Facing God, and the challenge of individual conscience
Is there really a need to write a book in favor of conscience?
Who opposes conscience?
As Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis demonstrates with his characteristic eloquence, erudition and verve in his new book, “Conscience: The Duty to Obey and the Duty to Disobey” (Jewish Lights, $19.99), we all do — and we need to think about it again.
French Catholic activist Charles Péguy wrote that everything begins in mysticism and ends in politics. The inspiration of faith gets solidified into systems, laws, hierarchies, ideologies. People of faith struggle to create laws that embody the best of the original inspiration. What began in a moment of revelation becomes embodied in a code, and by that code we live.
Living by that code is fine, so long as your moral compass points to the same direction as the code. Individual conscience can disrupt the system, however. And we cannot sustain a legal system if people feel free to disregard it.
What if the legal system, however, is not the product of human beings but God’s law? In religious traditions, there should be no room for individual conscience, because God’s word overrides our poor powers to figure out what is right. Who are you to know better than the commanding voice of Sinai?
Except that, as Schulweis points out, the Jewish tradition has indeed made room for individual conscience. In the Bible, Abraham argues with God over the fate of Sodom. Moses resists God’s expressed will to destroy the Jewish people. The rabbis repeatedly test the assumption that the biblical law is fixed and inviolate.
Schulweis offers startling instances of rabbinic protests against God in the name of conscience. The Talmud goes so far as to nullify laws the rabbis cannot accommodate within the scope of their understanding of God’s will.
In cases such as stoning a rebellious son or destroying a city tainted with idolatry, the rabbis simply conclude that such a son or city “never was and never will be.” In certain rare cases when the Torah speaks in a way that contradicts what the rabbis believe God would want, they subvert, circumvent or simply cancel the pronouncement.
This is not to say that the rabbis never take positions that violate conscience — theirs or ours. Conscience is a tricky thing; sometimes it leads us in different directions. But while it may not be triumphant, it also will not be stilled. We see the tradition struggle with issues such as agunot (women who cannot obtain a divorce), even when conscience is not permitted to simply override law.
For Schulweis, a theological liberal, conscience will point in one direction. My guess is that for some of his readers, there will be other conclusions of conscience.
Schulweis is aware that not everyone’s conscience will yield identical results. His point is not that conscience always points in one direction but that it should not — indeed cannot — be silenced. From his tour of the Jewish tradition and some isolated incidents that throw further light on the subject (such as the principled stand of Henry David Thoreau against the U.S. government), “Conscience” brings us to the premier modern example — the Shoah.
Schulweis has become famous for his innovations and causes, perhaps none more so than his prescient early recognition that to acknowledge and honor Holocaust rescuers did not diminish the horrors of the Shoah. Rather, such recognition teaches us that even in the most terrible circumstances, human beings can rise to goodness.
Schulweis writes that no single variable seems to explain rescuers; some of them were even anti-Semitic. Nonetheless, in an age when the legal system, social pressure and deep prejudice all pushed for people to persecute Jews, or at most be indifferent to their fate, several special individuals risked themselves, and at times their families, to rescue Jews, and often it was not a solitary individual but a group: “Human goodness in Nazi-occupied lands called for a conspiracy of men, women and children of conscience.”
The globe is still marked by events that call for courageous individuals who must break out of the thrall of cruel but conventional ideas. How many in Rwanda or Darfur had the courage to behave as the remarkable rescuers whose stories are told in this book? Would we?
Schulweis’ book is short and powerful. It is a challenge to all of us who find that authority and conformity are powerful forces shaping our thoughts and constraining our actions. In recounting a Talmudic story about the yetzer hara, the evil inclination, Schulweis quotes the rabbinic admonition: “Palga barakia lo yehavei” — Heaven does not grant halves. Perhaps that is why heaven has granted our rabbi a whole heart filled with wisdom.
David Wolpe is senior rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles.