Think Again: The religious mind-set
Isolation in private virtual universes, in which death and mayhem have no permanent consequences, makes radical cruelty less unthinkable.
Religious leaders unite to bless sustainability Photo: Eitan Press
I’m often struck by the commonalities in ways of thinking shared by religious
believers of different faiths – or at least by Christians and Jews. (I do not
know enough to comment on Eastern religions, and with respect to Islam, those
common elements seem to be increasingly overwhelmed by resentment, xenophobia,
and a burgeoning death cult.) The morning after the 2012 US presidential
election, political analyst Michael Barone described the major division in
American society primarily as one between religious belief and non-belief. On one
side are those who are “traditionally religious, personally charitable,
appreciative of entrepreneurs, and suspicious of government”; on the other side
are those who are “secular..., less charitable, suspicious of business, and
supportive of government as an instrument of liberal causes.”
that the old religious wars between devout Protestants and believing Catholics
are largely a thing of the past, as the two groups find themselves increasingly
similar in their thinking on a wide range of social issues. He might have added
Orthodox Jews as well.
ONE AREA where the divide between believers and
nonbelievers stands out boldly is in response to tragedy – whether at the hands
of nature or man. The religious believer tends to use tragedy as a spur to
introspection about himself and his society and as a means to work on his
relationship with his fellow man and with God. He lives in a world rich in
metaphor and filled with hints as to how to improve his own behavior.
nonbeliever, raised on the Enlightenment confidence in unaided human reason, is
far less likely to look within. While he may pay rhetorical lip service to the
need for national stocktaking in the wake of tragedy, he does not mean himself.
That stocktaking is for the purpose of identifying the villains and coming up
with new laws to restrain them.
Natural disasters are thus doubly
distressing for the nonbeliever. They stand as a stark reminder of the limits of
human control. Hurricane Sandy could not be outlawed. After the fact, it can be
asked whether the damage could have been dramatically lessened by spending
billions, if not hundreds of billions of dollars, to construct gigantic barriers
against the ocean in anticipation of an event unprecedented at that latitude in
living memory. And during Republican administrations, at least, there are
opportunities to find villains. But when a Democrat sits in the White House,
there is little solace to be had.
But where the nonbeliever sees only
senseless destruction, the believer still finds the possibility of growth.
Walter Russell Mead, one of America’s leading public intellectuals and also one
of the few who writes openly of his religious faith, penned a beautiful
meditation as Hurricane Sandy spread its destruction.
Though he quotes
scripture from the King James translation – as befits the son of an Anglican
minister – they are familiar to any religiously literate Jew, and I suspect that
the sentiments expressed would resonate with most believing Jews as well: “[The
hurricane reminds us that] a storm is coming from which neither you nor we can
survive. The strongest walls, the sturdiest retirement plans stuffed with stocks
and CDs, the best doctors cannot protect us from that encounter with the force
that made and will someday unmake us.
To come to terms with the radical
insecurity in which we live is to find a different and more reliable kind of
security... [T]he same force that sends these storms into our lives offers a
peace and security that no storm can destroy. As another one of the psalms puts
it, ‘Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.’ Accepting
your limits and your dependence on things you can’t control is the first step on
the road toward finding that joy.”
THE DIVERGENCE in response between
believers and nonbelievers is no less great with respect to maninflicted
tragedies, such as the recent mass murder in Newtown, Connecticut, in which 26
people, including 20 children, were murdered. True to the Enlightenment
confidence in the power of laws to shape human behavior, US President Barack
Obama has appointed a commission and promised legislative action
Yet it would be a stretch to call the legalistic response
rational, in the sense of being based on evidence and/or logic. Every proposed
restriction on privately- held firearms currently on the table (many of which
will not pass constitutionally, given the current state of Second Amendment
jurisprudence) has previously been tried to little effect.
legal responses most likely to make future “narcissistic suicides” (in Mark
Steyn’s apt description) less lethal are ruled out of court in advance. Legal
restrictions of involuntary commitment of the mentally ill will not be loosened.
No matter how much statistical support law and economics professors John Lott
and William Landes marshaled in their 2000 article “Multiple Victim Public
Shootings” for the proposition that the one proven means to reduce the lethality
of public shootings is allowing the carrying of concealed weapons – so that
someone capable of shooting the perpetrator is likely to be on the scene – it
can be foretold in advance that enactment of such laws will not be one of the
recommendations emanating from the Presidential Commission.
legalistic in form, the legislative impulse in this case is expiatory minus any
feelings of personal guilt: Something, anything, must be done to demonstrate we
humans are in control. Some members of the liberal commentariat even suggested
targeted assassinations of leaders of the National Rifle Association.
ONLY piece on Newtown that struck me as something more than the use of a
terrible tragedy for the purpose of riding beloved hobbyhorses was sent to me by
Rabbi Shlomo Goldberg, a Los Angeles educator. He begins by discussing the
prevalence of social isolation today. Too many of our young live much of their
lives in virtual universes devoid of human contact. The original icon for iPods
and iPads was a faceless figure dancing alone. Both listening to music and
dancing used to be social activities. But today, everyone is dancing to his own
private playlist brought to him alone via earphones.
Isolation in private
virtual universes, in which death and mayhem have no permanent consequences,
makes radical cruelty less unthinkable. The word for “cruelty” in the holy
tongue is achzariut, which can be read ach (only) zarut (strangeness,
alienation): The less connection we feel to other human beings, the easier it is
to treat them brutally.
In contrast to the world of declining
face-to-face contact and communal life described by Robert Putnam in Bowling
Alone: The Collapse and Revival of the American Community, the Torah envisions a
world of connection of man to himself, to his fellow men and to God. In a speech
that he gave on many secular kibbutzim between the 1967 Six Day War and the 1973
Yom Kippur War, the late Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe took as his starting point an
aggadata (nonlegal talmudic discussion) in Tractate Menahot (53b): “Let the
yedid [beloved friend] who is the son of a yedid come and build a yedid for the
Yedid, in the portion of the yedid, so that the yedidim will thereby achieve
The Talmud interprets the statement to mean: “Let King
Solomon, the descendant of Abraham, come and build the Temple for God, in the
land of the tribe of Benjamin, so that the Jewish people can achieve atonement.”
The Talmud brings proof texts that all those named are elsewhere referred to as
“yedid.” The word “yedid” is made up of the word “hand” (yad) doubled; a dear
friend is one with whom you walk hand-in-hand. The obscure language of the
aggadata thus portrays the world as one of connection to God and, through Him,
to all of His creations.
Rabbi Goldberg’s starting point is the
assumption that social ills begin with failures of human character, and thus the
improvement of character is the key to any remedy of social ills. He employs
that insight not to club others with the superiority of the Torah community but
as a tool for the creation of increased connection in our communities and
schools – e.g., through the teaching of the laws between man and his fellow
A HIGHER degree of social cohesion is something else that
characterizes various religious communities. The religious typically rank
significantly higher with respect to charitable giving, volunteerism and group
membership, as Michael Barone noted.
The only truly biracial group I have
ever seen was a church group from Terre Haute, Indiana, with which I once shared
a plane trip to the US. (Though the college I attended was thoroughly
integrated, the black students ate only with other black students.) I once
hitched a ride from Chicago to Milwaukee with two young Mormons. However bizarre
their theology might have sounded to my Jewish ears, their description of the
organization of Mormon communities into units of tens, hundreds and thousands
was instantly recognizable. It was straight out of the Torah portion of Yitro,
in which Moses is advised by his father-in-law (advice later given by the Divine
imprimatur) to appoint leaders of the tens, fifties, hundreds and thousands. And
the degree of mutual responsibility they described in Mormon communities could
have served as a model for my own community.
“Behold, I have placed
before you life and the good, death and evil, that I command you this day to
love the Lord, your God...” (Deuteronomy 30:15-16). The great medieval
commentator Ibn Ezra derives from this verse that “life is meant for the sake of
love.” That too is a message to which people any number of religious faiths
The writer is director of Jewish Media Resources, has
written a regular column in The Jerusalem Post Magazine since 1997, and is the
author of eight biographies of modern Jewish leaders.