In vain we call old notions fudge,
And bend our conscience to our dealing;
The Ten Commandments will not budge,
And stealing will continue stealing.
This motto of the American Copyright League confirms that “conscience adjustment” ranks among the major human skills. Recognizing this, the rabbis of old never made any person’s happiness or welfare dependent on anyone else’s conscience. One clue to their wary approach to the precarious phenomenon of conscience: no word for conscience even exists in Biblical Hebrew.
Let’s vary the old cocktail-party-philosopher’s question. If you were marooned on an island clutching a pouch of priceless diamonds salvaged from the shipwreck, what chief characteristic would you like your sole fellow survivor to possess? Please do not request qualities like beauty, nobility, or even honesty. Should you do so, the Coast Guard will eventually rescue only one person, but that survivor will not be you.
In other words, reprehensible acts are often committed by people who continue to think of themselves as beautiful, noble, and honest. The elasticity of the human conscience is truly infinite. Paul Johnson’s Intellectuals, chronicles the atrocities perpetrated in their personal lives by many of the poets, painters, and thinkers venerated in the West. What strikes the reader is how little guilt these great minds felt about their horrid behavior. Had they felt any good, old-fashioned guilt they would hardly have been able to show their faces, let alone continue to bestow their product on a fawning public. Somehow, they retroactively decided their behavior was justified, even downright virtuous. And so I do not think that your island murderer will experience very much discomfort at all, once he grasps the rational necessity of doing away with you.
Somehow, our God-given power to reason usually turns out to be the very instrument of our downfall. Judaism teaches that Eve succumbed because of the serpent’s rational and entirely plausible arguments. Our criticism of Eve is not so much that she ate the fruit, but that she entered the discussion in the first place. Some things are best declined with the simple answer, “No, just because God said so.”
A shameful deed can easily be distorted into an act of nobility and even self-sacrifice. After King Saul defended himself with a thoroughly logical explanation for failing to comply with a divine instruction, the prophet Samuel chastised him: “Behold, to obey is better than to sacrifice.” Society will be safer if we refrain from pursuing good beyond God’s law. Obeying His rules allows people to live together. Attempting to create our own rules ensures failure, despite good intentions.
Thus the main characteristic desired for your fellow islander—or for that matter, for any person with whom you must interact—is for him to be religious. “Ah, but whose religion, Rabbi?” the skeptics ask. While theological differences are crucial to those of us with an inherited faith, to the fearful pedestrian entering a dark alley it is less urgent. So long as that frightening figure approaching turns out to be a worshipper on his way home from a late night church or synagogue service, all is well.
Media reports about the religiousness of the occasional Christian malfeasant are never matched by identification of robbers and rapers as irreligious or atheist. It is almost as if journalists believe that love of God leads to felony. Most people believe that religious citizens are more peaceful and productive than any other. The day-to-day ethic of a religious person is largely predictable, and to our friends and neighbors, that is a blessing.
The cities of Utah, for example, are healthier and more wholesome than those of Nevada. This has nothing to do with climate or per capita income. In Utah, more people self-regulate their day-to-day behavior in accordance with Judeo-Christian ethics. The ghettos of Harlem and Brownsville were safe for evening strollers earlier in the century, when the ghetto inhabitants of all races for the most part lived according to God’s wishes and demanded no less from their children. Small town America has drawn many of the city dwellers recently, not because the churches are full each Sunday morning but because of the civil behavior among small town residents. Can anyone doubt that the politeness, the warmth, and the sense of community the fleeing city folk find are a result of the ethic that radiates out from those churches.
Whichever theology fuels it, the Judeo-Christian ethic promotes happy families, safe neighborhoods, and better schools. It does this especially by providing guidelines on what sexual activity elevates and what depraves. It reaches into the streets and parks with Rabbi Hillel’s ruling: “Do not do unto others that which is hateful to you.” It influences the classroom with its underlying principle that wisdom flows from the older generation to the younger, and therefore honor, not contempt, is due one’s parents and teachers.
The challenge to the Jewish community today is to escape the doctrine that a religious America constitutes a threat to the Jewish minority. The true threat is the terror of living among people who can do anything that their self-centered consciences allow. We must bravely liberate ourselves from misplaced faith in secular humanism and face the truth. The increase in Christian commitment and the rise of the Religious Right is not a threat to us; it is a blessing.