Saturday, November 11, 2006

Moralism, Maimonides, & Marijuana

Mishna Torah, Hilchos Dayos, Chapter 2:6

וכן הכעס, דעה רעה היא עד למאוד; וראוי לאדם שיתרחק ממנה עד הקצה האחר, וילמד עצמו שלא יכעוס, ואפילו על דבר שראו לכעוס עליו. ואם רצה להטיל אימה על בניו ובני ביתו, או על הציבור אם היה פרנס, ורצה לכעוס עליהם, כדי שיחזרו למוטב--יראה עצמו בפניהם שהוא כועס כדי לייסרם, ותהיה דעתו מיושבת בינו לבין עצמו, כאדם שהוא מידמה איש בשעת כעסו, והוא אינו כועס.

And similarly with anger; a horrible trait to the extreme. It is proper for a person to distance himself from it in the utmost; teaching oneself never to anger even over matters where anger seems justified. However, if one seeks to instill fear in his children or other members of his household (i.e. wife), or upon members of his community (if he is a leader), and he wishes to use anger to motivate them for a positive end, he may feign such anger providing he remains calm within.

Maimonides' Manipulations

This passage from the Mishneh Torah seems innocuous enough. Maimonides, while listing the rules for character and personal discipline, ranks anger, along with pride, as one of the worst negative traits possible. In this, the Rabbis are in agreement with catholic Doctrine that anger is truly a deadly 'sin'. The Rabbis go so far as to equate anger with idol worship; the rationale being that anger is a denial of Providence and thus one imitates the non-believer by becoming angry. First of all, such a comparison seems a bit exaggerated. I do not see why one could not acknowledge and respond emotionally, albeit angrily, at the same time. I may know that certain circumstances are the Will of HaShem and, in the same breath, be quite upset that such events occur. I do not see a contradiction.

Secondly, why not just say that anger is a denial of Providence? Why call it akin to 'idol worship'? Don't idol worshippers also believe that their deities also determine events and circumstance? Most religions do accept Providence as a basic tenet. So why would the rabbis compare anger, as a denial of Providence, with another faith that accepts Providence as well? It makes no sense. The Rabbis could have easily said
"Anger is a tacit denial of HaShem's Providence" and be done with it. We would all understand it clearly. Instead, they exaggerated to make a point and end up confusing anyone who gives it the least bit of thought.

This obsession with anger, that it should be avoided at all costs and comparable to idol worship, is surprising considered that there is no specific Torah or Rabbinic command against becoming angry. In fact, we have instances in Torah, where certain persons i.e. Pinchas became filled with righteous indignation and anger and were rewarded for it. Now the Torah does not say that Pinchas became angry, but one would assume that if he took up his spear and murdered two people in front of everyone that he must have been rather irate about something. To asume that every act of vengeance, justice, or religoius zeal was performed with a cold, unmoving heart is just plain stupid. One would have to assume that our forefathers were emotionless automotons.

Perhaps this is why Maimonides retreats a bit from his moral absolutism and speaks of a practical application for anger when needed for a specific moral purpose. Apparently, the most evil character flaw ever isn't really all that bad when wielded properly. According to Maimonides, anger is useful for scaring the 'Holy Bejeeezus' out of family and friends to get them to comply with Torah. As some parents would say
"It is time to put the fear of God into that child." Maimonides doesn't want to ban anger, he simply wishes to limit it's use to those who think themselves worthy. What a hypocrite!

Now Maimonides allows this purposeful sort of anger with one small condition; it must be feigned. The one who shows the anger must not actually be angry! Can you say "Academy Award'? I see more than few problems with this idea. Follow along here.

First of all, we just finished reading how unbelievably nasty anger is and how we must run like hell away from it. We can assume that since this little tidbit of information was widely published and likely to have been read, so that people would know well ahead of time that this display of anger was an act and not respond accordingly, thus defeating the whole purpose of getting mad. In addition, if we thought the one who appeared angry wasn't really angry, then we could assume that our apparent lack of Torah observance, the reason he
says that he is angry, doesn't really make him angry at all. The one who is feigning this anger doesn't appear to care at all. We all know he is faking it. if he weren't then he'd be really angry, which he isn't permitted to become.

Secondly, this provision sends a very mixed message to listeners. It first adminishes them to avoid anger like the plague, but then to feign that very same anger for some 'holy' use. Not to be over-picky here, but if anger is akin to idol worship (thus a denial of Providence), then how would acting like an idol worshipper further any holy causes? Could one influence people to keep Kosher by eating pork? Committing a 'sin' to further a holy cause makes not one lick of sense to me.

Apparently, Maimonides is counting on all of us being complete numbskulls and not catching on this little subterfuge. Perhaps unsuspecting wives and naive children would buy into this game, but rational adults either would not accept it or not need it altogether. Maimonides would not have sounded so patently ridiculous had he first stated the exception and then offered a general rule for any other instance. He was, however, bound by the Rabbinic principle of overstatement and hyperbole; the same sort of absolute moralism that lead the Rabbis to project images of idol worship onto normal human emotions. Essentially, what Maimonides says is that
he is allowed to anger, but you are not.

Lastly, isn't feigning anything i.e. love, like, hate, or even anger just a little bit dishonest? There are direct commands to
"Be honest with weights and measures" and against "Bearing false witness" in a court of law. There are also Rabbinic laws governing fraud by subterfuge and false advertising even to Gentiles! Honestly in word and deed is a common theme throught Jewish Law. Yet, like or case here with anger, telling or promoting outright falsehoods is also not so absolute as the Rabbis would first have us believe.

Maimonides acquiesces in that his original moral stance is too absolute to withstand reality, but he fails to consider that those who feel the wrath of holy indignation, feigned as it is, will be a little skeptical next time they are told not to become angry themselves. This reminds me of the drug enforcement spokesperson who railed against the 'sin' of mind altering substances, yet freely dosed himself with 'legal' stimulants such as alcohol and Prozac.

Enter Spinoza

One of the greatest contributions to modern philosophy is the 'immoralism' of Spinoza, and his rejection of all moral absolutes as religious minded and arbitrary assumptions. According to Spinoza, moral absolutes place unnatural claims upon perfectly natural occurences in an attrempt to remove them from the normative process of cause and effect. This leads to three problems. First, actions become taboo irrespective of their actual effects and second, and perhaps even more dangerous, the effects (or influence) of said actions become overexaggerated. Under absolute moralism, an act need not have any actual correlation to a particular negative effect to be considered 'evil'. By example, religious Jews believe that masturbation leads to poverty. (
You try and figure that one out.)

The third issue centers around the arbitrary nature of moral absolutes. Huh? What part of 'moral' and 'absolute' don't I understand? The part I fail to get is the one where the rubber meets the road sort of speak; where like in the case of anger, we begin to make exceptions to these absolutes based upon some exigent circumstances. Call me pedantic, but if you already have exceptions, then your rules were never as absolute as first imagined. The inevitable collision between reality and idealism crushes our moralism to bits and exposes it for the farse it is.

Moralism Is Immoral

Spinoza asserts that morals are arbitrary in that one always can find an excuse not be moral if another overriding ‘moral’ principle takes precedence at any given time. Morality is man made. It is a statement of ‘right versus wrong’ made in man’s head, and that same head can easily choose to violate or alter the morality at his choosing. This, in fact, is what the Maimonides does. If anger is a moral no-no, and thus absolute, then no excuse, religious or otherwise, should change it, and the Maimonides is mistaken to assume anger will accomplish any meaningful ends even if used for the ‘right’ reason, because the essence of that moral value is also an absolute.

As another example, we can go back to our drug enforcement officer. His job is to arrest and prosecute those who, by legislation, are not permitted to use, own, or distribute cannbis under any circumstances. The moral absolute, that no one should use cannibis, blinds the public to the obvious medicinal benefits and causes the moralists to tell outright lies about the effects of cannibis use. We have a perfect example of moral absolutism actually breaking down our moral code! After all, which is worse, smoking marijuana or lying? The moralist, as it turns out, doesn't care about any morals or absolutes that impinge on his ability to enforce another absolute. I can almost imagine our dear friend Maimonides feigning anger in order to stop me from feeling real anger!

Spinoza rightly chooses to swap out the moral language of ‘right versus wrong’ for the more natural and somewhat neutral ‘good and bad’. For most people this means exactly the same thing, as they equate right with good and conversely, wrong with bad. Nothing, to Spinoza, could be more wrong and bad than making this assumption. Good and bad are not moral absolutes but natural consequences of our actions mired in the natural processes of cause and effect. For Spinoza to feign anger to accomplish a particular result is no contradiction at all; he never claimed anger, though a negative emotion, to be an absolute evil. For the naturalist, anger is merely another emotion; a cause that leads to certain effects, and can be ‘good and bad’ at the same time. For the moralist, who lays claim to transcendent principles, causes and effects may exist, but those have no bearing on the morality. This is essentially what is contradictory within Maimonides statement. He wishes to play the moral absolutist on one hand and then the naturalist on the other. Maimonides, in spite of his rant against it, recognized the practical ‘good’ in anger through its effects on others. (Now if Maimonides were only so consistent in his assessment of other emotional states.)

By moving to a language 'good and bad' we take it upon ourselves to gain, as Spinoza calls it, the 'adequate idea' of a thing. This means that all things are morally neutral, of the same essential substance, and become 'good' or 'bad' only in the sense of their effects; dependant upon how their particular nature interacts with our own at any given point. Good and bad are not intrinsic properties of the objects nor do arbitrary assumptions a bad thing make.

An example offered by Spinoza is the story of Adam and that lucious apple. God simply commanded Adam not to eat of the tree. He gave Adam no reason and no rationale. He merely said "Of the tree in the Garden, you should not eat." Now Adam must have thought long and hard about this one commandment, so long in fact, that he began to imagine things about this command that simply were not true. For example, he told Eve, who was not present for the original commanding, not to even touch the fruit. Adam somehow turned a simple command into a moral crusade and therefore lied to Eve to preserve that moralism. When she touched the fruit and didn't die, as Adam had told her, he became caught in his own moral emptiness, and a complete moral breakdown soon followed whereby Adam ate the very fruit he was told not to.

Had Adam deemed the fruit of that tree to be not immoral or evil, but as a literal, physical poison and thus bad only in relation to him, then no amount of persuasion on the part of serpents, wives, or gods could have ever induced Adam to bite into that apple. No matter what silliness Adam's conjured in his mind, that fantasy could not change the fruit from being poisonous to healthy. Moralism distorts our perceptions of reality.

We all have to face the music sometime. Why not now?

Kol Tuv

3 comments:

Yaakov said...

Most religions do accept Providence as a basic tenet. So why would the rabbis compare anger, as a denial of Providence, with another faith that accepts Providence as well? It makes no sense.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but don't most religions, at least those that the rabbis were familiar with, believe in fate rather than providence?

If so, then this is a not so subtle difference. Pagan gods are themselves be subject to fate, whereas providence is the express will of God. Becoming angry then affirms the pagan belief that events are outside Divine control.

Shlomo said...

Yakov,

Good question. I think the answer comes from knowing which avodah zara Chazal are talking about. I pondered this question while writing the article and it seems to me that it wouldn't make any difference at all. Here's why.

I'll ask you a question. What is the difference between fate and providence? Is there a difference at all? Fate denotes a predetermined outcome. Providence is the process. If we say that a deity is all-knowing and in control in regard to future events, then it follows that whatever it does is both destined and providential. The two end up in the same matzav.

If we say that a thing is in 'Hashem's plan', which works via His Providence, are we not surrendering to Fate?

I'd like to get your take on this.

Now as far as the pagan gods, we can assume they ranged anywhere from Caa'nanite gods, through the Persian deities, right up to and including the Roman Stoics. So far all of these ideas posit a notion of Providence.

Now by fate, do you mean fatalism? (The idea that no matter what we do the outcome is already sealed.)

I have seen the phrase written as 'avodah zara' in one place and 'avodas elilim' in another. The word elilim, translated as 'nothing' could also mean Epicurean atheism (a form of Hellenism), but it would be a stretch to call that sort of belief 'avodah'.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, sir. I enjoyed your essay tremendously, and your points were excellent.
--Ian Wesley