What do we owe to people who lived in the past and are now dead?
What do we owe to people now living? What do we owe to people in generations yet to come? And perhaps most important: What is the best way for us to fulfill those obligations?
We live in a time of rapid change — in technology, society, moral attitudes, government, and religion.
Whether the changes are good or bad, their reality and speed are undeniable. Their speed alone is disorienting: As soon as we get used to one new regime, learn its accepted and forbidden terminology, and start to recover from our shock at its reversals of long-established practice and belief, we find ourselves thrown headlong into yet another iteration in the relentless forced march of “progress.”
The destination of all that progress is a little vague, and there’s a reason: We are not marching toward something, but away from something. We are marching away from our own past, from our own heritage, from our own identities.
We are taught that all which came before was benighted, bigoted, and evil, and that we must as fast as possible escape from it into a promised, stress-free utopia of niceness. The details of the utopia are unclear and constantly in flux, as utopian fantasies always are. Modern Orthodoxy founder Samson Raphael Hirsch observed in 1854, albeit with a certain amount of rhetorical hyperventilation:
“Here you have the protagonist of the religion of progress. See how he dances on the graves of your forefathers, how he drags out their corpses from their graves, laughs in their faces and exclaims to you: ‘Your fathers were crude and uncivilized; they deserved the contempt in which they were held. Follow me, so that you may become civilized and deserve respect!'”1
“The Divine word which until then had inflexibly prohibited many a desire and demanded many a sacrifice, henceforth became the heavenly manna which merely reflected everybody’s own desires, echoed their own thoughts, sanctified their aspirations, and said to each one: ‘Be what you are, enjoy what you fancy, aspire to what you will … the more you progress, and the more you cast off old Jewish customs, the more religious and acceptable to God you will be …'”2
What complicates the situation is that at least some criticisms of our past have merit.
Society has always treated some groups of people unfairly, and those people have legitimate complaints. That led Samuel Holdheim, a leader of Reform Judaism and one of Hirsch’s aforementioned progressives, to make a contrary observation:
“The time has come when one feels strong enough vis-a-vis the Talmud to oppose it, in the knowledge of having gone far beyond it. One must not with every forward step drag along the heavy tomes and, without even opening them, wait for some innocent remark, therewith to prove the foundations of progress.”3
And even more starkly:
‘The Talmud speaks with the ideology of its own time, and for that time it was right. I speak from the higher ideology of my time, and for this age I am right.”4
A Perfect Society with Imperfect People?
What the apostles of progress fail to realize is that it’s impossible to create a perfect society with imperfect people. All societies treat some people unfairly, both in ways that hurt them and in ways that help them. The question is not: Will there be unfairness? There will be. The question is only: Unfair to whom, how much, and how bad?
No matter what social and religious institutions or customs we have, some people will be unhappy about them. That’s just human nature. Attempts to create a perfect society always end in attempts to crush and destroy those who disagree with the perfectionists’ vision of the good. Such attempts create more injustice and evil than they remedy.
Moreover, attempts to create a perfect society suffer from the same intellectual arrogance as rigid orthodoxy. Just as the ultra-Orthodox demand that no one change anything unless it fits their interpretation of the Torah, so our modern reformers demand that everyone change everything to fit their interpretation of social justice.
As Hirsch wrote, defending the status quo:
“‘Orthodox’ Judaism does not know any varieties of Judaism … It knows only Judaism and non-Judaism.5
On the other side, we see the same inflexible arrogance in Holdheim:
“I speak from the higher ideology of my time, and for this age I am right.”6
No doubt. No open-mindedness. “I am right.”
The thought “I might be wrong” would never occur to either of them.
Is it possible that there could be different but equally valid viewpoints about some issues? And even when there aren’t, should we sometimes just leave people alone to be wrong, as long as they leave us alone to be right? Extremists of all persuasions answer no: Figuratively or literally, unbelievers must be put to the sword.
Short of the Messianic era, we are stuck with imperfect societies, laws, and institutions. The only question is how to maximize the welfare and rights of the majority while protecting as much as possible the welfare and rights of minorities.
Which imperfections are morally tolerable, and which not? To answer that no imperfections are tolerable is to declare war on humanity and human nature, because it is from those sources that the imperfections originate. That particular war has been declared, rages even now, and the destruction it wrought is all around us.
How People Identify Themselves
Keeping things as they are has costs. So does changing things. Facts by themselves cannot tell us which costs are most important, but a look at the facts can help us make that decision.
People form their sense of self in three main ways: intellectually, emotionally, and morally.
- Intellectually, we form our sense of self by statements: I am a man. I am a Jew. I am a parent. I am married. My ancestors were slaves in Egypt. The concepts in such statements define part of our identity. If you demand that everyone redefine the concepts, you demand that they redefine themselves. That is a cost to them. The cost might be justified to achieve a greater good for someone else, but it’s still a cost.
Emotionally, we form our sense of self by what we perceive, say, do, and the contexts in which those things occur. Shared beliefs, rituals, and prayers are part of that. We follow them throughout our lives, from youth to old age and death: they become part of who we are. Changing those things might be justified, but it puts emotional stress on people who haven’t intentionally hurt anyone. It has a cost.
Morally, we form our sense of self when we worship, follow the law, or follow customs such as kissing the ground when we arrive in Israel. We form it when we do things in much the same way as our ancestors in centuries past and our fellow Jews around the world. That creates a bond between us, across the generations and across the oceans. We are one people. Changing our beliefs, rituals, laws, prayers, and customs disrupts that bond. It divides and weakens us. It might be justified, but it has a cost.
What We Owe
What do we owe to the past?
We owe loyalty and honor to those who came before us; who remained true to our faith and suffered for it; who fought for justice on behalf of all people, not only us; and who helped to create the modern world we now enjoy. One way to express that loyalty and give that honor is to share with them the religious beliefs and practices for which they lived and died, and to change those things only when the moral or intellectual necessity is clear.
Far from abandoning the Torah and Talmud, as Holdheim suggested, we need to reinterpret them with our best moral and religious understanding for our own era. Just as no one in 1787 imagined the U.S. Constitution would one day mandate recognition of gay marriage, and no one in 1850 imagined the Talmud would authorize female rabbis, we can adapt our tradition to modern sensibilities when it makes sense and overwhelming majorities support it. By doing so, we keep faith both with our forebears and with the moral and religious needs of people today.
What do we owe to the present?
We owe fairness, consideration, and kindness to all people — even if it’s sometimes difficult, when all things are considered, to know exactly the right way to give it. We should make changes when a majority agrees that they are clearly needed, and not merely to appease the interest groups that shout the loudest. We should also remember that too much change, too fast, disrupts lives and causes unhappiness. If change is required, we should make it slowly and carefully — redressing injustice but with minimal disruption to the lives of innocent people.
What do we owe to the future?
To the future, we owe a society, a system of beliefs, and customs of behavior that are simultaneously moral, rational, faithful to our tradition, and consistent enough with human nature to be sustainable. As our ancestors gave us a legacy of devotion, courage, faithfulness, study, and intellectual honesty, so we owe at least that to the generations after us.
The future is yet to be determined. Let us, in our generation, be determined to make a future in which both our ancestors and our descendants can take pride: pride in who they are, pride in what they inherited from us, and pride in what they pass on to their own future.
Frank, D. et al (2000), The Jewish Philosophy Reader. Routledge Publishing, London, UK.