October 22, 2019

Are Jews Right ?

My son Gershom just graduated from Brandeis University, and my wife and I traveled 3,500 miles, of course, to hear his address, as class speaker, to a throng in excess of 5,000 people. (He received a standing ovation.) Gershom’s talk, both humorous and serious, was about how students at Brandeis love to complain – kvetch, in Yiddish; that Brandeis was built by kvetching; that it is a Jewish trait, and a good one at that, because it spurs us on to make the world a better place.

Now kvetching is a very personal thing. We may feel sorry for the poor children of Africa; we may work for them; we may even speak out for them; but we don’t kvetch for them. We kvetch because we want something to be different and better in our own lives or the lives of those who mean something special to us. It is directed at the small things in our lives; it invites us to make them better one by specific one.

Desmond Tutu spoke, too. (Someone other than a parent might have written that Gershom spoke, too.) He also talked about making the world a better place. But his approach, at least to me, had a decidedly Christian flavor. He said that we were all one family, all of us, everywhere. That by treating everyone as family, by making no distinctions among this world-family, the world could be perfected. He ended with the story of an out-of-place chicken in a chicken yard who learned that he was an eagle, able to soar, and to see from the heights that the world was a unity in which a single family dwelled.

I must admit to a dark thought at this bold imagery. A Jewish thought. Would the eagle, soaring high, seeing the beautiful world below, our one-family world, eventually grow hungry, spot those chickens in the yard they once shared, and use all those soaring, flying, eagle-eyeing skills to acquire the ingredients for, say, a chicken salad? It’s like the Woody Allen line about when the lion and the lamb lie down together, the lamb doesn’t get much sleep.

Oxford-trained philosophy professor Peter Singer echoes Tutu’s words. He tells the tale of a man whose sole asset is a wonderful antique car that he enjoys daily and will one day sell to finance a well-deserved retirement; the car is so rare and valuable that it is uninsurable. One day he parks the car on a railway siding, then sees a train bearing down on a small child whom he does not know and has never even seen before. The child is too terrified to move. The man can save the child by throwing a switch that will direct the train onto the siding, destroying the car.

Singer condemns the man who chooses to save the car. From this Singer concludes that we are all one family; that we should give away all of our money except that which is necessary to maintain us just above the poverty level; and that all of this money we should give to feed the poor of the world.

So there are these two different points of view. One is that of the kvetchers. They make the world better by making things a little better, small step by small step, for themselves and those they care about most. Then there are the Desmond Tutus and the Peter Singers. They erase the boundaries between us, calling us out of our selfishness, calling upon us, as Tutu did, to give to all according to our abilities and to receive only in accordance with our needs.

Now this is obviously a long conversation and a big dispute, about which one could mull a lifetime. The kvetchers, focusing on themselves, may make the world better, much as predicted by Adam Smith’s “invisible hand,” by helping those closest to themselves first. Their resources won’t be endlessly squandered. They won’t misjudge enemies as friends; they won’t, like Tutu, embrace Yasser Arafat as an errant family member whom, with love, can be brought back. Kvetchers condemn as fuzzy-minded those who, enveloped by the hallucinogen of love, seek to divine a deep understanding of Arafat’s emotional and psychological environment, his unrequited grievances, and the grievances of his dispossessed people, and who in the end can see no difference between him and the children of Ma’alot.

Kvetchers know who’s family and who’s not. They have priorities in whom they care for. They divide the world into those with greater and lesser calls on their time, emotions and money. If they make the world better, it’s mostly by accident, or at least by a narrowness of purpose that can appear ugly and unsatisfying in its parochialness. And taken too far, they can become the robber barons and fascist despots and warlords that the 20th century has known so well.

The one-familyites, unlike the kvetchers, focus on that which is universal. They call for us to be our best. They ask us to dedicate our lives to others, to imbue the world with love, to lift the poor out of poverty, to nurse the sick to health. While they can misjudge enemies, they might also turn an enemy into a friend, bring peace where before there was only war.

The kvetchers think that the Tutus and the Singers are unrealistic, too willing to appease, so unable to make distinctions between those whom they can meaningfully help and those whom they cannot that they squander scarce economic resources and limited emotional ones as well. The one-familyites think the kvetchers doom the world to greed and nepotism, favoring clan over the brotherhood and sisterhood of humankind.No easy debate. No easy answers. But it’s a conversation that will define us politically and communally – a conversation well worth having.

Gregory Smith is immediate past president of the Westwood Kehilla, where the conversation continues this Sunday, June 4, from 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., at 10523 Santa Monica Blvd., in West L.A., at a debate and discussion entitled, “Is the ‘Right’ Right for American Jewry?” With author, film critic and outspoken conservative Michael Medved; Dr. David Luchins, senior assistant to New York’s Senator Daniel Moynihan; and Michael Hirschfeld, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Committee.