Conscience

Tishrei 5769 / Rosh Hashana 2008

by Harold M. Schulweis

I’m Harold Schulweis, and I approve of this message.

I make no endorsement, I hold no partisan view. I speak as a Jew addressing the world, offering a “Jewish State of the Union” address on human conditions in our century.

Today, we celebrate the creation of the world and the birth of humanity. How will history remember us, and how will we remember ourselves?

Look with me at statistics spread over the blood-spattered documents of the 20th century — a century stained by unmitigated mass murder, a century of genocide that continues in our own century. From the time of the Nazi Holocaust until this day, 50 genocides and politicides have taken place at a human cost of at least 12 maillion military and as many as 26 million civilians.

I will not speak of the horrific crimes of Milosevic, of Karadzic, Mladek and Mugabe, of Eichmann and Goering, Bashir, Osama bin Laden and the Ayatollah Khomeini, and the vile threats of genocide by Ahmadinejad.

Let’s dig deeper. I want to speak not about the dictators, but their followers. Recall that 50 million human beings were executed in the past century. Executed by whom? Executed by the people, the ordinary citizens and the soldiers, the businessmen, bureaucrats, the people who packed frightened men and women in suffocating box cars. I mean those who showered frightened, trembling souls with Zyclon-B lethal gases. Those who stoked the furnaces with human bodies of every age, race and creed. Good people, the compliant collaborators.

They are the good citizens, good soldiers, good judges, good lawyers, good doctors, good pastors, good priests. How could they do it, these ordinary, good people with a history of culture and church? They answer in different dialects, different languages, but with one voice, a voice that echoed in the courthouse of the Nuremberg trials, and in the corridors of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. Their explanation was simple: “Obrigkeit,” “Phlicht,” “Gehorsam.” We followed orders.” We are the obedient. We are the loyal employees. We are the patriots of community, we are the disciples of the members of our church. We think in goose-steps following the barking commands of the commissars.

How do these atrocities happen? They happen because we are raised in cultures of authoritarianism, within institutions—religious, industry, military, home—that teach good people to submit to authoritarian power. Their mantra: Uniformity. Conformity. Complicity. Obedience. Authority.

In the name of Allah or God or the Holy Trinity, in the name of faith and in the name of a loving God, religion has enriched the language of civilization: Inquisition, auto de fé, exile, expulsion, racks, pyres, witch-hunts, pogroms, jihads, gulag, holocausts, concentration camps, divinely ordained suicide, holy homicide, public gang-rapes and beheadings.

The terrible and awesome truth summed up in one sentence from the writings of C.P. Snow, an outstanding historian and social critic:

“When you think of all the long and gloomy history of man, you will find that more hideous crimes have been committed in the name of obedience than ever have been committed in the name of rebellion.”

In the name of obedience ordinary people followed orders to fill open graves with tortured bodies. To gather pyramids of shoes and glasses. Good people who even vomited at the sight of the torture they saw but nevertheless continued to maim, torture, torment, incinerate. They simply followed orders.

That blind duty to obey frightens us. What did you and I pray for and hope for during the Holocaust, yesterday and today’s genocides? We prayed for holy disobedience, that somehow, someone, some way would from out of the church or the state or the business world or the academic worlds would disobey, would scream their outrage against inhuman sadism. That some people would march in front of the ministries of fear and scream, “No!” That people would protest so loudly that their screams would shake the prison walls of Jericho. We prayed for the people who would put their bodies on the railroad tracks so that the boxcars could not form the long funeral cortege of frightened children to human-created Hell. An echo of the angelic voice that confronted Abraham who thought it was his duty to sacrifice Isaac: “Do not raise your hand against the lad or do him any harm.”

But the civilized world remained and remains impotent, shrouded in muteness and lethal silence. Good people saluted, bent the knee, bit their lips and shut their mouths.

As the Psalmist put it, “Eyes have they, but they will not see; ears have they but they will not hear; noses have they but they will not smell” the human carnage. Moral amnesia, aphasia, paralysis, afflicted the world.

This is not an ancient story. You and I, we were all born during the last century. This is our century. This is our watch. This is our witness. Judaism is a world religion. What does Judaism’ four millennia offer the world? What is our High Holy Day message to the world religion?

Judaism offers world religions and world nations a distinctive voice that underlies our faith, our ethics, our law and our relationship to each other. A single word that encapsulates the soul of Judaism is “conscience.” No one has a monopoly on conscience, but Judaism offers a unique understanding of the heroism of conscience to the world.

My first awareness of the Jewish idea of conscience was as a child in Hebrew school, and it resonates yet in my adult years. I fell in love with Judaism with a stunning, revolutionary Biblical story. Abraham is told by God that God will wipe out the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah because of their sins. Fair enough. God knows, God wills, God commands, we follow. and But Abraham stood alone, hearing God’s commandment, and came closer to God.

“Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked?”

“What if there are 50 or 40 or 30 or 20 or 10 innocent people? Will you, God, wipe out the place and not forgive? Chalilah lecha— far be it from you, God, to slay the righteous with the wicked?” And once again, Abraham says, “Chalilah lecha— this be far from Thee, God…”

“Shall the judge of all the world not do justice?”

Is that the way you talk to God? I expected that God would be angry with Abraham’s questioning of God’s intention. I expected God to say, “How dare you puny, petty, finite, fallible, speck of dust question My edict, My wisdom.” But God did not chastise Abraham for his moral criticism. God concedes to Abraham’s petition.

Hold on. On what grounds does Abraham challenge God’s decrees? On the grounds that God’s judgment is not fair, it is not just or right, that it has moral conscience against it. The Jewish idea of God, moreover, respects the courage and the duty of humans to challenge authority, to challenge priest and prophet, president, prince and pope. And most astoundingly, to challenge even the King of Kings, God.

That confrontation is unparalleled in religion. Can you imagine in any other monotheistic traditions that Mohammad would question Allah, or dispute the morality of any verse in the Koran, or for Jesus to question the Father of the Holy Trinity, to challenge any statement in the New Testament.

Read how the rabbis confront biblical laws that violate our moral sense: In the Jewish prophets, in the Talmud and Midrash, throughout the rabbinic tradition, dozens and dozens of cases of moral dissent appear. When the rabbis are disturbed by with the morally troubling words of God found in the Bible, they overturn them. On one page alone of the Talmud — Sanhedrin 71 — we learn how the rabbis of tradition nullified the biblical laws of the stubborn and rebellious son who was to be stoned; courageously nullified the biblical Ordeal of Jealousy against the wife suspected of adultery; nullified the biblical law that would destroy a city tainted with idolatry. Against these egregious biblical laws, courageously, the rabbis rose to declare: … “these laws never were and never will be.” That is religiously revolutionary, and morally uniquely Jewish. Disobedience in the name of moral conscience is no heresy. Disobedience in the name of moral conscience is loyalty to God. I studied Talmud, and saw how rabbis overcame capital punishment, read of out existence “eye for and eye, tooth for a tooth.”

I confess to you that as a student, even in the schools of higher education, I never was taught the moral implication of this Jewish spiritual audacity. I thought that to be religious is always to follow the command blindly. So I thought that Judaism was just compliant, passive acquiescence to legalism, just law. I heard it as folk piety: “Azoi iz geschriben” — ipse dixit — so it is written. And so we obey.

That is unfair to Jewish tradition. The sages of the Talmud were not sycophantic “amen-sayers.” Remember the biblical portion in which Moses, the transmitter of God’s word, holds in his arms the Tablets of the Ten Commandments. Now listen to the imaginative rabbinical interpretation of this authentic midrash:

Carrying the two tablets, Moses stops, turns to God and says that part of the Commandments is unconscionable. Listen to the way the rabbis of the tradition imagine a dialogue between Moses and God:

“God: You have written in the Ten Commandments, God, that you will punish the children for the sins of their fathers. God, that is not fair. Terach was an idolator — should his son, Abraham, be blamed? King Achaz was evil — should his righteous son King Hezekiah be banished for his father’s sins? King Amnon was wicked — should his son, Josiah, be punished? That is not fair, Master of the Universe. ”

How did God respond to the critique? Did God say, “Apikoros, traitor, atheist, infidel!” ? God says, “By your life, Moses, you have instructed me, therefore your words shall be written: ‘Fathers shall not be put to death for the children, nor the children put to death for the fathers’ (Deuteronomy 24:16).”

“I will nullify My decrees and confirm your words.”

This religious outlook is unique in the annals of world religion. In our faith, the human being is elevated as a partner with God. On grounds of conscience we can even reverse God’s ruling. The God of Justice and Mercy delights in the victory of human conscience, which is the naches of the father.

Understand me well. The conscience of religious audacity is not impertinent chutzpah. It is not the kind of chutzpah as told in the story of the kid who murdered his parents and then pleads with the court for clemency on the ground that he is an orphan. That’s a joke.

Serious Jewish moral conscience means that as a child of God I will not be an instrument for carrying out another person’s order and thereby surrender my moral responsibility. Jewish conscience means nobody and no book is exempt from being asked, “Is this command right? Is this mitzvah moral? Is this edict fair?” No text and no person is immune from criticism. Neither Pope nor Rabbi nor Imam nor Sovereign dictator is invulnerable to the question of conscience. We are not created as religious robots. We know, we feel we protest, we express the collective conscience of four millennia.

Regrettably, the moral audacity in Jewish faith is not taught, not sung, not preached. Spiritual audacity is repressed or suppressed, ignored, buried prematurely.

I want with you to reclaim the proactive heroism of Jewish conscience and teach its implications for religious and secular governance.

Civilization depends on conscience. Conscience is the mark of a free people. You and I were born in slavery, so we know what it means to be a slave. We are not slaves. A slave does not ask questions. A slave bites his tongue, shuts his mouth, kneels before power and grovels before the power of authoritarianism. But the God of Israel is not an intractable, implacable authoritarian. He listens, hears and responds to the cries of conscience.

A Jew questions. There is a quip that when the rabbi was asked a question by a stranger, “Why do Jews always answer a question with another question?” the rabbi replied, “Why not?” The question is a profound answer. What makes you think that an answer, no matter how dogmatically given with thunder and lightening, is not itself subject to question? Dogma is corrigible. Everything is subject to critique and correction.

So, no excuses. You and me!! Clergy and congregants and disciples of all faiths — You cannot shrug your shoulders and say, “What can I do? It’s found in the Holy Scriptures. It is so written.” No. No. When the Koran or the New Testament or the Hebrew scriptures say something that debases humanity, that calls for tortured confession or genocide, your Jewish conscience must respond as did the Prophet and the rabbis — “This will not stand.”

So, preachers, whatever your denomination, cannot say “Do this because I am God’s spokesman and messenger.” You cannot stand idly by the Imams’ Fatwa to behead the infidel, or evangelical arrogance to consign to hell those who do not accept his orthodoxy, his revelation. You cannot hide behind scriptures. We are human beings and we see with human eyes. There is no infallible perception.

On Rosh Hashanah, Judaism speaks to the world. Do you want a world drenched in conformity that deifies authoritarianism and excuses holocausts, or do you believe that church, mosque and synagogue must develop a community of conscience?

And we? You and I? Are we Jews of conscience? How shall we transmit conscience to our children?

Conscience is not a philosophical abstraction. Conscience is cultivated from one generation to generation, from parents to their progeny. And you and I, dear friends, are the cultivators and conveyers and the transmitters of Jewish conscience. Conscience starts in the playpen, around the family table, in the stories we hear and the sermons we preach.

When the children in Sunday School were asked, “Who believes in God?” one little girl waved her hand wildly and said, “I do!”

“Why do you believe in God?” the teacher asked. And she replied, “I don’t know. It just runs in my family.”

What a profound answer. Conscience, character, courage, is caught, not taught.

Conscience begins early. You know that it begins with the simple questions of the child. Questions are the birth pangs of conscience, and everything depends on the way we answer their question. When the child asks, “Why can’t I stay up late?” “Why must I go Hebrew school?” “Why can’t I smoke cigarettes or experiment with drugs?” and if I answer, “Because I said so,” that may shut up the child but the flowering of the child’s conscience has been crushed. And if a child asks, “Why must I go to the synagogue to pray?” “Why do I have to be Jewish?” “Why do I have to abstain from eating unkosher food?” and I answer, “Because God says so,” or “Because the rabbi said so,” and I substitute my imperial will for moral meaning, the child’s respect for faith is undercut. A serious question requires a serious answer. Something more thanmy stomping the feet.

And if the child asks, “Why can’t I have the Bar and Bat Mitzvah party as lavish as my friends?” and I answer, “Because we said so,” we have missed an opportunity to cultivate ethical conscience in our child. And if the child continues to ask, “But everybody does it,” of course I can shut him up by saying, repeating the mantra, “Because we said so.” But I miss a holy moment to cultivate the ethics, compassion and courage in a life of conscience. Intimidation is not education.

I must take him or her lovingly by the side, and tell them: “My child, we are not everybody. We do not forfeit our moral intelligence to a herd mentality. We are a family of conscience, we are Jews, and it is wrong to have a profligate, wasteful celebration of such exorbitance when so many in our world go jobless, hungry, without shelter, without medicine. We love you and we have the money to throw such a party, but as a family of conscience, we have chosen to inhibit our self-indulgence. You and me, we’re going to tithe our own affluence. It is not that we cannot afford it, it is that we choose to tithe our expenses.”

So, we strengthen the spine of our children so that they walk with self-respect and respect for their faith.

If hateful words are spoken around the table or among your relations, your friends, words that wound and denigrate persons of different races, ethnicities, religions, sexual orientation, you rise up and speak out. Judaism calls all forms of racism “slander.” Words hurt. Words poison. Words wound. Wounds murder. Every Jew concludes every Amidah with one prayer: “O Lord, keep my tongue from speaking evil and my lips from speaking guile.”

The Hebrew word for “conscience” is “matzpun.” It is derived from the root “hiddenness.” And in Hebrew, the word for “compass” is “matzpen,” which is derived from the same root as matzpun. Conscience is the hidden compass which helps us navigate with honor through the rapids that plunge us into the abyss of cynicism. Shaped by collective conscience of four millennia, the Jewish idea of conscience is regrettably unsung, unpreached, untaught, unlived. Place it high on the agenda of Jewish character. Teach matzpun, practice matzpun, treasure matzpun, the treasure of hidden compass. The future of civilization is at stake.

This is our message to the world and to ourselves: For a life of conscience, courage and compassion. L’shana tovah — for a year of goodness. For a life of conscience.


NOTE: A fuller and deeper discussion of conscience and spiritual audacity is found in Rabbi Schulweis’ latest book, Conscience: The Duty to Disobey and the Duty to Disobey (Jewish Lights, September 2008)


* This document, or any portion thereof, may not be reproduced without the written permission of the author.

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