Tuesday, December 27, 2005


Moral Equivalence, Moral Relativism, Munich and the story of Jacob/Israel

In the present few weeks in the Torah readings, the story of the life of Jacob is coming to a close. Jacob is an interesting figure because, even as he is the one who becomes Israel, he is profoundly flawed. Indeed, unlike even the "tragic" hero, he is not a great man with a tragic flaw -- he is a deeply flawed man who achieves greatness, both materially and even spiritually. And the Hebrew Bible does not shy away from presenting its heros warts and all. And this is done on purpose -- not only so we will not overly venerate our heros and treat them as demi-gods, but also so we learn that even the most spiritually flawed person is capable, through moral struggle (as Jacob engaged in to become Israel) -- with himself and with God through God's messengers (angels) -- of true repentence and return to God and hence moral greatness. This is a lesson at the heart of Judaism -- God in Grace provides us with a path to Holiness and we can redeem ourselves (and society can collectively redeem itself to bring about the Messiah via Tikkun Olam) without intermediaries by true repentence and reparation (although our sins are, individually but more often and less fairly, collectively subject to a law of "karma" where, as occurs with Jacob, deceivers are deceived ... or as threatened in Deuteronomy, an unjust society will perish) -- that no person who can make reparation for his/her sins is beyond salvation. The Hebrew Bible, in presenting us with morally flawed examples for spiritual guidance (a good idea pedagogically ... after all, how can you learn from someone's mistakes if they are perfect?), realizes this. Jesus certainly realized this -- with his associations with sinners. Those Christians who seem to think that even the most minor sins separate humans from God in such a way that we cannot merely follow God's path to achieve forgiveness, miss this point. Those who think we all should be morally perfect and are haughty about their own "perfection" certainly miss this point and are exactly the people Jesus condemns.

Unfortunately too many Jews nowadays (and somehow it always seems that those self-proclaimed guardians of "tradition" are the ones most missing the lessons of Torah ... why does this pattern seem to repeat everywhere at all times? I guess it's a kind of idolatry -- those who idolize "tradition" do not cast a clear enough eye on it to learn its lessons?) also seem to miss this most important lesson of Torah. The latest example is the furor that has erupted around the movie Munich: many in the Jewish community are criticizing it, ostensibly for the "sin" of moral equivalency. While indeed, in Jewish tradition, it is considered a grave error, when two sides are disputing, to consider equivalent ("they both are equally wrong") the major sins of one side with more minor sins on the other (the notion of "equivalency of sin", however, is key to understanding Paul's approach to Christianity), it is also considered a grave error to view one side as being 100% right. Indeed, as shown by the Genesis stories of Jacob (and later stories of Moses and Aaron), we Jews realize that even the most religiously heroic among us are spiritually flawed. While "moral equivalency" is a sin (interestingly, the people complaining about moral equivalency are often the same people who push a sort of moral relativism, antithetical to Judaism but part and parcel of Zionism which holds that we Jews ought not to be held to any higher standard than any other people), considering one side of a dispute as morally clean is also a grave error (and condemned in the Talmud).

I have not seen the movie, but apparently Spielberg does not present both sides of morally equivalent. What he does do, which has irked so many, is present the Israeli side as doing something morally wrong. That the Israeli side was wrong, according to Jewish tradition, should be indisputable. Jewish law is very clear that, while killing in the context of armies fighting is regrettable but ok, seeking vengence on specific perpetrators of a criminal act, even an "act of war", is wrong. Jewish law is very keen on bringing those guilty of capital crimes to justice -- by murdering them, one prevents the adjucation of those crimes in court, the lack of which adjucation is listed as a cause for God's extreme wrath! If Mossad captured Eichmann, they could have captured, rather than killed the Munich perpetrators and brought them, in accordance with Jewish tradition even if against international law, to justice. That Israel did not do such a thing is sinful in Jewish tradition (not to mention strategically stupid: by killing those who killed some of us, we made what was clearly a wrong on the other side into just part of a "cycle of violence" in which we made martyrs out of criminals -- had we had even a show trial it would have allowed Israel to publically lay out its side of the story, shown the terrorists we mean business and not given anyone a sense of moral equivalency, martyrdom, etc. -- if there is moral equivalency here, it is because the Israeli government acted as if their actions were morally equivalent to those of the Black September terrorists!) and it is perfectly commendable, in a tradition in which our founding father, Jacob/Israel, is presented as such a flawed figure, to produce works of art which point out the sins of our people.

So the question is: why is it so important for some people that their side be always presented as morally 100% correct when even our Torah presents our founding father as so morally flawed?

Enjoyed a lot! »
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