Did an East European Rabbi Resolve One of Moral Philosophy’s Oldest Problems?

In a recent essay, Abraham Socher explored how Moses Maimonides dealt with some of the thorniest questions of modern ethical thought: how to square the fact that people want to do good with their inability to do so, and, if being a good person means not just following rules but possessing inner virtues, how is the movement from non-virtue to virtue—that is, repentance—ever possible? While Socher concludes that such paradoxes may be ultimately unsolvable, Andrew Koss sees a possible answer in the work of the Russian-born rabbi Eliyahu Dessler (1892-1953):

How does someone without virtue, or without a particular virtue, truly repent—not in the sense of acknowledging wrongdoing after the fact and begging forgiveness from God and man, but by actually improving himself or herself?

It so happens that the cultivation of inner virtue was a prime concern of Dessler and his fellow [devotees of the rabbinic movement known as musar], who were fixated—perhaps excessively—on obtaining purity of motive and thought. It’s hard to believe that he didn’t see [repentance] as involving some sort of inner change as well. But how? While Dessler doesn’t say so explicitly, I think the answer comes from another rabbinic statement: “One should always study Torah and fulfill commandments for ulterior motives, since, by doing them for ulterior motives one will ultimately come to do them for pure motives.” To put it differently, good outward actions can foster inner virtue; the means justify the ends.

And if the appeal to talmudic authority doesn’t convince you, modern psychology has come to the same conclusion. According to what’s known as dissonance theory, when a person’s belief is out of sync with his behavior, the most likely outcome is that his beliefs will change to accord with his actions. . . .

The interesting thing is that Aristotle had a similar view of how to develop character: “[B]y refraining from pleasures,” he writes, “we become temperate, and once having become temperate we are most capable of refraining from them.” Indeed, the Ethics puts a great deal of emphasis on habit, and it’s no coincidence that the words for “character” and “habit” are nearly identical in ancient Greek—both transliterate as ethos. And Aristotle, whose virtue ethics philosophy professors like to contrast to the “deontological” (i.e., law-based) system preferred by Judaism, concludes the Ethics by discussing the potential of laws to render people virtuous.

To which Socher replies:

It may be useful as a tool for moral self-improvement to see oneself as adjudicating between opposing forces within one’s breast or brain, [as does Dessler, along with Plato and many others], though where precisely the adjudicator, or charioteer, resides is more than a moot point. But I’m afraid I don’t see how such a picture reconciles virtue ethics with an ethics of obligation, or solves the puzzles in moral psychology to which the experience of weakness of the will and the moral phenomenon of repentance give rise. More generally, I think ethical life is best described at the level of the conscious individual, the moral agent.

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More about: Aristotle, East European Jewry, Moses Maimonides, Musar, Repentance

To Israel’s Leading Strategist, Strength, Not Concessions, Has Brought a Measure of Calm

Aug. 14 2018

Following a long and distinguished career in the IDF, Yaakov Amidror served as Israel’s national-security adviser from 2011 to 2013. He speaks with Armin Rosen about the threats from Gaza, Hizballah, and Iran:

For Israel’s entire existence, would-be peacemakers have argued that the key to regional harmony is the reduction of the Jewish state’s hard power through territorial withdrawals and/or the legitimization of the country’s non-state enemies. In Amidror’s view, reality has thoroughly debunked this line of reasoning.

Amidror believes peace—or calm, at least—came as a result of Israeli muscle. Israel proved to its former enemies in the Sunni Arab world that it’s powerful enough to fill the vacuum left by America’s exit from the region and to stand up to Iran on the rest of the Middle East’s behalf. “The stronger Israel is, the more the ability of Arab countries to cooperate [with it] grows,” Amidror explained. On the whole, Amidror said he’s “very optimistic. I remember the threat that we faced when we were young. We fought the Six-Day War and I remember the Yom Kippur War, and I see what we are facing today. We have only one-and-a-half problems. One problem is Iran, and the half-problem is Hizballah.” . . .

In all likelihood the next Israeli-Iranian confrontation will be a clash with Amidror’s half-threat: the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hizballah, Iran’s most effective proxy in the Middle East and perhaps the best armed non-state military force on earth. . . . “We should neutralize the military capability of Hizballah,” [in the event of war], he said. “We should not destroy the organization as a political tool. If the Shiites want these people to represent them, it’s their problem.” . . .

“It will be a very nasty war,” Amidror said. “A very, very nasty war.” Hizballah will fire “thousands and thousands” of long-range missiles of improved precision, speed, and range at Israeli population centers, a bombardment larger than Israel’s various layers of missile defense will be able to neutralize in full. . . . This will, [however], be a blow Israel can withstand. “Israelis will be killed, no question,” Amidror said. “But it’s not going to be catastrophic.”

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More about: Hizballah, Iran, Israel & Zionism, Israeli Security, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Lebanon