Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Ennobling Nature of Torah

I. Moral Failings and Mussar

In R. Avi Shafran's recent article "Sin and Subtext", discussed in this post, R. Shafran makes an interesting point:

I believe – and it is Judaism’s belief – that Torah is transformative, that human inclinations are harnessed and controlled by Torah-life and Torah-study. To be sure, there are Jews who lead publicly observant lives yet who are not truly committed to Torah, who have not internalized “fear of Heaven.” And so, there will always be anecdotal evidence of Orthodox wrongdoings of many sorts, with perpetrators identifiable, and duly identified, as Orthodox.
I do not believe that Torah is transformative, or--more precisely--that Torah is necessarily transformative. And I think R. Shafran would agree to this. Torah is only transformative if one works hard to let it be. The Gemara (Bava Basra 78b) tells us that those who rule over their inclinations must make calculations (cheshbonos) in order to prevail. Similarly, the Mishnah (Avos 3:1) teaches us that the way to avoid sin is to reflect on three things: from where you came, to where one is going and before whom one will ultimately give an account and reckoning. Avoiding sin is not something that necessarily comes from Torah study or from living an observant lifestyle. It comes through concerted effort. The Gemara (Berakhos 33b) asks surprisedly, is fearing G-d a simple, small matter? Yes, it answers, to Moshe Rabbenu it was a simple thing. To the rest of us, however, it is something we must struggle to acquire.

Click here to read moreThis was the whole point of the Mussar Movement--that students of Torah must dedicate time and effort to become better Jews because the study of Torah alone was not succeeding. Over a hundred years after R. Yisrael Salanter's efforts, he seems to have wildly succeeded in some respects but sadly failed in others. The study of mussar books is now common in yeshivos, as is the occasional mussar "shmuess". However, the intensity and focus that R. Yisrael Salanter demanded, the personal accountings and group discussions about moral improvement, seem to be almost entirely non-existent. However, while his methods may not have survived, his main point that people need to focus on their character traits in order to improve them remains an accepted truth. Torah study alone or an unexamined religious life alone, it is now generally accepted, is insufficient.

II. The Eternal Struggle

However, even someone who is a mussar devotee does not miraculously lose his desire to sin. People are engaged in constant life-long battles, and depending on the stage in their lives they may fall prey to sin; even religious Jews; even Torah scholars. None of us are immune to failing religiously. That is why we repent every year during the High Holiday season, and even every day in our various prayers.

The non-religious do not have a monopoly on moral failings.

I do not for a minute believe that religion encourages sin or somehow creates people who are more prone to sin. Frankly, I don't think that anyone believes that, or at least very, very few people do.

In theory, religion would reduce moral failings but that assumes that we live in a religious community where people not only learn Torah and observe commandments but consciously struggle daily to identify and overcome their desires to sin. It is not at all clear to me that Mussar is sufficiently strong in our community for us to be free to make such a claim.

III. Double Standards

However, if it were true, and we did live in a truly religious community that was sensitive to Mussar demands, then we need to think about our accusing the media of holding a religious community to a double standard, expecting more of us than they expect of non-religious people. Shouldn't they? If we claim that the Torah ennobles our community, shouldn't we--"a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (Ex. 19:6)--be expected to live according to a higher moral standard? Just like it is more scandalous for a rabbi to curse than a layperson, it should be more scandalous for a religious Jew to fail morally than someone else.

Is that not how God Himself treats people? The Gemara (Yevamos 121b) states that God is more exacting of the righteous. He has higher standards for those who are supposed to be better. This double-standard is a common theme in understanding narratives in the Torah and is presumably a model for human interaction as well. Certainly teachers have higher standards for students who can accomplish more. The successes and failures of those with the ability and the tools to achieve higher morality should be evaluated accordingly.

If we cannot reach that higher standard then we need to ask ourselves the difficult question of why not. I believe that it is the lack of Mussar but others might have different answers. Regardless, it seems to me that it is self-defeating to argue in our defense that it is unfair that we are held to a higher standard. We should demand it.

Leaving that aside, I suggest that complaining of a double standard for a Torah community and arguing that the Torah ennobles people is self-contradictory. If Torah truly ennobles people then they should be held to a higher standard. However, this higher standard should be acknowledged by all involved. Those who criticize the Torah community must make it clear that they are holding this community to a higher standard and what their evaluation would be according to a more generally applicable standard.

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