Tuesday, January 29, 2008


Belated MLK Day Blogging (or Early Pinchas Blogging?)

I was kinda busy on MLK day ;) ... so I didn't get a chance to blog. Anyway, I'm sure I've made this point before ...

... but given the aretaic turn some on the right are yet again making, I feel that I need to make it again:

As a Jew, I have a problem with MLK's line about judging people "not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character". Of course, we shouldn't judge people by the color of their skin, but should we really be judging people even by the content of their character? Even if it is not a stupid and evil prejudice like judging someone by the color of their skin, judging someone by the content of their character is still prejudice as you are judging someone prior to knowing how their actions turn out (c.f. anybody's standard comments on the beginning of Parshas Pinchas).

Of course, sometimes you have to judge a person by the content of their character. Sometimes, as in the case with Pinchas where his actions turn out to have been righteous, you have to trust that a person of good character is doing the right thing, even if it seems wrong or misguided. Character is important, but as my mother (and your mother too, I bet ... except I'm not willing to bet french fries with Dev anymore ;) ) always said ... "trust has to be earned". I do not discount the importance of virtue (and we shouldn't, e.g., go out of our way to elect an asshole who might treat the country just as he's treated his wives), but virtue and character are signs (which are important -- c.f. the Deuteronomaic justification of the Exodus) promising of ethical behavior -- pace much of Hellenistic thought, they are not the sum total of ethics and morality.

We cannot say "Ms. Soandso seems like good people, so we can trust her 'cause her character is good". That is as much prejudice -- perhaps even more insidious if less openly evil -- as judging Ms. Soandso based on her skin color. We should give Ms. Soandso a benefit of the doubt if she has shown herself to be a woman of virtue. But we also must remember that even good people sometimes have lapses, accidents and moral mistakes.

Do such lapses of morality make an otherwise virtuous person un-virtuous? Of course not. We shouldn't fall into the trap of making such a big deal of small moral lapses. Pace much of Christian thought, a just God would not consider a person who has displayed many virtues through his/her actions to be an irredeemable sinner ... and we should not consider such a person to be irredeemable either. Instead, we should remember that people sometimes do lapse and that, while a person should cultivate his or her virtues (in part because the moral discipline helps prevent those lapses), lapses happen so we should be careful not to assume that all the fruit of a good tree is good.

In fact, realizing even the best people sin and even the worst people do some good liberates (c.f. Nietzsche) us -- from the distress of having our heroes toppled by some revelation of a bad act (nu? so Mr. Hero sinned a bit, what's the big whoop?), from the fear of being imperfect, from the genetic fallacy (nu? maybe in fact not all fruit of bad trees is bad? Hitler being anti-smoking doesn't completely discredit concerns about tobacco), etc. Not judging people based on their character or minor deviations from it, but rather focusing on actions and the morality of the act rather than the person is what truly liberates us from prejudice -- not only do we not judge people based on whether they are Black, White, Yellow, Red, Polka Dot (my own race) or whatever, but we simply don't prejudge them, except when expediency says we must put our trust in a person of virtue (even if in general "not upon mortals do we rely nor upon angels do we depend, but upon the God of truth, whose Torah is truth and whose Prophets speak words of truth and whose deeds are deeds of justice and truth" -- Zohar).

Of course, perhaps I am not only making a mountain out of a molehill in an otherwise clever sounding turn of phrase, but I am judging MLK based on a Jewish sense of morality that is not his sense. As I have alluded to above, Christianity does present an interesting take on these issues as it starts out from a very Jewish point of view and then takes a strong aretaic turn.

We Jews tend to think of some of the teachings of Jesus as un-Jewishly soft in the head. But much of those teachings are actually from Jewish sources (e.g. "turn the other cheek" is from Jeremaiah's Lamentations) and not so soft as we might think (I'm sure I've blogged about this). In fact, as I've alluded to above, "judge not lest ye be judged" ain't too far off the mark in terms of the Jewish take on the deficiencies of virtue ethics. On the other hand, even the supposed teachings of Jesus, we see aretaic turns. Jesus gives the very Jewish advice of "you shall know them by their fruits" and then proceeds to say, c.f. above, bad trees always produce bad fruits and good trees always produce good fruits.

However, we people are more complicated than trees. Pace the very foundation of Christianity, one bad fruit does not indicate the whole tree is bad. On the other hand, since we only have a general idea of the quality of the fruit from the quality of the tree -- past performance doesn't guarantee future results as the commercials say -- we cannot judge a tree's fruit by the virtue of the tree.

I have a dream, too. That one day we will not have to judge any person based on even the content of their character. That we can judge fruits not trees as we don't have to depend on the tree that produces good fruit to always produce good fruit, but rather we can look at each fruit for its own sake, and be comfortable that there will always be a better fruit from even that same tree.

The idea of judging a person is also contrary to the sayings of Jesus so, you are right, it's a very strange thing for King to have said. Never was my favorite King speech.

I wonder how much of this kind of thing could reflect the Hellenic origins so much of what became Christian culture. It's impossible to consider what's there apart from that. You wonder what a really authentic source of what Jesus might have said would show, but one hasn't turned up yet.

As always, a lot to think about on your blog, Alberich. Any suggestions for further reading?
I need to figure out which sources would be good. I tend to learn too much via osmosis and not enough via more proper channels, I reckon.
The real Jewish traditions are attracting me more as I read your posts and look up the terms I'm unfamiliar with. I need some basic resources to point out those things I miss when I read the original texts they are based on, in translation, unfortunately. I've been reading those in the Esperanto translation by Zamenhof, from the original. I figure he might have known more than the English translations available. And it's practice.
I'm not sure if I would spend money to buy this book (I think I've recommended it in the past and people have been disappointed), but a lot of what I know, I've learned from the new, Eitz Chaim Humash (Five Books of Moses, with translations) done by the Conservative/Masorti Movement. The JPS has a decent translation of the Jewish Bible out.

If you want to learn more about Judaism in general, I know the Jewish Book of Why series by Kotlatch is pretty good. Also, Milton Steinberg wrote some pretty good works.

Erich Fromm, Martin Buber and Dagobert Runes are some outstanding Jewish philosophers and theologians whose works will give you a flavor for (liberal) Jewish thought, and they have been very influential to me.

Some of my criticisms of "virtue ethics" are an internalization of Nietsche, who in some ways, is not too far from Jewish thought (and perhaps is further from ancient Greek thinking than he would have imagined). I have liked much of what I have read about Kant, but find Kant's actually writings to be somewhat un-intelligeable either in English translation or in German (which I only sorta understand).

Of course, the go to place for basic Jewish Ethical instruction has been (on Shabbos afternoons) for about 1500+ years Pirke Avoth (lit. Sprouts of the Fathers, but usually translated as Ethics of the Fathers), which is found in most Jewish prayerbooks.

I actually need to familiarize myself with more of the ethical ("Mussar") literature.
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