In the Garden of Eden grew two trees whose fruit the Lord didn’t wish Adam to eat. The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and the Tree of Life. The fruit of the former worked as catalyst for awareness, key to cognition: to taste was to know. The fruit of the latter granted eternal life, which we like to think of as exclusively divine. We’ve all heard that, thanks to Eve, Adam ate the first fruit and, sure enough, his eyes were opened. The Lord threw the both of them out before they could reach for the second fruit. And the rest is history, in which we are born knowing good and evil, and we die.
This past August a psychology professor at Harvard, Marc Hauser, published Moral Minds, in which he argues that human beings are born hardwired for morality the way we are predisposed to language. Specific language depends upon your culture but all human children pick up at least one tongue easily. Similarly, our behavior is determined by emotions and experiences but the way we judge actions is a universal trait, independent of religion or no religion. We all have a sense of fairness. We all consider it graver when bad things result from actions than when similar bad things result from omissions. An example would be active euthanasia, speeding up a slow and painful death by administering a drug, as opposed to passive euthanasia, speeding up a slow and painful death by withholding treatment. We condemn the first and allow the second. We all judge intentional evil consequences to be worse than the same consequences if unintentional. For instance, deaths caused by terrorist bombs are worse than deaths caused by bombs meant to kill the terrorists, collateral damage. I have not read Hauser’s book but I have heard and read three interviews, and seen several reviews. What interests me here is that I have always thought that conscience was an inner quality. Though we don’t necessarily behave morally, I think we instinctively know good from evil, though, for sure, instinct does not mean correct. Hauser writes about faulty judgement too and hopes that a better understanding of the universal process will help us to make better judgements. His thinking backs me up. It also fits right in with the Garden of Eden story.
Ethical questions confront a person again and again, throughout life. Frequently the distinction is between evil and less evil, and we might prefer not to choose. We’d rather follow the lead of someone else who will make the difficult decision. Choosing, and taking responsibility, characterizes maturity. Had our mythical ancestors obediently refrained from the forbidden fruit, they would have remained blissfully infantile and you and I should not have come to be.
Torah, on the other hand, teaches us many a list of do’s and don’t’s, mitsvahs, “commandments,” as we call them. Some continue to believe that God revealed these lists so that we should know how to behave. I prefer the thesis, suggested by Genesis and Hauser: moral thinking is part of human nature. Torah reflects our ancestors’ culture and historical context. They thought and wrote a lot about ethics.
We shouldn’t be surprised that of the Ten Commandments, five are universal morals: honoring parents, not murdering, not committing adultery, not stealing, not bearing false witness. In the other famous list, in Leviticus: “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” morphs into Hillel’s “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor,” and later on to the formulation by Jesus that we call the “golden rule.” “Don’t stand idly by your neighbor’s blood,” is the one that Eli Wiesel counts as the most important single Torah line for today. Leave part of your crop for the poor. Pay a worker right away. Don’t curse the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind, taking unfair advantage. This list is called “K’doshim,” the rules for being a holy, special, people, but they are worthy teachings common in many a culture. Could it be that they reflect innate attitudes across humanity? Hauser does not have that answer, but it makes sense to me that they would.
Sei a mensch, we say, be a decent person. Modern Torah like that, along with ancient Torah, are the Jewish vocabulary for thinking and talking morality – the relationship between people of any religion. Some of us were Boy Scouts so we also know the 12 Scout Laws. They, like much of Torah, are global. Different cultures have distinct ways but all embrace these basic morals. The word “moral” comes from the Latin mor, “usage, custom. Ethics comes from the Greek ethos, “usage, custom, character.” Both refer to human relations, as distinct from the bond between a person and God. When it comes to moral judgement, we are the same as populations throughout the world. Mark Hauser demonstrates this by posing hypothetical moral dilemmas. You can participate, online, as I did, if you wish to. His point is that absent written rules people judge just the same. Torah or lack of Torah, this religion or that or no religion makes no difference in the directions people take in his tests.
So, if human beings know good and evil and if we are predisposed to moral thinking, how come all the wars, the oppression, the genocide? Why do we keep choosing evil? How is it that in a world that can discover and produce, that can grow food in abundance, so many people suffer terrible poverty, hunger, and disease. Why all the meanness, cruelty, even in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave? How is it that our president defends torture as part of our arsenal in the war against terror? What root of evil has grown so deep that we haven’t been able to dig it out? What is so wrong with the human condition? Why are we so insecure that we choose offense as the best defense? How do we come to equate strength with firepower? Have we lost our real strength, our capacity to learn and live, to flourish and to share, to build a just society? Is enlightened self interest totally corrupted? Have we lost our knowledge of good? Would another bite of the forbidden fruit help?
Public policy occupies a lot of my thought these days. I posted the “Non Sequitur” cartoon in the vestibule. Wiley Miller is not, I think, a Jew, but he teaches a key point about the Holocaust. The little girl notices the tattoo. The old man explains it. “The tattoo is to remind you of evil in the world?” she says. “No, dear, to remind you.” We Jews remember only too well. Our mission is to remind the next generation.
Wiley Miller has a sharp wit. He doesn’t use the world “evil” in this strip. Instead the old man says: “Imagine yourself in a land where your countrymen followed the voice of political extremists. . .” Hitler and Goebels and their Nazis, political extremists? I hadn’t thought of them that way, but Wiley may be advancing a helpful point. Hitler conceived a thousand year reich , “empire”. Using racism as a political tool, he convinced Germans that they were superior to all others and entitled to conquer and dominate the world. Antisemitism was popular in those days. Blaming Jews for all the ills of the nation, the world, attracted followers. Killing Jews, along with gypsies and a list of others he considered lower forms of life, was a Nazi political goal. Ridding the world of Jews was a slogan, like a bumper sticker. The Germans thought highly enough of Hitler to elect him chancellor and follow him blindly. That’s politics. And it led to war and genocide. That’s extremism.
Back to Eli Wiesel. I heard him, in a lecture, call לא תעמוד על דם רעך, “Don’t stand idly by your neighbor’s blood,” the most important verse in Torah. Wiesel knows a lot of Torah. He knows the usage of teachers to select a single mitsvah to represent Torah. He teaches us that “Do not stand idly by your neighbor’s blood” is Torah response to the Holocaust. The Nazis and their collaborators were the perpetrators of the Shoa, but most of the rest of the world stood idly by the blood of our family. We are commanded not to do the same for others.
Alas, the blood of genocide has flowed more than once since WW II: Cambodia and Rwanda come to mind. I just read the following: “In Phnom Penh, Cambodia, still haunted by memories of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime's rule in which some 1.7 million were killed in the late 1970s, protesters held a candlelight vigil for Darfur in a local mosque. Ly Sok Kheang said he feared the international community was repeating the same mistakes from Cambodia. He said, ‘As far as the genocide in Cambodia is concerned, for over three years the state committed killings of its own people while the international community, including the United Nations, failed to intervene to stop it.’”
Just before Rosh Hashanah Eli Wiesel joined with American Jewish World Service and groups in many countries to protest the genocide being carried out by the Sudanese government against the civilian population in Darfur. Civil war has gone on there for years. Militias claim to be defending local rights, including those of Christian and Animist residents. Victims of the present genocide, however, are Moslem villagers. Armed horsemen, supplied and backed up by the Sudanese airforce have carried out what in Russia the Czars called pogroms. Cossacks, following government orders, attacked, pillaged, raped, and murdered in the shtetle. The Sudanese gangs are called Janjaweed – “armed horsemen.” They are the Einsazgrouppen assigned to rid the region of its population already suffering poverty and famine brought about by war. They have driven two and a half million from their homes and killed two hundred thousand. No one has lifted a finger to stop the Janjaweed. Refugees have fled to neighboring Chad, itself unstable, and the Janjaweed have pursued them there as well. NGO aid agencies can no longer operate. The African Union gathered and sent a force of 7000 soldiers, but they are underfunded and ill equipped, able to do little more than observe what is going on. After the worldwide protests in September, al Bashir, the president of Sudan has declared that the African Union contingent, scheduled to terminate at the end of September, could stay longer, and that the government would pay part of the cost. And Qatar, one of the Arab League countries that pledged $150m last March, became the first to pay its share to support the AU. The U.S. continues to insist on a U.N. force, threatening dire consequences if Sudan refuses. Al Bashir rejects the proposal as reverting to colonialism.
In days past, the way to oppose an evil power was by war, bombs and armies. The war in Iraq and the much shorter one in Lebanon may be evidence that war is no longer the way to go. So here’s the situation: Bashir is still fighting and supporting genocide. Refugees are suffering disease and starvation. Kartoum will, however, accept UN forces participating with the AU as well as logistic support for the weak African Union presence. There is room for hope. A possibility of better judgement.
Here’s a quote from a South African editorial: (Business Day, Johannisburg, 9/27/06)
So while the AU's continued presence is a positive step, much more is needed. Increasing the number of AU troops will do little to stop the reported genocide. The soldiers will still be underequipped and thus hard-pressed to intervene effectively when needed. But the US and its European allies could seize the current momentum to empower the African troops by giving them strong logistical support.
This would serve two purposes. First, it would help the AU force to become more efficient. What those troops need is more equipment, more weapons and more transport. Most of them are disciplined units that know the terrain and can adapt quickly to the environment.
Second, empowering them would not be opposed by Al-Bashir, and this would help minimise the hostility created by the presence of troops which have, at times, been perceived as being part of a plot to overthrow a regime.
During terrible days of World War II , there were in Europe hundreds of individuals who defied the Nazis to save Jews. Israel has sought them out and honored them as Hasidei Umot HaOlam, “Righteous Gentiles.” These brave people – I read a book by one of them, an
Evangelical Christian woman in Holland who was part of an underground organization that sheltered old and young and were themselves sometimes captured and imprisoned – these brave people are the model of what Wiesel teaches is our main mitsvah, what you and I are obliged to do as Jews. “Do not stand idly while your neighbor bleeds.” What might have happened had there been tens of thousands defying the Nazis? Suppose multitudes around the world had raised their voices, pressured their leaders to act, standing up to the Nazis publicly, even from a distance?
Those protests, the letters we have written, money we have donated to AJWS that they spend on food and medicine for the Darfur refugees: we are not standing idly by a new Holocaust. We are opposing political extremism. It may be working. Perhaps the genocide will stop and the refugees will be able to return home and live. The Sudanese, after all, when it comes to moral judgement, are the same as you and me.

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