Day By Day© by Chris Muir.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

The difference between an ostensibly good society and a really good society

As I noted in the sidebar, I'm reading David Klinghoffer's The Discovery of God : Abraham and the Birth of Monotheism. It's a delightful book that reexamines the story of Abraham, and elects to use Talmud and Midrash (the ancient books written about the Torah), and other oral traditions interpreted through great Jewish thinkers, to interpret this part of the Bible. In Chapter 12, he tackles the interesting question of Abraham and Sarah's sojourn in Gerar. It was here, as earlier in Egypt, that Abraham sought to protect his life by having Sarah identify herself, not at his wife, but as his sister. The author comments that, when Abraham asked that she do so in Egypt, it was to protect himself from a blatantly lewd culture. The situation in Gerar was different, and I found Klinghoffer's thoughts on the subject fascinating, both in light of the historical parallel he draws, and the times in which we now live:

It was not so at Gerar [Gerar was not as openly licentious as Egypt]. The classical Jewish commentators, drawing on the oral tradition, depect that city as in the grip of a culture that modern folk would recognize. It was a civilized place that was, however, deficient in the quality called yirat Hashem, a phrase often mistranslated as "fear of the Lord." The word yirah means something more like "awe" and shares a root construction with the Hebrew verb meaning "to see." That is, someone who has yirat Hashem behaves as if he could see God, so to speak, standing before him. A country where the citizens behave themselves according to generally accepted rules of good conduct, but where they don't believe that God stands before them -- such a country is capable of anything. The medieval sage Radak makes this point in his commentary on the episode in Gerar. The later commentator Malbim, writing in the nineteenth century, explains that a civilization that has no faith in divine providence, however proper its "ethical" standards, can't be trusted not to take a sudden turn into barbarism. In this manner, Weimar Germany became, almost overnight, Nazi Germany.
[Pages 185-186, emphasis mine.] Think of these words, and think about the world in which we live. I suspect that this fragile "morality," more than anything, is the danger unique to atheistic, relativistic societies, where people conform to what they believe at any given time are nice, polite rules of behavior. It's all well and good when things are good and going well, but there's no true moral underpinning to protect when societal times get rough. I find this particularly troublesome from my own point of view, since I'm someone who is, believe it or not, an atheist. I was raised as an atheist, and can't seem to break through to a higher level. This means that, despite the fact that I'm deeply committed to Biblical ethics (as filtered through modern commentators -- I don't burn witches), I'm able to approach these ethics only through a filter of rationalism, and not because I "see" God before me. I guess I'm better than someone who is committed to pure moral relativism. However, good as I like to think myself and my rules of living, I wouldn't trust a society full of people like me very much in the long haul. UPDATE: Those who follow the news may be aware that, just as Germany tipped with ease into savagery 70 years ago, it seems to be putting weight on that side of the line again. I've blogged about the fact that the German government is financing and promoting a film that lauds Palestinian homicide bombers. And just a few days ago, we learned about the grossly anti-Semitic material promulgated at the Frankfurt Book Fair. There's a lot of good coverage on the latter, but the most comprehensive I've seen is in American Future. Germany is not acting like a culture that "sees" God. This is a reminder that all the post-war years of Holocaust education in Germany never went to core moral issues, but simply contained a list of rules for behavior. Germans have always been excellent at following rules. The scary thing is that, when the rules change, Germans unreflectively simply turn their boots and march in the opposite direction.