325: The Holiday Challenge — Where Does “Conscience” Lead Us Now?

    It’s the title of the newest book by one of the world’s most respected Jewish authors and human-rights activists, Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis. And — it’s a theme deeply interwoven in the story of Hanukkah, which celebrates religious freedom against enormous odds. Conscience also is a major (if frequently overlooked) theme at Christmas. Christians will recall that their holiday story begins with the young Jewish girl Mary singing a hymn of praise in which she proclaims that God is taking steps to “bring down rulers from their thrones, and lift up the humble. Fill the hungry with good things, and send the rich away empty.”

    That’s a powerful part of the Christmas story, even if those provocative words from Mary aren’t printed on many Christmas cards. Who knows, though, in 2009?
    Whatever your faith, you’ll have to agree there’s not a message we need to hear more than this particular “C”-word: Conscience.
    Somehow, it was missing in the lives of Bernard Madoff and Rod Blagojevich — not to mention a host of corporate CEOs caught making bad bets with billions of dollars. And this horrific joke’s on all of us now, because it turns out the billions are our money, in the end! That particular set of American problems, of course, are set against a backdrop of even-more-urgent global crises involving food, clean water and ethnic cleansing in a number of countries around our little globe.
    The book is published by Jewish Lights.


    CRUMM: I want to start with something you wrote, actually, in the preface to an earlier book, “Righteous Gentiles in the Hebrew Bible.” You write:
     “Pity the children pounded daily by the relentless stream of stories reported in the media … They have been counseled to suspect the neighbor and to be wary of the stranger; every stranger is a potential enemy. But children need heart. … Trust is indispensable for their vitality and their hope for a better future.”
    As a parent myself, that’s a stirring piece of wisdom. I agree with you and, as we talk about “Conscience” today, that passage you wrote earlier struck me almost as an introduction to this conversation.
    RABBI SCHULWEIS: It is so difficult for young people to grow up in this world without having a heavy stone placed upon their hearts and their hopes. Just open up a newspaper or listen to a report on the television – accounts of genocides throughout the past century beginning with Armenia and running through Stalin and Hitler’s millions up until what young people are witnessing in this era: devastation in Rwanda where so many people were destroyed so quickly and, of course, now Darfur.
    CRUMM: I like your metaphor of a stone weighing down the human heart. This interview will run at Hanukkah and Christmas, when millions of people hopefully will be thinking about better ways of living.
    RABBI SCHULWEIS: All that weight that young people grow up carrying does require a balance so they can grow a healthy heart and can grow hope. In about 1963, I founded an organization that looks for goodness in human beings – self-sacrificing human beings.
    There were rescuers during the Holocaust who showed this kind of goodness, but for a long time that category of rescuers was almost entirely overlooked. People came from many different backgrounds and different faiths and sacrificed themselves to rescue thousands upon thousands of Jews. That was, to my mind, a great comfort in this world.
    You cannot look at the world with one patch over your eye and see everything as dark and sinister and cruel. You have to look at the world with both eyes. And in this new book, I do make mention of those who promote this conception of humanity as dark and cruel.
    I want people to realize that something has to counter this darkness. Religion has many, many purposes but one of them is to develop sensitivity to the right to dissent and to rebel, to criticize and to stand in the way of the predators. We need to create parishioners of conscience. We need to look for goodness, praise goodness — exalt it where we find it.

    CRUMM: That’s one of the most important themes in your book. You’re advising people that it’s not enough simply to decide what is right. You’ve got to lift people up and give them hope. You write that “morale and morality” must go hand in hand.
    RABBI SCHULWEIS: One of my favorite quotes is from Bertrand Russell who said the mark of a civilized person is one who can add up a column of figures and cry.
    But I go on to say that it’s not enough to note the figures — or even to cry. One also has to act! And this is where moral conscience pays a very important role because it both feels in terms of compassion and it can act with courage against the unquestioned commandedness, which is usually shaping in our lives.

    CRUMM: Commandedness. That’s an important word you use, because it helps us to recognize this core problem we face: We’re often just doing what we feel people are telling us to do. We start to feel powerless.
    RABBI SCHULWEIS: We must look for those outstanding people who will not allow what is clearly cruelty to happen, even if the rules of our faith may allow it — and even if someone is commanding us to do it.
    In Islam today, we must revere those imams and other Muslim leaders who will not succumb to the notion of violence as the solution to Islam’s problems. At the same time, we look for Jews who will not allow a kind of cultural obedience to overwhelm their moral sensibilities. And, we have always looked toward Christianity to do this, as well.
    Any historian can tell you about religious wars and it’s one of the saddest comments on religion that it has produced wars. People are not going to believe in God, if they can’t believe in the consequences of belief for life itself. Religion must lead to courage and to life.
    So we are people who wait, aren’t we?
    As a Jew, I waited during the Holocaust for the priest and the pastor and the pope to cry out: “This cannot stand!” To cry out: “This is in opposition to the finest traditions of Christianity, which is altruistic and which protects those who are hunted and haunted by evil people!” We need to hear those voices. That’s what I meant by the relationship of morality and morale.
    To my mind, morale means the removal of the stone that is weighing down the heart of all of us. This runs beyond the Holocaust. If you open up any newspaper, you will see the economic meltdown taking place today. You will read about the role of greed and exploitation and indifference that leads to people padding their payroll or disregarding what their financial decisions mean for poor people who have their entire lives put into these investments. That, too, is a failure of conscience.

    CRUMM: You’re raising a prophetic cry here. Like John Dear, the Jesuit peace activist who we spoke with earlier who was warning of what he calls the death of our religious imagination — you’re talking here about —
    RABBI SCHULWEIS: This new book is about the danger of the death of conscience, which is replaced so often these days by a combination of commandedness and greed.
    CRUMM: You’re talking about a spiritual struggle here that organized religion doesn’t always win.
    RABBI SCHULWEIS: Religion has often succumbed to the cult of commandedness — too often assuming the role of the self-muted bystander as the human spirit suffers callous and cruel insults.
    We need leaders, but our leaders must not be beyond criticism and I think very often what happens in moments of despair is that people say: I don’t care who is leading us, if he is strong. Adolf Hitler was elected because to a large extent the German people were in sad straights economically and politically. Intelligent people surrendered that which is to my mind is the mark of one’s divine image, namely: conscience.
    Within Judaism there is a focus on holy dissent, on spiritual audacity – a form of chutzpah that is not really chutzpah but is saying: “No, in the name of God” — and saying it even against what is attributed to God by others around you. This is a remarkable and very important notion. We are not simply parrots. We are not simply automatons. We are partners with God so we have to use that which god, I believe, has given us: moral reason.

    CRUMM: I was intrigued to find you writing about Maimonides in your new book. We’ve just welcomed Dr. Joel Kaemer for one of these Conversations talking about his decades in research on the life of this great scientist and scholar and moral adviser. He describes Maimonides in much the same way you reference him in your book.
    RABBI SCHULWEIS: There is an interpretation of Judaism, which I find to be misleading, that suggests Judaism as a religion is basically legislation and obedience. Maimonides was one of the great legal scholars and codifiers of the whole Talmud. And he recognized that the law cannot be the last word.
    Like Maimonides, I want us to balance the scales so that you have obedience but you also have to have the questions: Whom do I obey? When do I obey? What do I obey? And, what will I refuse to obey? If we don’t have these questions, then it seems to me we lose the dignity of being created in the image of God.

    CRUMM: You write eloquently about the power of lifting up goodness. I am especially moved by this theme in your work because this is very close to the founding principles of our own ReadTheSpirit project. We can contribute to change and to healing in the world by connecting more people with — with the good.
    Here’s one of the lines I highlighted in your book. You write: “The sanity of a civilization depends on some evidence of human goodness.”
    RABBI SCHULWEIS: This is not an easy thing to do. Open a newspaper. Look at the news. Think about the latest “Batman” movie. It is the villain in that movie who draws more applause than the hero.
    But there is no question about it: Searching for goodness and helping other people — this is to my mind what makes life worth living. At the end of my life, I want to be able to look back and say: Look, I have helped these people. I have counseled these people. I have lifted up the hearts of these people. That gives meaning to life. That’s immortality.
    I still read Thoreau and I still read Mandela and these are the people we want to remember. But, where is the next Thoreau? The next Mandela? Where is the next Mahatma Gandhi? Where are the new Martin Luther Kings?
    Why are so many people rejoicing around the world in the election of Barack Obama? Because there is a feeling that this is a man of idealism and vision. One hopes he can do some good. The fact that he was able to overcome a history of racism and that so many people both in this country and in Europe look more brightly on the world is a tribute to his kind of moral vision and to his central altruism.
    When I look to the Holocaust, it brings me to tears to know about documented stories of people in very high places jeopardizing everything — their property, their status, their reputations and their lives — to defy their governments, forge passports and save human lives. These people who risked everything included Chinese, Portuguese, Hungarians, Germans and so on. Knowing these stories can lift people’s hearts.
    CRUMM: But people aren’t getting these stories, you argue.
    SCHULWEIS: Yes. We must find these stories. People are not being fed with goodness. We must help to lift the stone from their hearts. Our pulpits are not sufficiently filled with the recognition of goodness in our world.
    That is our moral imperative: to look for goodness. You will not find it many places in our world. It is difficult to find many times. So, we must look for it, and when we find it, we must lift it up so that we all may learn.


    READ MORE BY THE RABBI: If you’re just discovering Rabbi Schulweis’ wise voice, here’s a link to his Valley Beth Shalom Web page on which there’s a whole array of sermons and messages related to his work. There’s some superb reading material on this page!
    CHECK OUT HIS WIKI BIO: There’s a short biogaphy and some links concerning his work at Wikipedia.
    SEE HIM IN ACTION: Some of this real “action” comes through Jewish World Watch, founded in 2004 by Rabbi Schulweis as a response to ethnic cleansing in our modern world. If it’s your first time reading about Jewish World Watch, there’s a great history of the group’s work. You can even read the rabbi’s still-stirring sermon, preached to mark the founding of the human-rights group.

    READ ABOUT MORE HEROES: Rabbi Schulweis is a hero to many. Click Here to read about a new book coming soon about heroes of the Holocaust, filled with stories recently documented about ordinary people who took extraordinary steps to save their neighbors.
    THE HISTORY OF THE BAGEL: Even the history of a seemingly ordinary food like the bagel can tell us a great deal about the spiritual aspirations shared from one generation to the next. Check out this interview with the BBC news producer who uncovered the humble bread-role’s amazing story.

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