Steven Weinberg
PhD Student at Rutgers University

The Ancient Morality of Abraham, or Why You Shouldn’t be a “Nice Guy”

Some time during the first half of the last decade, I worked in a law firm in Philadelphia. It was one of those huge office buildings in the middle of the city. The building was filled with lawyers, not just from my firm, but from other firms as well.

One day, I was walking through the lobby when I bumped into an acquaintance of mine. She was also a young attorney, and she worked in another firm in the building. We talked for a bit. Then she said something to me which I will likely never forget. She told me that she had run into another attorney from my firm in the elevator the other day. Let’s call him Attorney D. Here is what transpired: “Oh, by the way, I ran into Attorney D. from your firm the other day. Really nice guy.”

Though I didn’t say anything at the time, I was a bit taken aback by her assessment of Attorney D. Really nice guy? Really? Because I had been working with Attorney D. for a couple of years now, and I knew that he was actually a huge twat. Moreover, my friend said she had only spoken to Attorney D. on the elevator. I thought to myself: how can she expect to judge someone’s moral character after a short elevator ride? In this thirty-second elevator ride, what had Attorney D. told my friend?

Hi, nice to meet you. Yes, I know Steve. Yes, I work with him in The Firm. By the way, did I mention that on the weekends I work in a soup kitchen and donate half of my salary to orphans in Haiti? Oh, what do you know! Here’s my floor. So nice to meet you. Have a great day.”

I can only guess that Attorney D. didn’t start listing his moral accomplishments in the course of a thirty-second elevator ride. Yet, at the end of the conversation, my friend was convinced that Attorney D. was “a really nice guy.”

When I lived in a yuppie, bourgeois lifestyle in the States, I heard this phrase a lot: “great guy.” “Really nice guy.” “He’s a good guy.” And yes, many of these people I knew, or at least suspected, were actually twats.

There are two aspects of this phenomenon which bothered me. First, why was a person’s moral character so quickly evaluated? Second, what social norms and social values led to the conclusion that this particular person was “nice”?

In the parsha of Vayera, we are presented with two men: Abraham and Lot. They provide a nice study in contrasts. Of course, we all know Abraham. He was the majestic, brave, dignified, righteous man from Mesopotamia, who God chooses to become the first Monotheist, to found a new nation in the Land of Israel. Less well-known is Lot. Who was Lot? Lot was Abraham’s nephew, who, for various reasons, came with Abraham on his journey to Israel. Lot is, in many ways, the kind of prototypical, not so-loveable sidekick to Abraham. He’s sort of depicted as Abraham’s annoying and pathetic nephew who’s always getting into trouble. Abraham always needs to bail Lot out. He’s family, after all, so Abraham has this obligation to him.

Whereas Abraham was inspirational and heroic, Lot, it seems to me, is a kind of “average Joe”—an “average Lot.” When Abraham and Lot first arrive in the Land of Israel, they decide that they will divide up the land between the two of them. Abraham says to Lot: You can choose which part of the land you want, I am happy with either side. The Torah reads that: “Lot looked around and saw how well watered the whole plain of Jordan was, all of it, all the way to Zoar, like the Garden of God, like the land of Egypt. So Lot chose for himself the whole plain of Jordan.” Here, the Torah’s message is clear. Lot chose the “cushy” part of the land for himself. He chose luxury, ease, comfort.

Lot settled in the now-infamous town of Sodom and Gomorrah. A few scenes later, God sees what is going on in Sodom and Gomorrah. It has become a city of decadence, of crime, of sin and iniquity. God decides he will destroy the city.

Before we find out what happens to Lot, let’s take a step back for a moment and look at the question of moral values. Here is a question which we do not answer enough: where do our values come from? Moreover, what are our moral values?

I had a rather comfortable and cushy upbringing in the United States. If I look back on the moral value I was taught in school, in my family, and in culture, it was basically “be a good person.” What did it mean to be a “good person”? I was never told this explicitly. But, as I recall, it meant something like: be kind, be compassionate, be nice, be tolerant. Yet, what if I had been a child not in nineties America, but instead in nineties Bosnia, or in medieval England? There, I would guess that being a “good person” may have had a different meaning. It might have meant, be a strong person, be a brave person, be a family-oriented person. The word “good” would have been the same, but its meaning would have been vastly different.

Nietzsche believed that the values of modern society were, in many ways, absolutely opposite from what they should have been. According to Nietzsche, in the time before Socrates, being “good” did not mean being “moral.” Moreover, being “evil” did not mean being immoral. Good meant noble, strong, powerful—not nice, cooperative, or go-with-the-flow. In his 1888 work, On the Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche argues that the word good/gut is connected with the German word for God/Gott. The good people were the godlike people, that is, the people who were elevated masters and warriors. Evil, by contrast, did not mean “immoral” but rather everything which the master was not—common, unimpressive, simple. The word “schlecht” in German, meaning “bad,” is connected with the German word for “simple”—“schlicht.”

Who was the ultimate “good person” of the ancient world before Socrates? Odysseus of Homer’s epics. Now, Odysseus was not a barbarian or an ogre. He was sensitive, just, compassionate, and above all else, a family man. Yet, what he was most admired for was his bravery, his strength, his generosity, and his determination. He was, indeed, a hero. And this is why he was considered “good.”

In his book The Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche wrote that “Socrates was ugly.” Socrates was ugly. According to Nietzsche, Socrates couldn’t accept his ugliness, his feeling of inferiority before the beauty and nobility of his fellow Athenians. In response, Socrates altered the value system of Ancient Greece. Socrates, and his student Plato, were the first philosophers to say that this life, this world, is not the real world. There is another world, a world of Truth, which is the “real” reality, which can only be accessed through Reason. Socrates turned his weakness—being ugly—into something positive. It does not matter if I am ugly, because this world doesn’t matter. Moreover, all of the greatness of Ancient Athens is only a façade. The beauty and gracefulness of the Ancient Greeks is no longer relevant because they do not understand Truth and Reason.

Several centuries later, during the Roman Empire, there wasna class of commoners (the plebeians) and a class of nobles (the patricians). Nietzsche believed that in this period, a reversal of all values took place. Until then, it had always been accepted that it was good to be strong, wealthy, self-assured, and superior. Yet, a group of plebeians began to be resentful of their wealthy masters. They began to hate their masters. They began to ask: why are they the masters, and not us? But they did not simply complain about their station in life. Rather, they did something very clever. They argued that the values of the masters were not “good” at all—rather, they were “evil.” Pride became evil, humility became good. Wealth became evil, and poverty became good. Hierarchy became evil, and equality became good. Feeling oneself superior became evil, and feeling pity for others became good. For Nietzsche, the movement which heralded this reversal of all existing values was early Christianity.

Yet, despite the herculean efforts of Christianity to reverse all values, it still needed to compete with humans’ inherent attraction to the values of the Roman masters or the Ancient Athenians. What resulted in figures like Pope Julius II or Henry VIII was a kind of cognitive dissonance and hypocrisy as they inevitably conflated these two value systems. What was good and what was evil became awfully confusing. And this type of dynamic is hardly limited to pre-modern times. Consider, for example, how many rappers wear crosses as symbols of wealth and status or how many Americans would say that Jesus, were he alive today, would defend his right to own an AK-47.

In the Roman Empire, this war between master values and slave values was fought in society—the Christians and other democratic groups on one side, the aristocracy on the other. Today, this war is fought largely within our own minds. On one hand, we feel enormous pressure to be “good Christians”—and this is true even if we are Jews. On the other hand, we also are inevitably drawn to those ancient values, the values of Homer and Odysseus, which we feel pressured to suppress.

One of the most beloved celebrities is Michael Jordan. Is he “a nice guy”? Hardly. All of Michael Jordan’s teammates have said the following about the great athlete: he was ruthless, he could be sometimes be mean, he was absolutely sure of himself, he did not tolerate mediocrity, he was cocky. Now, Michael Jordan did have a sensitivity to him. He could—sometimes—be kind and compassionate. But he could just as easily be power-wielding and domineering. Counterintuitively, these qualities make us even more attracted to Jordan, as evidenced by how much the documentary The Last Dance emphasizes—and celebrates—these traits. Michael Jordan is our hero, he is our Odysseus. Michael Jordan is our own Roman patrician, if you will. And we love him for it. Our conception of what is “good” still remains, in a way, ancient.

Perhaps we should not be so quick to say what is really “good” and what is “bad.” In The Anti-Christ, Nietzsche wrote: “What is good?—All that heightens the feeling of power, the will to power, power itself in a person. What is bad?—All that proceeds from weakness. What is happiness?—The feeling that power increases—that a resistance is overcome.”  Needless to say, this is a rather different definition of morality and goodness which I received during my education in turn of the twenty-first century America.

Let’s talk about America for a moment. Since the founding of America, people have had the right to practice religion freely. But despite this freedom, the culture of America for centuries has been thoroughly Christian. Not once have we had a president from any other faith than Christianity—no Jews, no Muslims, no Atheists. Moreover, America’s founders were Puritans—that is, radically conservative Christians from England. Sure, we had the “free love” movement of the Sixties and the alternative music of the nineties, and so on. But nevertheless: culture dies a hard death. It does not go away so easily. In other words, we haven’t freely chosen our conception of “good” and “bad.” It has been handed down to us, probably by people who we would not want to hang out with if we met them today.

I remember as a child, I went once a week to Hebrew school where I learned about Judaism. I was maybe about eleven or twelve at the time, so I knew what sex was—or, at least, I kind of knew. The teacher was talking to us about Shabbat, and she pointed something out which shocked the ears of me and my classmates. She said that, in Judaism, it’s actually seen as “good” and a “commandment” to have sex on Shabbat. I remember hearing this and feeling absolutely bewildered and confused. I couldn’t reconcile these two ideas in my mind: holiness and sex; Judaism and sex; pleasure and sex; fun and religion. I was only a twelve-year-old at the time, so I didn’t engage in much reflection on this confusion at the time. I probably just thought: my teacher has no idea what she’s talking about, and moved on. But now, with the fortune of hindsight, I know exactly why I thought this way. Because even though I was Jewish, and grew up in a secular household, and had baby boomer parents, in my heart and soul I had the morals of a seventeenth-century Puritan in Salem, Massachusetts. As I said, culture dies a hard death. Morality dies a hard death. At that moment, somewhere in heaven, a Puritan was doing a victory lap.

Say what you will about the Torah, one thing for sure is that it is very old. Like, really old. Whether you believe it was written by God, by Moses, by a hermit in a cave in the Negev desert, or by the equivalent of a “think tank” from Ancient Judea, it is not disputed that it was written a really, really long time ago. This means, of course, that it has a kind of “purity” to it which more modern works do not have. In short, the Torah was written before more “fashionable” theories of morality and what is “good” could get their hands on it.

Who was Abraham? I grew up learning that Abraham was a “righteous” and “good” man. But until recently, I never really questioned what “righteous” and “good” actually meant. So what did I do? I basically just saw Abraham’s character through the prism of “slave” morality and Puritan values. Until I actually cracked open the Torah and Nietzsche, here is how I saw Abraham in my mind’s eye: some poor nomad walking around the desert, being nice and smiling to everyone he met, turning the other cheek every which way it would turn. Now, I grew up as a Puritan—oops, I mean, as a Jew—in America, so my conception of this biblical figure was filtered through this protestant culture in America. In a way, I kind of just saw Abraham as Jesus with a beard.

In fact, Abraham was far more like Odysseus than Jesus. Abraham was a baller. He had been one of Mesopotamia’s most wealthy and powerful men when God summoned him to go to Israel. He was not a peasant, he was a nobleman. He was a patrician, a master. He shook hands with kings and with pharaohs. He also was a warrior, mounting a rescue operation during the Battle of the Nine Kings and amid the Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. The reasons why Abraham really was “good” and “righteous” are not the same reasons why we, with our modern biases, today see him as “good” and “moral.”

The case of Abraham and Lot provides a nice illustration in master morality and slave morality. When the parsha opens, we find Abraham in his tent. He sees three guests approaching. When he sees the guests, he begins preparing his household for them so he can appropriately entertain them. Abraham is absolutely overflowing with joy and generosity to help these guests. He is running up and down the house, bringing out bread and cheese, setting the table, and washing the guests’ feet. Then, when they leave, Abraham escorts them out on their way. He is supremely generous, kind, compassionate, and attentive.

The qualities of kindness and compassion and equality are not necessarily slave values under Nietzsche’s schema. Masters, too, can be, and should be kind, generous, and compassionate. The difference is that this generosity and kindness comes from an overflow of the power they are already feeling. Their positive energy inevitably flows onto others. This is true kindness and true generosity—when it comes from a place of power, of love, of abundance. This is what we might call healthy selfishness—the idea that one can give so much more to others when one is oneself already overflowing with goodness. By contrast, the “kindness” and “compassion” of Roman slaves grows out of resentment, weakness, and hatred.

In section 260 of Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche writes that, for a noble person, “in the foreground stands a feeling of fullness, the power which wants to overflow, the happiness of high tension, the consciousness of riches which wants to give and deliver: – the noble person also helps the unfortunate, however not, or hardly ever, from pity, but more in response to an impulse which the excess of power produces.”

In a parallel scene later in Vayera, we find Lot in his home in Sodom and Gomorrah. Two guests arrive, and Lot welcomes them into his house. Yet, unlike Abraham, Lot is not overflowing with good feelings. He gives the guests bread and cheese, but he does so without the exuberance and energy of Abraham. The scene with Abraham is simply bursting with positivity, with optimism, with a sense of rising and joy. Lot’s, by contrast, feels sinister and foreboding. To an outsider, the two scenes would appear rather similar. In both cases, we see a man preparing his house for guests. But Lot, lacking the energy of the master seen in Abraham, prepares his house from a place of negativity and of unhappiness. These two scenes, then, demonstrate the most dangerous aspect of herd morality. It often looks like master morality to a superficial observer. But it is hollow and poisoned at its core. As we read further in the scene, we see, indeed, how unhealthy Lot is at his core, despite his nice home and his friendliness. Later in the scene, an unruly mob comes to Lot’s home and demands that he release the two guests to them so the crowd. Lot infamously says: I have two virgin daughters, take them instead. Lot seems to think that he is somehow doing the right thing here. He believes that treating guests with hospitality is an important value, and somehow, in his deluded mind, he thinks it appropriate to offer his two daughters to the crowd. Lot’s morality is so distorted and disturbed that he views hospitality to guests as more important than protecting one’s innocent children from danger.

When Lot learns that his city will be destroyed, and he tries to warn his family to escape the town before God brings down fire and brimstone upon it. Yet, when he tells his sons-in-law to escape, they think Lot is joking and don’t take him seriously. Lot is exposed. Despite his nice home, his friendliness, his so-called “niceness”—these were all just masks on top of a brittle, unhealthy, unheroic core. And, at a moment of crisis, this became apparent to all.

My friend told me with absolute conviction that Attorney D. was “a really nice guy” which, sadly, for us also translates to a “really good guy” or a “really moral guy.”

Had she bumped into a modern-day Lot that day on the elevator? I question how the interaction might have differed had a modern-day Abraham walked into the elevator that day instead. Abraham, we can only imagine, would have had no time for small talk. How would my friend have reacted if Abraham, consumed with greater priorities, had not asked her about her day or cracked a joke? Would Abraham, too, have received her unwavering praise?

Another rendition of this article can be heard on my podcast The Schrift: Ancient Jewish Wisdom for Modern Times, available on Spotify and Apple Podcasts.

About the Author
Steven Weinberg is a PhD student at Rutgers University in the German Department. His dissertation is on Franz Kafka and the Kabbalah. He grew up in Philadelphia, but moved to Israel in his late twenties, where he studied literature at Ben-Gurion University. Currently, Steven lives in Berlin, but travels to Israel and America as often as he can. His blog is based off his podcast, The Schrift, a weekly lecture series on Torah, German literature, and meditation. The Schrift is available on Apple and Spotify platforms.
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