'The 3 R's'
by: Harry Zvi Friedman

No, not reading, 'riting and 'rithmetic, but Revelation, Relativity and Respect. Three big subjects in just a few minutes - don't say you don't get value!

What I want to suggest, is that Revelation, the bedrock of several of the world's great religions, is too inflexible for the age in which we live, while complete relativity, its opposite and the norm in our liberal democratic societies, is too flexible and has produced a crisis of self-respect.

As a preliminary, I want to say that, though I dwell on some of the negative aspects of our society, my view is that if the ideal of the greatest happiness for the greatest number is a valid one, then our liberal democratic societies come closer to achieving this ideal than previous and alternative forms of social organisation.

Time was when divine revelation was seen as the basis of the moral law, fundamental to the healthy working of a society. God's law was immutable, inescapable, respected as unchallengeable fact.

For some religious communities revelation still has this authority, but there are problems. Some Muslim communities, for example, prohibited from taking financial interest have to devise ways around this obstacle so that they can operate in a capitalist economy, Orthodox Jews, to give another example, might resort to technological solutions to the problems self-imposed by strict interpretation of the Sabbath.

Personally, I find these avoidance mechanisms distasteful. It seems to me that if you truly believe that, on the Jewish Sabbath, your God says you should not push, pull, lift, carry, light, turn on, turn off, etc, then indeed you should not do these things, neither directly nor indirectly. To offend against the spirit of a law seems just as bad as to offend against the letter of the law. But that's an aside.

We know, of course, that revealed codes of law generate a lasting industry of interpretation, to ensure that the written law retains some relevance to the changing times. In Judaism, such interpretation came to be regarded as an oral law, but once that oral law is written down, as in the case of the Talmud, it ceases to be oral and becomes another source of inflexible written law.

Revelation, whether you believe its source to be God-given or man-made, is rather like a letter sent through the post, it bears the date-stamp of its time and place of origin. Our world is immeasurably more complex now than was Canaan in the 8th c. BCE or Arabia at the beginning of the 7th c. CE.

Revelation tends to set absolute rules. When the Quran ruled that the hands of thieves should be chopped off, or the Torah prescribed stoning for disobedience, they were legislating for societies very different from that of today. We have discovered psychology and criminology, and we ask questions like 'what do we mean by thief?' or 'How far are we really responsible for our actions?' And the answers are not absolute.

It's true that people, their basic drives and needs have changed very little, but we know now that our personality and behaviour is determined by environment and upbringing to an extent that could not have been imagined in past centuries.

So, revelation poses a problem for liberal democratic societies. Revelation is authoritarian, contrary to the ethos of such societies, contrary to the our understanding of psychology, long past its use-by date.

Developed societies have abandoned revelation for relativity. As we understand more about ourselves and the universe, there seems to be a parallel between the physics of the universe, and the rules that regulate that much more complex system, human society.

Newton told us that the universe operates by fixed, immutable rules, all was predictable. Einstein and Heisenberg told us that the rules are relative to the observer, nothing is predictable.

Well, we've tried for generations now to legislate for a society where nothing is predictable, and, by and large, we have failed. Some say that our moral climate changes according to the rules of fashion. It used to be fashionable to beat unruly children, now it isn't.

Those who argue for divine revelation have always said that to abandon what they claim is God's law is to unleash chaos and social breakdown. To some extent they have been proved right - but only to some extent. There is a case for the defence.

However, natural law may be unpredictable at the extremes of largeness and smallness, yet at the human level, the level at which we operate, we know that there are absolutes. Chemical reactions are predictable, heat moves from the hotter to the cooler, even organic systems have predictable aspects.

Is this relevant? I think so, for it suggests that there is a middle ground between the absolute and the relative, even when we consider the subject of human behaviour. The challenge in every generation is to find that middle ground.

All the great religions have tried to teach that there are such things as core values, values which do not vary over time and place, and which underpin our personal and social relationships. If religion has failed to sustain this message, this could be because it has continued to insist that these values come from the authority of a God that few now acknowledge, rather than out of the needs of society.

But absence of revelation does not imply absence of a moral law. So to my third R - respect.

In our developed societies, I believe we've strayed too far from respect for these core values. If we sow the wind, removing words such as loyalty, honesty, tolerance, humility, responsibility, discipline, from our vocabulary, if we abandon that code of family values which underpin the socialisation of children, if we teach our children that anything goes, that in a competitive world, the only rule is success, measured by the size of our bank account, then we reap the whirlwind.

To live socially is to compete. It has always been so, but we make society ever more competitive. Competition produces winners and losers - that is what it's about. Moreover, we have managed completely to disassociate success from morality. Not, of course, that in past times the great were necessarily also the good, it's just that, without our media technology, it was so much easier then to make it seem as if they were.

What then of the losers, those who turn to drugs and criminality? These are flights from responsibility, alternatives to the flight into ill health. But then no-one tells us we need to be responsible. I suppose the cruellest deception of modern times is the mirage that we are all winners. The whole might of the welfare state is invoked to endorse this deception. How can we be failures when we have security and comfort for the asking?

For the criminal and drug taker, the welfare state is meaningless. They do not buy the argument that compared with, say the poor of Africa or India, they are indeed successful. They know that compared with pop stars and footballers, they have not made it. They know too, that not a lot separates them from the pop stars and footballers, except, perhaps, making the wrong choices. If in the past, our forebears had too little choice - we all know of intelligent and gifted people condemned to live unsatisfactory and unfulfilled lives. Today we have too much choice, and still many people live unhappy and unfulfilled lives.

But it's worse now, for while in the past the less able, the inadequate, the damaged, or just the plain unlucky, could blame lack of opportunity for their misfortune, today's losers are denied even this consolation. It is the supreme arrogance, the hubris, of a society which operates under the conviction that we must all be made equal, that produces the malaise of political correctness. God does not make us equal, however many anti-discrimination laws we pass.

Political correctness, I believe, is a major factor in creating failure. It is now so advanced that it becomes a form of censorship, silencing even moderate views that depart from the fashionable, left-of-centre ideologies that dominate government, the law, the universities and the media in our liberal democratic societies. Political correctness ensures that those that have the temerity to question the prevailing ethos, an ethos that seeks to maximise rights and minimise responsibilities, are quickly silenced.

Recently, at a workshop on community relations, an Asian speaker was defending the right of his community to continue the practice of enforced marriage of young girls. He didn't approve the practice, I must add, but denied that British law had any right to interfere. When I argued that British law applied to all who live in this country, I was told that, as a white male, I couldn't be expected to understand!

It was political correctness that put into written law the Human Rights Act, a set of noble and virtuous principles to be sure, but without a mention of responsibilities, and this coming at a time when, perhaps more than ever, we need to be reminded that rights and responsibilities are inseparable. That the Act would produce more than its fair share of absurdities, those of us familiar with a written law in our religious tradition could have predicted. You don't need to be a Jew or a Muslim to know that oral laws are much more flexible!

Of equal concern is that political correctness corrupts ethical judgement. Truth is complex, and complexity spoils a good story. So our media, even, sadly, our once respected BBC, repeatedly sacrifice balance and morality for the few minutes of sound bite that constitute the, alleged, attention span of Mr or Ms Average.

No society has been without its problems. What is it about the faults of ours that produces such high levels of criminality? Why do so many young people feel the need to escape from reality into a narcotic wonderland?

An 18th c. rabbi, Zusya of Hanipol used to say: "In the world to come they will not ask me 'Why were you not Moses?', they will ask, 'Why were you not Zusya?'. Finding who we are, developing that elusive quality we call self-esteem, this is our life's work, but for many the process doesn't even get started.

It's my belief that, especially for the vulnerable young, the capriciousness of our society, the confusion between the image and the reality, that this undermines the development of self-esteem, and that it's principally the lack of self-esteem that gives rise to self-abuse such as criminality and addiction. From the cradle to the grave, the message is deafening - We have never had it so Good! But we know this is untrue - something important is missing.

A few months back I was in India. There I saw dire poverty, yet a degree of acceptance I wouldn't have expected. Perhaps, if you live in dire poverty, you have little energy to reflect on your misery, your principle concern is survival. But here survival is not the problem, the problem is that you do have time to reflect, and that reflection might convince you that society has no use for you.

Moreover, you live in a society that ceaselessly tells you that you're having a great life, enjoying all the gratification that a prosperous technological society can provide; trouble is, you know you're not. So much promised, so little delivered.

So, to sum up.

In summary, our loss is that we have lost touch with our God, and therefore with our spiritual centre. Connected to God, we are connected to the universe, to be sure each of us is a tiny part of that universe, but important nevertheless.

Without that connectedness we are alone, disconnected from family, society, friends. Without that connectedness we even lose the most important of all relationships, that with ourselves.

That's it, I believe. Prosperity and technology appear to have removed the fundamental need for connectedness to others, and to God. The ultimate irony surely in a world shrunk to a global village by a communications revolution.

Harry Zvi Friedman


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