Keeping the Peace in Troubled Times

elliot-and-ricky-argue

My latest blog post for The Jewish Journal:

Angry disagreement now dominates our national discourse, with emphasis on the “angry.”

We feel, with William Butler Yeats, that “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”

I believe that however we define America, whatever principles we think it stands for, it’s worth preserving. So are our families and friendships.

Whether you think that America “was never great” or you yearn for a lost era of innocence and patriotism, no one can deny America’s achievements. No one can deny the ideals that our country has imperfectly tried to follow. People vote with their feet. Middle Eastern migrants don’t want to go to Saudi Arabia, which is closer but won’t take them, anyway. They want to come here. Nigerians don’t think that America is a racist hellhole. To them, it’s the Promised Land.

The good we have achieved, and the good we can still achieve, are things that we don’t want to throw away. America can survive a controversial president. It can’t survive being torn apart.

This is a difficult time for all of us. But we can get through it if we keep our heads and follow some common-sense rules – both personally, and as a country.

Keeping Our Personal Sanity

The personal rules are easier to follow.

First, don’t sever relationships that matter. Our relationships with family and close friends should transcend most disagreements. That also applies to other people we respect, who might have some ideas we find repugnant. If we know they’re good people whom we admire for other reasons, then we shouldn’t close the door on them permanently.

Online or in real life, I never “unfriend” family, close friends, or people I respect. Every family has its Uncle Frank who’s a staunch right-winger and Aunt Sally who’s a staunch left-winger. When they walk through the front door, we should greet them warmly, embrace them, and avoid conversation about their hot-button subjects. We can talk about the kids or the weather. Online, we can mute their posts so we remain friends but don’t have to see their political rants.

Second, forgive hurtful things that people said in heated arguments. If you’re ever in doubt, forgive them anyway. Forgiveness should be our default response. The only people exempt from this rule are those who have never said anything stupid or hurtful. In other words: nobody.

Third, remember that we all sometimes have crazy ideas. Remember that people, including us, tend to base their political beliefs more on emotion than on facts or reasoning. As a result, good people, smart people can believe things that we think are absurd. Don’t abandon them because of it.

Fourth, remember that we all sometimes change our minds. People who bitterly disagree with you today might decide tomorrow that you’re right. Or you might decide that they’re right. The fact that we feel absolutely sure of our own rightness doesn’t guarantee that we’re right, only that we’re sure.

Keeping Our Political Sanity

It might surprise you to learn that we’re not the first generation to suffer this kind of disagreement. In the late 1700s, the United States – referred to in the plural until the mid-20th century — were sharply divided on issues such as religion, local autonomy, and of course – to our shame – slavery.

Does this situation sound familiar?

“A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power … have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good.”

That’s from Federalist Paper #10 by James Madison, published in 1788. The bitter national dissension we see today is an old problem that was solved (as well as it can be) a long time ago. We just forgot the solution.

The American Founders needed to unite the colonies into a single nation in spite of their disagreements. They did it with the last article in the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights:

“The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” (10th Amendment)

In Federalist Paper #45, Madison explained the meaning:

“The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite. The former will be exercised principally on external objects, as war, peace, negotiation, and foreign commerce …The powers reserved to the several States will extend to all the objects which, in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives, liberties, and properties of the people, and the internal order, improvement, and prosperity of the State.”

We’ve heard a lot about disagreements between California and other parts of the country, most notably with the Trump White House. It’s what’s got people promoting “Calexit.”

But what if the federal government had no power to tell the State of California how to run its internal affairs, except for basic human rights and issues affecting the entire country? Then it wouldn’t matter what the president wanted to do. He or she wouldn’t be able to do it. Calexit would be superfluous.

Going back to the Constitution isn’t without cost. Apart from the legal hurdles, it requires a willingness to “live and let live.” Arbitrary power seems like a great idea when you’re the one who’s got it. But when it’s suddenly in the hands of people with whom you disagree, it’s a lot less appealing. If we don’t want people in Kentucky dictating how people live in California, then we must give up the idea that people in California may dictate to people in Kentucky how they are required to live.

The U.S. Constitution can solve our political problems, if we’ll let it.

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Fighting Racism Starts in the Heart

heschel-and-king-1965

Abraham Joshua Heschel with Martin Luther King in 1965.

My latest blog post for The Jewish Journal:

When we think of relations between Jews and African-Americans, we naturally think of our proudest moments. And we should.

Abraham Joshua Heschel marched side-by-side with Martin Luther King in 1965, helping America to repudiate the racist sins of its past. Jewish activists worked in segregated areas where they risked abuse, beating, and death to win equal rights for African-Americans. Even further back, Jews were central figures in the early decades of the NAACP and other organizations that opposed racism.

However, relations between Jews and African-Americans have not been all sunshine and flowers. Even apart from extremist organizations such as the Nation of Islam, black anti-Semitism has been a problem. In his book What Went Wrong? The Creation and Collapse of the Black-Jewish Alliance, Murray Friedman recounts both the positive and negative sides of that history. A good companion volume, from a black perspective, is Shelby Steele’s White Guilt: How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era.

Friedman wrote that anti-Semitic incidents:

“… have taken place against a background of intensifying mutual recrimination, with charges of Jewish racism and paternalism on the one hand and countercharges of black anti-Semitism and ingratitude on the other.”

That reminded me of a matching passage in Steele’s book about his rage at the feeling of racism and paternalism (from all whites, not just Jews) that Friedman described:

“I had become terrified of the Faustian bargain waiting for me at the doorway to the left: we’ll throw you a bone like affirmative action if you’ll just let us reduce you to your race so we can take moral authority for ‘helping’ you. When they called you a n—– back in the days of segregation, at least they didn’t ask you to be grateful.”

Both books are excellent, but I’d like to address a broader question: Why is it so easy, often almost irresistible, for people in different groups to distrust each other?

To say that it’s because of Yetzer Hara doesn’t really explain it. It just says that we do bad things because we feel like doing bad things. Why do we feel that way?

In this case, at least part of the answer is clear. Whether it’s because of evolution or because God used some of the same design elements, we share our biological nature with lower animals.

Animals of the same species have the same biological “niche:” that is, they need the same kind of food, use the same kind of shelter, and of course, seek mates of their own species. For that reason, they tend to regard non-relatives of the same species as competitors who threaten their well-being.

Conversely, they tend to help and support their relatives, even to the point of sacrificing their own lives to protect them. Based on biologists’ field observation, there’s a formula to predict the probability that an animal will altruistically help another member of its own species:

c < r * b

where c is the survival cost to the altruistic animal (in risk, food, etc.), r is the percent of genes shared because of some family relationship, and b is the benefit to the recipient of the animal’s altruistic act.

How do animals distinguish relatives from non-relatives? They use four main criteria: appearance, behavior, familiarity, and location. Animals are inclined to help others if the others look like them, act like them, are already familiar, or are in a shared location.

Of course, we are not merely animals. We can think. We can distinguish right from wrong. But our perception of other people is biased by our animal instincts to cooperate with relatives and to feel hostile toward genetic competitors.

Does that mean racism is inevitable? No. But it requires sustained individual effort to defeat it. It cannot be defeated institutionally, once and for all. It must be confronted by each person, one at a time.

The good news is that because we can think, we unconsciously use non-biological cues to tell us who is a relative. For us, “appearance” isn’t just bodily appearance. Our instincts react to other cues that we can deliberately manipulate to increase social harmony. One experiment found that wearing team t-shirts had a stronger effect on people’s behavior than did the race of the people wearing the shirts.

That doesn’t mean the solution to racial tensions is to make everyone wear matching t-shirts. However, we know some of the factors that trigger racial hostility: appearance, behavior, familiarity, and location. By changing some of those factors, we can decrease racism significantly. And that’s good for everyone.

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Is Lone-Wolf Judaism a Thing?

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My new blog post for The Jewish Journal:

Howard Roark wasn’t Jewish, but his creator was.

Roark was the protagonist of Ayn Rand‘s 1949 novel The Fountainhead. An architect who wouldn’t compromise his ideals or his integrity, he declared that independence from other people was the hallmark of personal worth:

“Independence is the only gauge of human virtue and value. What a man is and makes of himself; not what he has or hasn’t done for others. There is no substitute for personal dignity. There is no standard of personal dignity except independence.”1

Born in Russia in 1905, Rand and her family were persecuted by the Communist government after the 1917 revolution. When she got a chance in 1926 to emigrate to the United States, she took it. Reacting against the Soviet Union’s collectivism, she went to the opposite extreme. She argued that individualism and personal self-interest were the basis of morality. She denied any individual responsibility for the good of others or the welfare of the community.

Where does Judaism sit on the spectrum between individualism and collectivism? Can you be a faithful Jew as a “lone wolf,” or do you need to be part of a Jewish community?

It seems to me that the answers are: yes, and yes.

It’s possible to be a faithful Jew all by yourself. However, if you’re part of a community, it’s easier and you can do a better job of it.

Alone, you can say most of the prayers. You can do your best to live morally and to respect God. But if you do only that, you neglect the duties and miss the benefits of participation.

The Talmud says that “all Jews are responsible for one another.”2 Traditionally, that means each of us is responsible not only for our own behavior, but for that of all other Jews.

There are also benefits that we can’t get if we remain alone. Participation in communal worship helps to strengthen our ability to live by our ideals. Psychologists call it “sensory pageantry:” music, sound, ritual, repeated physical actions, and repeated spoken declarations reinforce our moral commitment.

Likewise, interaction with other members of the community gives us feedback about our own ideas and behavior. It’s easy – too easy — for us to rationalize doing things we want that are morally dubious. Other people can provide us with checks on our own thoughts and behavior:

  • Moral accountability: Are we doing the right things, not just according to us, but according to other people? We are never unbiased about our own actions and motivations. Neither are other people, but they can often be less biased about our actions than we are.
  • Intellectual accountability: Do our ideas make sense? Naturally, they make sense to us, but do they make sense to anyone else? We seldom see the flaws in our own arguments and opinions.
  • Social accountability: Are we fulfilling our responsibilities to other people and to the community as a whole? Or are we too easily letting ourselves off the hook?

As members of a community, we also naturally care about what other people think of us. Very few of us, if any, can be totally indifferent to the respect or disapproval of others. That doesn’t seem very strong or individualistic. However, contrary to what you might think, it’s a good thing. As they say in the computer business, it’s not a bug, it’s a feature.

Suppose that you’re tempted to cheat on your spouse. Ideally, you’ll choose not to do it because you know that it’s morally wrong; but we’re not ideal people. We have an impulse to evil along with our impulse to good. If all you can depend on are your own conscience and will power, then you can be defeated by rationalization and the desire to do what you want. In a community, you have a backup team to strengthen your conscience: “What if someone sees me? What would they think? Would they tell my spouse? What if it got back to the other members of the synagogue?”

Of course, it’s best if we do the right thing for the right reasons. However, doing the right thing for less admirable reasons is better than doing the wrong thing. Just as you are responsible for other Jews, they are responsible for you. They’re your backup and you are theirs. Alexander Pope identified the issue very clearly:

“Vice is a monster of so frightful mien,
As to be hated, needs but to be seen;
Yet seen too oft, familiar with her face,
We first endure, then pity, then embrace.”

So if you want, or if you must, you can be a lone wolf. But you’ll be missing a lot.

Footnotes


  1. Rand, A. ( ), The Fountainhead. New York: Penguin Group LLC. Kindle edition, loc. 15429. 
  2. Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 54b. 
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Chaos and Creation, from Genesis to Today

galaxy-nasa-photo

My new blog post for The Jewish Journal:

You might not expect it, but the very first words of the Torah explain how social change works.

The most familiar English rendering is “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”

That’s a literal translation of Genesis 1:1: Be reshit bara Elohim et ha shamayim ve et ha aretz. The Jewish Publication Society’s 1917 English-language edition of the Tanakh used it. It suggests that God created the universe “ex nihilo,” out of nothing. It’s the traditional understanding of the text.

Zev Farber, editor of TheTorah.com, shows in a recent article that alternative translations make a lot of difference.

He first points out Rashi’s argument that “be reishit” is better translated as “In the beginning of …”. In that case, Genesis 1:1 reads, “In the beginning of God’s creating of the heavens and the earth.” That doesn’t imply creation out of nothing.

Similarly, the Targum Yerushalmi notes that the root of “reishit” is “rosh,” which means head or mind. That yields an informative gloss on God’s act of creation: “With wisdom, God created the heavens and the earth.”

Neither interpretation assumes that God created the world out of nothing. And the strongest evidence for both interpretations is not textual, but contextual.

First, Genesis describes the primordial world as unformed and void, as containing “darkness” and “the deep.” An alternative translation of “unformed and void” (tohu ve bohu) is “welter and waste,” which connotes emptiness and futility. All of those things symbolized evil to cultures in the time and place of the ancient Israelites. God removed that evil with His creative acts.

Second, the idea of pre-existing chaos on which God imposed order is found in other creation stories from that time and place, such as the Enuma Elish, of which the Biblical writers knew. To the ancients, imposing order meant both to separate things from each other (for example, “God separated the light from the darkness”) and to name them (“God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night”). Naming things was also an aspect of creating them: “In the ancient world, something came into existence when it was separated out as a distinct entity, given a function, and given a name.”

If God created the world by imposing order on chaos, then what can it tell us about social change?

In 1955, Rosa Parks lived in a Montgomery, Alabama social order that systematically discriminated against African-Americans. That order had existed for a long time, and even people who thought it was wrong didn’t believe they had any way to change it.

Order in itself is not a bad thing: it is, as Simone Weil wrote, “the first need of all.” But as long as order remains undisturbed and in place, it’s very hard to change.

To change an existing order, you need chaos. Small changes require only a little chaos. Big changes require a lot.

Riding a bus home from her job at a local department store, Parks refused to give up her seat to a white passenger. By that act, she became an agent of chaos.

She wasn’t alone in her struggle, but her courage helped spark the chaos that led to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. As a result, African-Americans were granted equal legal rights and were freed of many gratuitous humiliations and disadvantages.

Whether the chaos was good or bad, inspiring or ugly, depended on your viewpoint.

Many ordinary people felt that they benefited from the old order. They saw marches, protests, and occasional riots as leading to nothing but more chaos and destruction. African-Americans who were disadvantaged by the old order naturally saw the chaos as a good thing, as leading to the creation of a fairer and more just society. A few far-sighted people, including many Jews, shared the vision of a new order that would arise from the chaos. Some even gave their lives in support of it.

The pattern is plain. When an old order prevents needed changes, a little chaos can shake it loose. That opens up the possibility of change.

Not all change is good change. That’s what makes chaos scary, apart from the fact that it’s inherently destructive. Will the destruction be followed by construction of something more positive? During the chaos, we don’t know.

In the best case, chaos is followed by constructive change that is – as Genesis 1:31 says – “very good.”

Today, we also face an unsettling amount of chaos. Will it be destructive or constructive? Whether he is a hero, a villain, or neither, Donald Trump is an agent of chaos. His victory against opposition by almost the entire governmental, political, and media establishment proves that democracy can still work in America.

And that means something very important: what happens now depends at least partly on us.

If we can accept our fellow Americans as legitimate partners in the democratic process, set aside bitterness, and care more about what’s good for the country than about making sure “our side” wins every dispute, then we can – “with wisdom” – help create a new order that is very good.

It’s not guaranteed. But if it’s going to happen, it’s up to us.

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Do You Want to Believe?

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My latest blog post for The Jewish Journal:

After a bitterly divisive election season, there’s one question on everyone’s mind:

“How can people possibly believe that?”

What “that” is depends on who’s doing the talking. It means one thing to Trump supporters, something else to Clinton supporters, and who knows what to third-party supporters.

We all have friends who believe things that seem crazy, but we don’t think our friends are crazy. So we’re completely baffled. Are the people who disagree with us ignorant? Stupid? Hyper-emotional? Or – this seems to be the favorite – are they just plain evil?

It’s usually none of those things. The true answer is simpler and more innocent.

People adopt beliefs based on several factors. If those factors are different, then the people tend to adopt different beliefs.

In 2016 America, those factors differ a lot – by region, economic class, ethnicity, social circles, information sources, and life experiences. Differences in those factors lead people to different beliefs.

Even biology gets into the act, since we now know that different political attitudes often go with minor differences in the structure and function of our brains. The differences show up mainly in emotion and intuition, which influence our political and moral judgments.

America’s dominant political and moral culture is WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic). WEIRD people’s moral reasoning tends to be abstract, utilitarian, and universalist. As a result, writes psychologist Jonathan Haidt, “the WEIRDer you are, the more you see a world full of separate objects, rather than relationships.”

However, millions of people – perhaps half of Americans, to judge by the election – are less WEIRD. They accept utilitarian and universalist ideas, but also value loyalty, respect for authority, respect for the sacred, individual liberty, and support for the common good. Sometimes, for example, they might feel that loyalty is more important than preventing harm, or that the common good is more important than preventing unfairness. To WEIRD people, such feelings are often incomprehensible.

All of those factors – background, beliefs, social circles, biology, and basic moral intuitions – exert a powerful subconscious influence on what feels right or plausible to us. If a factual or moral claim feels right to us, fits our current beliefs and previous experiences, then we want to believe it. According to Haidt, that biases us more than we realize:

“When we want to believe something, we ask ourselves, ‘Can I believe it?’ Then we search for supporting evidence, and if we find even a single piece of evidence, we can stop thinking. We now have permission to believe. We have a justification, in case anyone asks. In contrast, when we don’t want to believe something, we ask ourselves, ‘Must I believe it?’ Then we search for contrary evidence, and if we find a single reason to doubt the claim, we can dismiss it.”

Thus, equally intelligent, educated, well-meaning people can have diametrically opposed beliefs. Some of us are careful about our biases, sometimes, but at other times we all slip.

Knowing that fact doesn’t make our social problems go away. Our disagreements still exist. There are still some real and legitimate conflicts of interest between different groups in society. Unfortunately, there are also a few genuine crazies and haters: in a population of over 300 million, that’s inevitable.

However, if we can just calm down and accept that most other people are trying as honestly as we are, it’s at least a start toward solving our problems. Nobody can or should compromise with “Hitler,” and if we think that’s who we’re dealing with, then we can’t do anything else but fight. However, it’s not necessary. Or true.

Don’t let a tiny minority of crazies and haters blind you to the fact that most people want to be good and to do the right thing – even if their idea of “the right thing” sometimes clashes with ours.

Screaming at people, calling them names, and dismissing their concerns as unworthy of consideration leads to on-going conflict and social disintegration. People want us to agree with them – just as we want them to agree with us — but they’ll often accept something less: knowing that we listened to them, tried to see their point of view, and did our best to accommodate them even if we still disagree.

That’s what a civilized democratic society is all about. Maybe it’s WEIRD, but it’s our best hope.

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Morality Needs Both Logic and Feeling

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My new blog post for The Jerusalem Post:

As a child, I was a big “Star Trek” fan. I never wanted to be like Captain Kirk. The world was full of Kirk wannabes. My hero was Mr. Spock: stoic, brilliant, and supremely logical.

But is logic enough? With all due respect to Mr. Spock, the answer is no. Feeling is an essential part of moral judgment and moral action.

Even our Jewish tradition, which focuses more on what we do than what we feel, answers that logic is not enough. As Hillel said:

“That which is hateful unto you do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary.”

Logic by itself can’t reveal what is hateful to you or your neighbor. Only feeling can tell you that. And even if you know how your neighbor feels, why should you care? If you care, it’s probably because of empathy, the ability to feel your neighbor’s happiness or suffering as if it were your own.

The role of feeling and empathy are well known both in Jewish and non-Jewish circles. Though best known for writing The Wealth of Nations (1776) that founded modern economics, Adam Smith was also famous for his book The Theory of Moral Sentiments, where he wrote:

“However selfish man may be, there are principles in his nature which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him. Of this kind is pity or compassion, the emotion which we feel for the misery of others … That we often derive sorrow from the sorrow of others, is a matter of fact too obvious to require any instances to prove it.”

Feeling helps us find the right things to do. Logic helps us understand and prioritize them. As A.J. Heschel wrote:

“Love offers an answer to the question of how to live. In Truth we find an answer to the question of how to think. … It is impossible to find Truth without being in love, and it is impossible to experience love without being truthful, without living Truth.”

Failure of empathy makes us indifferent to the suffering or happiness of others. We’re particularly vulnerable to such failure when we don’t see the people and events first-hand, with our own eyes. “Seeing is believing:” it’s easy to ignore what we don’t see. And it’s a short step from not seeing, to not wanting to see, and finally to closing our eyes so that we can’t see.

In the early 1940s, most Germans really didn’t know about the death camps. They didn’t want to know. They didn’t want to see. They didn’t want to believe. If they had, they would have been forced to make a terrifying choice. So they didn’t. Their great-grandchildren and their nation still bear the shame of that failure.

But just as logic is not enough, feeling is not enough. Feeling pushes us to solve the problem we see, but it doesn’t consider problems we don’t see. In real life, there are always trade-offs.

We can all feel empathy for the suffering of people in war-torn regions of the world. When confronted with images and news reports, our natural inclination is to help: to bring them to our countries, take them into our homes, and so forth.

That’s entirely laudable. But there are trade-offs. How would our actions affect our families and our societies? How would we know that the people we helped were refugees and not jihadists? Moreover, money we spend on helping refugees from other countries is money we cannot spend on helping the poor at home. We want to help both, but we can’t. Our resources are finite. We must make a choice. Our actions have opportunity costs.

Finite resources aren’t the only issue. Sometimes, as controversial Harvard psychologist B.F. Skinner remarked, the best way to help people is not to help them. If we help them the wrong way or at the wrong time, then we deprive them of the personal strength and self-respect they’d get from solving their own problems. Of course, that can also become an excuse for not helping people when we should. By itself, feeling can’t tell us when to help or not help.

The upshot is that neither feeling alone nor logic alone should guide us. We need both of them to make sound moral decisions. There are no cookbook answers, even in Jewish law, which we must apply with honest intelligence and generous hearts.

How can we learn to use both logic and feeling in a balanced way?

  • Do engage in activities that remind you about the importance of all human beings. Such activities include study, religious observance, volunteer work, and morally inspiring entertainment.
  • Do consider both the benefits and potential costs of your actions.
  • Don’t make important decisions impulsively or when you’re in the grip of strong emotion.
  • Don’t forget that although everyone is equal in human dignity, your duties to everyone are not the same. Your first duties are to your family, to your community, and to your people. Make sure that your actions to help anyone else don’t conflict with your most important obligations.
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Ben Franklin’s Jewish Values

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My latest blog post for The Jewish Journal:

American founder Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) wasn’t Jewish, but he might as well have been. He shared many of Judaism’s key moral values.

One of our most central values is moral seriousness: the idea that doing the right thing is important, so we should pay attention to how we live. It’s an inevitable side effect of having 613 commandments that govern every aspect of life. Regardless of their content, they require us in any situation to stop and think: What kind of situation is this? What moral principles apply? What is the right thing to do? It inhibits impulsive, careless action. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks summarized it well:

“Every aspect of life … had its precisely calibrated laws, its choreography of holiness. The fundamental idea of Judaism was and is that we bring God into the world through daily acts and interactions …”

Franklin enthusiastically supported that kind of thinking. He wrote that:

“At the last day, we shall not be examined what we thought, but what we did; and our recommendation will not be that we said ‘lord, lord’, but that we did good to our fellow creatures.”

As a young man, he made a list of virtues that he wanted to practice in his life. It’s easy to imagine a Jewish sage coming up with a list similar to the one in Franklin’s autobiography:

  • Temperance: Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.
  • Silence: Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.
  • Order: Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.
  • Resolution: Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
  • Frugality: Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself. Waste nothing.
  • Industry: Lose no time; be always employed in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.
  • Sincerity: Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
  • Justice: Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
  • Moderation: Avoid extremes. Forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
  • Cleanliness: Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, clothing, or habitation.
  • Tranquility: Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
  • Chastity: Rarely use venery [sex] but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.
  • Humility: Imitate Jesus and Socrates.

Each week, Franklin tried to improve his performance of a different virtue. The only one that gave him trouble was humility. He wrote that each time he became humbler, he was proud of himself for it. As a result, he had to start all over again.

In one of his most famous sayings, Franklin resolved to avoid evil gossip:

“I resolve to speak ill of no man whatever, not even in a matter of truth; but rather by some means excuse the faults I hear charged upon others, and upon proper occasions speak all the good I know of everybody.”

That is of course a Jewish value:

“The fact that something is true doesn’t mean it is anybody else’s business. The Hebrew term for forbidden speech about others, lashon hara (literally ‘bad tongue’), refers to any statement that is true, but that lowers the status of the person about whom it is said.”

Franklin emphasized using our time wisely, vowing to “lose no time; be always employed in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.”

That’s also a Jewish value:

“A rabbinic head of a yeshiva once established a special five-minute study session. Even students who lived blocks away were expected to come back for this very short activity. As the rabbi explained, ‘I want you to learn that something can be accomplished in five minutes.’”

Jews for millennia have wrestled with the problem of how evil can exist in a world created by a perfectly just God. Jewish Journal columnist Dennis Prager sees it as a reason to believe in the world to come:

“To state this case as starkly as possible, if there is nothing after this life, then the Nazis and the children they threw alive into furnaces have identical fates. If I believed such a thing, I would either become an atheist or hate the God who had created such a cruel and absurd universe.”

Writing for The Pennsylvania Gazette in 1734, Franklin’s argument was almost identical to Prager’s:

“Many arguments, to prove a future state, have been drawn from the unequal lot of good and bad men upon earth … to see virtue languish and repine, to see vice prosperous and triumphant: such a view, I confess, raises in us a violent presumption that there is another state of retribution, where the just and the unjust will be equally punished or rewarded by an impartial judge.”

Like Maimonides, Franklin leaned toward Deism – the view that God set up the universe and its laws, then mostly left it alone. However, he reassured his Christian parents (whom he addressed as “Honored Father and Mother”) that he was open to hearing any argument:

“All that should be expected from me is to keep my mind open to conviction, to hear patiently and examine attentively whatever is offered me for that end; and if after all I continue in the same errors, I believe your usual charity will induce you rather to pity and excuse than blame me.”

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