Rabbi Neil Schuman

Rising Like Oil Above Water
The underpinnings of Western philosophy come from three men who lived about 2500 years ago, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Plato was a student of Socrates and Aristotle was a student of Plato. Within a 100-year period, these three giants formed schools of thought that still affect the way the modern world thinks.
There is a major difference between Socrates and Aristotle with regards to sin and weakness. Socrates believed that all of us make mistakes, but, in the words of Socrates, “No one goes willingly toward the bad.” When we do wrong it is not because we want to, or intend to, it’s simply because we make a mistake in thinking that what we were doing was right.
Aristotle saw things quite differently. Aristotle’s thinking on this matter is expressed in the Greek word, “akrasia” which is usually translated as “weakness of the will.”
If, all things considered, it would be better for me to go to the gym than stay at home  watching TV, and I want to go to the gym more than stay home, then I should go to the gym and not stay home. But sometimes I don’t. I stay put when practical reason clearly tells me that I should be exiting.
Unlike Socrates who thought we always want to do good, but sometimes we make a mistake in thinking what the right thing is,  Aristotle said no, we know what the right thing is but because of  “weakness of the will” we do the wrong thing.
So, who is right? This has been debated for the past 2500 years, but in light of recent reports of at least six White House advisers who reportedly used private email accounts for government business, it seems that Aristotle is correct.
For years, Hillary Clinton has been criticized, condemned and investigated by everyone from the FBI to the President of the U.S. because she used a private email server while she was Secretary of State. This was considered a gross violation, leading Trump supporters to scream: “Lock her up!” And now, Trump cabinet members do the same thing? What were they thinking?
It can’t be as Socrates thought … that Jared, Ivanka and the others thought they were doing the right thing! Rather, it has to be what Aristotle said: they knew there was something wrong about what they were doing, and they did it nonetheless.
But do you know why they did it?  Because they were created in the image of God.
Our Torah reading this past Shabbat morning began with the creation of the world and the crown of creation – the human being – of which we are told: “Then God said: let us make man in our image, in our likeness.” What does it mean that man is created in God’s image, in God’s likeness? You would be surprised how many different answers there are in the Jewish tradition to this question:
  • According to Nachmanides, the image and likeness of God refers to us having a soul.
  • According to the Abarbanel, man’s physical parts are representative of the world and of God’s actions.
  • According to Maimonides, the Divine Image refers to human intellect: just like God, people can think and understand without any physical actions.
  • According to Saadia Gaon, it means that each person is unique.

But according to the Malbim and many others, man being created in the image of God means that man has free will.

Free will is a fundamental principle of Judaism. When we do something – right or wrong – it is because we choose to do it! Yes, environment counts, DNA counts, culture counts, but the bottom line is that we know what we are doing, and we do it nonetheless.
How could Cabinet members send business emails on private servers? How could certain heads of state send tweets at the wee hours of the morning when it’s not in their best interests? The answer is simple: they wanted to do it, and they gave in to their baser inclinations.
There’s no doubt that economic factors, environmental factors, and our genetic makeup all have an influence upon who we are, but ultimately, we all come out differently. Even identical twins act independently for we all utilize our free will differently.
It’s the time for us to think and choose carefully for what we post, say and do. We’re living in chaotic political times. I’m fifty years old, but I don’t remember anything ever like this. There have always been presidential scandals and low points: Nixon had Watergate, Carter had the Iranian prisoner crisis, Clinton had the Lewinsky affair, Obama had the banking debacle, but nothing matches the chaos we’ve seen come forth from Washington. It means that we need to be extra vigilant in what we do with our free will.
We vote for people that we hope will be leaders and role models, and many times they are, but when they aren’t, then we need to be our own role models.   We need to fill the vacuum. As Michelle Obama said, “When they go low, we go high.”
Although tweets and insults pervade our consciousness, we have the ability to rise above them like oil above water. Our Torah reading starts with the immortal words: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” but the famous philosopher, Martin Buber translated these words differently. He read them as: “God created for the sake of making a beginning.”
The world was created for us to make something of it, something of ourselves. We do this through our free will, our choices, our words and actions. Let all us rise above the actions and words we see around us and use our free will as the creative gift it was always meant to be.
Shabbat Shalom