Evil and the Book Thief

“But Rudy Steiner couldn’t resist smiling. In years to come, he would be a giver of bread, not a stealer—proof again of the contradictory human being. So much good, so much evil. Just add water.”

Markus Zusak
The Book Thief

When you think about it, The Book Thief is not a Jewish book in the purest sense of the word. It is not about Jews (although there is a Jewish character, Max). It is not written by a Jewish author, nor does it address Jewish themes.

And yet, as I read the book and watched the movie, there was something profoundly, deeply Jewish about it. It surfaces in this quote.

Judaism does not assume that humans are naturally good, and that evil is an external force to be cast out. Rather, we are made up of inclinations toward both good and evil, and what determines our character, our virtue, our Godliness is how through a process of internal struggle we manage to strike a balance between the two in our deeds.

Zusak’s book is filled with such characters, and if there is a single message to us in his tale it is that we as Jews are asked once again to consider that the German people, despite the atrocities committed in their name and with their silent assent, were not innately evil. Instead, each was engaged in their own internal struggle in the face of events that often outpaced their ability to address them coherently. Zusak can be forgiven such a plea: in so doing he is attempting to honor his parents, themselves postwar refugees from the ruins of Axis countries.

There can be no forgiveness on this Earth for active or passive participation in the unprecedented spasm of hatred and bloodshed that was The Third Reich. Zusak reminds us, however, of the Jewish truism that deeds great and awful are committed by people wrestling with what Abraham Lincoln called “the Better Angels of our nature.” It does not take an evil person to commit evil deeds, any more than it takes a tzaddik to do a mitzvah. The fight against evil is a constant battle to keep the scales tipped on the balance of the good, and to watch for the portents of evil deeds rather than for the coming of evil men.

Richard Dawkins Suggests the Fairy Tales are Harmful to Kids, then Recants

Richard Dawkins on fairy tales: ‘I think it’s rather pernicious to inculcate into a child a view of the world which includes supernaturalism’
Ian Johnston
The Independent
5 June 2014

At some point, Richard Dawkins is going to reveal a viewpoint that is itself so pernicious, so inhumane, and so extreme that all but his most ardent supporters will be embarrassed. I suspect this most recent revelation of the eminent evolutionary biologist’s heartfelt prejudices is a step toward that point.

“I think it’s rather pernicious to inculcate into a child a view of the world which includes supernaturalism – we get enough of that anyway.

“Even fairy tales, the ones we all love, with wizards or princesses turning into frogs or whatever it was. There’s a very interesting reason why a prince could not turn into a frog – it’s statistically too improbable.”

He apparently confronted such a backlash in the wake of his remarks (at a science conference, no less) that he felt compelled later to “clarify” them on Twitter. He seems to have discovered that in taking on the likes of Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood, The Three Little Pigs, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, and the Monkey King, he is losing the plot of his own book, and perhaps a few readers he respects.

I think that Dr. Dawkins misses an even larger point. When we tell children fairy tales that include the supernatural, we do not cause them to recoil from science and discovery. Rather, we awaken them to the understanding that there are still things out there that we do not understand, things that are possible but unproven, and that themselves provide a motive to explore, to discover, to find the unfound. Is that not, after all, what a scientist does? Do we not risk reducing science to sawdust in the mouths of our children if we do not provoke them with wonder and curiosity about the unknown and undiscovered? How in the name of anything Dawkins holds sacred does that serve humanity?

I do not think that Dr. Dawkins is an evil man. I think that he is sincere in his belief that his arguments are made for the betterment of the world. It is possible, however, that in the twilight of his career the author of The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion is frustrated that despite his best efforts, so many intelligent, thinking people continue to entertain the possibility of God, of the supernatural, of magic, and that this frustration is bubbling to the surface.

I wish him peace and happiness, hope he continues his work, and in return ask that he and his followers allow the rest of us to live our lives, teach our children, and read to our families as we see fit.

Judaism is not a Faith of Fear

I spoke with someone yesterday who suggested that Jews have made a lot of our theological choices because we were frightened minorities operating within the context of larger societies who had the ability – and often the will – to oppress or kill us.

There can be little doubt that our collective experiences have shaped our culture. But I took issue to my friend’s broader point. We did not make our theological choices because we were tiny and scared, but because our Law says we must. Our rabbis based their decisions and psak din  on long and learned discussions on Torah, not on political science, and the reasons are documented in the Talmud, in Maimonides, and countless writings in between and since.

Heartless or Brainless is Not the Point

When I was in university and a member of the local College Republicans, a friend of mine related to me a quote: “if you are 20 and conservative you are heartless, but if you are 40 and liberal you are brainless.” He was paraphrasing a quote attributed (perhaps apocryphally) to Winston Churchill, who supposedly said “to be a conservative at 20 is heartless, and to be a liberal at 60 is plain idiocy.”

Despite being a fairly right-of-center person for most of my life, I have always felt that sentiment to be over-simplistic and a little self-serving, given that it came from conservative sources. Rabbi Joseph Telushkin agrees.

“Are we growing in honesty, kindness, and compassion? If we are not more compassionate and empathetic at sixty than we were at twenty, we have lived a failed life.” 

 A Code of Jewish Ethics, Volume 1: You Shall Be Holy

There is no political characterization here, no suggestion that one side of the aisle is naturally more compassionate than the other, because Telushkin knows that there is blessed little correlation. There are heartless people on the left and brainless idiots on the right, as well as the other way around.

But whatever our political journey may be, our progress in life should not be based on how hardened we become to the plight of others, but how sensitized we become to it. The cultivation of our empathy, our ability to understand and share the feelings of others, should grow over time. If it does not, it should be a sign that there is something desperately wrong with us. To become removed from the hurts of the people around us is to become less adult, if not less human.

Good Shabbos!

Joss Whedon, Serenity, and Torah

An amusement that is occupying a growing portion of my time is finding Jewish thinking in the works of non-Jews, or, even more amusing, in the work of atheists.

Joss Whedon is a remarkable artist, and as a science fiction fan it is hard not to place him among the best directors of the genre. I loved Firefly, consider myself a Browncoat, and was sad to see such a smart series disappear before Fox gave it the chance it deserved.

I disagree with Whedon’s Humanism, but unlike many other Humanists, he does not arrive at a conclusion and say “okay, I have the truth, and my job is to rid the world of religion.” Instead, he makes the exploration of the meaning of life a core part of his work. I find his approach refreshing, even as I cheerfully disagree with his outlook.

He won me over with the way he had Ron Glass portray Shepherd Derrial Book, the itinerant preacher, in Firefly. It would have been too easy for Whedon to turn Book into a caricature: instead, Whedon gives honest voice to the “other side,” demonstrating in the portrayal a belief in the value of the dialogue between believers and non-believers. He apparently thinks, as do I, that there is value for both sides, and humanity as a whole, in that discussion.

But one moment in the Firefly film Serenity will always stand out and forever endear Whedon to me, because in its clarity Whedon (probably unintentionally) gave life to the Jewish understanding of the balance between good and evil.

The Firefly shipmates discover that the government’s secret introduction into the planet’s ecosystem of the drug “Pax,” a compound designed to remove the inclination for violence and evil, resulted in the vast majority of the population of the planet Miranda laying down and doing nothing, unto death. As the hologram of a government scientist explains:

“And you can see, it wasn’t what we thought. There’s been no war here and no terraforming event. The environment is stable. It’s the Pax. The G-23 Paxilon Hydrochlorate that we added to the air processors. It was supposed to calm the population, weed out aggression. Well, it works. The people here stopped fighting. And then they stopped everything else. They stopped going to work, they stopped breeding, talking, eating. There’s 30 million people here, and they all just let themselves die.”

Almost all, anyway. She forgot to mention that a tiny percentage went the other way. Their reaction: to become super aggressive, to the point of cannibalism.

I remembered this moment on a flight across the Pacific while reading the first volume of Rabbi Joseph Telushkin’s magisterial A Code of Jewish Ethics. He encapsulated the Jewish idea of the roles of good and evil as such:

“Human nature, as the Talmud understands it, consists both of a yetzer hatov, a good inclination, and a yetzer hara, an evil inclination. However, the Rabbis did not believe that the goal of a good person should be to fully eradicate the ‘evil inclination,’ for within it resides the aggressive instincts that prompt so much creativity and achievement. The Rabbis speculate that without a yetzer hara, we would not engage in business, build homes, marry, or have children. (Genesis Rabbah 9:7).”

That’s provocative. But as R. Telushkin notes, the Rabbis took it further.

“The Talmud relates that Ezra and the Men of the Great Assembly wanted to destroy the evil inclination but were warned that doing so would have catastrophic consequences. They therefore chose to experiment by imprisoning the yetzer hara for thee days; they then searched for a new-laid egg and could find none (Yoma 69b). In other words, all human and animal life will cease if the evil, i.e., aggressive, inclination is eliminated.”

For Judaism and for Whedon, the quandary is the same. Take away the evil inclination, and we die. Give into it, and we become less than human, lurching ourselves over a precipice into a bottomless abyss. The challenge we all face is the eternal battle to balance both within ourselves. And the subtext to Whedon’s story is that the balancing should be left to each of us, not to some outside force acting in loco parentis.

The Rabbis on the Environment

Two other little gems I found while perusing Greenfaith.org related specifically to Halacha and the environment.

The first is from Rabbi Lawrence Troster, who serves as scholar-in-residence at Greenfaith.org, where he lists “Ten Jewish Teachings on Judaism and the Environment.” The piece offers a rationale not unrelated to the one Jonathan Helfand offers, but it has the virtue of being written for a wider audience. I would recommend it as a first step, then go to Helfand for greater exposition.

The second is a list of Jewish statements on the environment that covers a wide spectrum of belief and practice. A perusal of the sources makes it clear that despite the intramural arguments that make up a core part of Jewish theological debate, there is significant agreement on the core principles.

Both are great reads, and Greenfaith.org is a superb starting point for those genuinely interested in probing the degree to which people are discovering that faiths to which faith advocates the despoilment of the environment.

Why Judaism is an Environmentalist Faith

One issue I keep coming across in my discussions with atheists is the persistent misconception that religion promotes the idea that the Earth is man’s to do with whatever he pleases.

I do not attempt to speak for other faiths, or even for all Jews, but I explain that at its core Judaism is about Tikkun Olam, the betterment of the world in partnership with Hashem. The usual reaction I get from the more polite folks is arched-eyebrow skepticism. “I am sure that is how you read it, but does everyone?”

Jonathan Helfand offers superb documentation of where Judaism stands on the environment in a paper published in Martin D. Yaffe’s Judaism and Environmental Ethicsa 2002 compendium of writings on the topic. Helfand’s paper, “The Earth is the Lord’s: Judaism and Environmental Ethics,” presents what he calls a “Jewish Theology of the Environment,” drawn from Halacha, Aggadah, and Tefilah.

He starts out by summarizing the line of thinking that environmentalists follow to condemn Abrahamic religion, originally posited by Arnold Toynbee in the pages of the New York Times in 1973:

The doctrine that placed one God above nature removed the restraints placed on primitive man by his belief that the environment itself was divine. Monotheistic man’s impulses were no longer restrained by a pious worship of nature, and the God of Genesis told man to subdue and master the earth, proclaiming man’s dominion over the natural world.

Again, speaking only for Judaism, Helfand refutes the point in a comprehensive essay that establishes that not only did Hashem not give the world to man for his own, but that He enlisted man as a partner in its preservation even as man was provided its fruits for sustainment.

He also explains why we are required to protect the environment, use care with endangered species, and to serve as stewards of the world. In short, Helfand explains that the concept of sustainability is rooted deeply in Torah. He concludes:

While nature has indeed been, to use Weber’s term, “disenchanted” by the biblical creation epic, it is wrong to conclude that by releasing man from primitive constraints monotheism has given him license or incentive to destroy. In the Jewish tradition nature may be disenchanted, but never “despiritualized.” For Judaism nature serves as a guide and inspiration. “Bless the Lord, 0 my soul,” cries out the Psalmist as he views the heaven and earth and the wonders of creation. “How great are Thy works, 0 Lord; in wisdom You have made them all; the earth is full of your possessions” (Psalm 104:1, 24).

I love that: Judaism may have disenchanted nature, but it never despiritualized it. On the contrary, Judaism has given the world a framework that enables us to respect and preserve nature without having to worship it.

Naturally, this is a learned essay in an academic publication, not the ruling of a posek. Nonetheless, it provides a foundation for others to use as a guide or a resource when seeking to do so.

Finally, one of the things I love about this article is that it is a demonstration of the value of the oral Torah and the Aggadah, and the importance of using great care when interpreting Torah. If an environmentalist can dig into Genesis and find justification for despoiling the Earth, so could a well-intentioned Jew who proceeds without the guidance of the sages.

I keep this article in Evernote now, making sure it is handy for my next debate with an environmentalist.

Flight Attendants and Maimonides

As I sit here in seat 7D about 32,000 feet above the North Pacific, I am in danger of losing my superb kosher dinner as I cannot help but overhear the married gentleman in 8C shamelessly hit on each of the Japanese flight attendants (including the Purser) every time they walk past. That he was American, clearly practiced at his pitch, and more boorish than suave makes it all the worse.

I’m not going to comment on the gentleman’s marital status or his apparent readiness to set aside the Seventh Commandment: his marriage could be on the rocks, or maybe he lives in an open marriage.

But in this case, the FAs are in a position of disadvantage, in that they are obliged to serve all passengers with courtesy, especially in business class. Does any moral code make it permissible for this “gentleman” to take advantage of the flight attendants in this way? Mine does not. Maimonides makes clear that “the way of the pious and the wise is to be compassionate and to pursue justice, not to overburden or oppress a servant.”

You want to hit on flight attendants? Fine. But do it when they are off duty, at least, and can safely tell you to get stuffed without risking their livelihoods. To do any less is reprehensible.

From the Facebook Files

A Sefer Torah, the traditional form of the Heb...
A Sefer Torah, the traditional form of the Hebrew Bible, is a scroll of parchment. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the words of one self-declared atheist in a superb debate on Facebook:

“How useful is the Bible in guiding our moral decisions?”

That’s a fair question. Indeed, it is worth widening it to “How useful is any textual guide to morality, ethics, or personal behavior?” Whether you follow Torah, the New Testament, the Koran, Buddhavacana, Shruti, the Avesta, or Peter Singer‘s Practical Ethicsthe question is the same. How useful is any of these?

The answer is that the core text of any ethos is only as useful as you make it. My family and I find Torah useful every single day, often many times a day. But I know plenty of my fellow tribesmen who do not. And I know the more I study, the more I apply it.

But the question cannot be answered by anyone who does not know because they have not made a good  faith effort to try.

Virtue and Capital

The primary virtue of capitalism is the way it holds you accountable for your actions. Do something stupid or bad, and people stop buying from you. Do something remarkable and good, and people buy more from you. That’s the idea anyway.

The problem with headlong deregulation of the industry over the past twenty years, combined with the moral hazard of “too big to fail” is that we have boosted rewards while removing accountability. We are, then, in danger of stripping capitalism of whatever moral legitimacy it may have attained since Teddy Roosevelt began building barriers to rampant exploitation.

Take away the accountability, and you remove the virtue. Experience has shown that self-regulation is inadequate.

Been to Aish yet?

About Aish.com.

By the way, have I mentioned how much I love Aish.com? Along with Chabad.org and Torah.org, Aish.com is just a superb guide to those of us on our own walk-in-the-desert journeys to Teshuvah.

It all begins with learning, and Aish.org is all about education. If you haven’t seen the site yet, go and spend some time. If nothing else, check out the Window on the Wall, watching the Kotel 24/7.

Gandhi Gets It

While I prefer to quote Jewish sages, I tend to follow the course of Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks and Rabbi Joseph Telushkin: I’ll quote wisdom wherever I find it, thank you, particularly when that wisdom reflects a core tenet of Judaism.

Today I have to drop this one from Mohandas K. Gandhi, who wrote:

“I came to the conclusion long ago that all religions were true and that also that all had some error in them, and while I hold by my own religion, I should hold other religions as dear as Hinduism. So we can only pray, if we were Hindus, not that a Christian should become a Hindu; but our innermost prayer should be that a Hindu should become a better Hindu, a Muslim a better Muslim, and a Christian a better Christian.”

Swap “Judaism” for “Hinduism” and “Jew” for “Hindu,” and I agree utterly with the statement.

I think we Jews and the Mahatma are are on the same page…

On Being a Goy

I was born into a family wherein my father had been born to Jewish parents, but my mother had not. My mother converted at a Reformed synagogue, and she believed that made her Jewish.

Fast forward sixteen years. Hot on the path toward becoming a more observant Jew, I am told by a dear (modern Orthodox) friend that I am not actually (i.e., Halachically) Jewish. Needless to say, that was upsetting, and it began a journey of 15 years wherein I wandered away from Judaism. I was brought back into the fold by a group of friends who cared less for my parentage than my beliefs, and then deeper into the fold by Chabad rabbis who understood that it was the inner spark (what the Lubavitcher Rebbe called the pintela yidI) that made a person truly Jewish.

Yet despite all of that support, I am not considered Jewish by those among my friends and mentors who are bound by Jewish law. As a result, my wife, who went through a conversion similar to my mother’s long before we met, is also not considered Halachically Jewish, nor is my son. The problem has not gone away.

So why do I react differently now than I did when I was sixteen? Apart from a few more years (and a few more pounds) under my belt, what has changed?

I think the answer is in the journey. Having spent years sampling from the tables of many faiths (the Episcopal Church, Roman Catholicism, Atheism, Agnosticism, Islam, and Buddhism among them), I kept coming back to where I found my soul, and that was in Judaism and Torah. Regardless of my status under Jewish law, I realized, I felt Jewish, thought Jewish, acted (somewhat) Jewish, and related to G-d as a Jew. Nobody, not even a beit din, had the power to give that to me, or my wife, or my son, or to take it away. What a Halachic conversion can (and, please G-d, one day will) confer upon us is the legal status of a Jew.

I my wife, and my son all live in this Halachic limbo, at best b’nei Noach, at worst goyyim, and will continue as such until our level of observance has evolved to a point where a beit din in good standing will declare us othewise.

And that’s okay. If our forefathers could wander in the Sinai for 50 years before G-d was ready to let them into the Promised Land, I suppose we must take our own journey of hardships before we reach our (spiritual) Canaan.

Knowledge and Morality

Review: Mr. Brooks’s Miracle Elixir | The National Interest.

From the review of David Brooks‘ Book The Social Animal, (which is now ensconced behind TNI’s paywall), comes this interesting tidbit:

A great deal in cognitive science and evolutionary psychology remains speculative and controversial. Where they seem reasonably well established, the findings of these new sciences do not always support Brooks’s conception of virtue. Recent inquiry—as well as centuries of literature—may suggest that we should favor “the idea that we have multiple selves over the idea that we have a single self”; but it is hard to square this plural view of selfhood with old-fashioned notions of character. Advancing knowledge may undermine simpleminded rationalism, but it also undercuts traditional morality. As to the overall impact that science may have on human values, no one knows.

Emphasis mine.

More knowledge is not more character, or better character. Hence, more knowledge does not make us better people per se, and is thus no substitute for traditional morality.

Morality and knowledge are complimentary, not substitutes.

Getty Lee and Maimonides

The rational modern men, led by Clarence Darrow, believed that behavior was a pure product of heredity and environment. Free will, apparently, has nothing to do with behavior.

Me, I stand wit the Jewish sages and the band Rush. Moses Maimonides (the Rambam) wrote:

If one desires to turn himself to the path of good and be righteous, the choice is his. Should he desire to turn to the path of evil and be wicked, the choice is his.” (Maimonides, “Laws of Repentance” 5:1) (From Rabbi Telushkin’s A Code of Jewish Ethics)

And Rush sang:

You can choose a ready guide in some celestial voice
If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice
You can choose from phantom fears and kindness that can kill;
I will choose a path that’s clear –
I will choose free will.

Determinism is just too doctrinaire for me.

Riposte to the Libertines

Reading a superb analysis of the effect of Hugh Hefner on the psyche of American culture by Algis Valiunas in the May 2010 issue of Commentary. In the piece, entitled “The Playboy and His Western World,” Valiunas makes a strong case that Hefner and his Playboy empire were the vanguard of the force that turned western morality on its head.

It is not an unfair claim, though I would argue that Hefner as much rode as drove that tsunami of post-modern libertine thought over the seawall of mid-century American morality. (Let us not forget the Beat Generation, which was itself the most extreme expression of popular most-modernism in 1950s America.)

The key to The Playboy effect, though, is, as Valinuas puts it, that “the brave new world demanded an end to the timorous old one,” and what Hefner called Puritanism was “what Hef wanted to rid the world of.”

This is a fascinating and, in my opinion, accurate criticism of the movement that lies at the roots of today’s secular humanism and of radical atheism. Hefner and his contemporaries were not interested in merely claiming legitimacy for their way of thought in a free marketplace of ideas (as they occasionally claimed.) No indeed: the only goal worth pursuing would be the de-legitimization of all contrary forms of thought.

Martin Amis picked this up in his 1973 novel The Rachel Papers, which Valiunas quotes:

“The so-called new philosophy, ‘permissiveness’ if you like, seen from the right perspective, is only a new puritanism, whereby you are accused of being repressed or unenlightened if you happen to object to infidelity, promiscuity, and so on. You’r enot allowed to mind anything anymore, and so you end up denying your instincts again – moderate possessiveness, say, or moral scrupulousness – just as the puritans would hav you deny the opposite instincts.”

The last forty years have been a testament to this orthodoxy of permissiveness, and the result has been a generation that gives heed to writers like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, men who seek to take up Friedrich Nietzche’s sword in the quest to kill G-d.

Tolerance has become a one way street, and Hugh Hefner has forged a cultural orthodoxy as stifling and repressive as the one he rebelled against and helped overthrow.

I argue not for our culture to return to the evil depicted in The Scarlet Letter, but for us to advance to a time where we are able to replace damnation and ridicule with debate and tolerance. If we do not, we must suffer the fate of all societies that succumb to monochromatic, universalist orthodoxies: fascism, blood, fire, and downfall.


Any moral compass must be based on a code that transcends man. What would be the value of a compass if we each independently and arbitrarily decided which way North was?


When you buy a car, you get an owner’s manual from the manufacturer. You are given the choice whether to read it or not. If you read it, you are given the choice to pay attention to what it says, or to ignore it. But what you find is that if you do read it and you apply the instructions inside, your car will run more smoothly, operate more safely, and will last longer.

Torah is the owner’s manual for human beings, given to us by our Manufacturer.

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