Friday, April 6, 2012

A Question Of Western Morals

Good & Evil
In Jewish history there are no coincidences.
Elie Wiesel

One of the chief questions asked in modern times is whether individuals in society can construct an individualized and personalized morality apart from any religious tradition, in particular the Judeo-Christian tradition that has influenced and formed Western nations. The first question that we can discard with quickly is whether individuals can be moral without any religious thinking or tradition informing their decisions. For example, the Jewish Bible (i.e., Torah) proves this point, showing Rahab and Pharaoh's daughter both acting morally, even when it might have been better and easier to act otherwise.

Of course, there are countless examples in history where persons have made great personal sacrifices, including doing performing heroic deeds, most recently during the Second World War, without having been in any way religious or observant. Such examples and the undeniable fact that wars, hatreds and killing have been done under the banner of traditional religion make it seem that religion and its narratives always act as an impediment to moral progress.

Thus, the secular thinkers have come to the logical conclusion that the world would be a better place without religion. (I have argued against this ethically sounding premise; see here.) This argument seems rational, cogent and good. But their argument is a half-argument, full of half-truths, failing to take into consideration the need that people have for religious belief and tradition. And to add further clarification, society as a whole has such a need, although it is not always apparent.

Consider what Walter Lippmann [1889-1974], a noted and influential American thinker, journalist and believer in objective science, wrote in A Preface to Morals (1929), which I have reread recently, about the generation following the First World War, a war that many agree changed things:
What most distinguishes the generation who have approached maturity since the debacle of idealism at end of the War is not their rebellion against the religion and the moral code of their parents, but their disillusionment with their own rebellion. It is common for young men and women to rebel, but that they should rebel sadly and without faith in their own rebellion, that they should distrust the new freedom no less than the old certainties, that is something of a novelty. (16)
Lippmann was no religious adherent; he was a hard-boiled humanist of the old school, where humanism meant that all programs for betterment were human-centred rather than God-centred. In other words, humanism meant that the interests of humans come first rather than the biblical tradition that states that humans have to serve the needs of God first and foremost. Although he was the only child born into a  wealthy German-Jewish family, Lippmann dissociated himself from all things Jewish, assimilating himself into the mainstream Christian culture, which is evident in his writings. His distance and detachment from his Jewish heritage allowed him to think the way that he did.

In Lippmann's writings, it becomes quickly evident that reason informed all his thinking, or at least that is what he thought and told himself and others. The 20th century likely troubled Lippmann, since reason could not solve its human problems. Reason became an idol, and like all idols, it disappointed. Walter Lippmann, in contrast to his earlier influence as the first modern journalist, died at age 85 a bitter old man in a New York City nursing home in December 1974; and today he is hardly remembered.

In terribly dark times, people value morality and conscience, the force that animates the spiritual life. Consider Dmitri Shotakovich, the great Russian composer, who lived and wrote during the terrible days of Stalin and afterward ans said he was an agnostic. When his orchestral work, Symphony No. 13, known as Babi Yar, after the famous Second World War massacre of the Jews, was banned as was the work of the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, he wrote a letter to his pupil Boris Tishchenko (dated October 26, 1965), in which he defended Yevtushenko. Shostakovich writes:
As for what "moralizing" poetry is, I didn't understand. Why, as you maintain, it isn't "among the best." Morality is the twin sister of conscience. And because Yevtushenko writes about conscience, God grant him all the very best. Every morning, instead of morning prayers, I reread —well, recite from memory—two poems from Yevtushenko, "Boots" and "A Career." "Boots" is conscience. "A Career" is morality. One should not be deprived of conscience. To lose conscience is to lose everything.
It is well said that "morality is the twin sister of conscience." Such morality has to come from an awakened conscience. We are lucky that Shostakovich had such a conscience and such a morality. During the same period in which Shostakovich lived and composed Lippmann lived and wrote. In 1929, Lippmann outlined what he saw when the young, the natural cohort who covets freedom, obtains the freedom from religious tradition that they desired, yet remain unhappy about their condition. At the heart of the matter lie the moral codes and God:
A human morality has no sanction as a divine. The sanction of a divine morality is the certainty of the believer that is originated with God. But if he has once come to think that the rule of conduct has purely human, local, and temporal origin, its sanction has gone. Its obedience is transformed, as ours has been by knowledge of that sort, from conviction to conformity or calculated expediency. (47).
Lippmann doesn't realize it—and it's certainly not his intent— but he has made a convincing argument for belief in God. Now, secularists, atheists and modern-day humanists, and various combinations of the three, will loudly disagree. Such is their right. But I sense that deep down, they might be somewhat bothered by this sentiment. It's not that religious tradition demands obedience to God, although some might see it that way, but rather a need to believe in a God that does good. Such is the thinking of Maimonides.

Thus, when a society has lost both its ethical and moral way, when the religious traditions that influenced the West have been either discarded or diluted, we are left with a people who have no old and proven moral traditions. Individuals might prosper and do well, muddling through and making the right moral decisions, but society as a whole is left bereft of hope, lacking a moral compass. This is what Leo Tolstoy, the great Russian novelist, alluded to in  A Confession and Other Religious Writings, written in the 1880s after completing his great works of literature:

The imitation of a secular morality that is not based on religious doctrines are exactly like what a person ignorant of music might do, if he were made a conductor and started to wave his hands in front of musicians well rehearsed in what they are performing. By virtue of its own momentum and from what previous conductors had taught the musicians, the music might continue for a while, but obviously the gesticulations made with a stick by a person who knows nothing about music would be useless and eventually confuse the musicians and throw the orchestra off course.
An imitation is just that: a copy or replica of an original that appears the same as the real thing. While it's true that individuals can be moral and ethical based on a self-constructed code of behaviour, society as a whole can't. It and its leaders needs a religious tradition to refer to and help it arrive at the right and moral decisions. It's easy to ignore or even discard thousands of years of religious traditions, as is found in Judaism, but to ignore religious morality is to ignore an edifice that helps make the world a better place for humanity. Some of the results of a individualized self-constructed morality are evident today.


Tonight after sunset marks the first day of Passover (or Pesach), a holiday where the Jewish People all over the world recount the Exodus story of freedom and redemption, a story also of individual and collective self-determination. In Jewish homes everyehere, during the first seder ( Hebrewסֵדֶר‎ "order")  Haggadahs  (Hebrewהַגָּדָה‎, "the telling"are opened and the story is recalled and told, so that each generation will know. 


  1. Here is somethin I wrote about Lippman in my review of BURIED BY THE TIMES:
    In 1922, he said, “The rich and vulgar and pretentious Jews of our big American cities … are the real fountain of anti-Semitism…. You cannot build up a decent civilization among people who, when they are at last, after centuries of denial, free to go to the land and cleanse their bodies, now huddle together in a steam-heated slum” cited in Ronald Steel’s Walter Lippmann and the American Century. How one can be rich and vulgar and pretentious and reside in a slum is not explained. Perhaps he considered Central Park West a slum. Lippmann did not take his own advice and go to the land to cleanse his body. Nor did he ever praise the socialist kibbutzniks who did so. Lippmann’s analysis reflects not only prejudice but stupidity, something I find quite hard to understand. I remember, when I was a student in Paris in 1958, joining other Americans studying at the Sorbonne at a sidewalk café and reading Lippmann’s columns aloud to each other from the International Herald Tribune. We admired his intelligence, his clarity, the accuracy of his analysis. It was a shock to learn about his shallow fear of being taken for a vulgar Jew who lived in an apartment with steam heat.

  2. Dear Prof Jochnowitz:

    You make an excellent point about Lippmann; he was afraid of himself.


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