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    What prevents us from being good?

    The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple originally appeared on the ABC Religion and Ethics website on 28 June 2018.

    Adam & Eve under the Tree of Knowledge, Charles Foster, 1897

    Classical Christianity had a doctrine of Original Sin which averred that human beings were inherently evil, tainted by the sin of Adam and Eve (see Romans 5:12-15) and redeemable only by holding the right beliefs.

    In contrast, Jewish theology interpreted Adam and Eve undoctrinally and thought that the verse, “The inclination of man’s heart is evil from his youth” (Genesis 8:21), meant that man’s sins were “because of his youth” – which is to say, due to this being so early in moral history.

    The British Jewish scholar Solomon Levy posited a response to Christianity in a theory of “Original Virtue,” suggesting that it is the doing of good, not evil, that is the real nature of Man.

    If Levy is right that man’s nature is basically good, why don’t people follow their true, inherent quality of goodness?

    A Jewish text replies that something gets in the way.

    Using a line of thought from Will Herberg’s Judaism and Modern Man, here are some of the “somethings”:
    A person’s profession: As an individual I can want to help person who is down on his luck, but what if I am a banker or shopkeeper?

    A person’s civic role: As an individual I can choose to forgive a sinner, but what if I am a judge passing sentence on an accused person?

    A person’s commitments: As an individual I can sacrifice my personal well-being for the sake of another, but what if I am a politician and my party’s or nation’s policies say something else?

    A person’s power and prestige: As an individual I can step down to help someone out of the gutter, but what if I am a public figure with rank and status?

    A person’s environment: As an individual I can be strict, but what if my society seems tolerant of moral infractions?

    A person’s dilemma: As Herberg puts it, “Sincere, high-minded men, once in office, turn ‘practical’ and ‘realistic’ … driven to dubious practices [they] had once vehemently denounced and still sincerely deplore.”

    A person’s inertia: Some people prefer a quiet life and just don’t want to get involved. But abdication is cowardice and lacks moral quality.

    A person’s greed: “Do this, say that, and it’ll be good for you.” Once when I declined a bribe, I was asked, “What are you – a saint?” No, I’m no saint, and I could do with the extra money. But my conscience knew it was wrong.

    A person’s orders: At Nuremberg, Nazis claimed to be good people who had to comply with orders. They said they were scared or manipulated into carrying out acts which might have been wrong. The so-called Nuremberg Defence evoked the question of whether the agent could risk disobeying his principal.

    Herberg says, “There is not an atrocity on the calendar – cruelty, murder, treachery, deceit, oppression – that perfectly upright men will not commit to advance a cause to which they have given their allegiance.” Erstwhile idealists who gain power often become as bad as their predecessors. Thus Herberg says, “Every ideal is threatened with deformation and corruption by the attempt to realise it with the weapons of the world, by the very activities that are instituted to achieve it.”

    There are four types of response:
    Perfectionism: Perfectionist Man insists on the undiluted ideal. He has no patience for the grubby realities. The lovely dream doesn’t grapple with real-life situations. It repeats the ringing rhetoric but it fails to recognise the perplexities.

    Power: Power-drunk Man has only one criterion: success and control. He has no patience with weakkneed perfectionism. Herberg calls this Machiavellianism, “open and unashamed worship of the

    Despair: Wretched Man sees no hope. Ideals get nowhere. The dictators inherit the earth. If a dictator topples another replaces him. Things will never improve. Man can only plead for God’s grace to keep the world afloat.

    Gradualism: Gradualist Man doesn’t despair. Utopia is if he works towards it, “a little here, a little there” (Isaiah 28:10), always on the lookout for a moment when society will “turn from evil and do good” (Psalm 34:15). He knows with the Mishnah that “the task is not yours to complete but neither are you free to desist from it.” Ultimate victory will take time, but through little victories will the big victory be won. Human nature will overcome its hindrances.

    The Christian theologian Jakob Jocz wrote in The Jewish People and Jesus Christ: “The Christian attitude is essentially the attitude of surrender. Christianity begins with man in crisis; Judaism begins with the assertion of human strength … The synagogue emphasises the Imago Dei in man; the Church stresses man’s fall … Underneath the Cross man stands in a position of crisis, asking for grace; under the Scrolls of the Law, man stands in a position of selfassertiveness, giving his best.”

    Viscount Herbert Samuel was asked whether he was an optimist or a pessimist. He replied, “Neither. I am a meliorist.” Melior means “better.” For Samuel it wasn’t yet time to be an optimist, nor necessary to sink into pessimism. As an interim ethic one should say, “Things seem to be getting better.”

    As far as I am concerned, I hope to be a meliorist before I die. In the meantime, I rejoice at every little victory in human relationships.


    new-testament-people-a-rabbis-notesNEW TESTAMENT PEOPLE: A RABBI’S NOTES

    Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple’s book discusses some 98 themes in the New Testament and Christianity and shows how Jesus and the early Christians can only be understood against a Jewish background. Rabbi Apple never resiles from his own faith and commitment, but sees the book as a contribution to dialogue.

    The softcover and ebook editions are available from Amazon, AuthorHouse, The Book Depository (free worldwide shipping), and elsewhere online.

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