Emor 5778 – Jewish Conscience

By: Dr. Bill Sutker

Parshah Emor covers laws regulating the lives and sacrifices of the Kohanim. The set times in the Jewish calendar are named and described for Shabbat and the holidays of Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot.  God commands the Israelites to bring clean olive oil for the lighting of the menorah.  This parshah ends with laws dealing with profanity, murder, the maiming of others, and blasphemy.

Also embedded in this week’s parshah are two of the most fundamental commands of Judaism – commands that touch on very nature of Jewish identity. The two commands, respectively, are the prohibition against desecrating God’s name, Chillul Hashem, and the positive corollary, Kiddush Hashem, where we are commanded to sanctify God’s name.

When people associate religiosity with integrity, decency, humility and compassion, God’s name is sanctified.

When we behave in such a way as to evoke admiration for Judaism as a faith and a way of life, that is also a kiddush Hashem. When we do the opposite –  when Jews behave badly, unethically, unjustly and people say, I cannot respect a religion or God that inspires people to behave in such a way– that is a chillul Hashem, a desecration of God’s name.

The logic of kiddush Hashem and chillul Hashem is that the faith of God’s name in the world is dependent on us and how we behave. No nation has ever been given a greater or more faithful responsibility.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said:  “We are all, like it or not, ambassadors of the Jewish people and how we live, behave and treat others reflects not only on us as individuals but on Jewry as a whole, and thus on Judaism and the God of Israel.”

Judaism offers the world religions and world nations a distinctive voice that underlies our faith, our ethics, our law and our relationship with each other. A single word that encapsulates the soul of Judaism is” conscience.”

Conscience is the authentic awareness of the self that makes decisions with regard to values. Its chief concerns are good and evil. It represents the totality of the human’s cognitive and judging faculties. It is generally thought of in a  negative sense: it is the faculty that reminds us, by stimulating feelings of guilt and shame, that we are doing wrong.

Martin Buber described conscience in these words:” conscience is that court within our soul which concerns itself with the distinction between right and wrong, and proceeds against that which has been determined to be wrong.”

But is the concept of conscience found Judaism? If so, what are its parameters and implications in Jewish law and ethics? There are those who claim that conscience is irrelevant because all that matters is what the Torah requires and what Jewish law demands of Jews. But there are others who insist that the ideal and goal of Jewish law is to nurture and develop in humans a sense of conscience.

The Hebrew term for” conscience”, matzpun, is a relative newcomer to Jewish literature. There is no expression for conscience in the Biblical and Rabbinic text.  Matzpun occurs in the medieval philosophical literature, but with vague meaning. Serious discussions of conscience have really come into their own only the post-Enlightenment period in the 18th century.

Many commentators understand” fear of God” as referring to an inner drive to right ethical action, similar to conscience. Examples in the Torah of this include Joseph’s refusal to sleep with Potiphar’s wife, the midwives who resist Pharaoh’s orders to kill male Jewish babies, and the Amalekites who attacked the Israelites because they did not fear God. Such texts suggest that, even for biblical writers, the ethical impulse we call conscience(and that they sometimes referred to as” fear of God”) was conceived to work independently of Torah. Even more, that it should exist in non-Jews as well as Jews.

Conscience is the human ability to make moral decisions based on reason. As a result, it is available to all persons, a function of our individual autonomy. It is part of our nature as human beings, hardwired into our personalities, so to speak. It is universal, not restricted to any particular group within society. By contrast, Torah is a book of laws and norms revealed specifically to the Jewish people as a whole. It does not take into account individual preferences, impulses or will. It represents for the Jewish people our reliance not on our own practical reasoning but on an external, revealed set of rules to govern our behavior.

Accepting this dichotomy, some Jewish views play up conscience at the expense of Torah; others elevate Torah at the expense of conscience. As an example of the latter is the view that presents conscience starkly as a general urge to” do good, not evil”. Without an objective, external measure of what is right and wrong, however, the conscience is at the whim of any humanly constructed ideology that might manipulate our definition of right and wrong. An example is the ability of the Nazis to murder Jews and others whose ideology they defined as subhuman, and then to sleep soundly at night, without a peep from their conscience to condemn them. According to this view, the Torah is necessary to define right and wrong according to absolute standards.

This is an extreme representation of the gap between conscience and Torah. In reality, there are other less provocative ways to understand the relationship between them. For example, one might argue that conscience, though it seems to speak from within a person, is not really innate or instinctive. Rather, it is the product of subtle education throughout childhood, the internalization of cultural values received from other people like parents and teachers. If those values are themselves derived from Jewish tradition, it is possible to understand conscience as” Torah-trained”, that is, as a conscience that is informed by Torah values to education and upbringing.

Who has said the Jewish people are the moral conscience of the world? It is not a great Jewish prophet, or a righteous non-Jew who admired the Jewish people. These words are ascribed to none other than Adolf Hitler.   In Hitler’s words,” conscience is a Jewish invention; it is a blemish like circumcision.”  He also said:  “ I want to raise a generation of young people who are devoid of conscience, imperious, relentless, and cruel. To Hitler, having a moral conscience was repugnant and despicable; scruples could deprive an individual from realizing his self-gratifying goals. Hitler understood that every Jewish soul inherently has such ethical spirit.

In a speech he gave, Harold Schulweis noted that millions of human beings were executed in the past century during more than 50 genocides.  He spoke not about the dictators, but their followers. These innocent victims were executed by whom? Executed by the people, the ordinary citizens and soldiers, businessmen, bureaucrats.  The people who packed frightened men and women in suffocating boxcars. Those who showered frightened trembling souls with Zyklon B lethal gases.  Those who stoked furnaces with human bodies of every age, race and creed. Good people, the compliant collaborators. They are good citizens, good soldiers, good judges, good lawyers, good doctors, good pastors, good priests. How could they do it, these ordinary, good people with a history of culture and Church? Their explanation was simple:” We followed orders.”  How do these atrocities happen? They happen because we are raised in cultures of authoritarianism, with in institutions – religious, industry, military, home – that teach good people to submit to authoritarian power.

C.P. Snow, a historian and social critic summed it up:” when you think of all the long and gloomy history of man, you will find that more hideous crimes have been committed in the name of obedience than ever have been committed in the name of rebellion.”

As the psalmist put it,” eyes they have, but they will not see; ears they have but they will not hear; noses they have that they will not smell” the human carnage. Moral amnesia, aphasia, paralysis, afflicted the world.

Serious Jewish moral conscience means that as a child of God I will not be an instrument for carrying out another person’s order and thereby surrender my moral responsibility. Jewish conscience means no body and no book is exempt from being asked,” Is this command right? Is this mitzvah moral? Is this edict fair?”  No text and no person are immune from criticism.  No one is invulnerable to the question of conscience.

During the March of the Living, Helen, Sue and I saw horrifying effects of following orders recently when we visited the death camps, the gas chambers, the mass graves, the mounds of human ashes from the crematoria.  Seeing the evidence of the Holocaust first hand had a much more profound effect than just reading about it or seeing a movie.

One of the most poignant of all collective responses on the part of the Jewish people was to categorize all the victims of the Holocaust as” those who died al kiddush Hashem:” for the sake of sanctifying God’s name. This was not a foregone conclusion. Martyrdom in the past meant choosing to die for the sake of God. One of the demonic aspects of the Nazi genocide was that the Jews were not given the choice. By retrospectively calling them martyrs, Jews gave the victims the dignity in death of which they were so brutally robbed in life.

Civilization depends on conscience. Conscience is the mark of a free people.

Conscience is cultivated from one generation to generation, from parents to their progeny. Conscience starts in the playpen, around the family table, and the stories we hear in the sermons we preach.

God gave the Jewish people the obligation of “being a light unto nations.” It is a job description that not only is arduous but has caused genuine envy as well as the deepest and most vile hatred. Most of humanity would rather yield to the prevailing status quo social pressure, rather than deviate.

Our greatest haters realize that this was our fate.  They also realized that this desire to make our world a home for God is inherently embedded within our Jewish soul.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said:  “God trusted us enough to make us his ambassadors to an often faithless, brutal world. The choice is ours. Will our lives be a kiddush Hashem, or God forbid, the opposite?”