Everything is easier than doing good

Some thoughts for Rosh Hashanah:

If we took a vote on what trait we human beings most value, goodness would undoubtedly win. Certainly goodness is the trait that we most want everyone else to possess.

But if we say we value goodness above everything else — and surely Judaism does — why aren’t there more good people?

A big reason is that it is easier to value other things — including, and especially, positive things — more than goodness. So it’s much easier to be just about anything rather than good.

It’s easier to be religious than to be good.

The history of all religions is replete with examples of individuals who seem religious, yet who are not good and are sometimes downright evil. The most obvious examples today are found within Islam. But Judaism, Christianity and all other religions have provided examples. It was mean-spirited observant Jews (observant of laws between man and God) whom the Prophets most severely criticized. God doesn’t want your ritual observances, Isaiah said in God’s name, if you don’t treat people properly. And too much of European Christian history produced people who valued faith over goodness.

It’s easier to be progressive than to be good.

Just as it is easier to be religious than to be good, it is easier to hold progressive positions than to be good. Too many religious people have equated religious piety with goodness, and too many believers in today’s dominant religion, progressivism, equate left-wing positions with goodness. I saw this as a graduate student in the 1970s, when the most progressive students were so often personally mean and dishonest. They seemed to believe that protesting against war and racism defined the good human being — so how they treated actual people didn’t really matter. Defining goodness as having progressive social positions has helped produce a lot of mean-spirited and narcissistic individuals with the “right” social positions.

It’s easier to be brilliant (and successful) than to be good.

Ask your children — whether they are 5 or 45 — what they think you most want them to be: happy, good, successful or smart.

Parents have told me for decades how surprised they were that their children did not answer “good.” One reason is that so many parents have stressed brilliance (and the success that brilliance should lead to) over goodness. Thus, many parents brag about their child’s brilliance rather than about their goodness. How closely do parents monitor their children’s character as compared to how closely they monitor their children’s grades?

Brilliance is probably the most overrated human attribute. And there is absolutely no connection between it and goodness. 

It’s easier to care about the earth than to be good.

Everyone who cares about the next generation of human beings cares about the earth. But we live at a time when many care about the earth more than they care about human beings. That is why, for example, the environmentalist movement in the West persisted in banning DDT, despite the fact that not using DDT to destroy the Anopheles mosquito has resulted in millions of Africans dying of malaria.

Similarly, it is a lot easier to fight carbon emissions than to fight evil.

It’s easier to love animals than to love people.

The secular West has produced many people who love animals more than human beings. Ask people who love their pet if they would first try to save a beloved dog or cat that was drowning or a human being they did not know who was also drowning. If my asking this question for over 30 years is any indication, a significant percentage would answer that they would first try to save their dog or cat. Why? Because, they say, they love their pet and they don’t love the stranger.

Contrary to what is widely believed, love of animals does not translate into love of people. While those who are cruel to animals will likely be cruel to people, the converse is not true. Love of animals has little to do with, and can often substitute for, love of people. 

It’s easier to love humanity than to love your neighbor.

The greatest moral teaching of the Torah is, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” not “Love humanity [or “all people”] as yourself.” Why? Because it’s easy to love humanity; it’s much tougher to love our neighbor.

It’s easier to be intellectual and cultured than to be good.

The most cultured nation in the world created the Holocaust. The nation that produced Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Schumann and Wagner also produced the Nazis and Auschwitz. For those of us whose lives have been immeasurably enriched by the art and culture produced by Germans, that is a sobering fact.

It’s easier to intend to do good than to do good.

It is a truism that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Nearly all the evils of the 20th century, the bloodiest century in history, were committed not by sadists, but by people with good intentions.

That is why, when it comes to how we treat our fellow human beings, only our behavior — not our intention, and not how much we feel for others — matters. 

The primacy of behavior over feelings may well be Judaism’s greatest message. 

A happy and healthy new year to all my readers.

Dennis Prager will once again be conducting High Holy Day services in Los Angeles. For more information, visit www.pragerhighholidays.net

Israelis Shun Terror as Sole Issue of Life

Even in the face of terrorist attacks and the likely falloutfrom a war in Iraq, Israelis refuse to become a “single-issue society.”

“We continue to care passionately about religious pluralismand equality,” said Rabbi Uri Regev, executive director of the World Union forProgressive Judaism, who visited Los Angeles recently.

As the top professional of one of the largest Jewishreligious organization in the world, the Jerusalem-based Regev conducted aglobal tour of issues facing the liberal wing of Judaism during a wide-ranginginterview in Los Angeles. During his visit, he addressed a meeting at StephenS. Wise Temple.

The World Union is the umbrella organization for 1,500Reform, Reconstructionist, Liberal and Progressive congregations in 44countries and, Regev estimated, touches the religious, educational and sociallives of approximately 2 million Jews.

In Israel, the astonishing recent electoral success of theShinui Party, which advocates the separation of religion and state, hasheartened Jews opposed to ultra-Orthodox influence and strictures in the JewishState.

Because of the vagaries of Israeli coalition politics, Regevdoes not believe that Shinui will be able to realize such goals as civilmarriage and army service for yeshiva students through changes in the laws.

However, by heading the Interior and Justice ministries, hesaid Shinui can effect changes through administrative rulings, such as thelegal acceptance of Conservative and Reform converts and the appointment ofsympathetic judges.

He added that Israeli society is now in a position to decidewhether its wants to exist as a theocracy or a democracy.

The World Union has not taken a stand supporting or opposingthe use of U.S. military force in Iraq.

“In recent years, we have not addressed international policyissues, and the Iraq question has not come before us,” said Regev, who took uphis post in January 2002. “But I plan to upgrade our involvement ininternational advocacy issues.”

As the World Union approaches its 75th anniversary, whichwill be celebrated July 10 in its birthplace, Berlin, it faces changes andchallenges throughout the world.

Much has been written about the Reform movement’s perceivedshift to the right, but Regev sees this as an oversimplification. Reform ritualand observances have always been more traditional in Israel than in the UnitedStates, he said, but it is true that there is a growing interest among U.S.Reform Jews in kashrut (dietary laws), mikvah (ritual bath) use and the wearingof a kippah and tallit.

However, in social and moral issues, including the recentacceptance of a transgender student for rabbinical training at Hebrew UnionCollege-Jewish Institute of Religion, “We are committed to moving forward andto stretching the margins,” he declared.

In the former Soviet Union, there are now approximately 100Reform/Progressive synagogues and groups, with strong concentrations in Moscow,Kiev and Minsk. There are shortages of both rabbis and funds, but a two-yearprogram is underway to train congregational paraprofessionals, supported by theReform rabbinate in Southern California.

In Germany, as in other Central European countries, wherereligious congregations are supported by public taxes, Regev is fighting forrecognition and a share of the government money from the Orthodox-dominated”Einheitsgemeinde.” Under this concept of the “unified community,” its CentralCouncil is supposed to represent the Jewish community as a whole, but, inpractice, discriminates against Reform and Conservative denominations, Regevcharged.

As a native-born Israeli, and a lawyer as well as a rabbi,the 51-year-old Regev has a message of both encouragement and disappointmentfor the U.S. Jewish community.

On the upside, despite the intifada, “we haven’t put ourlives on hold, and they are imbued with beauty and song,” he said. While hisson, Jonathan, serves in the army, his 16-year-old daughter, Liron, “is atypical teenager, who hangs out at the mall and takes public buses to her musicrehearsals.”

As representatives of the U.S. Reform movement, 44rabbinical and cantorial students and 33 high school students are spending ayear in Israel and “having the time of their lives,” Regev said.

On the down side, the absence of American tourists induces”a painful sense of abandonment,” he said. Not only the hotels, but the WorldUnion’s hostel at Beit Shmuel in Jerusalem stands practically empty.

Added to the emotional impact of such isolation is thefinancial drain, compounded by hard times in the U.S. economy. The drop infinancial support “weighs me down,” Regev admitted, especially at a time “whenthere are great new opportunities and an expanded vision for Progressive Judaismthroughout the world.”