Commentary: The Virtues and Vices of Morality

Rabbi Eliezer Sneiderman, Michelle Barton, Jason Feld, Ruth Ashrafi

Morality binds and blinds.
It binds us into ideological teams that fight each other as though the fate of the world depended on our side
winning each battle.
It blinds us to the fact that each team is composed of good people who have something important to say.

Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion


Eliezer Sneiderman

Dean of Jewish Studies, American Hebrew Academy, Greensboro, North Carolina:

Haidt’s quote demonstrates why Jewish education is so important today. Western thought that grew out of the Enlightenment has socialized us to look for the “right answer.” But the search for the “Holy Grail” is a foreign quest.

A talmudic lens finds questions to be much more interesting than answers. Jewish morality is not rooted in truth, it is rooted in action. Even something as holy as Shabbat is set aside in the case of mortal danger. The best way to remove binds and limitations is through the transcendence that comes about through focusing on the other.


Michelle Barton

Head of School, Shlenker School, Houston:

Social discourse is an important part of engaging in society, and a good machloket is central to Jewish culture. However, as this quote reminds us, “It is easy to forget that each team is composed of good people.” Our job as educators is to serve as role models and emulate the behavior and Jewish values that we hope to see in our children. It is incumbent upon us to encourage our students to see the good in others and in themselves.

Unfortunately, sometimes during a passionate debate, we are quick to blindly judge the other person and question their morals if their viewpoint differs from our own. In Pirkei Avot 1:6 it is written, “Judge each person favorably.” Jewish tradition teaches us to give one another the benefit of the doubt. When we judge another, we are taught to put their misdeeds on one side of the scale and their merits on the other side. If the scales end up balanced, then we should tip the scale toward the person’s merits, allowing morality to neither “bind nor blind,” but rather allowing our eyes to open toward a world of possibility.


Jason Feld

Head of School, Northwest Yeshiva High School, Mercer Island, Washington:

Anyone who has peeked on social media lately understands that there is a lot of truth to Haidt’s point. The more pressing question is, Are we are fated to that truth as our reality? As Jewish educators, we are uniquely positioned to offer an alternative vision of morality.

How do we approach learning? Our Sages teach, “The Torah has seventy faces.” Like facets of a gem, each perspective is vital and an illuminating part of a whole. From the ideological teams (ahem) of Hillel and Shammai’s academies, we internalize the value of “These and those are words of a living God,” which require us to consider multiple truths and invite us to participate in timeless debates that foster dialogue and dissent.

In other words, Jewish education must counter the prevailing malaise of fracture and moral gamesmanship. Rather than “bind,” our moral education must be designed to unify, and rather than “blind,” our sacred work must continue to illuminate the way toward a better tomorrow.


Ruth Ashrafi

Judaic Studies Advisor, Gray Academy of Jewish Education, Winnipeg:

This is a very American statement. The winner takes all, and it often does not matter how s/he got there. There are different models though. In Holland, the government is always formed by a coalition of different political parties with a broad basis in society. In Canada, celebrating your ethnic and cultural heritage is encouraged. Good teachers have learned the most from their students, and everyone has learned something from a mistake. Morality should guard us against the danger of hubris.

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HaYidion In These Times Winter 2019
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Winter 2019