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Logical and Spiritual REFLECTIONS

Book 5. Zen Judaism

Chapter 9. Good people

Discriminating between good and bad

The good man

The danger of religiosity

Discriminating between good and bad. “May all people be happy!” say the Buddhists. In my Jewish view, this Buddhist wish should be understood in proper sequence. Not as an indiscriminate, unjust wish that all people as they are be happy now – for then evil people would get away with their evil! Rather as a wish that such people change for the better, and when they thus earn happiness it will come upon them. This is similar to the Talmudic story of a Talmudic rabbi who was told by his wife (if I remember rightly) not to curse evil people out of this world but to wish evil to depart.

And really, I think that is what the Buddhist expression is intended to mean. For Buddhism does not consider that happiness will befall anyone contrary to their karma, but rather that anyone who attains enlightenment will find ‘happiness’ therein. For they will then have lost their ignorance, and the intrigue and violence it generates, and their problems would disappear. Thus, the pious wish should more accurately be stated as “May all people attain enlightenment!” – and in this non-provocative form, who would oppose the idea?

Of course, the issue remains: can all people indeed become good? Supposedly, if we all proceed from the One, we can all return to the One – so Buddhism would apparently say.

On the other hand, would we want a Hitler to ever redeem himself – should there not for him and the likes of him be no redemption ever?

The good man. The good man[1] is of course a strong man, in the sense of someone with a power of will sufficiently developed to overcome morally negative influences and temptations, and forge ahead towards morally positive ends. He has character; he is not at the mercy of chance impulses within himself.

However, such strength of character is not his deepest secret. His true power is his moral intelligence – viz. his understanding that the good is valuable and the evil is valueless and counterproductive. He is not fooled by illusory attractions or repulsions. It is for this reason especially that he does not find it so difficult to avoid evil and pursue good.

That is, through lucid insight, the good man neutralizes the power of negative influences to slow him down or arrest him, and enhances the power of positive influences to facilitate his way towards spiritual success. He is consistently wise: he is not moved by the mirages that the evil impulse presents him, but on the contrary empowers his better side. He never dithers between good and bad.

By way of contrast, the spiritually low or evil man is basically stupid. He convinces himself (sometimes through superficially clever intricate arguments) that evil is attractive and good is unattractive – and for this reason he is overwhelmed by evil and uninterested in good. Alternatively, he mentally places good and evil on the same plane. It is he, by his own twisted imaginations, who has given evil power over himself and weakened his native goodness.

Thus, the virtuous man is not victorious so much due to exceptionally strong will, but because of his perceptiveness and wisdom, which render his ordinary strength of will more easily effective. The wicked man, on the other hand, has woven for himself such a delusion about the value of evil or non-value of good, or through doubt, that he weakens and incapacitates himself in any attempt to avoid evil and do good.

I thus, in the last analysis, agree with the Buddhist idea that the root of evil is essentially a cognitive failure – a self-inflicted fiction, illusion, foolishness and stupidity. The volitional problem behind moral failure is relatively secondary; it is subsidiary to the weakening of self and strengthening of obstacles due to erroneous convictions. For this reason, meditation and sound reasoning are both essential antidotes.

This explains why the perfect man (the tzadik in Judaism or the enlightened man in Buddhism) is said to be free of good or evil. This does not mean that he is morally permitted to do evil, but that he has no desire to do evil. And this does not mean that he is forced deterministically to do good, but that he clearly sees that evil is without interest and stupid. Thus, he never falls into vice or fails to be virtuous, not because he lacks free will, but because of active moral intelligence.

This conception of morality can be clarified further by considering the extreme case – that of God. We conceive of Him as having Omnipotent free will, and yet as never committing evil or even abstaining from good. These characteristics are seen as mutually consistent, if we understand that God is obviously not forced by anything (any deterministic force or influence on His volition) to be Perfect, but being Omniscient and All-wise He is simply never fooled by evil and is anyway always more than strong enough to overcome its superficial attractions. For this reason, it is safe to say that utter goodness is the ‘nature’ of God, without thereby implying that He is at all determined or influenced to so act. Even though he always opts for the good, it is always a free choice of His.

We must try to tend in that direction, following the principle of imitatio Dei. The tzadik is someone who has found the spark of Godliness within him to such a degree that he naturally acts in perfect accord with that principle.

The danger of religiosity. Though religions are in principle intended to improve people, religion can sometimes be an obstacle to self-improvement, because it may give us a false sense of perfection. One seems in accord with its essential demands, and so comes to ignore ‘little imperfections’. Our shortcoming may be improper social behavior, i.e. lack of respect, consideration, politeness, and the like (what is called derekh eretz in Judaism); or perhaps a holier-than-thou attitude or a more pronounced form of fanaticism.

This observation is nothing new. Many people steer clear of religion precisely to avoid such ugly side-effects of it. We see around us, and history has often shown us, many cases of this disease – in Judaism, in Christianity and in Islam, and no doubt likewise in the other religions. To be fair, such unpleasant aspects of religiosity sometimes emerge from secular philosophies or from science. Conceit and arrogance are not the monopoly of any single doctrine.

The truth is, all religions and all philosophies (including science) are part of ‘samsara’. They can help us approach ‘nirvana’, but they cannot take us all the way there. They are intrinsically flawed by their format as rational and volitional pursuits – whereas true transcendence requires a sort of fundamental ‘letting go’ of this world and one’s place in it. So, whatever doctrine one adheres to, one should not allow oneself to be blinded by it. It is always a means, not the end.

[1] Or good woman – here the term ‘man’ is intended as meaning ‘human being’.

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