The Sceptic Blog

Random thoughts of a random chappy

Zimbabwe, Rwanda and Mount Sinai

with one comment

1.  On Shavuos we tell the children that Mount Sinai was chosen as the place for giving the Torah to the Jewish people because, being the lowest of the surrounding mountains, it represents humility, an attribute required for receipt of the Torah.

2.  But there is another aspect to this symbolism.  If we all set out to climb Mount Everest, we will all reach different points before giving up: only a very few will reach the summit, from which they will look down on the rest of us with the self-satisfaction born of having achieved what the rest of us could not.  But if we all set out to climb a small hill, we can all make it to the top: of course, some of us will have to give others a helping hand, but one way or another we can all make it and reach the summit together.

3.  Torah is intended to be a lifestyle that is realistically attainable by everyone.  If it becomes a set of standards that are so demanding – whether financially or in terms of time or other commitments – that in practice only a very few can meet them, we know that we have gone wrong.  Judaism is not about setting high and exclusive targets so that I can look down on all those who fail to meet them: it is about travelling together, on a spiritual journey from which nobody need feel excluded.

4.  When I hear about terrible and inhuman things happening around the world, such as the recent genocidal violence in Rwanda or the present intimidatory violence in Zimbabwe, I worry about the numbers of people involved in making it happen.  There will always be resho’im – wicked people – and for obvious reasons many of them will choose to wield political power.  But if ordinary people were imbued with ordinary standards of human decency, the few resho’im would lack tools to carry out their wicked plans.  It is the moral and ethical vacuum inside thousands of ordinary people that enables them to be corrupted into tools of other people’s wickedness.

5.  It should be literally impossible for one person to beat another with sticks until he is bleeding on the ground.  It should be literally impossible for a group of soldiers to be incited to rape a group of women in a village.  Our education and cultures around the worldwide should make it simply beyond the range of activity that an ordinary human being will permit himself or herself to undertake.

6.  To have enclaves of people leading conspicuously holy lives is not a reflection of the Torah as given on Mount Sinai, a mountain representing universal attainment of basic spiritual goals.  If religion is failing to set basic standards of universal morality that protect each of us from our worst sides and from corruption by the relatively few actively wicked minds, then religion is failing to achieve the task for which the world and it were created.


Written by Daniel Greenberg

June 7, 2008 at 10:56 pm

One Response

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  1. I agree with the main thrust of this rant (which could indeed be extended beyond Judaism: those of us who are Christians should also consider that a life of conspicuous personal virtue is only part, and perhaps not the most important part, of the story). But I take issue with the suggestion that the world divides into a few “resho’im”, who are somehow innately wicked, and the rest of us, who have the capacity to be either good or bad. With the possible exception of psychopaths and sociopaths, we all have the capacity to be either – and whether our actions are good or bad seems to depend, to a frightening degree, on circumstances. See Philip Zimbardo’s recent book, “The Lucifer Effect”, which considers the Stanford Prison Experiment and applies its findings to modern events such as the treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib.


    June 11, 2008 at 9:27 am

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