the Jewish version which says, "This is the sum of duty: do not do to others what would cause pain if done to you." (Mahabharata 5:1517) The Buddhist tradition has a similar version: "A state that is not pleasing or delightful to me, how could I inflict that upon another?" (Samyutta Nikaya v.353) and “Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful." (Udana-Varga 5:18)
In the Quran, we find the positive version of our responsibility: “Do good – to parents, kinsfolk, orphans, those in need, neighbors who are near, neighbors who are strangers.” (Quran 4:36) In the sayings of Muhammad, called the Hadith, the Golden Rule is repeated more than once, for example: “None of you have faith until you love for your neighbor what you love for yourself.” (Sahih Muslim)
In both Muslim and Christian Scriptures we also get the further admonition: “Return evil with kindness.” (Quran 13:22, 23:96, 28:54, 41:34, and 42:40) In a similar way Jesus said, “Love your enemies, do good to them which hate you.” (Luke 6:27)
Our responsibility also goes beyond the immediate neighbor and includes all who are in need. Jesus was asked by the lawyer what one must do to inherit eternal life. He responded, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:35-40)
When asked by the lawyer who was his neighbor, Jesus did not give a legal answer but told a story about a person who had been beaten, robbed, and left by the side of the road. Two religious leaders passed by but ignored the needy person. But a Samaritan, who was considered by the Jews of the time as from a different ethnic and religious group, stopped and cared for the stranger. Jesus then pointedly asked who was neighbor to the person in need to which the lawyer responded, “the one who showed mercy.” This parable of the Good Samaritan sets forth the standard of not only avoiding doing what is hateful, but taking a positive active step in doing good, especially in helping those in need.
In our world today we are seeing thousands, even millions, now in need, trying to escape violence and war. What is our response to these needs? Do we act out of fear or do we show mercy?
Let us not run away from what we know is the right course of action. The plight of the refugee is as much an issue for us today as it was for these early faith teachers.
“Never define yourself as a victim. You cannot change your past but you can change your future. There is always a choice, and by exercising the strength to choose, we can rise above fate.”
So wrote Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of Great Britain in one of his blogs. He told of traveling to Toronto to meet the Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson, whose podcasts have become very popular with young people. Sacks wanted to understand better what he was saying that was influencing so many people.
At one point in the conversation, Peterson told him about his daughter who at the age of 6 was suffering from a rare juvenile arthritis that affected 37 of her joints. As a child and teen, she had hip and ankle replacements and was in constant acute pain. As he described her, he was on the verge of tears but then said, “One of the things we were very careful about and talked with her a lot about, was to not allow herself to regard herself as a victim. And man, she had reason to regard herself as a victim … [but] as soon as you see yourself as a victim … that breeds thoughts of anger and revenge – and that takes you to a place that's psychologically as terrible as the physiological place.” She was finally able to emerge from her condition and is now about 90% recovered because she didn’t allow herself to become a victim even though she might have had plenty of reason to feel that way, her father says.
Sacks related to that story since he also was driven by the same search in light of the Jewish experience of the Holocaust. He writes of the survivors he knew that “were victims of one of the worst crimes against humanity in all history. Yet they did not see themselves as victims. The survivors I knew, with almost superhuman courage, looked forward, built a new life for themselves, supported one another emotionally, and then, many years later, told their story, not for the sake of revisiting the past but for the sake of educating today’s young people on the importance of taking responsibility for a more human and humane future.”
He asks, “How is this possible? How can you be a victim and yet not see yourself as a victim without being guilty of denial, or deliberate forgetfulness, or wishful thinking?” Sacks responds that humans have the ability to look back or to choose to look forward. One can ask, “Why did this happen?” and look for some cause or someone to blame. One is also free to ask instead, “What then shall I do?” This means looking forward from that point to seek a future destination, given the current situation.
The big difference is, of course, that one cannot change the past, but it is possible to change the future. Sacks continues, “Looking back, I see myself as an object acted on by forces largely beyond my control. Looking forward, I see myself as a subject, a choosing moral agent, deciding which path to take from here to where I want eventually to be. Both are legitimate ways of thinking, but one leads to resentment, bitterness, rage, and a desire for revenge. The other leads to challenge, courage, strength of will and self-control.”
Sacks calls this “the triumph of choice over fate.” He refers to Moses who challenged the Hebrew people not to think of their future as being determined by forces outside their control. Sacks continues, “You are indeed surrounded by forces outside your control, but what matters is how you choose. Everything else will follow from that.”
Sacks also cites the prophet Jeremiah who, after the destruction of the Temple, called the Israelites not to consider themselves as victims of the Babylonians, but rather to see themselves as free moral agents and return to God -- and thereby choose a better future.
The Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl said that even when he was in Auschwitz and all of his freedoms were taken away, there was one freedom that they could not take away, “the freedom to choose how to respond.” Victimhood throws that freedom away and chooses to live in a past that cannot be changed.
Frankl was a prominent Jewish psychiatrist in Vienna when in 1942 he was arrested and taken to a Nazi concentration camp. While he survived, his parents and pregnant wife were killed. He went on to write a bestselling book, Man’s Search for Meaning . He observed that those in the camp who knew they had a task waiting for them to complete had a better chance to survive. In his own case, he had a manuscript ready for publication that was confiscated. When he fell ill he would make notes on little scraps of paper with the hopes of rewriting the manuscript should he survive. Frankl concludes: “I am sure that this reconstruction of my lost manuscript in the dark barracks of a Bavarian concentration camp assisted me in overcoming the danger of collapse.”
“There really are victims in this world, and none of us should minimize their experiences. But in most cases … the most important thing we can do is help them recover their sense of agency. This is never easy, but is essential if they are not to drown in their own learned helplessness. No one should ever blame a victim. But neither should any of us encourage a victim to stay a victim. It took immense courage for … the Holocaust survivors to rise above their victimhood, but what a victory they won for human freedom, dignity and responsibility.”
The temptation to blame events or actions of the past is there for each of us. But that is precisely what cannot be changed. We can choose instead to take action to help create a future that has meaning. It is our choice: being a victim or choosing to act with hope and faith.