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.

Various religious leaders 370 (photo credit: Eitan Press)
Various religious leaders 370
(photo credit: 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.”
He noted 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.
The 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 forthwith.
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.
And those 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.
Though 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.
THE 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 atonement.”
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 man.
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 could subscribe.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.