Necessary Ethics


There is much more to the Book of Genesis – the content of the Torah reading cycle at this time of year – than the stories that comprise it.  In his introduction to Sefer Bereshit, Rabbi Naftali Tzi Yehudah Berlin of Volozhin (d. 1893) notes that the prophets alternatively refer to the Book of Genesis as “Sefer HaYashar,” the Book of the Righteous, since the Book concentrates on the saga of the patriarchs who are called “righteous ones.”  And there are ample examples of righteous deeds that make the point.  Avraham Avinu, for example, insists that God must not destroy the city of Sodom if there are as few as ten decent people residing there.  But the NaTZIV, as he is known by his acronym, also goes on to expatiate that good conduct is required for perpetuating human existence.  Hence, ethical living is more important than ritual observance or religious piety.  The Second Temple, he reminds us, was destroyed because Jews then were careless in the way they treated others while careful in performing the sacrifices.

Good conduct is inextricably linked with personal responsibility, however much the concept of personal responsibility has fallen out of favor.  The National Post (June 19, 2015), for instance, reported that General Thomas Lawson, Canada’s top military leader, tried to explain sexual abuse in the armed forces by claiming that male soldiers who abuse their female comrades are simply “biologically wired” to do so, believing that “it is a reasonable thing to press themselves and their desires on others.”  This attitude dating back to Darwin and Spencer and promoted by evolutionary biologists and neuroscientists claim that what is judged as evil is nothing more than what is innately natural.

But Emer O’Hagen, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Saskatchewan has it right.  She says that this “new default position” – “a speedy move to biological determinism” – is more an excuse than an explanation.   “I couldn’t help myself” is the last bastion of the morally weak.  Along with “I was only following orders,” these statements, if accepted on face value, could justify any and all wickedness perpetrated on humanity.  This is not to say that human beings are immune to the influence of their urges or their cultures.  But it is the mark of a mature and disciplined human being to rise above them.  The challenge humans must face is to repress our urges and not surrender to them.

When Potiphar’s wife attempts to seduce Joseph, Joseph – a mere seventeen years old – resists.  The argument that “no one will know” did not convince him since Joseph was less concerned with human witnesses than he was with God’s all-seeing eye.  Joseph is reputed to be “The Righteous One” (Yosef HaTzadik) although he tattled on his brothers and lorded over them.  His insistence on doing what is right and what is good even when he could escape detection earned him that title. 

To be a Jew means more than simply adhering to the commandments and following them punctiliously.  Being a Jew means mastering ourselves, doing what is ethical and not necessarily what is natural. 


Words to Live By

What lies behind you and what lies ahead of you pales in comparison to what lies inside you.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

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