Take Four

“Aren’t all religions alike?” people want to know. “Isn’t the point really just to be a good person?”

Well, yes and no. What makes any religion great is indeed its commitment to human goodness. But religions approach that goodness in their own distinctive ways. They all serve up the idea of how properly to respond to the human condition, but they slice it differently.

The issue arose most recently for me when I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s definitive exhibit entitled, “The Plains Indians” – the culture of a large grouping of tribes ranging from the Cree and Ojibwa in western Canada to the Cheyenne, Comanche, and Sioux nations scattered southward all the way to Texas.

One of the items on display references four basic values of these Plains Indians: generosity, courage, wisdom and fortitude.

As it happens, I had just discovered elsewhere that over in England, Jane Austen’s 1817 tombstone praises her for charity, devotion, faith, and purity (see Roy and Leslie Adkins, Jane Austen’s England).

Hmmmm. Generosity, courage, wisdom and fortitude, on one hand; charity, devotion, faith, and purity, on the other.

Every culture, said pioneer sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920), establishes its own “ideal type,” the recipe for perfection that its adherents strive ideally to emulate. What we have here, then, are two examples of ideal types: generosity, courage, wisdom and fortitude (for the Indian Peoples of the plains) and charity, devotion, faith, and purity (for Christians like Jane Austin).

The attributes are gendered. The tribal culture’s selection is largely male, the model for tribal braves; Austin’s set was prescribed for pre-Victorian women. But even so, they tell us a lot about Native American religion on one hand and Christianity on the other.

The tribal traits are weighted toward the competitive (even warlike) life on the plains, where tribes contended with the need to hunt and fight for control of their environment. High on their list are courage and fortitude, what every young man was asked to demonstrate in the grueling vision quest that marked his transition to manhood.

With Austen, by contrast, we get a feminized version of recognized Christian virtues: faith and devotion, certainly, but also charity and purity – traits found in monastic culture for men as well.

Native American religion inculcated attributes of bravery, its ideal type being the Indian Brave. Christian religion accented faith, but also selflessness (even self-abnegation) and the challenge to remain pure in a world filled with temptations of the flesh; its ideal type was the solitary monk, devoting days and nights to the veneration of God while avoiding worldly pleasures.

What about Jews? What would the four Jewish attributes be? As with Native Americans and Christians, the Jewish ideals too were intended originally for men, but have nowadays been generalized to women also. What are they?

To some extent, any four terms are an arbitrary selection – just as the Indian and Christian examples here must be. But their general orientation is not. What is the Jewish ideal type? If not the Native Brave or the Christian monk, what does classical Judaism prescribe as ideal?

I suspect the Rabbis would have advocated learning, justice, righteousness and making peace. Their ideal was the learned judge who dispenses justice, acts with righteousness, and makes peace between warring parties. These four traits figure prominently in such manuals of behavior as Pirkei Avot (second century) and they recur throughout rabbinic literature. They epitomize the Jewish exemplar of talmid chakham.

So back to the original question: aren’t all religions just cases of being a good person? Not really.

To be sure, they all admire the good; and there is much that they share. Whether expressly mentioned here or not, for example, peace is valued by all three cultures; so too is generosity, which appears expressly in the Native list and is reflected in monastic vows of poverty. Similarly, all three religions esteem living in accord with the divine; offering part of our bounty back to God (or the gods); and learning the wisdom of the past. I make no inveterate distinctions here: as I said, all great religions are great for a reason – they all raise us up to be our highest selves.

But they approach the good differently; they slice the ideal in different ways. In identifying with a given religion, adherents learn to value that religion’s particular slicing. Judaism’s signature path to the good is through learning and study, by which one becomes a scholar; scholarship must lead to action, however: lo hamidrash ha’ikar ela hama’aseh (“not learning but doing is the main thing”). And the highest form of action is to act justly and rightly so as to bring peace where there is strife.

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5 responses to “Take Four

  1. Another home run, Rabbi Hoffman. Thanks. A fifth question: It was our family custom every year to invite Christian friends and colleagues of my parents to our second seder–which made it more of a teaching seder. My father made a sign he’d post ahead of time that read, “No invidious comparisons.” (That’s where I learned to respect four syllable words.) So this essay brings me back to that admonition: Is an invidious comparison lying underneath this analysis? And, if valid, are invidious comparisons ok after all?
    I think one might begin to answer by distinguishing between ethics and values. We all share ethics–which are universal–but values (learning vs. drinking vs. athletics vs. monasticism…) are unique to each culture. Perhaps we ought better to measure the degree to which the expression of the values of a given culture measure up to ethics (assuming that there is, in fact, a universal ethical standard).

    • I certainly meant no invidious comparisons — the Oxford Dictionary defines “invidious” as “odious, likely to give offense,” and that was the farthest thought from my mind. But I agree with you as to the need to distinguish terms. The usual philosophical distinction is ethics vs morals, morals being the more universal term and ethics being any particular version of morality (Christian ethics, say, or Martin Buber’s ethics). You might then even have “Nazi ethics” which are distinctly immoral. Alternatively, Ethics is the study of morality — another way of dividing the field.

      Philosophers also study “value,” sometimes dividing it into intrinsic, instrumental, inherent and contributory. Most basic is intrinsic, that which has value in and of itself. It is possible, then — as you say — for different people to have different values, because it is possible for different things to be intrinsically valuable: art and exercise, for instance. One culture prefers the first; another culture prefers the second. Values need not have anything to do with morality; but some do. Then again, we might say that morality has its own intrinsic value, just as art or exercise does, but in the scale of values, moral value trumps the others. That may, of course, seem obvious to most people: we would look askance at someone who, say, finished his exercise routine rather than help someone on the neighboring treadmill who was suffering a heart attack. But sometimes you get more difficult choices. Truth, for instance, has intrinsic value, most of us believe, but does truth trump goodness? We like to say that proper ethics (our own preferred version of morality) are intrinsically valuable because they are true!

  2. Larry – as always – this is meaningful. I would fit in the top four chesed (g’milut chassadim) for just as our Jewish world requires justice and the making of peace, we need badly the virtue of compassion and kindness.
    Hag Pesach Sameach,
    Your friend and student,
    John Rosove

    • I like it. A very interesting question here is what we choose to call “good deeds.” On the one hand, the Rabbis call it ma’asim tovim; on the other hand, you also find g’milut chasadim. Many modern congregations use the term tikkun olam. The second emphasizes chesed. The most favored these days (tikkun olam) is also the least personal.

      I think I might revise my own list with your comment in mind.

  3. the question of Jewish values bring to mind two basic ones: justice and charity.
    This is more than intuition as I think they are “universal” values applicable in any cultural and environmental setting where they can be helpful in establishing a just distribution of wealth and social positions, etc.
    The fact that these basic values require thinking tempered by caring i would add two corollary values: learning and wisdom…these being more “Jewish” due to historic circumstance and ethical temperament.
    So to sum it up: justice and charity as universal ends, and learning and wisdom as Jewish means.

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