Donate

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.

Read more at Jewish Review of Books

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

 

Hannah Arendt, Adolf Eichmann, and the Jews

Feb. 23 2018

In 1963—a year after Adolf Eichmann’s sentencing by an Israeli court—reports on the trial by the German-born Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt appeared in the New Yorker and were soon published as a book. This “report on the banality of evil,” as the book was subtitled, outraged many Jews, including many of her erstwhile friends and admirers, on account of her manifest contempt for the entire preceding, her disgust for the state of Israel, her accusation that a wide array of European Jewish leaders (if not the majority of the victims) were complicit in their own murder, and her bizarre insistence that Eichmann was “not a monster,” or even an anti-Semite, but a mindless, faceless bureaucrat. While extensive evidence has been brought to light that Arendt was wrong both in her claims of Jewish passivity and her evaluation of Eichmann as the head of the SS’s Jewish section, her book remains widely read and admired. Ruth Wisse comments on its enduring legacy:

When Arendt volunteered to report on the Eichmann trial, it was presumed that she was doing so in her role as a Jew. . . . But Arendt actually traveled to Jerusalem for a deeper purpose—to reclaim Eichmann for German philosophy. She did not exonerate Nazism and in fact excoriated the postwar Adenauer government for not doing enough to punish known Nazi killers, but she rehabilitated the German mind and demonstrated how that could be done by going—not beyond, but around, good and evil. She came to erase Judaism philosophically, to complicate its search for moral clarity, and to unseat a conviction [that, in Saul Bellow’s words], “everybody . . . knows what murder is.”

Arendt was to remain the heroine of postmodernists, deconstructionists, feminists, relativists, and internationalist ideologues who deny the stability of Truth. Not coincidentally, many of them have also disputed the rights of the sovereign Jewish people to its national homeland. Indeed, as anti-Zionism cemented the coalition of leftists, Arabs, and dissident minorities, Arendt herself was conscripted, sometimes unfairly and in ways she might have protested, as an ally in their destabilizing cause. They were enchanted by her “perversity” and were undeterred in their enthusiasm by subsequent revelations, like those of the historian Bernard Wasserstein, who documented Arendt’s scholarly reliance on anti-Semitic sources in her study of totalitarianism, or of revelations about her resumed friendship with Martin Heidegger despite his Nazi associations.

At the same time, however, the Arendt report on the Eichmann trial became one of the catalysts for something no one could have predicted—an intellectual movement that came to be known as neoconservatism. A cohort of writers and thinkers, many of them Jews from immigrant families who had turned to leftism as naturally as calves to their mother’s teats, but who had slowly moved away from the Marxism of their youth during the Stalin years and World War II, now spotted corruption and dishonesty and something antithetical to them in some of their very models of the intellectual life.

They and their Gentile colleagues had constituted the only European-style intelligentsia to flourish in America. Most of them were only one generation removed from Europe, after all, so what could be more natural than for them to serve as the conduit of European intelligence to America? Arendt’s ingenious twist of the Eichmann trial showed them how Jewish and American they actually were—and how morally clear they aspired to be.

Read more at Commentary

More about: Adolf Eichmann, Hannah Arendt, History & Ideas, Holocaust, Neoconservatism, New York Intellectuals