Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Principles of Torah Morality according to Tony Soprano (Dov Lior, Moshe Levinger, Shlomo Riskin, Mordecai Eliyahu, Hanan Porat, Elyahim Levanon, etc.)

In my previous post, I talked about how one should go about doing Jewish ethics, and I suggested to look for the broad ethical assumption behind specific Jewish legal rulings. But the broad ethical assumptions are also subject to debate.

Consider the following statements that are much-cited by rightwing rabbis and that Tony Soprano could enthusiastically endorse

1. Get the other guy before he gets you.

2. Don't take pity on your enemies.

3. Only take care of your own folks.

The classical statements,in Hebrew, go as follows:

1. Ha-Kam le-horgkeha, hashkem le-horego

2. Kol ha-merahem al-ha-akhzarim, etc.

3. Aniye Irkha Kodemim.

All three principles are found in rabbinic sources. The first one is the rule of self-defence. If somebody rises up to kill you, get up early to kill him. The discussion in rabbinic sources tells us how to apply the specific law of when somebody sneaks into your house, but it does not address the question where or how to apply the broad ethical principle behind the law. What is legitimate self-defence? There is, of course, legal discussion -- but what of the ethics behind it?

The second principle says, "Whoever has mercy on the cruel people, will end by being cruel to merciful people." Let us call this a conservative defence of retributive justice -- letting criminals off without punishment is bad for the society. While the principle is prima facie reasonable, questions of definition and application also inevitably arise.

The third principle says that when you have to choose between giving charity to the poor of your own city, and those of a foreign city, you should first take care of your own. A fine statement of preferential morality, and, again, in accordance with common sense morality.

Now, Tony Soprano has his good points, but on the whole he is not a moral person. If he lives his life according to the aforementioned Jewish principles, does that mean that they are unethical? But we have seen that they seem reasonable according to common-sense morality.

The problem, of course, is that these are Soprano's only principles, the one he constantly appeals to, and the one he constantly interprets according to his own unethical desires. The problem is not in the principles themselves, but in the way they are used by an immoral agent.

And so we come to the the aformentioned West Bank rabbis, who have reduced Torah morality by their selective reading and overemphasis, based on their perverse ultra-nationalism and religious fundamentalism, to mafia morality.

You see, it may come down to personal morality after all. If the person applying a moral principle herself possesses a vicious moral character, the application of the principle is perverse.

Maimonides notes that physically ill people taste sweet things as bitter and bitter things as sweet. So, too, people who are sick in the soul, i.e., have vicious character traits.

The Jewish ethical and legal tradition can indeed be sweet, but in the hands of a hard-hearted rabbi the illiberal elements can triumph, and then Torah becomes a sam ha-mavvet, a potion of death.

Egoistic ultranationalism and an inability to understand the other has poisoned these rabbis. Whenever they open their mouths on questions of Israel/Palestine, they desecrate God's name in public.

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