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Bo (Rabbi Neil’s Sermon – 2/4/17)

Rabbi Neil SchumanLast week, I attended the Plainview/Old Bethpage Interfaith Clergy meeting. Inevitably, the conversation steered toward the President’s travel and immigration ban. Clearly the Mufti from the Bethpage Islamic Center was the most affected and pained by the ban.

Yet, he wasn’t alone, for nearly all the religious leaders were concerned, if not outraged. Also attending our meeting was the POB Superintendent of Schools, Dr. Lorna Lewis, and she was vociferous in her opposition to the ban.

I was a little taken aback by her openness so I asked her, “As a rabbi, I need to be very careful what I say from the pulpit, for if I lean too strongly to one side, I will surely vex supporters of the other side and I can’t afford to be divisive within my congregation, don’t you have these same political pressures?

She said she certainly does, “but what the President did was immoral, and we all need to speak out against immorality, it’s something we must do!”

Yet, I wanted to reply to her, “But the other side feels they’re acting morally too!”

Likewise, Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion, tweeted: “Presidents can revise immigration policies. But to close door to refugees and lock out legal residents is un-American and morally wrong.”

I was surprised to see this from him, for the premise of his book, is how moral judgments arise, not from reason, rather instantaneous, gut feelings. One the back cover of his book is written: Haidt explains why liberals, conservatives and libertarians have such different intuitions about right and wrong, and demonstrates why each side is actually right about many of its central concerns.

If that’s so how can Haidt say, the policy is morally wrong? In his eyes it’s wrong, in Trump’s eyes it’s morally correct!

Now, since I can speculate that there may be much more division like this in the years ahead, I like to share with you some ideas from Haidt’s fascinating book.

Early doctrines in moral psychology were based on the premise that harm is wrong.” Moral decisions are then based upon rational assessments of degrees of harm. One reasons first, and then makes a decision.

One problems with this premise is that not all moral situations deal with harm. What about morality with regards to sexual taboos, food prohibitions and spiritual contamination that don’t involve harm? Therefore Haidt devised a whole new set of questions to test for morality where harm is not involved. One questions goes like this, “A woman is cleaning out her closet and, and she finds her old American flag. She doesn’t want the flag anymore, so she cuts it into pieces and uses the rag to clean her bathroom.”

What do you think about this woman, is she wrong or is she justified?

Haidt also felt that only reason/logic was being tested for in the decision-making process, but not our emotions. Intuitively, he felt that this must be part of the decision making process as well.

Haidt found his proof in new discoveries by neuroscientist, Antonio Damasio. Damasio noticed an unusual pattern of symptoms in patients who had suffered brain damage to a specific part of the brain-the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (a bit behind and above the bridge of the nose): Their emotionality dropped to nearly zero.

They could look at the most joyous and gruesome pictures and feel absolutely nothing.

They could still think logically, showed no deficit in IQ and did well at Kohlberg’s tests of moral reasoning.

Yet, when it came to making decisions in their personal lives and at work, they made foolish decision or no decisions at all. They alienated their families and their employers and their lives fell apart.

Damasio’s interpretation was that gut feelings and bodily reactions are necessary to think rationally, and one job of ventromedial prefrontal cortex is to integrate those gut feelings into a person’s conscious deliberation.

It’s fascinating, for this discovery also sheds light on Pharaoh’s behavior in our parsha. After each latter plague, it says, “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart and he didn’t send out the Bnei Yisrael.” When his heart was sensitive, he’s ready and willing to drive those Jews out of his land.

“God is righteous, and I am my people are wicked!”

But once his feelings are deadened, he doesn’t see his or his people’s suffering, just the loss of slaves. He becomes impotent, and he can’t continue with his previous decision to release them.

In short, Haidt says that our intuitions, our emotions are what cause us to take a stance or produce an action, and our reason just serves as rationalization afterwards and sometimes it’s good and sometimes not. Our choices stem from feeling, not reason! It sounds similar to ideas expressed in Malcom Gladwell’s, Blink.

Haidt looked at people’s agreement with statements along 6 different qualities: “care, loyalty, fairness, authority, liberty and sanctity”. People on different ends of the political spectrum weigh these six axes differently. For example, people who valued loyalty and authority thought the woman who used her flag as a rag was immoral. People who valued fairness and liberty did not.

We have a divided government and populace. Some people are already comparing our government to pre-war Germany. Yet before we cast this extreme judgment, we should realize that both sides see themselves as good and moral people, they’re just accentuating different priorities values.

The ancient yeshivot of Hillel and Shammai used to argue regularly and vehemently over major issues of Jewish law: kosher, not kosher, allowed, forbidden, and they’d also try to get the upper hand on the other with filibusters and suspending Senate rules. But they were also able differentiate and leave their disputes within the yeshiva walls. They would routinely marry their children off to each other.

Now, I don’t foresee the Clintons and Trumps marrying their grandkids to each other, but it would be good thing especially since they’re both Jewish!), but we need to preserve this ideal that both sides are sincere and see themselves seeking morally correct answers.

We have four years ahead of us where we should expect many clashes in ideology, and we should protest to our hearts’ content when we feel it’s necessary. Nonetheless, we must endeavor to reserve respect for the other side, they’re sticking to their values as well.

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