Drawing the Battle Lines

Shimen might make kiddush on tears in Auschwitz, but he wouldn’t make kiddush on a stolen bottle of wine in Manhattan. He knows that under certain circumstances one can violate a prohibition in order to observe a positive commandment (such as wearing tzitzis made of shatnez), but it would never occur to him to that this principle would include violation of duties to other people. (His intuitions are shared by Rabbi Moshe Sofer of Pressburg – see Chasam Sofer on Succa 42a.) Shimen knows the difference between being frum (pious) and being a mensch.

Shimen might have never seen the comment of the 14th century sage, R. Asher ben Yechiel (“the Rosh”), on the Mishnah (Peah 1:1): “[Isaiah 3:10 reads:] ‘The righteous if good eat the fruits of their deeds.’ Are there righteous people who are not good? Rather one who is righteous to God and good to people will eat the fruits of their deeds. For God prefers deeds that also do good for people than those only between a person and his Creator.” But he knows this.

Shimen, like most Gerrer chassidim, didn’t linger long over the reading of the haftarah, but he perfectly understood the verses in the haftarah read before Tisha B’Av: “For what do I need your many animal sacrifices, God says. I have enough burnt offerings… Stop doing evil. Learn to do good, seek justice, defend the oppressed, do justice for the orphan, argue for the widow.”

So, Shimen does not regard the fairness foundation and the loyalty and restraint foundations as being exactly equal.

Likewise, Heidi shares Shimen’s revulsion at disrespect and degradation. She shares Shimen’s instinctive sense that incest, for example, is wrong. Similarly, she agrees that speaking ill of one’s deceased father, even if nobody is harmed by such speech, is wrong. She is as revolted by cannibalism as any conservative, even if the deceased has died naturally and willed his body for this purpose.

So, Heidi is not completely insensitive to the loyalty and restraint foundations.

In short, human nature does not distinguish between Shimen and Heidi; culture does. Relatively few moral judgments are common to all cultures. Torturing innocents and incest are extreme examples of moral violations that cut across cultures. Inchoate senses of fairness, loyalty and restraint are universal, but the precise definition of each is culture-dependent.

In Heidi’s culture, fairness is given much greater importance than loyalty and restraint. This is manifest in two ways.

The first becomes evident when, as Jonathan Haidt did, you present people with potted stories involving completely private and unreported acts of cannibalism or incest or using a stack of Bibles as a stepstool and ask not just if this is bad (everyone agrees it is), but rather why it’s bad. Conservatives like Shimen might say that the Torah forbids it or that it’s just wrong and requires no explanation. Progressives like Heidi, on the other hand, would struggle to find some way in which someone would be harmed: offended sensibilities, deformed babies, regrets, irreparable relationships. In Heidi’s culture causing harm or being unfair to others is a primary violation, while violations involving disrespect for community hierarchy, disloyalty to tribe, degradation or dissoluteness are merely derivative; rules for their avoidance when no harm is done are not self-justifying.

This leads directly to the second way in which fairness is privileged in Heidi’s culture. When two different moral foundations rub up against each other, fairness always wins. Thus, if homosexual acts are regarded as dissolute, as they were in Heidi’s culture until recently, while restrictions on such acts are seen as causing undue harm to homosexuals, the outcome is clear. The very idea of dissoluteness sounds archaic to Heidi. Similarly, if intermarriage is regarded as a betrayal of tribal loyalty, as it was in Heidi’s culture until recently, while restrictions on intermarriage are seen as intolerant, the resolution is obvious. The very idea of tribal loyalty sounds bizarre to Heidi.

On the other hand, for all that Shimen’s piety is accompanied by sympathy, taboos remain taboos. Restraint and loyalty are, for Shimen, self-justifying moral foundations and if the norms that manifest them in his culture sometimes cause harm to some individuals, this is sad but necessary.

The battle lines have thus been drawn, hopefully in a way that Heidi finds fair and accurate. In the next series of posts, I’ll explain why her position is untenable.


3 thoughts on “Drawing the Battle Lines

  1. On the topic of incest, see Theodore Sturgeon’s story If All Men Were Brothers Would You Let One Marry Your Sister. In general, how much of Heidi’s revulsion is instinctive, and how much is learned from the surrounding culture?

    In particular, I found your statement “speaking ill of one’s deceased father, even if nobody is harmed by such speech, is wrong ” to be surprising. I can see support for ‘de mortus nil nisi bonum’ (say nothing but good of the dead’ but I don’t feel on an emotional level that speaking ill of one’s deceased father is worse than speaking ill of a deceased close friend, or other non-public figure. Some children of abusive fathers find actual relief from being able to speak of their experiences. I love my (deceased) father. I want to love the real person, not some made up image. Remembering his flaws, how he overcame them or what the consequences of his failing to do so were is as important to remembering who he really was as remembering his virtues is. We see this argument in the differences between biographies written by Marc Shapiro and those published by ArtScroll.

    As far using a pile of Bibles as a step stool, I find it as distasteful as stepping on a pile of Korans, or for that matter, climbing a rope made out of knotted national flags. People have worth. A world in which people give some weight to other people’s feelings is a better world than one where they don’t. But I wouldn’t make any of those options illegal – I wouldn’t use force or the threat of force to stop people from doing them. Shimen would, and I think that makes a big difference.

    I think your statement that there are purity issues that everyone agrees on to be not entirely supported by facts. Heidt’s description of people’s reaction to the chicken scenario seems to show that in the end when forced to choose Heidi style people held that the person did nothing wrong, however distasteful the action might be to them.


    1. I said not a word about using force or the threat of force to prevent people from doing things that are wrong. The whole next section will be about precisely that and my position will be largely anti-enforcement.


      1. It is hard for me to see how Shimen can avoid needing the use of force to back his rules, purely in self-defense. But I’ll wait for that discussion and we can talk about it then.


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