Author of "Embracing Auschwitz" and "Mensch•Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi - Wisdom for Untethered Times." Winner of the Rockower Award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism and 2019 Religion News Association Award for Excellence in Commentary. Musings of a rabbi, journalist, father, husband, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and self-proclaimed mensch, taken from essays, columns, sermons and thin air. Writes regularly in the New York Jewish Week and Times of Israel.
Sunday, October 29, 2023
In This Moment: What is Moral Clarity and How Do You Get There?
In This Moment
Here's one more musical moment from recent days:
The Israel Opera's heartbreaking version of "Bring Him Home" from Les Miserables.
What Moral Clarity Is - And Isn't
An open letter went around this week from a progressive rabbinic group that I have long supported. I often sign their petitions, including ones both strongly critical and strongly supportive of the Israeli government. Hundreds - literally hundreds - of respected rabbinic and cantorial colleagues signed on to this letter. l decided not to sign. It was a lonely feeling to stay on the sidelines.
Nothing there was in itself objectionable to me, but the sum of parts did not do justice to the enormity and uniqueness of what happened on Oct 7. Right now, it is crucial to maintain moral clarity, which demands that the genocidal crimes of Oct 7 receive three paragraphs of attention for every sentence devoted to other concerns. It's like how President Biden warned of the potential for angry overreach by Israel and called on them to address the humanitarian needs in Gaza; those warnings came only in the midst of a 15,000 mile, week-long bear hug and a long speech filled with unconditional love.
For Biden, and for us, moral clarity means three paragraphs of empathy for every sentence of critique. For the letter to have passed my muster, there would have needed to be three paragraphs about October 7 for each sentence dealing with Israeli provocations or potential provocations. That was not the case.
Moral clarity, a term made popular in conservative circles, gained a bipartisan flavor when it came from the mouth of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez after she won her race in 2018. “I think what we’ve seen is that working-class Americans want a clear champion,” she said, “and there is nothing radical about moral clarity in 2018.”
Moral clarity is long defined by usage as a capacity to make firm, unflinching distinctions between evil and good, and to take action based on those distinctions. These are fighting words: They mean knowing the enemy, which is the first step to taking up arms against the enemy. But they’re potentially applicable to any side of a fight. What adrenaline does for the body, moral clarity does for semantics: It generates a surge of willpower, serving as a prelude to — and maybe a pretext for — combat.
For me, moral clarity does not come in a rush, like adrenaline, and is not designed to prepare the field for battle and enemy for dehumanization. Moral clarity needs to be borne of intellectual clarity, not a war footing. While it often will involve an enemy - as it does with Hamas - the case against that group need to be intellectually self evident, so clear as to be beyond reasonable doubt.
When looking at that clergy letter, I didn't feel, for instance, that an equivalence should be drawn between what Hamas did on October 7 and what some far-right Israelis have been doing on the West Bank. Moral clarity demands that a clear distinction be drawn, so that no one would suspect that a false equivalence is being made. Yes it should be noted, and not go unnoticed, that there has been a marked increase in violence toward Palestinians, notably in the South Hebron Hills, at a time when everyone's attention has been directed toward Gaza. (See this Time Magazine story: Settler Violence in the West Bank Undermines Israel’s Security). But the three paragraph rule has to hold.
Moral clarity regarding Oct. 7 does not require blinders on other issues - including a genuine compassion for the plight of innocent Palestinians. A Jew should never wear moral blinders, especially at times of war. The Torah is clear about that. We can defend Israel and stand up against Islamophobia and push for better red flag laws for guns; we can shed tears at Joe Biden’s moral courage and fight campus antisemitism on the left - AND chew gum, all at the same time.
A rising global effort propelled by Israel-haters and antisemites, assisted by falsehoods and misrepresentations everywhere from TikTok to supposedly responsible media, and inflated by fools, to try to halt our military response, or limit and undermine it. Basically, to tell us that what happened on October 7, if it happened, was terrible, but we need to get over it. Subverting “Never Again,” and telling us instead, well, yes, Almost Certainly Again.
It's infuriating. But fury doesn't help us to communicate moral clarity and remind people, again and again, about what happened on October 7. We need to methodically ritualize it, to show the videos and text messages, play those final phone messages, pray at the vigils, call out the names of the hostages. We need to maintain our focus on addressing the horrible things that happened so that the hostages may return safely and those living in Israel's southern communities can rebuild their lives in safety and peace. That is why this war is being fought. Everything else is secondary. The fury is not helpful.
I think I'll pass on the adrenaline.
Moral clarity needs to be focused, empathetic, measured and nimble, able to address multiple injustices simultaneously and distinguish between those that are more chronic and a "once in a thousand year storm."
At the same time, let me tell you what moral clarity is not: tribal. Your "team" is due some extra consideration when individual lives are at stake, but we can't allow tribal affiliations to cloud our judgment, even when it seems like everyone else is piling onto the bandwagon of peoplehood. There are reasons why degrading or ending Hamas rule is a moral choice, but none of them is because they picked on our people. Had they pulled an October 7 on Rwandan Tutsis, Cambodians or Armenians, the evil would be just as morally clear, the act equally repugnant, and the obligation to defeat them equally compelling. Which is also why we can't have a ceasefire right now.
...The rabbis say that one who is kind to the cruel will end up being cruel to the kind (Tanhuma, Parshat Metzora). They remind us that allowing cruel people to pursue their designs in this world will ultimately lead to innocents running, terrified and helpless, as evil men shoot them in the back, kill their children, and rape the women. It will lead to October 7. The great philosopher Maimonides, having fled from Almohad persecution in Spain in the 12th century, put it more comprehensively. “Compassion toward the wicked,” he said, “is cruelty toward all beings.” (Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed, Part 3, Chapter 39)
So moral clarity is a product of the reasoning mind, not unbridled passions. We need to present ourselves with an array of options and constantly challenge and update our choices. A socratic dialogue must constantly be going on in our minds, and if the result comes out more Churchill than Tevye, we know that the case for clarity is compelling.
It has never been more compelling in my lifetime, and arguably since World War Two, than it is now.
I present a variety of opinions in these newsletters. It doesn’t mean that I agree with them all. On the contrary, some of them pose rigorous challenges to my way of thinking. While I often quote from columnists and pundits who tend to be doctrinaire and unyielding, if their motives are transparent and arguments reasonable, I'll hear them out. I want to gather as much information as I could, as any thinking person (or media company) should do before coming to a conclusion.
And so, as best I can summarize it, that's what it means to speak with moral clarity as we engage in dialogue our neighbors, our families, and ourselves. We don't need talking points, all we need is truth.
We need to be prepared to make the morally-clear case for removing Hamas from power. They have ceded their right to run a country.
The front page of Yediot on Monday discloses a document that proves that the Prime Minister was duly warned (even as he has tried to cast blame on others) as early as 2016. It states, "Postponing the decision to carry out a surprise attack on Gaza would be a serious mistake with far-reaching consequences, in some ways more so than the Yom Kippur War. Hamas intends to move the next conflict to Israeli territory while occupying an Israeli settlement (and perhaps even several settlements) and taking hostages."
The End of Allyship - To be a good ally you’re supposed to vocally affirm and support those you have allied with and to do so in the terms that they understand to be affirming and supportive. You don’t get to tell them the language you use; they get to tell you. You also don’t get to question whether they are legitimate representatives of the group in question. Nor is it acceptable to be silent, because silence at a time when support is demanded is practically the definition of bad allyship. The old ActUp slogan declared that Silence = Death, and during the George Floyd protests I saw many signs declaring that Silence = Violence. You have to speak, and you have to speak the language you are told to say. But it is transparently impossible to be allied in that sense with both Israelis and Palestinians, both Jews and Arabs. In a very literal sense, if you want to be a good ally of one side in the terms described, you need to adopt and use language that will be widely-perceived by the other side as marking you as an enemy.
Ok then; perhaps it’s impossible to be a good ally to everyone. If you’re comfortable saying “Israel is a colonialist oppressor practicing apartheid therefore ordinary Jews who sympathize with Israel are my enemies” or “Hamas is a religious fascist organization therefore Arabs or Muslims who empathize with Gazans are my enemies” then you are fine. You’ve chosen which side you are on, like a good ally should. The accumulation of enemies can be clarifying, I’m sure—a relief, in its way, that you don’t have to be conflicted or confused. But apart from the fact that this is, generally, a terrible way either to do politics or to make friends and influence people, it makes it impossible for purportedly liberal institutions—which are routinely asked to act as allies—to function.
Israel—and America—Have No Choice but to Act (The Free Press) A ground operation in Gaza will likely lead to a Third Lebanon War. Israel will truly find itself “fighting for the homeland,” in the parlance of Israeli commentators. Victory would bring security, at least for a time. But it would come at an enormous human and political cost. A more optimistic view is that with unequivocal and effective support from the United States, Israel may find a way to take advantage of Iranian hubris—Tehran’s growing belief in Israel’s imminent defeat. Iran could end up sending its prized proxies into battle, only to have them crippled by a concerted American and Israeli response. Severing the tentacles of the Islamic Republic’s “octopus” would not only allow Israel to come out stronger, but would go some way toward winning back the long-lost confidence of America’s regional partners, particularly in the Gulf. The problem for Israel is that, unlike chess, this is a multiplayer game. And the main player on Israel’s side, the United States, does not yet appreciate that it too is under zugzwang. Israel and America have to act. And they have to act together. The alternative is victory not only for Hamas, not only for Iran, but also for the new Axis the Western world confronts.
The DEI Complex Will Never Protect Jews (Tablet) - Young Jews have never felt more alone on American campuses as they have during these past two weeks. Classmates and soon-to-be-former friends have rallied in large numbers to celebrate the burning and torture of 1,400 Israelis. Professors have announced their glee at the redemptive spilling of settler blood. University administrators who treat every scratch of racist graffiti as a kind of communitywide soul-murder have discovered a newfound sense of nuance when faced with the 21st century’s worst butchery of Jews.