I must have been AWOL when they handed out the omniscience pills. Everyone seems to know things that I don’t know, like who will make the best Prime Minister and what goes on in the head of an Islamist terrorist. Sure, I’m surrounded by opinionated people – and I wouldn’t have it any other way because those opinionated people are intelligent thinkers whom I am proud to own as my friends – but I can’t help wondering if there’s something I’m missing… because everyone else seems to know things that us mortals were not given to know.
Yesterday, I began watching Dennis Prager’s series of five-minute videos on the Ten Commandments, and he made the point that even atheists need (other people to believe in) G-d, that the more people who adhere to the moral code as divinely ordained the better. Prager posits that morality is mere opinion if it comes from man rather than G-d. I can’t help but agree.
It occurred to me then that atheists aren’t the only ones who have trouble understanding this crucial aspect of morality. Believers also seem to forget that the moral code is not of our own making to be altered or tweaked according to us and our circumstances. It isn’t enough to have this moral code. It really does depend on understanding that it comes from G-d and not man.
This is perhaps best illustrated in our attitude towards the precept: one may not do evil so that good may result from it. How often has a noble cause been destroyed from within by the idea that the end justifies the means? How often do we think we know better? But if there is one thing I learnt from the war in Bosnia and Croatia it is that when you take the moral shortcuts of the enemy you become like them and they have won the real war. The reason we fight ‘the enemy’ is because we’re not like them, we are better than that. We reject murder and rape and genocide. So, when we cross that line and justify murder because our loved ones were murdered, we become our own enemy. We lose the war for what is right and just.
Life isn’t usually so drastic, of course. The moral quandaries we face are often far more innocuous in appearance. In fact, wrongdoing can appear so very good and right. Compassion, putting ourselves in the shoes of another person, is surely a good thing. The problem is that we put ourselves in their shoes rather than seeing the person who really is in those shoes. We interpret their actions as we would have performed them, we think with our own thoughts, we make sense of a situation using our own beliefs and experiences. I am not suggesting it is possible to do otherwise, but we must be wary of assuming that other people think the way we do. Just because we can’t conceive of being a suicide bomber unless we were ‘brainwashed’ doesn’t mean the suicide bomber is brainwashed (and therefore a victim). What we interpret as desperation in the other may actually be determination.
Interpreting the actions of others based on why we would do such a thing and providing excuses for them (euphemistically called explanations) isn’t just naïve but what Dr Ron Schleifer calls “intellectual castration”. It is the consequence of a form of psychological warfare that makes ‘the enemy’ palatable. And let’s be clear, we do have enemies. There are people who want to destroy our very existence and way of life. When we call these terrorists ‘freedom fighters’ or ‘political prisoners’ we are not being compassionate, we are castrating ourselves. When we tell half-truths and say that a rise in anti-Semitism corresponds with events in Israel we are not enlightening people or providing explanations but obscuring the truth that what happens in Israel is just an excuse and opportunity to pursue an agenda that is plain evil. These perverted attempts at compassion deny the absolute nature of morality. They leave G-d out of the picture.
This forgetfulness towards G-d is revealed in our cowardice. We are reluctant to ‘impose’ our morality or even argue the point. We tell ourselves that arguments are counter-productive, that we need to change hearts rather than minds. There is this idea that people are ruled by their hearts. This may be true of some (especially women) but if it is true that is all the more reason to shatter the illusion of our mastery of morality. This orientation towards feelings is a downward spiral in which the effect of obscurantism becomes the cause of further deterioration of the modern mind. Our silence about wrongdoing and willingness to compromise on goodness isn’t just a sign of the times – it is the shaky foundation our future.
There are some who seem to think their friendship with G-d is everything, that as long as they’re on speaking terms everything will be fine and all will be forgiven. This isn’t what I mean when I ask if G-d is in the picture, because what matters isn’t just our relationship with G-d but our relationship to G-d. When we decide that the end justifies the means, that we can do a little evil to achieve what we think is a greater good, we deny the absolute authority of our Maker. It’s like saying to G-d: “My mind knows you’re right, but my heart tells me I need to do more.” It’s a lack of trust in G-d knowing better than us. It’s a pride in one’s own agency that compels us to ‘do something to change the world’ rather than merely follow the commandments and accept our humble roles in life.
Allow me to give you an example far away from the maelstrom of Israeli politics. Over here in Australia we have viewed the discovery of two abandoned newborn babies with considerable distress. (One was dead, the other remarkably survived many days in a drain.) Some well-meaning people have advanced the idea of allowing mothers to legally and anonymously abandon their babies in ‘baby hatches’. We’ve heard the same exculpatory arguments before: these women are ‘desperate’, they ‘can’t cope’, and we need to ‘save the babies’. Predictably, these are the same people, decent and caring people who want to save babies whether it is from abortion or abandonment. The thing is legalising wilful abandonment is no substitute for maternal support or formal adoption. It is wrong.
Making something legal doesn’t make it right, but this is what some well-meaning people including my local Senator are trying to do. And it is not just a political knee-jerk reaction, but a manifestation of the we-know-better phenomenon combined with a feeling of urgency, a need to ‘do something’. Lest you conclude me to be heartless, allow me to say I am not suggesting nothing should be done. Quite the contrary, there is a great deal to be done to make our social services more efficient and user-friendly. But the bottom line is that they already exist and any mother who is ‘desperate’ and doesn’t want to leave her child to die in a drain can avail herself of these services. And, in addition to our complicity in condoning maternal irresponsibility and depriving children of parental knowledge, these baby hatches would facilitate the coercion of vulnerable women by others. It isn’t usually the mother who stumbles out of her childbed to deposit her child in a ‘baby hatch’ but a boyfriend or parent who may do so against her will. Even if for a moment we believed that the end justifies the means, this end is surely quite undesirable.
So, as I sit here listening to the rain on the roof bemoaning that there is so little I can do to make the world a better place, I am also heartily grateful that our morality is not man’s creation, but a gift from G-d. The commandments aren’t always easy to follow, especially when babies are left in drains or run over by terrorists, but He knows better, and that is a comfort. It is better than trusting in man.