Sunday, October 07, 2007

Dangerous philosophy

A popular pastime in some Orthodox Jewish circles is to trash much of the secular world's philosophies. For some of these philosophies there is indeed quite a large amount of justification for some of that trashing. And this week marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of one of the basic texts of one such philosophy that is completely antithetical to Torah: Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, which puts forth much of her philosophy of "Objectivism":

It is difficult to overstate the influence that Ayn Rand (born a Jew) has had. It is used as justification for all kinds of selfish activity that the Torah would criticize. Money quote from the Times: "There is no conflict between private ambition and public benefit."

Chas v'shalom! The whole point of Torah is that we can not do just whatever we please!!! And that is not true just for social relationships or eating, but also for possessions. While there is clearly a limited right to private property under Torah and Rabbinic law, there are restrictions. For example, you can not permanently sell land in Eretz Yisrael. (Did HaShem know that there is no economic value to a free market for something that is in fixed supply, something that economists didn't discover until the 19th century?) While the Torah clearly expects us to run businesses, and property and business halachah takes up a quarter of the Shulchan Aruch, Halachah also grants the rabbinate to restrict business activity in some circumstances. Farmers have the most restrictions -- and the most mitzvot -- as the Torah limits when they can plant and harvest, what crops can be planted together, and imposes mandatory taxation.

One of Ayn Rand's long time disciples was Alan Greenspan. Fortunately, Dr. Greenspan did not follow Ms. Rand's hedonistic policies during his long successful tenure as chairman of the Federal Reserve Board. And judging from this speech, which I was fortunate to hear in person during my 20th college reunion, he is now basically a Classical Free Enterprise Liberal rather than an Objectivist Libertatian:

That Ayn Rand might not be the best mentor can be seen from this anecdote in the Times article:

'Rand had a reputation for living for her own interest. She is said to have seduced her most serious reader, Nathaniel Branden, when he was 24 or 25 and she was at least 50. Each was married to someone else. In fact, Mr. Britting confirmed, they called their spouses to a meeting at which the pair announced their intention to make the mentor-protégé relationship a sexual one.

“She wasn’t a nice person, ” said Darla Moore, vice president of the private investment firm Rainwater Inc. “But what a gift she’s given us.”'

Some gift! Put yourself before others even if it hurts them. NOT!!! It is no accident that yeshivot would traditionally begin talmud study with the second chapter of Bava Metzia, the laws of returning a lost object. It reminds us that not everything is ours, that we can't just take things because we want them, that ultimately everything really belongs to HaShem -- and that life is NOT about pursuing material or sensual pleasure.

In our midrash, our aggadah, our more recent works that describe the actions of the sages of our time, we learn of their good midot -- and of their tshuvah after the times when they err. We should attempt to emulate Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, or the Chofetz Chaim, or Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, just to name three outstanding models for human behavior, and not Ms Rand.

Is it not true?

In yesterday's parsha, we hear HaShem speak the words the words, “Halo im tetiv, s’et?” (Is it not true: If you do good, you will be forgiven?) (Bereshit 4:7a.) This is God’s question to Kayin when the latter gets angry at his minchah offering not being accepted. Rashi states that it should be interpreted according to Targum Onkelos: "Is it not true that if you improve your actions, that it will be forgiven for you?" These brief words may reveal some profound truths about the teachings of Judaism.

We are all familiar with the story of Kayin killing his brother. The first homicide. But this exchange takes place BEFORE the murder. And the expression is not stated in the form of a commandment but almost as a self-evident truth: God expects Kayin to know the difference between good and bad, and act goodly. Furthermore, it seems like God also expects Kayin to let go of his anger! How can this be? How was Kayin supposed to know? This the first time in chumash that we have heard of tshuvah, or of the danger of negative attitudes. Kayin was not Jewish, and tshuvah is not part of the Noachide laws. How could HaShem have *expected* him to know?

The tone of HaShem's words are that of surprise at Kayin's attitude: It is apparent that HaShem believes that it should have been self-evident that forgiveness is within our power to obtain if we turn our lives around for good. This isn't so much of a Torah argument but a natural law argument! Could HaShem be implying that tshuvah is so important that it is in fact part of the natural order of creation? The fact that it clearly seems to apply to pre-Noach non-Jews such as Kayin would seem to support this possibility.

There is an alternative possibility: There is a tanaitic dispute between Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Nechemia in which Rabbi Yehuda argues that the Torah was given to Adam Rishon, something Rabbi Nechemia denies. One could explain HaShem's language by saying that tshuvah is purely a Torah concept and that Adam Rishon had taught Torah -- or at least the parts relevant here -- to his son. But it is obvious that Rabbi Yehuda's argument is difficult when it comes time to explain later events in Sefer Bereshit. That tshuvah is part of the natural order of the universe is consistent with both Rabbi Yeuhda and Rabbi Nechemia. Such an explanation elevates tshuvah beyond the level of a mitzvah but to something that is universally expected of all humanity, at all times -- and something of which we are all capable.

May this understanding empower us to return to the proper path when we err and to inspire us not only during the season of tshuvah we have recently concluded but throughout the year.