Rabbi O’s Weekly Parsha: Balak (Numbers 22:2-25-9)

Does Education Make You a Moral Person?

The past century, the bloodiest in all of human history, should have lain to rest two of the most cherished theories about humanity postulated by the Enlightenment and Secular Humanism. One was the idea that all moral questions, all issues of right and wrong, good and evil, were subject to being correctly decided on the basis of human reason alone, without the necessity (i.e. interference) of divine revelation or organized religion. Humans can and will be the final and autonomous arbiter of morality. This idea brought with it as a necessary corollary, the firm belief that man, left to his own reasoning devices, would invariably choose to do what is right, what promotes life and fairness and the common good. This second idea of man’s innate choice of goodness was aided and abetted by the arrogant belief that an educated person is more likely to do good than an illiterate one – that a Ph.D. would be less likely to kill, harm or maim than a poor, hardworking farmer. But none of these theories have proven true. Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Milosevic and the entire slew of other murderers of the past century have all confirmed that this was a false utopian lie about human morality and decency. One-third of all of the commandants of the Nazi death camps held either a Ph.D. or M.D. People, left to their own reason, will not choose right. Pure reason, by itself, leads to death and destruction, oppressive theories, and murderous social engineering. A society without faith or belief has led to the brink of the social abyss of self-destruction.

In the New York Times columnist David Brooks’ book The Road to Character, he explains why today’s ever-increasing obsession with the self is eclipsing moral virtues and our ability to build character, and how that gets in the way of our happiness. Our society hungers for a return to a system of eternal values, to a disciplined lifestyle and to the true liberty of humanity, which will free us from the ills of mindless conformity.

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 delude 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 senseless hatred. But their worst trait is arrogance – they know better, they are better, they deserve better. And the People of Israel, the G-d of Israel and His divine Torah, apparently stand in their way. So, by denying G-d and destroying the People of Israel, the world, they reason, will be somehow improved.

We have seen the genocidal plan of Balak and Bilaam take on the flesh of reality and now know how dangerous such people are. But many people, especially and inexplicably many Jews, are loath to relinquish the good old theories of the Enlightenment, which is a truly sad and dangerous error. Jewry needs a healthy dose of realism and should forsake many of the utopian, naive and dangerous beliefs and theories that have characterized our journey in the modern world over the past two centuries. We should never forget that Balak and Bilaam are unfortunately real. But so is our faith and tradition.

No society can function for long without leveraging the lessons of a specific developed tradition. No society will do good for others without a moral system that first inculcates kindness to kin and clan. No society will produce decent human beings without arbitrary-seeming rules that restrain base animal instincts. No society will have the will to bear children, to invest love and energy in them, and to teach them good from bad, without believing that it has some mission on this earth that gives life meaning and purpose. The Enlightenment’s advocacy of universal love might have come from a genuine longing to make the world a better place, but it’s equally important to realize that high-sounding enlightened platitudes won’t get you any closer to that goal, and if you’re Jewish, blind obedience to it might end up distancing yourself from your own people.

We Jews possess a moral code and a rich history of people who have used it a guidebook for over two millennia. May we learn how to access and allow it to lead us to where we want to go.

(Sources: Ph.D. in Morals by Rabbi Berel Wein; Rabbi Yitzchak Adlerstein, review of Judaism Straight Up: Why Real Religion Endures by Dr. Moshe Koppel)