Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Maimon on Hasidim: Are Haredim Capable of Acts of Virtue?

In earlier posts I discussed the importance of an ethical God as the basis for a truly monotheistic religion. I am not a big fan of Solomon Maimon. As with Voltaire, I find Maimon to have been a miserable excuse for a human being. His autobiography is useful mainly for its “how I became an apikores” and “how I gave my rebbe a heart attack” hilarity. In the following passage from his autobiography, though, he does say something of value.

But as these people [the Hasidim] have false ideas of religion itself and their virtue has as its basis merely the future rewards and punishments of an arbitrary tyrannical being who governs by mere caprice, their actions in point of fact flow from an impure source, namely the principle of interest. Moreover, in their case this interest rests merely on fancies; so that, in this respect, they are far below the grosses Epicureans, who have a low, to be sure, but nevertheless genuine interest as the end of their actions. Only when it is itself founded on the idea of virtue can religion yield a principle of virtue.

Haredi apologists, such as Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz of the Yated, often point to the willingness of individual members of their community to perform acts of kindness even to random strangers. Such things are obviously commendable and I acknowledge that the greatest strength of this community is the personal goodness of its individuals. That being said the source of such goodness makes any claim to virtue problematic. Haredim are very open about the fact that the source of their morality is their belief that they are commanded by God to behave in such a manner and that God will reward or punish them based on their actions. I do not challenge the proposition of divine reward and punishment either in this world or in some future world, but to have it as the primary motivation for ones actions negates any virtue.

There is the classical Kantian quandary of if my friend is sick, do I visit him and why. If I am a Kantian then I must visit my friend in keeping with a universal ethical imperative, but if I act out of such a universal imperative I am not acting as a friend, out of any sense of emotional attachment. On the reverse side, if I go as a friend than I am not acting according to a universal imperative and am therefore as a Kantian. This requires one to redefine friendship as something apart from emotional attachment. I recognize that it is physically impossible to live up to the full extent of one’s ethical imperatives to the entire human race. For example, I could not possibly go visit every sick person in the world even though would all, in theory at least, be deserving of my attention. The solution is to pick a limited number of people and devote one’s efforts in fulfilling one’s ethical imperatives with them. These people are labeled friends. As an Asperger this understanding of friendship works perfectly for me and I have no problem understanding love I these terms.

If a Haredi person comes to visit me because I am sick, I have to assume that he is not doing it out of any actual concern for me or any desire to be virtuous. The only reason why he is visiting me is because he believes that he is earning points with his god, which can be cashed in for goodies in this world and in the next. If this Haredi person’s god, or whomever this Haredi person takes as speaking for god, tomorrow tells him to spit at me and laugh at the fact that I am incapacitated and that he will score special bonus points for doing so then I have every reason to assume that he would spit and laugh at me. In the end the only people who can be virtuous are those who act out of the principle that what they do has innate value as a virtuous action, regardless of any divine command, offer of reward or threat of punishment.

10 comments:

Freelance Kiruv Maniac said...

I don't see how you can peer into their souls and know how they feel just by reading their source of obligation.
Maybe the reward and punishment gets them going, but once they are actually involved, their humanity kicks in and are genuinely feeling for the other person?

In general, I am wary about the philosophy of ethics. Why does there have to be an either/or type of dichotomy about motivation?
People (even chassidim) are more complex than this.
Conflicting emotions is what human literature is all about. Philosophy doesn't really get it.

Izgad said...

David, I grant you that people are complex and do things for a variety of motives. I do not claim to be able to peer into people’s souls; I am a historian not a rebbe. As a historian, though, I do have to come up with plausible suggestion as to the why of people’s actions. This means talking about motives and particularly primary motives. Just to be clear, as a matter of chinuch, I am not averse to raising the issue of direct reward and punishment with children. I would follow Maimonides in this respect and use it as something to begin with and discard it later on. That being said, I am not about to try building a religion around the carrot and stick of reward and punishment for the reasons I state in the post.
The million dollar question becomes what does our theoretical Haredi bikkur cholim person do when he decides that his god wants him to engage in counter bikkur cholim behavior? Your person who started from just being concerned with reward and punishment and has now moved on to genuine human feelings would be willing to turn against his god so I would be fine with such a person. I recognize that people’s motivations develop along very strange paths and I am willing to accept people whose motives evolved originally from ideas that I oppose. What sort of decision, though, can we expect from the person who is still only concerned with reward and punishment? I assume a pie in the face.
There is a need for both ma’she and machshava. I am not suggesting that all one needs is a philosophy of ethics, but that is a good place to begin. Let us gather around a mussar Socrates to discuss what would be the ideal principles to live by. Next we should examine if we are living by those principles and if, as is most likely, we are not then we need to start asking ourselves some hard questions as to why we are not living by those principles. Finally we need to start figuring out how we can change our lives so that our actions do match with our principles.

Freelance Kiruv Maniac said...

"As a historian, though, I do have to come up with plausible suggestion as to the why of people’s actions. This means talking about motives and particularly primary motives."

But you cannot intuit the primary motive of a real person in history (or current events) by just reading the source of his ethical code and assume he is feeling exactly what he is commanded to feel. That's basically my point. I have no quibble with the rest of your comment.

Izgad said...

Let me get this straight. You are criticizing me because I am willing to assume that our theoretical Haredi bikkur cholim person is a good Haredi and follows Haredi principles to the letter. You on the other hand still hold out hope that he is not really so frum. We are dealing in the world of theory here. In the real world, I grant you, people are complicated and act from a plethora of motives. Baruch Hashem you are correct, most real life Haredim are not so frum. If they were we might get more pies in the face/burning garbage cans.

Ethical codes can be very useful if you know how to read them. You look at all the things they ban and assume that people are doing those things.

Miss S. said...

Ethical codes can be very useful if you know how to read them. You look at all the things they ban and assume that people are doing those things.

Are you suggesting that there are haredim out there who are using the internet?

Izgad said...

There are quite a few of them out there. Some of them even operate blogs. For example there is our friend here Freelance, whom I have been talking to on this comments page. There is, just to name a few others, Jewish Philosopher (http://www.jewishphilosopher.blogspot.com/), Daas Torah (http://daattorah.blogspot.com/) and the truly frightening Authentic Judaism (http://www.authenticjudaism.blogspot.com/). I am sure they have all been given special heterim to operate blogs to be mekariv heretics like you and me.

This is to say nothing of those Haredim in the Brooklyn Public library using the internet. I just can't wait for someone try getting the library system to cut off internet access.

Miss S. said...

I am not a heretic. I just do not deal well with any type of hashkafic outlook that minimizes free choice.

Ha-historion said...

Ben,

What edition of the autobiography did you read?

I see Yediot books published a good-looking edition recently http://www.ybook.co.il/htmls/%D7%97%D7%99%D7%99_%D7%A9%D7%9C%D7%9E%D7%94_%D7%9E%D7%99%D7%9E%D7%95%D7%9F.aspx?c0=20438&bsp=13484

I might just order it.

Ha-historion said...

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Izgad said...

I read the autobiography a few years ago when I did a paper on Maimon’s view of history. (I can post it or send it to you if you wish to see it.) I forget which editions I looked at. This post I wrote up while sitting in the Hebrew University library looking through the Mendes-Flohr source book for material to use for the Modern Jewish History course I am teaching. Seeing the Maimon quote gave me a brain wave and I just went and wrote it up right there.