Eclipsing Moral Judgment or How I Almost Got Charlottesville Wrong
“Behold, I give to you today a blessing and curse”
ראה אנכי נותן לפניכם היום ברכה וקללה
This past week’s parsha opens with the familiar phrase of the choice before us. For the Children of Israel, it was presented in a dramatic fashion. Upon entering the land, the nation would pass between two mountains, Har Gerizim and Har Eival. Half of the tribes were placed on Har Gerizim, and the other half placed on Har Eival. In the middle of the valley between the mountains were the kohanim and the leviim. As the blessings were pronounced, the kohanim and leviim would turn to Har Gerizim, and the tribes there would respond, “Amen.” As the curses were said, they would turn to Har Eival, and there too, the tribes would answer, “Amen.”
The scene drove in the point that the choice we face היום, today, everyday is a stark one. The choice between a blessing and a curse, between life and death, between right and wrong is presented as a stark one – as different as two mountains, right and left. You can either choose right with its blessings or choose wrong with its curses.
In more nuanced thinking, we often describe many of our moral choices as not being so clear. A moral dilemma is one we see as a choice between two competing goods, or in the alternative a choice between two evils and we are trying to pick the lesser of two evils.
And yet, there are times with the moral choice before us is really just that clear. It’s as a stark as the image we see in the beginning of the Parasha. And yet, despite being as clear as day, it seems that there are at times the clarity of the choice becomes eclipsed by some obstacle in the way. At times it seems like the sun of morality has been blocked out making it day seem like night.
With the coming eclipse, there has been some debate about whether or not one should say a beracha. (You can read an excellent teshuva here by Rabbi Dov Linzer on the subject). According to the Talmud, one should say the blessing עושה מעשה בראשית, who has made the Creation, upon seeing great things in nature and miraculous natural events like a beautiful mountain range, a shooting star, etc. By all means, one would expect an eclipse to qualify. And yet there are a number of poskim who took the position not to, based on the Talmud in Tractate Sukkot that an eclipse is a bad omen. While that might seem superstitious, I’d like to suggest homiletically, that is not only the omen, but the symbolism that renders an eclipse unworthy of a beracha to these poskim. When things that should be clear to us are blocked out, that’s not a reason to be thankful. (As a matter of actual practice, I am in agreement with Rabbi Linzer’s Responsa and that we should thank God for the wonders of nature including an eclipse).
When it comes to moral judgements, condemning Nazis and saying “Nazis are evil” is about as easy as it gets. And drawing moral equivalencies to hatred, racism and bigotry which are fundamentally at odds with the most basic religious truth that humans were created in the image of God, shouldn’t even be a consideration. And when either happens, it is clear that something is off in our moral compass.
This is not a political piece — I’m not just speaking about the response of the president, who was rightly criticized for blaming both sides for the violence in Charlottesville. Later in the week, the Forward published an article by the media manager of Jewish Voices for Peace saying that neo-Nazi Richard Spencer was right when it comes to Israel. If you claim to be a Jewish organization and you are aligning with Nazis to support your worldview, your moral compass really needs a reset.
But you know what, it’s not just a crazy response from the president or a radical fringe group on the left, because I must confess I also came close to blaming both sides. And you know what, I realized this after reading a piece by a well respect colleague whose moral compass is one I would put great stock in. Rabbi Brad Hirschfield wrote in the blog, The Wisdom Daily, why he was tempted to blame both sides. For him, it was because he spent some time in his youth beating up Nazis and saw in the violent response of some of the counter-protesters a bit of himself. That need to self-criticize a more youthful internal response nearly led him to the false moral equivalency.
For me, it was something else. It was a particular fear of the Antifa groups that were the ones attacking the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville. In truth, it’s not anything that they did in Charlottesville, but things that they have done prior. While I have often recited the notion that there is never an excuse for violence, that’s not always true. There are times you do need to stand up to hatred, and that can at times turn violent. That isn’t immoral, but it can be ill advised as Rabbi Hirschfield wrote in his piece.
In reality, sitting here in NYC, with the protection of the NYPD, I don’t really have a real fear of neo-Nazis or the KKK. While they were gather in Washington Square this past Saturday, it seems like a protest where they would be laughed at. I can’t really fathom any one of them storming into my shul and causing a problem. You can call that the privilege of living in New York.
But, I do have a fear of Antifa and other violent groups growing on the left, in that they not only oppose neo-Nazis, but have reacted violently to anyone that does not share their view. Front and center in my thinking were the events at Evergreen College in Washington, where campus security felt it was unsafe for a professor Bret Weinstein to give his class on campus because he didn’t go along with the left’s approach to addressing racial issues on campus, namely in having a day for whites to exempt themselves from campus. And Professor Weinstein identifies as a Progressive.
There are numerous issues where I disagree with Antifa and left wing groups, whether it be my ideas about Zionism (and we’ve seen recently how Zionists have been treated in some liberal spaces this summer), or others, and I’m afraid if this is can happen to Professor Weinstein, what might happen to me? And the spaces where these things occur are places that are likely to hit much closer to home. The threat from the left seems more immediate to me.
But in reflecting, just because a threat is more immediate to me does not mean that the threat is worse overall. It doesn’t mean it is equally immoral. While the neo-Nazis and KKK are not threatening my shul, they were outside the shul in Charlottesville and threatened a Rabbi earlier in Montana and that should concern every Jew. And there isn’t a moral comparison between political intolerance and political violence, which absolutely needs to be addressed and dealt with, and denying the basic humanity and dignity of God’s creations – attacking people just for who they are.
For Rabbi Hirschfiled, his fear of his past self nearly eclipsed his calling out the right, and for me, my very real and legitimate fear of the growing violence on the left nearly did the same.
But in truth, this isn’t just about politics and calling out hate crimes. How many times have we faced situations, where we absolutely know the right choice and yet there is something that is just pulling us in the other direction? There is that e-mail we know we absolutely should not write, and yet just after drafting we can’t help but hit the “send” button. The lie you know you shouldn’t tell, the affair you shouldn’t have, the money you shouldn’t take, the food you shouldn’t eat – we each have something. And even though we know it’s wrong, because of that pull, we explain away the moral choice. Whether you were on the right or wrong side in Charlottesville, I’m sure we all had that moment, where we realized we were not seeing things as we should.
And against this backdrop, beginning this Wednesday, we blow the shofar. The shofar whose call is as our Sages say is עורו ישנים משינתכם – wake up you who are asleep from your slumber.
When we suddenly realize that what should be clear to us, isn’t as clear as it really should be – it’s time to wake up.
Wake up – Nazis are bad!
Wake up – Don’t send that e-mail
Wake up – That thing you know you shouldn’t do, don’t do it.
I would add the following advice. There are many rabbis who have said the following about davening. When we daven, we all have the goal of having the proper Kavvanah (intent). And yet, most of us have experienced that even as we are trying to concentrate on our prayers, there is some thought that comes in and takes our minds away. Rabbis have suggested to take not of where your mind went. It’s often the case that our mind goes there because these are things that need our attention. Our brains are telling us to take care of these things. It’s important to realize, so that then we can return to concentrate on our prayers.
The same is true in our moral judgments. If there is something that is eclipsing our judgment, we need to really take note of it. We are being told that these are important things that need our attention. We need to address those very things that cause our eclipses.
But also in addressing them, we are attempting to wake up and make sure that just because they require action, they do not get in the way of letting us make a clear statement of what is right and wrong and that we should always be blessed to choose right, to choose life over death, and the blessing over the curse.