Mark Twain disdained moralizers. He criticized preachers who exhorted people on proper morals; exhibiting what Twain considered to be obnoxious behavior. He dismissed the threats of eternal reward or punishment by asserting most of the people he would prefer to spend eternity with were not in heaven, concluding, “Heaven for climate, hell for society.” Yes, Twain was a cynic, especially when it came to faith in human behavior. “Always do what is right,” he once wrote. “It will gratify half of mankind and astound the other.” Twain wrote and spoke a lot about morality. He grappled with understanding it, where it came from, how humans so often failed at it. He reveled in picking apart humanity’s moral contradictions. I love this analysis of our moral sense. “There is a moral sense and an immoral sense. History shows that the moral sense enables us to see morality and how to avoid it, and the immoral sense enables us to perceive immorality and how to enjoy it.”
I will admit to often sharing Twain’s cynicism about human nature. Much more than that, however, I share his curiosity as to how we make moral judgments. What is it that drives our moral thinking, our moral choices? On what is morality based? How much of it is instinct and how much is driven by rational thought? Why do we often disagree so profoundly on what constitutes moral actions? Religious people typically see the basis of morality in Biblical teachings. We regard the Torah (or the Bible) as a book if not given by God, then at least divinely inspired. Ergo the moral imperatives outlined in it are seen as basic, as foundational. To follow that morality is a rational choice each of us makes. Indeed, the traditional mitzvah system in Judaism, our ability to choose or not to choose to do mitzvoth is based on faith in our rational selves – the ability to think and reason.
Biblical morality is also a source of great conflict. Fundamental readers of the text see it as immutable, unchangeable. More liberal readers of Bible see it as a guideline that shifts and changes with each new human era. The current discussions over the Supreme Court’s decision in June, supporting the right of same sex couples to marry, typify this debate. Religious opponents of the decision say the Bible mandates that marriage can only be between a man and a woman. They point to numerous Biblical passages for support. They use these passages to indicate the sanctity of the male/female relationship for procreation. They find passages that show same sex relationships as unholy. Supporters of the decision read the Bible differently. They accuse their opponents of being fundamentalists who try to live in an all or nothing Biblical world. Why, they ask, do opponents of same sex marriage insist on following the sexual rules in Leviticus 18 and 20 but shun the food restrictions in Leviticus 11. They say the Torah teaches fair treatment of all humans. Christian supporters of same sex marriage talk about Jesus’s love for all people. They say that if God created the world, then homosexuality is part of the world and we must accept it.
Opponents to same sex marriage base their moral stand on the values of purity/sanctity and respect for divine authority. Proponents base their stand on the values of fairness and caring. Each camp can make a strong case for their position through Biblical citations. Charges are thrown back and forth. Those we call liberal accuse opponents of same sex marriage as being “intolerant.” Those we call conservative accuse supporters of same sex marriage as being moral relativists. This is a useless argument. Each side is actually speaking a different moral language. Each side is holding up a different value as the key moral foundation for making ethical decisions. I will also point out that contrary to the typical modern Jewish perspective that logic and intellect drive our moral decisions, these stances are gut and instinctive. Neither side is prepared to accept the logic underlying their opponent’s view. Now I would wager there are already some of you who are experiencing the stirrings of an instinctive angry reaction to my words, because you perceive I am giving credence to the side of the same sex marriage issue with which you disagree.
So, it is time to conduct a little survey. I will describe a value and ask if you consider it a primary value for making moral decisions or a secondary value, or not relevant at all to moral decision making.
- Care/Harm – this is the desire to help those who are weaker or less fortunate. It might be care for children or giving aid to a starving family.
- Loyalty/Betrayal – this is allegiance to the group. In this value there is no tolerance for traitors to the group.
- Liberty/Oppression – This is the desire to ensure freedom for both yourself and for others. The oppressor might be an individual, like the schoolyard bully, or a government.
- Authority/Subversion – this is recognition of and respect for the authority of leadership and the institutions that maintain the moral exoskeleton. This includes a respect for hierarchy.
- Fairness/Cheating – outcomes need to be fair. Games should not be rigged and honest effort should yield honest results.
- Sanctity/Degradation – this is the need to sanctify some things as “untouchable” or inviolable; or to stay away from others as impure or polluted. This creates a sense of some things as sacred.
If care, liberty and fairness are your top 3, then you are likely a political liberal. If you see authority and sanctity as a basic value in making moral decisions, or you see all 6 as roughly equal, you are likely a political conservative.
How do I know this? Jonathan Haidt is a moral psychologist at NYU who has been doing research on the basis of morality and our moral decision making for over 25 years. His book, “The Righteous Mind” teaches two very important points. First, that moral decisions are driven primarily by our hearts, by instinct – not by our intellect. Our rational selves can sometimes modify decisions but only after something influences our hearts to be open to another possibility. He describes the heart/mind relationship as a rider on an elephant. The rider is our intellect and the elephant our intuition. One would think the rider is in control, but actually the rider serves the elephant by rationalizing the elephant’s intuitively driven moral direction. That is why those on either side of the same sex argument do not listen to the logical arguments of the other side. Their elephant is in charge and the rider just uses its logic to justify its pre-determined moral stance. We know what we want to believe so the rider re-arranges the information to arrive at the conclusions we prefer.
Second, all of the qualities I described to you have been identified by Haidt as moral foundations that serve as the basis for our moral conclusions. A combination of our genetic heritage and experiences from childhood to early adulthood determines to which of the moral foundations we connect. This is our instinct, our heart. This drives, for example, how we interpret Biblical text, ergo how we react to various moral issues when referencing the Bible. The most influential way to get our “elephants” to make a slight shift in their moral direction is through personal relationships. When we meet someone we like who thinks differently than us, our intellect is able to get our heart to consider something new. Most of us have already experienced this. We are seldom swayed by someone else’s logic. But if we get to know them, we are open to considering their perspective. Our desire to connect with others is an instinct that helps us to change.
Most of you know that I participate in a monthly program called “Faith, Food, and Friday” along with 4 other local clergy. My stance on same sex marriage is rather different that 3 of the other 4 panelists. However, because of the personal friendship – the love and respect I have for each of my colleagues – I accept that they cannot believe what I believe. The moral foundations guiding their positions are different than mine. I will defend their right to set policies for their churches. I also very much believe that they respect my position as well.
Most of the time, however, we cling to our predisposed moral foundations. Often we see these in opposition to other’s moral foundations. This is the basis for a lot of political disagreement. For example, liberals often express caring for downtrodden people outside of America. Sometimes conservatives see this in light of the moral foundation of loyalty. Conflict ensues with each side claiming a moral high ground. In truth, there is no high ground. Rather, it is a difference in the perceived importance of a moral foundation. Liberals do not place the same importance on loyalty as conservatives – if they see any importance in it at all.
While all of this is interesting, I think the most interesting aspect is how this knowledge about moral foundations affects the way we interpret Torah. Jewish tradition, certainly the rabbinic tradition of the past 2,000 years, is not satisfied with the plain sense meaning of the text. Our tradition delves for lessons beyond the simple words. It is appropriate to ask about any passage in the Torah – what is this really teaching us? Why is this part of the text? I would suggest that the Torah’s commentary on morality goes far beyond the obvious meaning of the various moral directives. Rather the Torah challenges us, as it has challenged every generation of Jews for over 2,500 years, to look deeper at any passage to see what it teaches us about ourselves and how we should live. There is no better example of this than the Torah portion we read on Rosh Hashanah – that we read this morning – the story of the binding and near sacrifice of Isaac.
The story horrifies us. We cannot understand how a supposedly just God can order His most loyal follower to sacrifice his son – the only means through which this follower’s heritage will continue. Biblical scholars wonder why the story is part of the Torah. Is it an etiological tale about the rejection of child sacrifice? Moreover, we are so disappointed in Abraham. We cannot accept his passiveness in following God’s command, especially in light of Abraham’s objections to the destruction of Sodom and Gemorah. We want to know what Abraham feels about the suffering he is about to inflict on his son. We want – well – answers.
I have written about the Akeida, the binding of Isaac, before. Two years ago I proposed this passage was a challenge, asking how each of us would react in a situation of an impossible choice. I said this was an example of how the Torah presents us with an opportunity for meaningful conversations about our life choices by presenting an extreme. Now, I will add another dimension to what I taught 2 years ago. In the Akeida I see an example of conflict between the moral foundations upon which we make moral decisions. This conflict is meant to challenge our elephant, if you will, to point out our moral comfort zones and moral discomfort zones. We are NOT meant to resolve the conflict. Rather, we are meant to become aware of how the moral foundations can interact and conflict. We are meant to use our confrontation with the text to push ourselves to be better humans, better Jews – to clarify who we are and who we wish to be.
If we study some of the detail of the story, and rabbinic commentary on it, we can perceive some of the moral foundations in conflict and how traditional Jewish thought deals with them. The most obvious is the conflict between the values of authority and caring. Abraham respects God’s authority and quickly agrees to take Isaac to Moriah for the sacrifice. In fact, he answers hineini, “I am here,” which is a Biblical Hebrew marker for full piety and presence with God. We immediately ask, why is Abraham not objecting to the harm God demands he is to do to his son? Rabbinic commentary in the form of midrash tells us that Abraham does object. Genesis 22:2 reads, “Please take your son, your only one, whom you love – Isaac.” The sages see the Torah verse as only half the conversation based on the observation that God is being very repetitive in his request of Abraham. Midrash fills in the verse with this conversation between Abraham and God. God says, “Please take your son.” Abraham replies, “I have two sons.” God says, “Your only one.” Abraham replies, “Each is the only one of his mother.” God says, “Whom you love.” Abraham replies, “I love both of them.” So God finally says – “Isaac.”
A comment on why God had him travel 3 days for what was really a half day trip, points to the conflict between authority and fairness. Rashi says God did not show Abraham the location immediately so as not to confuse his mind. Abraham gains merit through his willing obedience. We are appalled because God has rigged this game. Or, it is an abuse of the covenant God has with Abraham, therefore an abuse of the foundation of liberty/oppression. Further, we can see the moral foundation of sanctity at play. Abraham and Isaac are going to a sacred place. The location is identified by Nachmanides as the site of Adam’s first sacrifice to God and by Rashi as the future site of Solomon’s Temple. Abraham will be doing a sacred act that abuses the foundations of caring and fairness! His internal pain is made clear by a midrash on verses 7 and 8. Isaac asks where is the lamb for the sacrifice. Abraham responds, “God will see to the lamb for the sacrifice my son.” This midrash sees the words “my son” as Abraham quietly, painfully, telling Isaac that he is to be the sacrifice.
I have come to believe that the only way to understand the Akeida is to see how it plays games with the 6 moral foundations, pushing us to explore our gut reactions to them. We experience a conflict between the dominant values expressed in the story (authority, sanctity) and most of the other moral foundations. This imbalance is meant to push us to think about the appropriate balance between all of the moral foundations. What are the roles of authority and sanctity? Judaism never eliminates them. Indeed, they play a key role in the Jewish understanding of the world.
You see, Judaism is all about trying to find balance, wholeness in the world. We do not see existence through the lens of Manichaeism – as a struggle between a good spiritual world of light and an evil one of darkness. This is a perspective developed by the 3rd century Persian prophet Mani. While its influence on Christianity is debatable (Satan is not seen as an equal god to God, rather a fallen angel), much of Christianity does see the world as a struggle between good and evil, but good ultimately triumphs with the coming of the messiah. The goal is the elimination of what we call “evil.”
This is not the Jewish approach. Judaism is much closer to the eastern philosophy of Yin and Yang – complementary pieces that fit together. Judaism considers a series of complimentary values and recognizes we cannot eliminate any of them for us to function. The most common example is that of yetzeir hatov, the good or merciful inclination and yetzeir hara, the bad or aggressive inclination. The Talmud teaches that once the rabbis decided to eliminate the yetzeir hara by trapping it in an oven. Immediately all births ceased and no one built or created anything. Our aggression is what pushes us to achieve and create. It must be held in check by our good inclination to prevent it from causing evil.
There are other examples of complimentary values as well. Keva refers to the fixed program, be it the sequence and content of prayer, or the explicit commands to perform certain acts. Keva is not about creativity, but about order. Its compliment is kavanah. This refers to our intention, our emotion, or the dedication we bring to an act. Keva without kavanah is just an empty act. Kavanah without keva is a lot of disorganized good intention. Both are necessary for proper balance. Then there are the qualities of justice and mercy. The rabbis teach that the two creation stories at the beginning of the Torah, represent God’s realization that both qualities are needed. The story in Genesis 1 is said to be the world created on the basis of strict justice. God realized this would be a harsh world indeed so God created the world again in chapter 2 adding the quality of mercy. I will add that it is Elohim, the God of strict judgment, who gives the test to Abraham, while it is Adonai, the God of mercy who sends the angel to stay his hand from executing his son.
The Jewish approach to morality is not one that divides the world into opposing camps in which one side must win. Rather, Judaism embraces all six moral foundations and sees our challenge as how to create a world that reflects a proper balance between all of them. Despite the rabbinic acknowledgments of moral complexity and Abraham’s pain that I shared before, it is also clear that the sages attributed a lot of merit to Abraham for his submission to God’s authority. Hold on, you might exclaim. Why do we modern Jews not see any merit in Abraham’s submission? Why do we only react in horror to Abraham’s failure to protect Isaac, to rebel against God’s authority?
Well, it is time for another experiment. Say I showed you a cockroach and explained it was completely sterilized and germ free. Then I brewed some tea with the cockroach in it and offered you some? How many of you would drink the tea? Your aversion to drinking the tea despite it containing no germs is your elephant taking control. No amount of logic will convince you to drink the tea. It is the same with our reactions to the Akeida. We have been conditioned to focus on the foundational values of caring, fairness and liberty. As modern (mostly liberal) Americans, we do not see much merit in Abraham’s obedience, or the sanctity of a sacrificial act. Perhaps most tellingly, our instinctive reaction keeps us from really paying attention to the very first line of the story: “God TESTED Abraham.” If we actually had faith in the justice and mercy of God, we would understand from the very beginning that Isaac will not die, that there is another purpose to the story. It is because we cling to certain moral foundations that we reject the Akeida as a cup of tea with a sterile cockroach.
Why are we like this? Because our American experience has diluted the original eastern orientation of our religious thinking. This is a failure of modern American Judaism. We live in a culture that demands we choose sides, which means we gravitate to certain moral foundations. It means that we choose sides, us/them, liberal/conservative, religious/non-religious, pro gun/anti gun – you can identify the many silos our culture forces us to choose rather than be open to understanding the moral basis for the positions of those with whom we disagree. Contemporary Judaism has chosen to emphasize certain moral foundations – caring, fairness and liberty. We practice a Judaism that is less open to all six moral foundations and this is to our detriment.
Discussions of moral relativism are truly rather silly. It is obvious our moral judgments change – that is why we reject slavery, why women vote, and now we have legalized same sex marriage. What does not change is the presence of the six moral foundations. What does not change is how we become rooted in instinct and intuition as opposed to logic and reason in our moral choices. Our reading of and reaction to the Akeida illustrates this. Do not misunderstand me. I am NOT justifying either God or Abraham in this story. Rather, I am justifying the presence of the story. It is the Torah’s radical way of reminding us that morality is much more than we think it is. Its presence in our Torah is a jarring push to understand moral values beyond our comfort zone. It is a call to push intuition aside, to stretch our understanding of morality. If we can do that, we can be open to relationships with people who we initially reject as incompatible with our values. And, if we can create those relationships, if we can open our hearts and minds to our fellow human beings; we take a step towards not only enriching our lives; we live the Jewish value of trying to create balance in a world that needs it desperately. As Mark Twain put it, “I don’t like to commit myself about heaven and hell – you see, I have friends in both places.”