Even during Biblical times the prophets criticized those who mechanically participated in the sacrificial cult while oppressing the poor and ignoring the plight of widows and orphans.The Book of Job is also illuminating.While the rabbis held that Job was not a Jew, the issues in the text are issues with which Jews were grappling.Thus when a friend of Job argues that perhaps his troubles resulted from a delinquency or deficiency in practice, he argues that he committed no ethical violation.Not a single point of defence he offers affirms his ritual rigor but his virtue.What the text comes to teach is that ethical behaviour is the measure of a worthy life.But not everyone measures up.So the disconnect you observe between the ideals of Judaism and what Jews actually practice is, unfortunately, an old and pervasive one.
Part of the problem lies in the phenomenon of compartmentalization by which people focus on one aspect of religious behaviour rather than observe all religious teachings holistically.Thus some will be quite diligent in prayer and kashrut – areas that define a person’s relationship with God - but lax in areas that define interpersonal relationships.Further, some have convinced themselves only those within their own insular community are worthy of being treated with respect and dignity.The Talmud also recognized that sometimes we become victims of ethical inertia.Once an illicit behaviour pattern sets in, it is difficult to break.We simply become accustomed to doing what is wrong – like speeding or jaywalking.And of course human nature plays a role.We are fallible creatures who, while not born in sin, are easily corruptible.
The challenge, as you note, is to change all this.It is not easy.First, a person needs to be self-motivated.Without an inner impulse to admit one’s failings and improve, there is little hope that change is possible.In addition, a person must have the courage to remain true to his or her ideals despite the fact that others violate them.Second, one needs a supportive community, that is, a community that insists on keeping to the standards of ethical conduct.And third, one needs a program for transformation.A revival in the teachings of Mussar is welcome.Mussar was the program by which study and committed observance of Torah is supplemented with directions and insights for noble living.Consider the illustrative story of the yeshivah student who boasted to his teacher that he had gone through the Talmud seven times only to hear his teacher ask how many times the Talmud has been through him.In other words, the objective is not to acquire data but to be ethically improved.
An addendum: Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook once taught that the purely righteous do not complain against wickedness but add goodness.Rather that bemoan what others are doing or not doing – actions outside our control – it is imperative that we look after how we can better ourselves.
We do not yet know the answer to these questions, yet I know the world would love to come up with one. We would think that a truly pious person, one who purports to follow a religious discipline that seeks clear and unequivocal adherence to an ordered society, would have little difficulty in towing the ‘religious line.’ We see evidence each year, however, that supposedly religious people are subject to human frailty. The Bernard Madoff’s, the Ted Haggard’s, and the Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s of the world have great visibility, but they are, by no means, the sole perpetrators of religious and moral lapses.
The human condition is that God made us imperfect, even though we all possess a part of the divine inside (that is, we are made ‘in God’s image,’ see Genesis 1:26-27). And the Jewish understanding of life is that we are to constantly search for ways to improve the self. Maybe this means that imperfection is there to observe, to learn from, and to eradicate in the world.
With these basic understandings set forth as givens, and to address the questions posed above, I would begin by citing an appropriate Mishnah from Pirkei Avot, the collection of wise sayings from the Rabbis of the Talmud:
Pirkei Avot 4:1 – “Ben Zoma said: Who is wise? They who learn from everyone. Who is strong? They who subdue their aggressivity. Who is rich? They who are content with what they have and who they are. Who is to be honored? They who honor others.” (This is my translation that departs somewhat from the plain meaning of the text. Please consult with the original text for more direct translations and biblical prooftexts.)
Recall that Pirkei Avot is not a book of halachah – Jewish law – that as Jews we’re obliged to follow. However, these verses of Pirkei Avot point us toward better ways of living and navigating through the world with a more outgoing heart. It is in this context that I think about the answer to the questions above.
When I read these verses and think about the first question you raise, my initial response is that the human being – without appropriate training or guidance – tends to think more about the self than about others. These rabbinic words remind us that strength, wealth, wisdom, and honor, instead of being directed toward ourselves, should be directed outward – to others – and this is what makes the person greater, both from the inside and from an outside, objective standpoint.
I would refer to Maslow’s theory of the ‘hierarchy of needs,’ and consider how a person looks to satisfy his/her individual physiological and safety needs long before thinking about others or true self actualization. On the unconscious level, this focus on the self diverts our thinking toward satisfying our internal needs rather than on how our actions affect the external world.
Some people of great religious fervor take into account how their behavior may benefit them in the ‘next life’ (however one might
conceive that) rather than how they can help others, and may care little about the fact that their actions bring misfortune or pain to others.
Religious discipline, regardless of the religion, tries to bring the behavior of the individual into alignment with what's good for the world. If one breaks a religious law, however, one eventually finds that there are few disincentives to depart from bad behavior. In other words, the warnings we find in Torah are not sufficient barriers to sin: We learn that in the practical world, there is no lightning bolt from heaven or other punishments that the Torah describes. We receive no negative reinforcement.
In a closed religious community, adherence to religious law is sometimes taken care of by the community itself. Perpetrators are shunned or excommunicated, and behavior can be controlled in that way. But in order to influence religious and non-religious people overall to act in a more ethical or moral fashion, we need to teach by doing, and by becoming moral and ethical exemplars for others. We are not going to change all people who are prone to sin, but we will change some individuals slowly, one person at a time, so that we, by our behavior, will bring some goodness into the world. In this way, there will be more ethical behavior in the world when we leave it than when we entered it.
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