The 20th century was the bloodiest in all of human history and serves as testimony that two beloved theories about humanity are wrong. These ideas emanated a few hundred years ago during the Enlightenment and remain popular in secular humanist ideology. One is the idea that all moral questions, all issues of right and wrong, good and evil, are subject to being correctly decided solely on the basis of a person’s reason, without the necessity (i.e interference) of divine revelation or organized religion. Humanity by itself is the final and autonomous arbiter of morality. This idea brings with it as a necessary corollary, the firm belief, that men and women left to their own reasoning devices will invariably choose to do what is right and that which promotes life, fairness, and the common good. This second idea of humanity’s innate choice of goodness was aided and abetted by an arrogant belief that an educated person is more likely to do good than an illiterate one – that a person with a Ph.D. or other significant letters after his or her name would be less likely to kill, harm, maim and destroy than a poor, simple, unlettered farmer. But none of these theories have proven true. Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Milosevic and the entire slew of other murderers of this century have all given the lie to these fantasies about human morality and rectitude. Rabbi Berel Wein has pointed out that one-third of all of the commandants of the Nazi death camps held either a Ph.D. or M.D.; no amount of education was effective in decreasing the cruelty. Man, left to his own reason, will not choose right. Reason by itself, is death and destruction, oppressive theories and murderous social engineering. No faith, no belief, has led us to the brink of the social abyss of self-destruction.
Balak and Bilaam, the two main characters in the Torah reading of this week are powerful, respected, intelligent people. Bilaam even possesses the gift of divine intuition and prophecy. But they are both base, evil and immoral people. They are so convinced of their own powers, of their own ability to reason correctly, that they are convinced that they can deceive G-d and destroy the Jewish people–all without consequence and hurt to themselves. They exhibit all of the immoral traits of the dark side of human behavior – greed, corruption, jealousy, foul speech and causeless hatred. But their worst trait is arrogance – they know better, they are better, they deserve better. And the People of Israel, and through it, the G-d of Israel and His divine Torah, apparently stands in their way. So, by denying God and destroying the People of Israel, the world will be somehow improved. We have seen the genocidal plan of Balak and Bilaam take on the flesh of reality in this century as well. We now know how dangerous such people are. But many, especially and inexplicably many Jews, are loath to relinquish the good old theories of the Enlightenment. They still cling to the idea that a person left to his or her own thoughts will come to the right and most moral conclusion. They disregard vested interests and other flaws of human character. This is a sad and dangerous error. Jewry needs a healthy dose of realism and should forsake many of the utopian, naive and dangerous beliefs that have characterized our journey in the modern world over the past two centuries and
Why should we be moral, especially when no one is looking? What is wrong with deceiving a corporate customer, one tells himself, when no one is really harmed? (The company is so massive; they won’t feel the loss.) In WWII, Japan had “Comfort Women;” tens of thousands (hundreds of thousands according to some historians) of women were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese army in occupied territories (Korea, china, the Philippines). If I am in control, why shouldn’t I exploit what is ‘rightfully’ mine? Thousands of years of human history has shown that humanity left to its own devices will end up with a defective moral barometer; some system of eternal values that demands self-discipline and commitment is necessary.
We must never forget that Balak and Bilaam are unfortunately real. But so are our faith and tradition. They–not utopian theories–have been the bulwark of Jewish existence and the reason for our survival against all odds.