Jewish Ethics

Finding the Right Balance

In a quiet suburb on the outskirts of Milwaukee there is a small family- owned business where I frequently shop. Though neither the proprietor nor the personnel are Jewish, they have always treated me and other frum customers with the greatest deference and courtesy. From time to time they express curiosity about our religious practices, and they unfailingly receive our explanations with genuine interest and admiration. During a recent visit, Michael, a son of the proprietor, initiated a conversation. Since he had always impressed me as a fine and sensitive young man, I listened respectfully. He shared with me his frustration about his parents, who refused to “get with the times.” He claimed that they insisted on holding on to outmoded beliefs and conventions of the past, refusing to acknowledge that the world had moved on and that they needed to adjust their thinking to accommodate the changes.

While it is impossible to argue with the massive impact of technology on our culture, I attempted to frame his parents’ perspective in the context of values and mores. Certainly, cell phones, the Web, Skype, and wireless everything have taken over the world, and in many ways have added a beneficial dimension to contemporary communication. The caveat, I told him, is that we dare not extrapolate principles of the technological world and apply them to our spiritual existence.

Advances in the material realm are ones we can consider embracing, within certain limitations. None of us wants to go back to the Pony Express or wood-burning stoves. The danger, however, is thinking that we can surrender our timehonored moral principles and sacred values the way we surrender outdated technology. Our society has adopted an attitude of “morality by consensus,” by which people vote (literally and figuratively) on moral issues, believing that their vote should determine whether the codes and standards that have hallowed human conduct throughout history are still relevant. For the most part, Western civilization has demonstrated little respect for the fact that moral criteria originate from a Higher Authority with wisdom far greater than our own, and that we don’t have the prerogative of voting on them.

I suggested to Michael that our current attitude toward morality is so preposterous that it is tantamount to insisting that the law of gravity is outmoded and that one is capable of jumping off a rooftop and soaring upward. We all know how unfortunate that would be. Defying physical laws that govern the existence of the world is not only illadvised but ultimately catastrophic. Similarly, the 613 mitzvos for Jews and the seven Noachide laws for non-Jews, ordered by the Master of the world, serve as the foundation of the universe. To disregard or violate these fundamental G-d–given principles is no less devastating and tragic than trying to defy principles of physics. The growing support for euthanasia and depraved lifestyles are symptomatic of the deterioration of the moral fiber of our society.

Given the constant assault on our values, we must be increasingly vigilant not to let our sensitivities become dulled, so that we respond to the ethical travesties of our time with much less outrage than we should. The liberal attitude represented by Michael’s contention that it is everyone’s right to choose whatever makes him happy, regardless of the cost, has great appeal. The very idea that there are values that supersede one’s pleasure is anathema to the Michaels of our culture. What makes arguing the traditional perspective so complicated and frustrating is that the Michaels who surround us are not demons with horns. Many of them are good and decent, albeit misguided, human beings. This makes it all the more challenging to eschew their views and maintain an uncompromising commitment to the values that we know are true and nonnegotiable. 

Consider Abby, who voiced to me her deep concern about the “other party” in her husband’s life, a presence that has consumed his attention to the point where their marriage is threatened. She identified the intruder as “digital insanity”—her husband’s obsession with iPhones, iPads and other devices, a worshipful attachment that keeps him from ever being fully present with her and the family. She claims that the “I” of these phones and pads has replaced the “we,” the togetherness that has always been the bedrock of her family.

Unquestionably, the escalating, undisciplined preoccupation with this “digital insanity” has wreaked havoc not only on family life but on personal integrity as well. Abby contended that it is the idolatry of our time. In a desperate attempt to combat this pernicious influence, many have tried to build walls around a self-imposed ghetto of sorts, hoping to keep the noxious impact of the outer world from penetrating. One must respect this intention, which certainly emanates from a holy place. Yet no matter how laudable the effort, one cannot underestimate the power of this tsunami, a tidal wave of pollution that we inhale with every breath.

In my humble estimation, the dams and levees have in the main been unsuccessful in stemming the flood waters of a morally corrosive culture. A more advisable approach for an age in which insulation and isolation are virtually impossible is to fortify ourselves and our families by greater immersion in Torah learning. More than ever, it is vital to find a mentor who is knowledgeable, wise and broadminded—a Torah personality with whom one can freely discuss his conflicts and confide whatever is on his mind. He must be non-judgmental, and he must appreciate the challenges of our time—a time, said the Satmar Rebbe, Reb Yoel, zt”l, in which walking down a single block is fraught with more nisyonos than one encountered in a lifetime in Europe of old. 

I recall an encounter between my father, the Faltishaner Rav, zt”l, and David Ben Gurion, who was then prime minister of Israel. The two found themselves on the same flight to Israel. During the flight, as my father was putting on his tallis and tefillin, Ben Gurion walked by and muttered under his breath, “These antiquated Jews who insist on hanging on to archaic practices of the past…” My father, not one to suffer insults quietly, especially if leveled against his treasured heritage, responded instantly. “Quite the contrary, Mr. Prime Minister. You are actually much more oldfashioned than I am. You may pride yourself on being modern and progressive, but let me remind you that Terach, the idolatrous predecessor of Avraham Avinu, lived long before the Torah was given. In the Passover Haggadah we read, 'In the beginning our ancestors were idolators; Terach, the father of Avraham…’ You, Mr. Prime Minister, are a throwback to those pre-Sinai primitive times, while my practices are updated.” My father was expressing the idea that answering to nothing other than one’s own appetites is a relic of an uncivilized, ancient time.

The contemporary collapse of all that is sacred is not a new phenomenon but an expression of one of the oldest human failings—the rejection of authority. We must be aware of our rationalizations and the powerful force of self-interest that blinds us to the point where the abhorrent becomes acceptable and we get sucked into its destructive vortex. The prophet Yeshayahu (5:20) said, “Woe to those who call evil good, and who call good evil; who make darkness into light, and light into darkness; who say that bitter is sweet, and sweet is bitter.” The uncompromising declaration of the Torah community is “Fortunate are we and fortunate is our portion and our legacy.” This affirmation is what we must keep in the forefront of our consciousness, and with the help of Hashem we will maintain our balance in this era of great challenge.


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