Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

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13 Tammuz 5761 - July 4, 2001 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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Opinion & Comment
Isn't it Enough to be a Good Person?

by Rav Y. Weinberg, zt"l

This is an edited transcript of a lecture on a tape that was provided courtesy of the Aish Hatorah Audio Center.

This question -- if it is enough to be a "good person" without keeping Torah and mitzvos -- has to be broken down into two components. There are two separate issues involved. One: Is it enough to be a good person? Two: Is there such a thing?

If one is going to consider if you can be a good person without halacha, we would have to explore that possibility and I think we will discover that there will never, under any circumstances, be a person that we can agree is called "good" without halacha.

Let us explore the second question first. What is the definition of a good person?

How about: A good person is one who will not harm anyone else. I think that everybody today in our age agrees that a fundamental criterion is that you can do anything you want, as long as you do not hurt somebody else.

Many people think that this is enough to be called "good," but we soon see that this is not enough because, for instance, nobody will say you are a good person if you do not stop to help the victim of an accident. If somebody gets hit in the street and you don't stop to help them, then you are not a good person.

Or say you were driving a car and you hit somebody. You shouldn't have and you wish you hadn't, but you did. But now you are not harming him any further and you drive off. Are you harming him now? You didn't intend to harm him so you can't be called bad, and now that it is over, you are not harming him any more. You are just letting him lie there and die.

This is obviously not enough. We cannot say that you are good just because you do not harm anyone.

So there must be something a bit more than not harming a person. Someone will only be called good if he accepts some degree of responsibility for others. What degree of responsibility is this?

Let us say that you are willing to do without a swimming pool so someone else can have a car. A car is much more important to him than a swimming pool is to you. You have the resources to build yourself a swimming pool but instead you give him your money so that he can have a car.

I think most people would say this is not necessary. It is your money and your swimming pool. Why should you give it to someone else for a car?

So why do you have to go out of your way to take him to the hospital if he was hit by a car?

Let us take another example. We all agree that a good man will not harm someone else. You are a good doctor -- compassionate, feeling, the best. You have seven patients lined up for today in your clinic.

You are going to kill seven unborn children.

Are you harming someone else? Well, that depends on your definition. Is an unborn child "someone else?" If an unborn child is someone else then that doctor is harming someone else. If an unborn child isn't someone else, then he is not harming somebody else. It's certainly a lot more convenient for him to define an unborn child as "not someone else." So he will go ahead and kill seven unborn children today.

How about a Jew? Is a Jew "someone else?"

It depends whom you ask. If you ask a Nazi Aryan, then Jews are not someone else. Jews are subhuman. If you harm a Jew, that is not harming someone else. It is perfectly alright. We, of course, disagree.

How about a black? Is it ok to harm a black? Some people will tell you that they are primitive. How about that? You don't agree. Well suppose I am an old-time segregationist; I do agree.

But now, why do you feel that you have the right to tell me whether this black is "someone else" or not, but I can't tell you whether that unborn child is "someone else?"

Now they say it is because it is a horrible thing to discriminate on the basis of race.

Who says? On what basis? Because you feel that way?

Even when your feelings are right, you are never going to be a good man based on them alone. The question is how you are going to feel when the chips are down. How will you feel when a real question comes up? You will do what you feel then and not what is right!

Ghandi might have been a good man. But he was willing to sacrifice the entire white race for the sake of his India.

What do you sacrifice for which? What are the extents of responsibility? What is meaningful responsibility? Is it more important to be sure that your child has a good education or is it more important that Ethiopian children have bread to eat? What does a good man do?

They all make sure their own children have an education, but did they really consider the alternative? To what extent would I hurt myself if I donate money to Ethiopian children? One percent, two percent, a tenth of a percent? How much?

A lot of money is raised by selling items made by famous people, or by giving gifts as an incentive to give. Once, you gave money for a good cause; now you need a record or a book to make you feel how good it was.

* * *

Americans "used to be" people who didn't understand what are now thought to be the basic requirements of humanity. They were bigots, they were racists, they were sexists, they discriminated against blacks, they oppressed women.

Today, thank G-d, the modern generation is so much more enlightened. They are more compassionate and sensitive and full of the feeling that they are not guilty of all these offenses.

Is that reasonable? Is it really true that the people of the 1960s were more compassionate and had so much more sensitivity and devotion to peace and justice and morality than the people of the 30s? What took place that enabled this moral growth to suddenly flower? Isn't there something that needs an explanation?

The American Civil War as an Example

About 140 years ago the United States of America fought a Civil War. It was the most intense war that mankind fought until the First World War. There was no war in the history of mankind where more people were killed, there was more destruction, more loss of wealth and more blood spilled than in the American Civil War. If not for the moral issue of slavery, that war would not have been fought.

What was the issue? The issue was that we had the noble, compassionate, feeling, people of the North who were not about to sit by and see the rank injustice, the horror and the brutality of the South.

The people in the South did not share this noble vision and were prepared to do battle until death to preserve the institution of slavery.

Doesn't it strike anybody as peculiar that the dividing line was the Mason- Dixon line? If you lived North of it, suddenly your moral sense was developed, and if you lived South of it suddenly you were a moral monster. Is that reasonable? Must we not look for some explanation by which to understand why the people in the North were so magnificent in their nobility and the people in the South were such moral monsters?

If we discover that in the North slavery wasn't efficient and it wasn't economically viable to maintain slaves, whereas in the South, with its cotton plantations, slavery was really an economic necessity -- is it reasonable to say that this had something to do with the moral positions of the North and the South? I think it is very reasonable.

The "good" men of the North were people who could afford it; the "evil" men of the South, who thought of themselves as good and right, happened to have other economic interests.

The reason the children of the 60s marched for civil rights was because they were rich enough to afford it. The reason their parents in the 30s were obtuse morally was because they couldn't afford it. Looking for a job was some undertaking. You didn't want blacks around competing with you for the few available jobs.

Are there Good People?

When there was a surplus of soldiers the highest and most noble people were those who would fight to the death in the name of honor. When kings discovered they were losing too many competent soldiers they prohibited the fighting and duels and proclaimed it to be murder and today it is accepted to be murder.

Are there good people?

Are you a good man when you are killed to defend your honor? Or are you a good man when you refuse to enter a duel and face the contempt of all your contemporaries over your cowardice and your lack of honor? Who is the good man? And why do you say so?

If you say "A" was the good man, on what basis is that? If you say "B" was the good man, on what basis is that? Where are these good men? How long did it take to train the moral, sophisticated, solidly ethical burghers of Germany to accept as being right and proper to murder and destroy in the name of their superiority? It only took three years to get a whole nation to accept that a good person is the one who will kill any non-Aryan.

Are there good people?

Which good people? Are the good people the Communists who, for the sake of right and justice, literally starved to death ten million peasants in order to assure the collectivization of agriculture? Were they good people or bad people, these people who had the determination and guts to stand for the death of ten million others, not themselves of course, but ten million peasants for the sake of the principle of collective agriculture? Who were the good people, the ones who died or the ones who made them die?

They meant good; they did it for the sake of the principle of collectivization. For the good of the nation and the state we are going to let these ten million people starve. We will suffer terribly but we will do it -- and they did it. Who are the good people?

Was Lenin a good man? How many millions of people thought that Lenin was a good man? How many people still think that Lenin is a good man? In the hundreds of millions. In China and Russia there are those who proclaim that Lenin was a good man. How many in the West agree that Lenin was a good man?

There are still hundreds of millions who say Stalin was a good man. How many in the West are prepared to maintain that Stalin was a good man?

On what basis are you talking about good men?

But Why do We Need All the Laws?

Let's go a step further. Let us grant that we do need some criteria by which to measure the difference between a good man and a bad man. We are going to use the Torah as the criteria. There is really no other way that we can judge who is a bad man and who is a good man. We are going to accept the Torah to guide us in social and financial matters. The Torah tells us what is right and wrong in the relationships between one human being and another. And we will apply the teachings of the Torah meticulously.

When is it stealing? Look in the Torah. When is it justified? Look in the halacha. When is it murder? Look in the halacha.

We will agree to accept that to be a good man we need the Torah. When we want to decide what the proper behavior is in human relationships, we will refer to that halacha. Choshen Mishpat will be on the shelf and we won't move without it.

But what do we need Orach Chaim and Yoreh Deah for? Why do we need kashrus? Why do we need tefillin? Why do we need Shabbos?

The important thing is to be a good man. Who needs to know whether the milk fell on the pot or the pot was put on the milk; whether it was so much or that much; whether the shechitoh came from this side or that?

We are prepared to say that we will submit to G-d's judgments and teachings in those things that "matter" and those things that are "relevant." But in what we eat and whether we push a switch on Shabbos -- is that going to make a difference whether I am a good man?

If you point out that never, ever, in the history of mankind, has there been a people who kept the morals and the ethics of the Torah who didn't also keep the laws of kashrus and Shabbos -- they will answer that it is a historical accident. Maybe those who knew about Shabbos did not know about proper ethics, but we do.

Even though there never was a group of people who maintained morality and ethics of the Torah without simultaneously maintaining the other laws as well, perhaps from now on there will be such a group.

Let us say that you are a business man living just by the Torah laws of business but not the rest. You can make a lot of profit if you round off some corners. Will you really give up a profit for some technical good, or will you find a rationale that doing so is not really bad, even after you have already accepted the halacha. Will you really consent to lose a twenty million dollar job for not saying something that is technically a lie? You won't do it.

What about for ten million? What about for five thousand? For one thousand? Where will you draw the line?

Even if you start with ten million, if there is persistent pressure, how long will it take you to go down to two cents? And if you start out with a little lie, how long will it take you to go up to outright fraud? Judging by the experience of the human race, not very long.

It is not only the big things, it is little things as well. Let me just give you some of the excuses that everyone uses. "The phone company has cheated millions, there can't be anything wrong with cheating the phone company. I am just getting a little bit of my own back." "I am not doing him any harm. He is insured anyway, he will get it back." "These big department stores, they rob you right and left -- so what if you shoplift? You take a little bit back out of them."

How do you resist the temptation of something that will make a meaningful long term difference in your life, and all you have to do is lie or cheat a little, rob a little, take a little?

Will it harm him that much? He has millions; I will take only a hundred thousand. To me it makes such a difference, for him it is a drop in the bucket.

If you know that there is a Ribono Shel Olom Who is watching you, maybe you can resist the temptation. Even if you know there is a Ribono Shel Olam it may not be enough to keep you honest because you are going to have the best answer of all: I am going to make a lot of money! When I make a lot of money I am going to give so much to tzedokoh and maintain so much Torah. You think, I will buy off the Ribono Shel Olam; in the end it will be ok. How much good will come out of it. It's worth it, for sure.

So this approach will not be strong enough to hold a person.

How about if I know this: that no matter what business I have or profession I have, my parnossoh comes from the Ribono Shel Olam. There is no way I can get more, there is no way I will have less whether by stealing or by refraining from stealing. It can in no way affect my parnossoh. If you are supposed to make a million, you will make a million being totally straightforward.

Now there is a chance. If that conviction is deep you have a good chance. We all know what is involved in doing good. There are enormous difficulties, there are enormous temptations because we are so flexible. We have all kinds of excuses by which we point out that what we are doing is really not so bad. As the gemora says, this is only the first and second time. After that you don't have to point it out: you live with it, you enjoy bad.

The ones who maintain their principles are only those who submit to the Ribono Shel Olam completely, across the full range of His halacha. Yoreh Deah is as solid as Orach Chaim which is as solid as Choshen Mishpat. Only those who accept the whole system might keep Choshen Mishpat. You don't have the good men outside of those who keep all of the halacha. You just don't have them.

Back to the First Proposition

But suppose you did. Let's go back to the first proposition, that theoretically it is possible to have a good man who doesn't keep the full range of halacha. "Good man" now is in terms of his relationship with other human beings.

Isn't there a dimension to being a good man that requires you to relate properly kevayochol to the Ribono Shel Olam as well as to your fellow man?

Can you be a good man if you only relate properly to your wife but not to your neighbors? Is that a good man? Doesn't a good man have to relate properly to all human beings as well?

How about a good man who relates properly to all fellow citizens but not to members of any other nation? Is that a good man?

How about a man who relates properly to human beings but not to his Creator? Is that a good man?

So it is not enough to define "good" in terms of not harming another person. Good means that there is an essence, a real difference, between one mode of behavior and another. It is not just that one is more comfortable; it is not just more profitable for society -- that can't be the definition of good.

The definition of good we have been considering is one who doesn't hurt others. Is that good or is that just not evil? Is there such a thing as being good in a positive sense?

If the only proposition is don't hurt somebody else, there is no positive good. You can't define good solely in terms of not harming somebody else. You have to include some positive element as well. There must be some way to know that there is a reality called good -- something actual called good.

What is that? Where can I find that in my relationship to other people? How can there be good within human beings alone? There has to be something outside of humanity that justifies humanity's worth and makes it meaningful to say that someone is good in the way he or she treats other people. It must come from outside and what is outside unless it is the Creator?

What else can give a human being a dignity if not that he is G-d's creature? How can you be a good person without relating to G-d? How can you relate to G-d if He doesn't tell you how? And if He does tell you how, then how can you be a good person if you ignore this?

Therefore, even if somebody could maintain a basic humanity without halacha, he can't be a really good person without it. But as we showed you can't even maintain a basic humanity without halacha.

The Civilizing Effect of Torah

I will make a statement and I ask you to research it at your leisure. This statement has been in print for almost as long as printing has existed and has been in writing for close to 700 years. (The statement was implicit long before that of course.) The statement goes as follows: Wherever you come to a place where Jews did not function and teach and live Torah, you come to a place inhabited by people who are barbaric, cruel, and without any concept of good. If there is a pretense on the part of the nations of the world, to goodness, justice, compassion -- it came solely from being exposed to the teaching and practice of the Jewish Torah. In those areas of the world in which there was no such exposure, there is not even a pretense of a criterion or of a practice of good. In places like that you can be subject to the most heinous tortures without a second thought.

Research that statement. Look into China, Africa. Look into those portions of the globe where the Jew did not penetrate, where he did not teach and live Judaism, to see the standards of the men found there. It is through the Torah of the Jew that the concept of a good man came into existence and it wasn't an easy job.

Do you know what the goy calls those whose conduct he admires? Even in the noblest Greek philosophy, from the educated to the ignorant, men, women, children -- everybody knows that the hero is a warrior.

Even if in the past few decades, humanity has reached the point that there are tens of millions who will say that is no longer true, in their hearts it is still the truth. They admire the ace who shot down the most enemy planes. They admire that great and bold warrior, an adventurer who took his machine gun and shot hundreds of foes.

They admire him even more if he has a smile on his lips while he is committing his mayhem. They will admire him even more if he tips off his hat to his opponent as he drives in the sword. Elegance in killing, graciousness in destruction.

That is the true ideal of all except those who have been affected by halacha -- those who kept Shabbos and kashrus, and taharas hamishpochoh and all the dinim of our Torah. They are the only ones who refuse to accept that the ideal and noblest and finest expression of human possibility is the one who can kill most efficiently.

The one who is kind, the one who is learned and wise -- he is the hero to those who keep halacha.

Little by little over the centuries, the other nations of the earth have slowly come to appreciate that there is truth in this view. But they do not like it. They have come more and more to accept it but they still do not live it.

Today perhaps there are those who have really accepted that the wise is better than the strong, that the good is more meaningful than the strong. Who no longer preach that the pen is mightier than the sword but who have started teaching that the pen is better than the sword. It is not mightier, it is better. It is better to use the pen, to use teaching, than the sword.

Century by century they have come to realize that this is the truth, but only those who have been exposed to the Jewish Torah. You will not find this anywhere else. Not by the Buddhists, not by the Shintoites, and certainly not by the Christians, not by the Muslims, and not by the meditationists.

You will find it only by those who have been exposed to Torah. They are the only ones who will recognize that it is not the great warrior who is the true hero. Even a secular Jew has it baked deep into his bones, and he will give more honor to the professor of physics than the general with medals.

The rest of the world will run to greet the hero and not the mathematician. They will run to give honor and respect to the conqueror of humans [or the modern substitute, the sports hero - Ed.] and not the conqueror of mystery. That is where you will see the truly good man.

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