September 25, 2012: Kol Nidre: The Call to Responsibility

A recent article in Forbes magazine ranks professions in terms of satisfaction. You might suppose that the happiest workers are the ones making the most money—the business executives, the medical professionals, the software engineers. Not so, says the survey. The actual list includes artists, teachers, nurses, and, at the very top, clergy! Just as interesting is Forbes’s ten most hated jobs, some of them quite lucrative, including corporate managers, computer technicians, and directors of sales and marketing. The author concludes: “What’s striking is that these are not low-level jobs. The pain is psychological. We are in the world of Dilbert. It’s the pointlessness and lack of meaning in what they do that is the problem.”

In America, we tend to formulate our values according to our culture’s emphasis on individual freedom. We define freedom as the ability to pursue our own affairs without coercion or governmental interference. The opening lines of the Declaration of Independence encapsulates the American ideal, “that all men are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” To us as Americans, the highest purpose in life is to pursue happiness, and liberty is the freedom to do so. The Jewish religion exposes the fallacy that enduring satisfaction can result from following one’s individual desires. In stark contrast to the American emphasis on freedom, Judaism offers an opposing core value—responsibility. One can never attain happiness by pursuing it. Rather, like the proverbial bluebird, happiness can only emerge as the byproduct of answering the call to responsibility.

Biblical Judaism bequeathed to Western civilization the idea of responsibility. Before the advent of the Israelite religion, in ancient Greece or Mesopotamia, for example, people weren’t beholden to anyone, except maybe their own patron deities or feudal lords—not to each other, and certainly not a supreme moral authority. It was the Hebrew Bible that introduced the expression of responsibility into human discourse.

What does responsibility actually entail? In his book To Heal a Fractured World, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks delineates four levels of responsibility: personal responsibility, moral responsibility, collective responsibility, and ontological responsibility. He interprets the opening chapters of the Book of Genesis as a grand exposé of the concept of human responsibility.

The first story teaches personal responsibility. Adam and Eve live in the paradise of the Garden of Eden. Everything is permitted, except for one thing—the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. However, it is precisely the forbidden fruit that entices them. After they eat it, God confronts them, as follows: “And the Lord God called to the man: ayeka, ‘where are you?’ He answered: ‘I heard you in the garden…, so I hid.’ Then God asked: ‘…did you eat from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?’ The man said: ‘the woman You put here with me, she put from the tree in front of me, and I ate.’” (Genesis 3:8-11)

Adam responds the way human beings have always reacted to the call to responsibility—with denial. He blames the woman (who, in turn, blames the snake). More significantly, he blames God, as well. The repetition of the verb “put” (natan, in Hebrew) reinforces the cascading chain of cause and effect: “You put the woman here with me, and she put the fruit in front of me, and so I ate.” Adam espouses strict determinism. In effect, he says: “I couldn’t help it. That’s the way You made me.” Indeed, the principle of determinism thrives to this day and is the mainstay of science—the idea that ultimately, all actions in the physical world result from prior events, and even human behavior is entirely determined by genetic, biological or psychological factors.

The story of Adam and Eve, instead, asserts the fundamental human agency of free choice. After all, if there’s no free choice, there’s no morality either. You can’t claim that a cat is wicked for making a mouse suffer, but you can claim that human beings are wicked for making beef cattle suffer in slaughterhouses. Eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil is a metaphor for the birth of personal responsibility. Personal responsibility simply means that I always have the capability to choose how to act or react in any situation.

The next level of responsibility is moral responsibility. In the second story of the Book of Genesis, God accepts Abel’s sacrifice, but rejects Cain’s sacrifice. After Cain kills Abel, God confronts Cain, as follows: “Then the Lord said to Cain: ‘where is your brother Abel?’ And he said: ‘I don’t know. Am I my brother’s keeper?’” (Genesis 4:9) Here, Cain responds not by denying the deed, but by denying that there was anything wrong with it. Cain’s worldview is extreme solipsism, the idea that nothing exists except one’s personal reality. In effect, he says: “why shouldn’t I do whatever I please? I’m not my brother’s keeper; I’m only my own keeper.” Murder is merely the result of the most extreme form of solipsism—another person’s experience is discounted to such a degree that even her life makes no difference. Even if we are not murderers, we are all solipsistic to some degree. Whenever we are consumed with self, whenever we objectify others, whenever we think of them only in terms of our personal needs and desires, we are authenticating our own experience as the only reality.

Moral responsibility counteracts egoism. God’s rejection of Cain’s sacrifice is a metaphor for the rejection of his self-centered philosophy. Cain thinks that he can propitiate God with sacrifice, but he learns that some things are inexplicably impervious to his power. Moral responsibility means acting according to outside constraints—not acting as if the world existed only for my pleasure, but acting as if there were a world beyond my own existence. Moral responsibility complements personal responsibility. Personal responsibility says that I am able to do good; moral responsibility says that I ought to.

The third lesson of responsibility comes from the story of Noah. The Torah makes clear that Noah is righteous and obedient, and because of this, God saves him and his family from the Flood: “God said to Noah, ‘I have decided to put an end to all flesh, because the earth is filled with their lawlessness, [but you...] go into the ark, with all your household, for you alone have I found righteous in this generation.’” (Genesis 6:12-13, 7:1) Surprisingly, the great Biblical commentator Rashi qualifies Noah’s righteousness. On the phrase “for you alone have I found righteous in this generation,” he writes that Noah was comparatively righteous only relative the lawlessness of his generation, but in absolute terms he was not righteous.

Noah’s flaw lies in his parochialism. His moral vision, though adequate, is limited in scope. Noah obeys God to the letter, but does not go beyond mere obedience. Jewish tradition contrasts Noah’s silent acquiescence in the face of God’s decision to destroy the earth with Abraham’s outspoken protest in the face of God’s decision to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. Unlike Abraham, Noah is unconcerned with social injustice beyond himself and his immediate loved ones. Even his name, Noah, meaning “quiet” in Hebrew, points to his passivity. Noah fails the test of collective responsibility. Collective responsibility is an extension of moral responsibility. Moral responsibility means acting for my own good; collective responsibility means acting for the good of society and, indeed, for the good of humanity.

The last story teaches the highest level of responsibility, ontological responsibility. Although the protagonists of the first three stories—Adam, Cain, and Noah—fail in varying degrees, at least they acknowledge God as supreme authority. In the fourth story, the agents seek to supplant God: “ ‘Come,’ they said, ‘let us build us city, and a tower with its top in the heavens.’” The Tower of Babel represents the human attempt to create a self-sufficient universe where humanity itself is the highest moral authority. In the story, heaven is a metaphor for absolute power and knowledge, which the people claim for themselves. Whenever we claim to know what’s best—for others, for the world, or even for ourselves—we partake of the same hubris.

Ontological responsibility posits that moral truth is transcendent and that our ideas of right and wrong are necessarily incomplete. It subsumes personal, moral, and collective responsibility. Ontological responsibility means that we are accountable not just to other people, not just to all of humanity, but to something or someone beyond our finite capacity.

By definition, responsibility is relational. One cannot be responsible in isolation. The word “responsibility” comes from the word response, implying an Other to which the Self must answer. The Hebrew word for responsibility, achrayut, carries the same connation, from the word, acher, meaning “other.” The Other may be a person. The Other may be society. The Other may be conscience. In the traditional Jewish conception, the Other is God. Many of the interlocking concepts with which we are concerned on Yom Kippur derive from responsibility, including: guilt, regret, atonement, and forgiveness.

The question of ontological responsibility is particularly appropriate for Yom Kippur: what are we called to do with our lives? With the turn of the year, we are aware, once again, of aging. The autumnal glory that we witness all around us in the natural world, the change of the seasons, reinforces our approaching mortality. Far more than the paltry resolutions of the secular new year, whose frivolity denies death, the confessions of Yom Kippur, whose liturgy is a dress rehearsal for death, demand profound introspection.

Sometimes I think I entered the Rabbinate because of my own fear of death. Maybe I thought that somewhere in my studies I would pick up the golden nugget of wisdom that would make sense of it all. I’m now beginning to suspect that the secret to contentment in the face of death is not to be found from sacred texts, or from knowledge, or even from the examples of other people. It’s to be found in good deeds. The Forbes article was onto something when it linked job satisfaction to meaningful work. The key to happiness is in answering the call to responsibility.

And what about you? How do you answer the calls to personal responsibility, moral responsibility, collective responsibility, and ontological responsibility? Do you truly believe that you always have a choice how to act in any given situation, no matter what life throws at you, that nothing—not illness, not infirmity, not circumstances beyond your control, not any human or inhuman power can take that freedom away from you? That’s taking personal responsibility. Do you grant to others the validity of their experience, of their needs and wants, of their reality, acting accordingly and not out of self-interest alone? That’s moral responsibility. Does your concern extend beyond the immediate people in your life, your family, your friends, your neighbors, and embrace all of humanity and all the earth besides? That’s collective responsibility. Finally, are you living a life of purpose, meaning, and fulfillment? That is highest level of responsibility.

Here is my blessing for you and for all of us in the New Year: may your life be filled to overflowing with the only enduring happiness there is—the happiness that comes from answering the call to responsibility, to yourself, to your loved ones, to humanity, to the world, and to the transcendent voice that calls out to you to fulfill your unique destiny.