Midot – Values Clarification
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Goals: What is the nature of virtues? Do values change over time?
Moshevet Moreshet Avot
Noseh: Midot – Values Clarification
Written By: Josh Skarf
Goals: What is the nature of virtues? Do values change over time?
Background: In this Sicha, we will look at a few historical ways of understanding virtues, and then look at Rav Kook’s understanding. For our purpose we will define virtues as GOOD character traits, ones you want to have. The opposite are called vices.
Trigger 1: In order to get the Sicha going, we’re going to do a little role-playing game. Choose two chanichim. You will give them a couple of different character traits to act out. One of them must pretend to have an excess of that trait, while the other must pretend to have very little of it. Start with anger. Tell the two of them that you have just run over their beloved pet dog, fido, with your SUV while talking on your cell phone. How do they each react? Next is honesty. Ask them whether or not your clothes make you look fat. Once again, see how they each respond. Now do charitable. Pretend to be a drunk, and go around asking for money. (Or alternatively, you can just be a deserving poor person). See how they react. You can pick a few others and make up similar scenarios: Respect, mercy, bravery, etc. You can pick new people for each trait, but it might be easier and quicker to just stick with the same ones, especially if they’re acting well and entertaining the group.
Question: Were either of the responses ever correct? Should someone be 100% charitable? Halakha places limits on how much tzedaka a person can give. How about honesty? Take a quick pole among your chanichim: tell them to close their eyes and raise their hands. How many would lie if they knew a friend of there’s was taking drugs? How many would lie if they cheated on a test? If someone called them who they didn’t want to hang out with and asked them what they were doing? If they were planning a surprise birthday party for mom? Probably most would be willing to lie in some situations. How about anger? Is there an appropriate time to be angry? Can you imagine a situation where it would be wrong not to be angry? What does this indicate about the nature of character traits?
According to Aristotle, virtues are a balance between two extremes. For every virtue, there is an excess and a lack. What does this mean? For example, we would say that confidence is a virtue. However, someone can be too confident – we would call that over-confident or cocky. Someone can also have not enough confidence – such a person would have a self-esteem problem. This is one historic way of understanding virtue.
Trigger 2: Tell the chanichim to imagine that they are walking down a hall in school. All the sudden, someone walking in the opposite direction bumps into them with his/her shoulder and continues walking. What would your response be? Find a chanich who says s/he would be angry or upset. At this point, begin asking questions:
Why would you be angry? Because they bumped into me. Why does that matter? They hurt me, they don’t respect me, etc. The more you ask questions, the more it should become apparent that there are a few underlying assumptions as to why the person is upset:
1) They think they’ve been slighted by the person
2) They think that this slight is a bad thing.
A similar scenario you can use is being invited to a party. Let’s say there’s a fancy party that you aren’t invited to, that only the “coolest” kids are invited to. Would you be upset? Very possibly. Why? Because you think you’ve been slighted. Why do you feel this way? Because you think that getting invited to the party is a good thing.
However, it is very possible that both these assumptions are wrong. The person in the hall probably wasn’t trying to slight you by bumping you, and even if they did, is that really such a bad thing? In the grand scheme of things, does it really matter that the person bumped you? Likewise with the party. Was not being invited really a bad thing? You don’t even know that you would have had a good time. You don’t know what would have happened. You think it’s a bad thing, but really it’s not. Therefore, there is no real reason for you to be upset.
This line of thought is the stance that the Stoic Philosophers took to explain virtues. The Stoics believed that really the only virtues are the ones that allow you to think this way, to realize that there is really never any reason to get upset. They teach that any form of emotion is bad, because it clouds your clear vision as to what is good. (This actually goes much deeper – they say that you are emotionally attached to yourself, and therefore you care about what happens to you. But if you could detach yourself, you’d stop caring about yourself and care only about what is best for everyone.)
Having looked at these two other perceptions of virtues, we will now touch on one Jewish version, that of Rav Kook.
Do the two versions of virtues we have discussed change at all over time? Not really. Both of them seem universal. Ask the chanichim if they think this makes sense. Do our values match the values that existed 100 years ago? How about 1000 years ago? Probably not. What are the most important virtues in
America? Liberty, plurality, doing what you want, money, etc.
But that is
America. What about Judaism? Do we think of virtues as being universal, or are they fluid? We mostly have universal values. How do we know what is a virtue? The answer is that we received the Torah from Hashem, and we have Halakha. Now, it’s important to make a distinction. Does Halakha = Virtue? This is a hard question to answer without examples. So ask the chanichim, is it possible to keep the mitzva of Tzedaka without being a generous person? Is it possible to follow the halakhot of business ethics without being an honest person? I think that it is. However, what Halakha does is give us a framework for learning virtue. By keeping Halakha, we are put in the right situation for developing proper virtues.
So does this mean that we need the whole world to keep Halakha in order to learn proper virtues? If so, we would need everyone to convert! Obviously this can’t be the case. This is where the Jewish role of Ohr LaGoyim comes in. We keep Halakha, and from Halakha we learn virtue. We then establish a Jewish society based on virtue. This society serves as a model for the rest of the world. They don’t need to keep Halakha because they can look at us and learn virtue from us. We need to keep Halakha, because we need it to learn virtue in the first place.
Summery: We looked at a few views on what virtue is. Aristotle sees it as the balance between two extremes. The Stoics see it as a state in which you are emotionally detached and recognize that things you think are bad really are not. On our own, we would tend to think that virtue changes over time. But according to Rav Kook, virtues are universal. We learn v
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