A Small Addition to Rabbi Sacks’ Beautiful Article in the NY Times

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jonathan-sacksIn yesterday’s New York Times, Rabbi Sacks is a featured Op-Ed contributor. His article, The Moral Animal has been at the top of the Most Emailed and near the top of the Most Viewed lists for a couple days now.

It’s a beautifully written article. I think Rabbi Sacks is really onto something here. He basically argues that the survival of good, kind, compassionate religion is a function of a quasi-evolution. We are hard wired for empathy and altruism. But we are also hard wired to survive and act selfishly. Religion functions as a way of helping us maintain balance or even tip the scales in favor of empathy and altruism.

He uses some fancy neuroscience to support his premise and I am certainly not qualified to comment on that aspect of the article.

Rabbi Sacks concludes that “religion is the best antidote to the individualism of the consumer age” and we cannot allow the West to “lose their sense of God”. Rabbi Sacks is correct that good religion is good for society. We need to foster and promote that kind of religion. Kind, compassionate, caring about everyone and greasing the wheels of humanity to push the world forward. Sometimes religion does the opposite of that. Rabbi Sacks is trying to showcase the softer, more humanistic side of religion and I support that completely. We need to emphasize that kind of religion in our religious communities and in the public eye.

Also, as Rabbi Adlerstein pointed out, there is no fear of science detectable in Rabbi Sacks’ article. Everything science teaches us can be used to glorify God and increase our appreciation for the world God gave us.

I really like the article and only have one small complaint.

I wish that Rabbi Sacks would open the door for non-believers to be included in his article. In other words, Rabbi Sacks is implying that those without religion are doomed because their selfishness is bound to control them and eventually it could control and ultimately destroy society.

I don’t think we need to be so apocalyptic.

The mission of the Jewish People is to be a light to the nations. I think it is fallacious to assume that this requires everyone to be religious or Christian, or Muslim, Hindu, or even Jewish. It means that the lessons of good, empathetic, progressive religion are universal and should become the standard for the entire world. But with good religious people leading the way, it is not necessary for everyone else to be religious to  integrate those important lessons. Good, kind, atheists also need to be part of the conversation.

We should be saying something very similar to what Rabbi Sacks is saying, but a little bit broader. We should be saying that all people must find ways to develop their empathy and altruism. If religion is your path, that’s great. If you choose another path, that is also fine. Our primary concern is not the religious choices or observances, but that the lessons and strength of good religion should not become extinct. It’s clear that non-religious people will be a huge part of the future and I think it is a mistake to exclude them from this conversation.

I love Rabbi Sacks’ message, I just think it needs to be a bit broader.

Stay tuned tomorrow for a post that investigates this issue a bit further.

UPDATE: Read this post – Religion for Atheists | Book Review

Link: NY Times

  • Shragi

    The book Religion for Atheists argues precisely what you are arguing and even shows how it can be achieved.

    • That\’s TOMORROW\’s post!

      • Shragi

        You weren\’t kidding!
        I haven\’t read the book yet but I\’ve been meaning to since hearing the author interviewed on NPR a little while back.

  • tesyaa

    As I think others have commented, religion fosters altruism among members of the same religion (sometimes merely among members of the same subgroup within a religion). Religion rarely encourages altruism towards members of other religions, except in the context of proselytizing.

    In addition, religion by necessity marginalizes those who violate religious dicta – the opposite of altruism and inclusion.

    • Rabbi Sacks, to his credit, argues that what you are describing is wrong.

      • tesyaa

        Are you talking about Putnam\’s research? How much does that research differentiate between altruism towards members of the same sect and members of other sects?

        • No. I mean he preaches altruism towards all.

  • tesyaa

    From Rabbi Sacks\’ debate with Richard Dawkins, it appears that his raison d\’etre is in davka the denunciation of atheism. So I don\’t know how your proposal would fit with his own message.

    • Indeed. I don\’t think he would agree with me. And that\’s a shame, in my opinion.

    • G*3

      The denunciation of atheism, and showing how religion is morally
      edifying and good for society. Everything I’ve seen or read of his seems to
      have the goal of showing how religion provides practical benefits to society.
      It’s probably a reaction to Dawkins and his group, who claim that religion is responsible
      for most of the evil in the world and is terrible for society. But, to me, the
      idea that one should be religious for pragmatic reasons, rather than because it’s
      what God wants, is very strange. It’s like he’s tacitly admitting that the
      atheists are right, God isn’t real, or at least, He doesn’t care, but you
      should be religious because it has all these benefits for you and society. If
      God is real and does care, then it doesn’t matter whether or not religion is
      morally edifying. You do what God tells you because there really isn’t any
      other choice.

  • I haven\’t read the op-ed, but could offer the following response to your critique: While \”unbelievers\” are certainly capable of care for others and altruism, in some sense, such selflessness is morally lacking because it is in some sense selfish – an expression of the self, of one\’s own desires and personal sense of right and wrong. The substance of such action is praiseworthy, but there is something lacking in the process by which an individual reaches the conclusion to act with altruism and focus on the other. When a \”religious\” individual acts with altruism and chessed out of a genuine sense of his being obligated to obey the external moral command of a morally superior Being who has the ability to normatively define right and wrong, his decision to obey that command and act towards others with altruism and selflessness is truly selfless, self-transcendent, and self-effacing. By contrast, when an \”unbeliever\” does the same act out of a personal sense that such conduct is morally correct (or socially utility-maximizing, or for some other self-generated reason), at bottom his is an act of self-aggrandizement. In the end, the distinction is illustrated by the maxim, \”gadol ha-mitzaveh v\’oseh memi she-eino metzuveh v\’oseh.\” Certainly we should aspire to have everyone act with appropriate altruism – tzedaka u\’mishpat – but we should acknowledge that something morally valuable is lost when the right results are obtained through the wrong process.

    • tesyaa

      One could say the opposite, that the believer who is altruistic is doing so merely to avoid Hell or another punishment. It\’s very utilitarian.

      • You\’re right. If one is doing so to avoid hell or other punishment, or to enter heaven or receive another reward, one is is not acting in an ideal way, in response to God\’s command qua command. Your example is indeed a classic definition of \”shelo lishma.\” Acting \”lishma\” requires acting simply because the act is commanded.

        • tesyaa

          Given that it\’s essentially impossible for even the truest believer to act without the motivation of fear at least some of the time, I fail to see the superiority of the believer\’s position.

          • Why does it have to be all or nothing? Do you dismiss anyone who is not 100% perfect 100% of the time (by whatever standard you use), or do you credit them for being however good they are for as much of the time that they can? Thankfully, I don\’t have to pass judgement on the merit of people\’s actions in this world, so I\’ll be happy and credit them with whatever little good they do as much of the time they do it, and maintain naive and optimistic confidence that they will do just a little bit better in the future.

            • tesyaa

              I responded to your initial comment because you insisted on drawing a distinction and saying that the believer\’s manner of performing altruism is morally superior. I don\’t agree, and I was merely pointing out that as a practical matter, there\’s no difference since believers are motivated by selfish reasons too.

    • G*3

      No. Either way, the person is choosing what he thinks is
      right. Either his “personal sense of right and wrong” is driving his actions.
      The atheist may be relying on personal and social values to define “right”
      while the theist is relying on religious dictates, but that just means that the
      theist is “personal sense of right and wrong” tells him that obeying his
      religion is right and disobeying is wrong.

  • RRand

    \”I wish that Rabbi Sacks would open the door for non-believers to be included in his article. In other words, Rabbi Sacks is implying that those without religion are doomed because their selfishness is bound to control them and eventually it could control and ultimately destroy society.\”

    Not true at all. He acknowledges that all of us have both selfish and group centered instincts. He simply argues that religion helps us move the latter to the forefront, because we associate ourselves deeply with our communities. (He also attributes it to \”the rituals we perform, the texts we read and the prayers we pray\” but I don\’t see how that follows.)

    The community element is crucial to his argument, and that\’s why it\’s an argument for religion. Other communal institutions would have the same effect, but few bind people together as well as mosques, churches and synagogues/temples.

    In effect, I see his argument as a parallel to Voltaires: \”If religion did not exist, we would be advised to invent it.\” (Interestingly, in a long discussion about moral realism yesterday, I pointed out that my interlocutors argument amounted to \”If moral realism didn\’t exist we would have to invent it.\” Both claims are plausible, though neither is a philosophical argument for God or realism, simply a practical one.)

    One response to Sacks is to propose closely knit humanist communities. Is that doable? It certainly works for some, though I can\’t imagine it creates quite the sense of community that a church does. But the argument, as I see it, is that community builds social cohesion and therefore increased altruism, at least towards members of that community (how it impacts the relation towards outsiders is an important question to ask). But that doesn\’t apply to \”Atheism\”, it applies to bowling groups and granfalloons in general.

    • milhousetrabajo

      Amen R\’ Rand. Just a note to those not familiar with R Sacks and his views, he really expands much more fully in his great book, the Great Partnership (http://www.amazon.com/Great-Partnership-Science-Religion-Meaning/dp/0805243011/ref=la_B001HCVVK8_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1356484133&sr=1-1). his point isn\’t that atheists can\’t be good, kind and moral, but that while individuals can and do show such characteristics, when whole communities/societies become atheistic and lose the common religious background, they tend to lose their moral compass as well.

      • tesyaa

        There are negatives to extremely religious communities as well, such as excessive xenophobia, that he neglects to mention.

        • milhousetrabajo

          He was writing a quick op-ed. he of course notes this and spends considerable time on it in The Great Partnership. it is a real problem, but he hopes for conscious religion with knowledge of history that can lessen such issues. But he notes that no religion is not an automatically better situation (especially as atheistic societies (based on history) tend to be intolerant of the religious just like the xenophobia you mention)

    • Yes. But he conspicuously leaves non-believers out of the equation and the only reference to non-believers is extremely negative. There is no atheist who will read this article by Rabbi Sacks and feel included.

  • vladimir

    There are millions of people that born in the totalitarian countries, and they either are not allowed or have no tradition to follow God\’s wisdom of empathy and altruism, but nevertheless they escape the holes of selfishness as they just follow the instinct of goodness. Yet, being kept in the dark, uneducated and poor, busy making the ends meet and often sick – they have no habit to be connected to God\’s light. They usually blame Him for their misfortune. We must love them, help them and give them the insight as much as we can.

  • Holy Hyrax

    I love to see the differences between your take an Dovbear\’s take. One attempts to see the light, and other by virtue of his atheism (oops) purposely seeks out to be cynical about the whole thing. It\’s a pattern that repeats itself

  • Brian

    Judaism does not teach altruism towards all people. Any student of the Talmud knows that non jews and disbelievers are discriminated against according to the law. Just to give a few examples; 1. a non jew who damages property of a jew must pay fullly whereas a jew who damages the property of a goy is patur.2. you are allowed to steal from a non jew, the only reason why we don\’t is because of darchei shalom. 3. IF you see a non believer you should throw him in a pit. 4. The Torah itself calls for the destruction of whole nations including woman and children because of the sins of their ancestors. How does this fit in to your belief that Judaism preaches altruism towards all?