Essays on Judaism

...and thoughts on Torah life

Boruch Clinton

Utopian Visions

This was written as a follow-up to a conversation I had with a non-religious Jew who suggested that religions in general are divisive and often violent forces in society and that we'd all be better off living without individualist ideologies.

Let me respond in two ways:

First of all, the past century has taught us that secular societies are by no means more accepting or less violent than religious. Just consider the fact that three of history's worst murderers (Hitler, Stalin and, I believe, Cambodia's Pol Pot) were all avowed atheists…their societies being the least tolerant of dissension and personal autonomy of any in memory.

Now, of course, mass murder is not the only measure of decency and morality (there are lots of nasty people out there who've never filled ditches with the bodies of their tortured victims). To properly address the issue, we'll have to be more specific about the terms of debate. So let me ask you: what are the elements that, to your mind, comprise a good society? Can you demonstrate that these elements, whatever they are, are found in greater frequency and degree in secular communities than in religious?

Which brings me to my second point. I will claim that there are many positive elements in Torah-society that you'll never find in the homogeneous, liberal world "out there" yet raise the standard of living and of decency in palpable ways. One example is the body of Jewish law that prohibits "loshon harah" (loosely translated as "slander"). Let's try the following (true) scenario:

Stock broker Steve (for want of a better name) gets mentioned in various national press organs (CBC, National Post etc.). It seems his brokerage has noticed possible irregularities with some accounts under his control and wants to investigate further. The Securities Exchange Commission (or whatever the Canadian version is called) has been notified and is watching as events unfold.

Now the press dutifully (and, strangely enough, even accurately) reports the details of the investigation, including Steve's full name, the fact he works for that particular brokerage and his city of residence. Let's stop a minute and examine what public good has been served by this report. The SEC and the brokerage can anyway instantly suspend Steve's right to trade publicly should they see fit, so there's no concern that potential investors might still get into trouble - even if Steve really has broken the law. I can't imagine that he's a general threat to peace and good government in Canada, nor would I think it necessary to advise you to keep your daughters off the streets, so what exactly was gained by the report?

And what was lost? Let's assume Steve did nothing wrong (a possibility for which his brokerage was careful to allow) in fact, I never did hear any follow up on this story so I'll never know. You and I and our mothers-in-law all know that if the investigation should conclude that Steve has committed no crime there will be no reports in the press exonerating him. We also know that Steve's name has been passed around the trading community and his chances of attracting or keeping customers (or even of finding another job) are virtually nil. We can easily imagine what kind of pressures have been stacked against Steve - with his marriage, career and emotional well-being all suffering.

So why did the press report this story at all? They've got to fill space, it was probably a slow news day and they really don't take serious ethical considerations into account when doing their jobs (business, after all, is business - and I'm not saying they're measurably worse than members of most other trades, by the way).

But this is very much the standard moral and personal tone of the secular, liberal society in which we live. Freedom of speech, it seems, also means freedom to ruin people's lives at whim. This kind of thing happens every day a thousand times. People are being destroyed regularly simply to entertain readers and listeners. Is yours, therefore, really such a warm, safe and decent society? Put yourself in Steve's shoes: is public humiliation any better than a sectarian car-bombing in Belfast or Beirut (not that I'm condoning car-bombings)?

Now I don't have to answer for other religions, but a Jewish community is run differently. While a reasonable fear that a particular person might be, say, a violent sociopath, allows for the publication of his name and whereabouts, the laws of loshon harah forbid the casual mention of just about every other personal failing. If there's evidence that Steve might make for a dishonest business partner, then I have the obligation to privately mention that possibility to people I feel are considering signing on with him (and I've done it).

But imagine living in a place where you needn't fear exposure of the embarrassing details of your past; where private conversations remain truly private; where you can build healthy relationships (including marriages) without worrying about people mixing in destructively and where your children can be a bit different and not suffer for it. Imagine all that, and you're visualizing one small part of what the ideal Torah-community looks like (granted, we all slip sometimes - none of us is perfect. But at least in the Torah world we aim higher).

Do you still feel that religion (and Judaism in particular) is greatest root of evil and violence in this world?

One more point: you propose we judge religions exclusively in utilitarian terms (i.e., "does religion `x` make for smoothly running communities?" etc.). But that ignores what I consider to be a far more important question: is a particular religion true or false? For even if Judaism's social system was chaotic and inefficient, if there really is a God and if He really did mandate it, then I guess that's the way things should be. That, it seems to me, should be a question worth investigating.