As I was re-reading the opening verses of the haftarah we read this Shabbat, the special haftarah read when Shabbat immediately precedes the start of a new month, I was transported back to a conversation I participated in just the other day. In this conversation, a typical foray by two adults trying to explain to a tween what things were like in the old days, before smartphones and tablets and the internet and video games, we were talking about the phone company. Yes, THE phone company. Ma Bell. AT&T. Sure, there were always other smaller phone companies, but we all knew what we meant when we said "the phone company." We talked about rotary phones, phone booths, operator assisted calls, party lines, and more. The conversation eventually led us to talk about how making a long distance call used to be a big thing, and about the concept of making a collect call. Then we each shared with the young tween the various "codes" that our parents and others would use to use the collect phone call as a way of sharing information without ever actually having to pay for anything. Like making a collect, person-to-person to call "Miss Holly Wood" or "Mr. Werehere," and other such clever coded messages to let people know where we were, etc. The codes were so transparent, that I am just sure that long distance phone operators probably kept notebooks and shared their favorites with each other.
So when the haftarah spoke of the secret "arrow" code between Jonathan and David my mind made the connection. However, it is a tenuous, and even odd connection at that. The code between Jonathan and David was to help protect David. The code that people used for person-to-person collect calls was an attempt to cheat the phone company. Of course, this was the big, evil, monopolistic phone company, so it was okay for a whole host of reasons to play this little charade.
Decades before today's current 1% vs 99% tensions, corporations were already bad guys that allowed us to play moral relativism in dealing with them. I remember the old story that if you were having a problem with the phone company, you should just put a staple across one of the holes in the Hollerith (punch) cards that you were supposed to return with your payment and write your complaint on the card. This would supposedly jam the reader mechanism, force the card to be manually removed, and theoretically someone would read the message you then wrote on it. When I was young, I did learn to use Hollerith cards, though I never did learn if a staple would gum up the reader. At least by the 70s, they were pretty fault tolerant, and even a folded, spindled, or mutilated card could be handled by the reader (it would reject it, but it wouldn't gum up the works because it was caught before it go to far into the mechanism.) By the way, the irony of writing about Hollerith cards right after Yom HaShoah is not lost on me. Hollerith cards enabled the Nazis to keep such accurate records of their atrocities.
Yet our Torah teaches us that we should not subvert justice to favor rich or poor. Reminds me of another ubiquitous meme making the Facebook rounds:
Like any social action movement, the current Occupy movement, or whatever it has morphed into, struggles with opposing doctrines of community action. There is the non-violent, working within the system (or challenging system injustices through civil disobedience) approach, and there is the more radical, confrontational approach. Some people want to just camp out in a park. Others want to throw chairs through bank windows. This meme seeks to strike a balance, I believe.
SCLC, SNCC Black Panthers. SDS. Greenpeace. Sierra Club. ASPCA. Humane Society. Gandhi. MLK. The Chicago Seven. Dorothy Day. Saul Alinsky. Meir Kahane. AJ Heschel. AIPAC. Jewish Fund for Justice. Peace Now. Different approaches. Each of them at times claiming the moral high ground. If even the Torah is uncertain, how can we know for sure where the moral high ground is?
I'm not here to endorse or criticize either approach. I've seen enough of life in the real world by now to know that everything has its season, everything has its time. War, for example, is an abhorrent thing. Yet in the shadow of the Shoah, one has to ask if "might for right" is an acceptable answer to evil.
As a child, every time I observed a parent or relative utilize the fake person-to-person collect call ruse I was uncomfortable. It felt incongruous with the values I was otherwise being taught. I guess it was one of my earliest encounters with moral relativism. (Another was how my parents would, because of my short stature, continue to try and get me onto the subway or bus for free, pretending I was younger than I actually was.) It is so insidious. How many of us really think twice about helping ourselves to some office supplies from the workplace to use at home? (Nowadays we rationalize it by reminding ourselves how we often do some work-related things at home, or by how much extra time we are putting in at work. We earned it.)
Hotel towels. "Oh, they expect us to take them home - it's all built into the price of the room." Really? Your taking the towel just makes the room rates higher for all of us. Ah, but we love to "stick it to the man." It's a victimless crime, we say. That's a real slippery slope. All sorts of things can be rationalized - like insurance fraud, white collar crime, hacking into company databases. (Down the same path one can find the sorts of trampling of rights we rushed to in the wake of 9/11.) Is there truly such a thing as a victimless crime? If so, it exists only in a morally relativistic world.
I have no moral high ground on which to stand. I stand as guilty of these acts of moral relativism as any of us. I feel guilty about them. Guilty enough that, in many, if not most cases, I really do try and do the right thing. Until I find it more convenient to employ moral relativism. Doing the right thing can be really inconvenient. So I do my best until I don't feel like it. Hardly a philosophy to pass down to our children.
The characters in our haftarah: Saul, Jonathan, David, are certainly no moral giants. They are, like so many of the characters in Torah, truly flawed. Yet here, in the haftarah reading, we find Jonathan doing the right thing. He stands up to his father, and he works to protect his friend (and lover?) David. So for this one brief shining moment we have a Camelot of morals. It will soon all go to pot, just like Camelot. Moral relativism will rear its ugly head.
I've resisted the temptation up until now to mention once again my two favorite crispy critters from the parasha, Nadav and Avihu. How we judge what they did and their ultimate fate is often from a morally relativistic perspective. One might even entertain the idea that Nadav and Avihu were themselves engaging in some moral relativism.
Also, related to the parasha, the ways many of us practice or choose to not practice the rules of kashrut are often based on moral relativism. We keep kosher at home, but not when eating out. We don't otherwise care about kashrut but won't eat pork or shellfish. And just to try to convince me that eating "mock shrimp" isn't an act of moral relativism. Yes, it works within the halakha of kashrut as we have neatly constructed it for ourselves, but does it really fit in the intent of kashrut? Is not a kashrut industry that ignores issues of workplace ethics a moral relativism? Is not the orthodox electronics merchant who cheats his fellow Jews only a little bit but has no compunction at all with cheating the goyim (and especially the schwartzes) outright moral relativism? (Sorry but my experience with the orthodox and hassidic salesmen at places like J&R or BH Photo has taught me that, sadly, yes they will try to pull a fast one over a fellow Jew-I've even heard them practicing their slick chicanery on other orthodox Jews-probably from a different sect!)
Is not the synagogue that treats its teachers, tutors, and specialists as independent contract labor (in clear contradiction of the IRS definitions) in order to save a few bucks in matching taxes and unemployment contributions practicing moral relativism? And all the synagogues that choose to not opt into their State's or private insurers unemployment compensation funds - are they not practicing moral relativism? (I've ranted about this before. Synagogues and Churches are exempt from compulsory participation in mandated unemployment insurance-but nothing stops them from voluntary participation. You would think the Jewish ethics on this issue were pretty clear.)
I'm not here to say that moral relativism is wrong. I do believe it is problematic, and is something we must work to curtail. The Torah itself practices this game with its position prohibiting murder but not killing. Though I don't often agree with the rabbis, I think they were right when they described a court that would impose the death penalty once in a thousand cases as cruel. It can be a matter of degree.
I'd like to believe that I know right from wrong. I think I'd be better off praying that I have the discernment to know how to make situational judgments. No two moments in life are the same. No two moments in time are the same. To make decisions, even moral ones, without regard to context, is unwise and probably foolish. On the other hand, to make decisions based solely on the current context, with no regard for other potential context, past, present and future, is equally unwise and foolish. As I have said so many times before, the genius of our Torah is its ability to guide us in changing contexts, by being open to interpretation, yet at the same time grounding us in at least one context, and, often multiple contexts. Say what you will about Mishna, Gemara, Talmud, Midrash, and other commentary, their seemingly endless search to explore the "what-if" implications of interpretations of Torah is laudable (even though at times it is quite laughable in the way it take some arguments to extremes) in that it does teach us to consider context when we make decisions.
Well, what do you know about that. I said something nice about the rabbis. Twice in one musing. I must be getting soft as I age. Or I'm just treating the rabbis situation-ally and with relativism. Darn.
Yes, operator, I'd like to make a collect, person-to-person call for Mr. Eyewishyu Ashab from Mr. Bat Shalom.
© 2012 by Adrian A. Durlester
Sh'mini/Shabbat Parah 5771-So Say We All
Sh'mini 5770 - Don't Eat That, It's Not Kosher
Sh'mini 5769 srettirC ypsirC
Sh'mini 5767-Don't Be a Stork
Shemini 5765-It All Matters
Shemini 5764-Playing Before Gd
Shemini 5763 - Belly of the Beast
Shemini 5762-Crispy Critters
Shemini 5761-Lessons From Our Students
Shemini 5760-Calm in a Crisis
Shemini 5759-Porking Out
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