This blog post is based on a Rosh Hashana evening sermon delivered at Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in September, 2022. For the complete series, click here. A video of this sermon is available here.
Some choices are nobody’s business. My liking pickles and eating them alone in my own home does not affect your life. Unless you are my family who cannot stand even the idea of pickles. Too bad, family, I loved pickles before I loved you. But my pickle passion is not an ethical issue that affects your life; it’s a personal preference, a matter of taste (good or bad). If I decided to make pickles and the smell spread through the neighborhood, that might be nuisance enough to earn a local fine. It would be bad manners and inconsiderate, but not evil. If I upped my pickle production even more, to the point that noxious fumes were getting pets and people sick, now my pickle-palooza is a health hazard that must be stopped. My mania for the sourest of sour dills has crossed the line from personal flaw to immoral obsession. It is now morally right and morally required to intervene and to stop me.
Most people assume ethics is a question of HOW – how to be a good person, how to know right from wrong, how to balance individual desires with group needs. In the real world, morality also requires some understanding of WHEN and WHERE. When should our values affect only personal choices, and when should we impose our values on the outside world? Some of you may recall a past High Holiday series on “the hardest things to say,” like “I don’t know” or “help me.” I pointed out then that “you are right and I am wrong” is HARD to say, but it’s very EASY to say “I am right and YOU are wrong!”
When we think of people publicly telling us we are morally wrong, what do we picture? Maybe anti-abortion protestors, or the Westboro Baptist Church condemning the LGBT and those who accept them, or fundamentalist prudes telling women they’re too exposed. Or, maybe it’s the militantly secular demanding that Western Muslim women to uncover their heads, or European animal rights activists banning kosher and halal slaughter, or each side in the American culture wars trying to ban the books and de-platform the speakers of the other – all in the name of what is right, what is moral, how the world out there should conform to MY morals in my heart and in my congregation.
Part of the moral crisis we face today is that question of WHEN and WHERE – when can we take what we value in here – in our own minds, in our families, in our communities of meaning – and then impose those values on the outside world? We do not want others telling us what to do, so when can we tell THEM what we want them to do or not do? Here’s one example: when our children went to preschool, we faced a dilemma – the preschool had tricycles to ride at recess, and wearing helmets was optional based on parent preference. My wife’s close friend had her life saved by a bike helmet, and we are seatbelt kind of people anyways, so we knew we would require our children to wear helmets. Other parents made different choices, and our kids had already seen other families riding bikes both with and without helmets. We had to explain why THEY had to wear helmets while other kids would not. Our solution was to say that we felt the unhelmeted were not making a smart choice. Is that judgmental of other people’s preference? Yes it is, even if it’s judgmental while affirming their right to choose differently. But we would rather be a little judgmental with safe children who understand safe choices, than to abdicate our parental responsibility for their safety by telling them “do whatever you want.” This was OUR balance between helicopter parenting and free range parenting, between a nanny state and a state small enough to drown in a bathtub, between living our own values and letting others live theirs. We could have decided that our 4 year old could do their own cost-benefit analysis between the wind in their hair and their head on the pavement. Or, since preventing harm to others is a moral action, we could have decided that letting ANY child ride without a helmet was immoral, child endangerment, and we could have demanded that the preschool change its policy or else we would leave, maybe even protest in front of the school and online until they accepted our moral judgment. This is what we chose – what would you have done?
Historically, religion has had few qualms about vocally and vehemently telling people they are doing wrong. Torah commandments are not secrets, or only for the elite, or multiple choice. Hebrew prophets fervently condemned both human cruelty and the theological infidelity of “whoring” after other gods. Why do Jews break a glass at the end of weddings? One source describes a rabbi upset that a wedding party was celebrating with too much joy while the Jerusalem Temple lay destroyed that he smashed an expensive glass to correct them. Jesus threw money changers out of that same Temple and preached repentance before the end of days. Mohammed and his successors fused religion and politics in one ‘umma or community to purify Muslim religious practice & impose Islam on those who did not worship one god with written revelations, as did Christians or Jews. Witches have been burned, heretics persecuted, infidels slaughtered, all in the name of enforcing morality. Ironically, we call what they did evil; they were convinced they were righteous.
This history gives us pause if we consider proclaiming our own moral mission: are we crusading for justice, or are we just Crusaders in the 21st century, convinced of our righteousness to the point of blindness? 100 years ago, it was illegal in the United States to consume alcohol outside of small quantities for religious rituals; l’chaim was ok, but no more. Prohibition was passed with the best moral intentions: fighting alcoholism, eliminating public drunkenness, reducing domestic abuse and poverty, improving public safety – hear the religious fervor in the Women’s CHRISTIAN Temperance Union. Of course, people who wanted to drink and felt it was a personal choice just ignored the rules, and there were real dangers from bootleg liquor and the explosion in criminality by bootleggers. Eventually, the country agreed that the harms of prohibition outweighed the benefits, and also that allowing drinking at all is a personal choice even with the risks of abuse and addiction, drunk driving, fetal alcohol syndrome and all the rest. Would banning alcohol today potentially save lives? Yes. Would that impose one group’s choice on everyone? Yes.
We need to differentiate between personal preference and moral crisis. Some issues are moral dilemmas, and some issues, it’s just a pickle. We do not rely on commandments, so it would be particularly hypocritical for me to tell you exactly what to do! And recall that morality is about more than just harming or helping people. We consider some deeds immoral if they treat people deeply unfairly, even if the harm is minimal. Some deeds are immoral if they undermine our freedom and autonomy, some are immoral if they are rooted in deception or violate fundamental dignity. Some deeds are considered immoral if they undermine key structures and institutions. For more about these categories of moral thinking, I recommend moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind. Morality, and the root of our current moral crisis, is not just a question of how, it is a question of when and where and the complex intersection of multiple duties. Do we lie to save someone from what we think will hurt them, or does that undermine their dignity to handle the truth and the lie itself is a moral violation? Social cohesion is good for humanity, but what are the proper limits on personal expression? Today we are focused on life and death, the moral category of harm and care, but remember that morality encompasses much more. Rabbinic ethics likewise grappled with the conflict of duties: can you break Shabbat to save a life? How do you honor your parents if they are thieves?
There’s an old saying about when morality intervenes in personal choices: “your freedom ends where your fist hits my nose.” Fist, not pickle smell. This could mean that I can punch a wall and hurt myself, because that does not hurt you any more than singing the University of Michigan fight song with its arm gesture. Even though I grew up rooting for U-M and I am an alumnus, my post-Holocaust brain still has a visceral reaction to a full stadium raising their right arm and yelling “Hail! Hail!” They’re not being immoral, that is my personal reaction to their free expression. We’ll talk more about the power of words and symbols on Yom Kippur. If we agree with this principle of “your freedom ends where your fist hits my nose,” then we are respecting bodily autonomy. There are times, for social good, we infringe on that right, like mandatory vaccines for school admission, but my bodily autonomy is a moral good. This is why I support the rights of those with terminal illnesses to freely choose to end their own pain by ending their lives. For me, Death with Dignity is a moral issue. Non-addictive substances from marijuana to mushrooms are none of our business unless you put me at risk by operating a vehicle – your freedom also ends where your CAR hits mine. Bodily autonomy for what we put in our bodies (or what we remove) is a moral issue.
Are these also “political” issues? Yes, they are political because they involve passing or revoking laws. Sometimes there is no bright line between what is political and what is moral, because laws limit or permit personal behavior and regulate how we interact with each other. Morality in every flavor agrees that killing people is wrong and saving lives is right. But how indirectly can the causation be to make behavior immoral enough to require action? Most agree that drunk driving is close enough to potential homicide to require intervention. Now we know that driving with gasoline contributes to climate-change-fueled severe weather which kills people, but most disagree that driving with any amount of gasoline is dangerous enough to morally condemn it, at least outside of California. My family has chosen to drive fuel-efficient and now electric vehicles from our moral conviction, but your mileage may vary.
So what about the guns? Guns are designed to hurt and to kill, but there is a world of difference in both practical risk and moral responsibility between a responsible gun owner with licensing and training, trigger locks, safely stored ammunition, weapon registration and reasonable firepower on one hand, and the wild west with weapons of war we face today. There is no one size fits all moral answer to some aspects of this challenge. Suicide with a gun kills more people every year than homicide, and handguns kill far more people than long guns like an AR-15. That does NOT mean that there is NOTHING we can do. Nor that the language of morality is beyond the pale. The rabbinic principle of pikuach nefesh, the saving of life, is so important that one may violate practically any religious law to save a life – drive on Shabbat, eat forbidden food, even violate the fast of Yom Kippur. A new “prohibition” will not work, but taking on weapons of war and high capacity magazines and unchecked gun sales will save some lives. You do not need to believe that every human being was created in the image of God to save lives; you just have to believe they exist today in your image and they want to live as much as you do. I understand this is the same motivation claimed by the pro-life movement, to save what they consider human life. But if they have the right to advocate for their values on the grounds of morality, so do I.
20 years ago, political commentators began writing about “Values voters” – they meant fundamentalist Christian voters, voters who were for school prayer and for government support of religion and against teaching evolution and against gay marriage and against abortion. These “values voters” voted based on their religious and moral beliefs, not their economic interests or global geopolitics or environmentalism. As usual, this was lazy punditry – pro-choice and pro-science and pro-separation of church and state and pro-marriage equality voters ALSO have values! They vote based on those values. The more we learn about the brain, the more we realize that no one is a purely rational actor making purely analytical decisions. The more intense the culture wars have become, the harder it is to draw a line between “politics” and “morality.” Stigmatizing transgender athletes and banning gender-affirming healthcare leads to more suicides. Banning abortion imposes one segment of one religion’s definitions of life on everyone. We have seen how undermining science can impact life and death. Do I vote because of my moral beliefs? I hope I do!
Out there in the real world, it feels like we face a moral crisis. The solution to our moral crisis is NOT more of that old-time religion, with commandments and cosmic judgment and heresy and inquisition. We need to speak up with our moral voice for our moral values: care and concern, diversity and dignity, respect and social cohesion, freedom and responsibility. In traditional rabbinic thought, a cosmic Book of Life opens on Rosh Hashana is sealed on Yom Kippur. These 10 days decide who will live and who will die in the new year. The purpose of High Holiday services was to achieve divine forgiveness so your name would be written in that Book of Life. Today I challenge us with a different book of life – how many names, how many lives, can we save by what we do in the 12 months to come? It can be as mundane as donating blood or as significant as passing legislation, or as easy as supporting a shelter for battered women and children, as we are again this year.
These lives can only be saved by human actions that we take. As the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai once wrote, “even a fist was once an open palm with fingers.” If we extend our open palm, and we join hands, and we work together, moral crisis becomes a moral opportunity to do good. What better message to carry into a new Jewish year? Shana Tova, and may YOU do some writing in the book of life.
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