Morally prepared

The Power of Stories Series

Jewish Family Education with Candace R. Kwiatek, The Dayton Jewish Observer

Just weeks ago in upstate New York a deadly blizzard trapped many, among them Jay Withey. Venturing out in his truck to rescue a friend, Jay picked up two stranded pedestrians. Eventually, cemented in a snowbank with his fuel depleted, Jay sought shelter at nearby houses. Despite his pleas, every homeowner refused.

Desperate, he broke into a nearby school to shelter his two passengers in the heated building. He then went back outside to collect those stuck in snowbound cars scattered nearby. For two days, 24 people and two dogs lodged safely in the school. Before leaving, Jay left a note apologizing for the break-in.

In commenting on this dramatic episode, talk-show host Dennis Prager noted the contrasting responses of Jay and the homeowners. “How would you or I have reacted?” Prager mused. “While we can never know for sure, I have a theory. You can train yourself morally in advance of a test.”

According to psychologists and neuroscientists, moral behavior is a complex of at least four distinct processes: moral sensitivity, judgment and reasoning, motivation, and implementation, all of which develop independently.

While Darwin argued that morality is innate, scientist Darcia Narvaez notes that modern research disagrees. “It now appears that the moral sense is largely developed after birth and requires particular kinds of experience.”

In other words, morality has to be cultivated.

Over three millennia, Judaism has established multiple approaches to the cultivation of morality, from stories to commandments to rituals and more.

Particularly intriguing is that they all are designed to target the very complex of processes now identified by modern researchers.

“Prayer sensitizes us to the world beyond the self,” Rabbi Jonathan Sacks observes, and when we see things differently, through the lens of moral sensitivity, then we begin to act differently.

The study of Torah, including the entire body of Jewish teaching, develops judgment and reasoning.

“Real-life situations are often complicated, making it unclear which values should shape our actions,” Rabbi Jeremy Schwartz explains.

“Study accustoms us to looking for ultimate value, for right and wrong, for godliness.”

Study also challenges us to apply moral values whether we are motivated by aspiration or obligation, by looking for the positives and opportunities or avoiding problems and seeking safety.

In Judaism, moral action itself is both an obligation and a teacher. “Na’aseh v’nishmah,” the Israelites said upon receiving the Torah at Sinai, “We will act and we will understand.”

Habitually acting in moral ways both inspires understanding and creates a pattern of action not easily broken.

It appears we can train ourselves morally in advance of a test.

Moral sensitivity. Rabbi Jehuda Schimmel was known in 1930s Frankfurt for embracing every opportunity to bring God’s goodness into the world. One night, a Nazi began ranting in the street, stumbling drunkenly. Tension grew in the Schimmel home. Then there was silence. After a bit, the rabbi crept outside and found the man passed out on his front steps. He gathered a pillow and some blankets and tucked them around the man to keep him warm and somewhat comfortable. In the morning, the Nazi banged on the door. “Hey, Jewboy, why didn’t you call the police? Why’d you do all this for me?”

With a twinkle in his eye, Rabbi Schimmel responded, “If I had called the police, would they have treated you any better than I did?” Not knowing what to say, the man departed.

Judgment and reasoning. At school, Aviva was learning about derech eretz: common decency and consideration for others.

That week, Nathan, one of her classmates, returned to school after a long absence because of cancer surgery and chemotherapy. When another student grabbed his baseball cap revealing Nathan’s bald head, Aviva retrieved it and sat next to Nathan, forcing the bully to back off.

After school, Aviva had her mother cut her waist-length hair for a wig for Nathan until his own hair grew back.

Motivation. It was three hours before Shabbat when Elisha, traveling to visit his family in northern Israel, stopped to refuel. He noticed a woman with children at the next pump, noticeably upset. Asking if he could help, she explained that she’d accidentally filled her car with diesel fuel, and it wouldn’t run. Hearing her destination was nearly three hours away, Elisha handed her his car keys and cell phone number.

“The tank is full. Let’s get in touch after Shabbat to figure out how to return my car.” The woman thanked him profusely and took off. Elisha called his father, just an hour away, who promptly set out to pick him up. Everyone made it to their destinations in time for Shabbat. On Sunday, the woman returned the car.

Implementation. After making his first million, the famous Wall Street financier Bernard Baruch went to tell his father about his accomplishment. His father didn’t seem impressed.

Exasperated, Baruch asked, “Aren’t you happy? I am not even 30 and already I’ve made a million.”

His father answered, “No. What I really want to know is, how will you spend the money you’ve earned?”

Prager frequently poses the following question to his audiences: “If your dog and a stranger were drowning, which would you save first?” His audiences are diverse but consistent, with one-third voting for their dog, one-third for the stranger, and one-third unsure.

However, audiences guided by the Judeo-Christian moral code unhesitatingly answer, “the stranger,” explaining that while they may love their pet, the stranger is made in God’s image. They are morally prepared for a test. Are you?


Literature to share

Women Holding Things by Maira Kalman. A visual masterpiece by a renowned artist and author, this coffee-table book explores women’s lives through the objects they hold. Nearly every bright, bold double-page spread features the portrait of a woman holding an object with significance to her hands, heart, or mind. Each image is accompanied by descriptive prose offering intriguing or thought-provoking insights. This is not a book to simply read, but to contemplate, to linger on, page by page. Fascinating.

Rosalind Looked Closer: An Unsung Hero of Molecular Science by Lisa Gerin. Already fascinated with the natural world as a youngster, Rosalind Franklin went on to study science at Cambridge where her research helped in the development of safer gas masks. Eventually her accomplishments would include the first X-ray image of the DNA double helix and pioneering methods that helped later scientists in treating viruses. This illustrated book for primary grades is a definite win.


To read the complete February 2023 Dayton Jewish Observer, click here.

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