Friday, November 17, 2006

Humanitarian Jews

A college activist Mark Hanis was interviewed by Haaretz not so long ago (8/25/06.) He is a founder of the Genocide Intervention Network, a voluntary organization that has quickly become a major player in the struggle to prevent genocide in Darfur. Hanis says he is determined to enable other nations to avoid the tragedy that his own people experienced. All his grandparents died in the Holocaust. He wants to prevent similar situations occurring elsewhere. He regards his actions as a way of expressing his Jewish identity.

Hanis does not attend synagogue regularly nor does he identify with any of the religious streams in Judaism. Like most young American Jews, he defines himself as "just Jewish." In 2001, he visited Israel. Unlike his first encounter with Africa, the visit made no particular impression. Israeli society's burning issues do not worry Hanis. Although he vaguely cares about the Jewish state, he has other idealistic causes on his mind.

The Haaretz article goes on to say Hanis' story demonstrates that the Holocaust can drive the Jewish identity of many young American Jews. The author concludes in this way, “It also shows that Israel and its problems are irrelevant to their liberal agenda. Programs that bring young non-committed Jews to Israel have yet to prove that they can arouse in them any feeling of commitment toward the Jewish people.’’

I am not as pessimistic as the interviewer. There is an implicit assumption here that requires some discussion. The assumption is that either a Jew is religious, or is committed to Israel in the way Diaspora Jews express such commitments, or is committed to the Jewish people whatever that might mean in a practical way. When a Jew finds some non-Jewish cause and in his mind feels it expresses his Jewish identity and his feeling of being Jewish, even if the cause is noble, he is somehow not quite up to par as a Jew .A Jew, however idealistic, who devotes his life to some non-Jewish humanitarian cause is on his way to being lost to the Jewish people, even if he feels the cause gives expression to his Jewishness.

I disagree with the evaluation. Here is a young person trying to prevent genocide in Africa and in his mind finds a connection between his work and his family’s history during the Holocaust. He sounds like a wonderful humanitarian. Why is it appropriate to ask what is he doing for the Jewish people? If a Jew goes to Israel and oohs and aahs and coos how wonderful everything is, goes home writes a check for a few dollars, no one complains. A Jew who comes to Israel says ‘’very nice but I have other things on my mind,’’ goes home and saves 25,000 Africans from a horrible death, it triggers a complaint of being lost to the Jewish people. Something isn’t quite right.

How is one to give an account of such a situation? In deciding whether what a person is doing is good or worthwhile. I would suggest it is a category mistake of sorts to think strategically. In evaluating whether a Jew is a good person we need not just focus on what the person is doing for the Jewish people or Israel. If what he is doing is good in general, and there are no countervailing bad activities then everything else equal the person is a good person. Second, although he can still be a bad Jew the fact that he is a good person counts to his credit in deciding if he is a good Jew, while still allowing for the possibility that a good man can be a bad Jew. Even though we might all be soldiers in God’s army, even if apostasy is a form of desertion, we need not always evaluate everyone in terms of what they are doing for the success of the army.

Two doctors, one doctor cures a disease Jews suffer from; the other cures a disease that only affects other peoples. The doctor who helped the Jews gets a bigger yasher- koach, an appreciation of gratitude from his fellow Jews. Both were not equally good for the Jews. I still say ceteris paribus both are equally good people, though not necessarily equally good Jews. Nevertheless the doctor who benefited mankind in general but not the Jews gets credit towards being evaluated as a good Jew.

If you consider ‘what has he done for us lately?’ as part of the answer to whether someone is a good person, you end up in a morass. A self interested used car shyster salesman and Mark Hanis are both not immediately useful to the Jewish people…so are they equal? Hanis is doing good deeds and is clearly the better person. So I propose the kiddush Hashem test. If what a person does is a sanctification of God’s name, if we the Jewish people are proud of his activities, then everything else equal he is a good person even if he is not doing anything on behalf of the Jewish people.

Following Rawls I define a good man as someone who has qualities above average that are rational to desire in a man. A good Jew is someone who has qualities above average that are rational to desire in a Jew from a Jewish perspective. From a moral/human perspective it is rational to desire a quality such as humanitarian compassion. Mark Hanis has this quality to an exemplary degree. Since he is a good person engaged in good deeds I would say that in and of itself gives him an initial exemption of sorts from working on behalf of Jewish causes. I am suggesting a secular version of the Talmudic dictum that someone who is engaged in one mitzvah is free from performing another competing mitzvah.

One final point. Going in the other direction the situation might not be symmetric. A bad man can’t in general be a good Jew. A guy who steals a million dollars from the US government and gives it to the poor of Judea and Samaria or to the Mirer yeshiva is not a a good Jew ….it’s a mitzvah habaah baevirah type deal. He committed an act of intended benevolence to Jews through doing something morally wrong. He gets no Jewish credit, at least not in my book. It’s Goldstein redux. I would think Reform Jews believe part of what we mean when we say someone is a good Jew is that he is a good person. I myself don’t rule out a priori the possibility that a bad man might be a good Jew because there might be cases where he is below average in the virtues we desire in a human being, but above average in the virtues we desire in a Jew. I am reminded of the Samuelson quip that if someone goes from MIT to Harvard the average IQ goes up in both places (i.e. below average at MIT is above average at Harvard.) My post is beginning to resemble a philosophy lecture, and I’ll stop.

Moral philosophy from a Jewish perspective is a neglected area in Jewish thought. No one has tried to work out denomination by denomination what a good Jew is and what are the virtues that make someone a good Jew. I realize the ideas in these last three posts need more work, but this is the best I can do right now. I just couldn’t resist the temptation to at least make a start.


At 10:43 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"It also shows that Israel and its problems are irrelevant to their liberal agenda. Programs that bring young non-committed Jews to Israel have yet to prove that they can arouse in them any feeling of commitment toward the Jewish people."

There's one other implicit assumption here over which you elided. The author is making the following equation: commitment toward the Jewish people = caring about Israel and her problems. Perhaps one cannot be apathetic about Israel if one is committed to the Jewish people, but one can certainly focus one's energies elsewhere. I, a shomer mitzvot, lived for two years in Israel (really lived, as in, rented apartments and paid bills, etc., not hiding out in some yeshiva dorm) and couldn't stand the place; by contrast, I had secular friends (mostly British) who actively opposed observing mitzvot (but were geeks as you described in an early post, since they learned Torah intensively) and who loved Israel and davka joined the IDF. I'm sure the Haaretz author would rank me lower than them.

At 12:36 PM, Blogger evanstonjew said... might be right about this particular author, and there are certainly others who would say the same. I plan to take up some of these issues in the future when I weigh in on Satmar and satellites, and the role of Zionism in the lives of diaspora Jews.

At 2:22 PM, Anonymous quietann said...

That quote offended me, too. Birthright and similar programs get cited by young Jews of all political and affiliative stripes as reconnecting them with their Jewish roots. And a lot of them go tell their friends to get involved, too!

Maybe (and this is not a nice thing to say) the Haaretz writer is disappointed because most of those young Jews don't become observant "enough."

Plus please keep in mind that young Jews of a liberal political persuasion are walking into a minefield if they bring up Israel to their peers. They may well succumb to peer pressure to put their charitable energies elsewhere. And not just young Jews face this; I have a Jewish coworker who is a major player in the local pro-Palestine/anti-Israel scene, and we can barely stay civil with each other. And I am far from a hardcore Zionist.

At 1:36 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Maybe (and this is not a nice thing to say) the Haaretz writer is disappointed because most of those young Jews don't become observant "enough.""

On the contrary, haaretz is not interested in observnce and the reaction of the paper is not typical. Secular Israelis define Jewishness by connection to Israel, the country.
The column only reflects a secular Israeli perspective, not worth debunking. It's a poor example of how diaspora Jews, religious or not, think (sorry EJ).

At 2:21 AM, Blogger Ben Bayit said...

To teh first anonymous - I think that teh Torah (wriiten and oral) would rank you lower as well. Not just Haaretz.

Consider the issue of Mitzvat Yishuv Haaretz and the issue of Dibat Haaretz nad get back to us.

Contrary to popular belief amongst religious Jews in the USA, not liking Israel, not liking Israelis and/or not being able to "adapt" to Israeli culture are NOT valid halachic excuses for not fulfilling the mitzva of yishuv haaretz. Frankly, these attitudes are no diffewrent than that of the shysters who are so frum in everything they do, but rip off the government to give tzedaka. Shmirat mitzvot in Chu"l in today's day and age (if they have any value at all as mitzvot; see the Ramban) might also be mitzva haba be'aveira


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