How reasonable are we really?
MY FATHER got it wrong. He was a person of good judgment, but when I told him I wanted to be a rabbi, he was worried that, “you’ll spend your life in an ivory tower and never get to live in the real world.”
On the contrary, being a congregational minister means I have dealt with a roller-coaster of emotional traumas, moral dilemmas, attempts at seduction, multiple murders, Machiavellian families, funerals that go wrong, weddings that are hijacked, and fought my way through a maze of other people’s sexual fantasies.
When I shared some of the more astonishing instances — but never revealing names — as part of a discussion group on ethical challenges, I expected to be greeted with stunned silence. Instead, the reactions were: “Gosh, that was nearly me.” Or: “Wow, that also happened to my uncle.” I quickly realised that far from being one-offs, many of the stories were representative.
The old adage that truth is stranger than fiction is only a cliché because it is true, and Jews are not immune to extraordinary crises, whether of their own making or through no fault of theirs.
There was the woman, for instance, who chose to read her au pair’s diary while the latter was out on an errand, and found that, not only had the young woman slept with her husband, but also with each of her three teenage sons.
Amid the horror she experienced, the only mitigating factor was that the au pair had used contraceptives — sorting out a paternity suit could have proved highly traumatic should she have fallen pregnant.
In a reverse scenario, a husband came to see me to confess that he’d had an affair, but had brought it to an end because he had decided he loved his wife and did not want to endanger their marriage. “That’s good,” I said, “but why are you informing me?” He replied: “I want your advice as to how best to explain it to my wife.”
To his surprise, my strong response was that he should not tell her. Marriage is based on trust; telling her would not only upset her, but undermine the relationship he was trying to save.
If there was a strong likelihood of it becoming public knowledge, then it would be better for her to hear about it from him first; but, assuming it will stay hidden, why shift his feelings of guilt off himself and dump them on her?
I have no doubt that honesty is not always the best policy, and morality is much more complex than simply telling the truth. Fifteen years on, he and his wife are still married and, if asked, she would say how lucky she is to have such a wonderful husband.
Celia (not her real name) knew she had a great partner, but unfortunately he had a stroke that left him brain-damaged in a coma with no hope of recovery. She visited him daily, even though it was deeply depressing having a one-way conversation.
After a year, she reduced it to twice a week, but it was still a strain, so when a neighbour volunteered to go with her, she accepted his offer. They got on well, their joint visit became regular occurrences and a relationship developed. After a few months, Celia asked me whether or not, she could move in with him.
This was clearly adultery, yet her previous haunted look had changed to a much happier one, while they were both agreed that they would still visit her husband twice-weekly. I told her that technically it was wrong, but morally justifiable — both because she deserved some happiness and because her husband would not lose whatever benefit the visits brought.
The story had a strange twist to it. When her husband died three years later, Celia and the neighbour got married. But two years later, they got divorced. Was it just yet another break-up by a couple who were thrown together by chance — or did the death of the absent thirdparty to the relationship somehow weaken it irrevocably?
I take it for granted, as do those who approach me, that whatever is said is confidential and will remain so. I may allude to their situations, be it in sermons, articles or this book, but never their identities. But what if that might harm others?
A Catholic priest would never divulge what was said in the confession box, even if someone admitted to paedophile activities that would continue. But Judaism does not have that rule — rightly so, for such a rule puts doctrine above vulnerable people. As a rabbi, I would encourage such a person to report himself to the police, and have no compunction in doing it myself if he refused.
There was an occasion, though, when I held back. Jenna came to see me with her husband Steve. He had power of attorney for her aunt, who had dementia and was in a care home. Jenna had just discovered that Steve had been having problems with his business and had been periodically siphoning off money from the aunt’s estate to keep it afloat, totalling £72,000 in all.
Steve admitted his guilt, but said that telling the police and risking prison would mean the mortgage not being paid, losing the house and the children suffering. He suggested instead that, as the business was now improving, he gradually repay the money taken.
I was torn. On the one hand, it meant that he would “get away with it” and escape any punishment. But it would restore the aunt’s assets and keep a roof over the family. A wrong would have been righted and no damage would have been done. I reckoned that a dubious Rabbi Romain: a moral maze practical solution was preferable to a morally correct one and agreed to Steve’s plan, even though it left me feeling tainted.
That also happened at a wedding at which I was about to officiate. The bride’s parents were divorced and, as she had fallen out with her father long ago, she had not invited him. Four minutes before the ceremony was due to begin, he knocked on the synagogue door and demanded to be allowed to attend.
The bride was adamant that he should not be admitted and threatened to leave if he was present. Did I tell her he had a right to be there? Did I turn away a father who was dressed up for his daughter’s wedding? The clock was ticking away, the choir warming up, the guests waiting and I had little time to decide.
I went outside to speak to him in person. I felt I had no choice but to exclude him. Sabbath services may be open to everyone, but weddings are a private event by invitation only. It was not easy telling a father his daughter rejects him, nor rushing such a conversation. What was almost as hard was delivering the wedding address 10 minutes later, telling the couple the thoughts I had prepared about the value of family and the importance of domestic harmony.
The above are not just a mirror for the everyday traumas so many of us experience, but also indicate the changing role of the rabbi. Traditionally, this was as a teacher who studied, taught others and gave decisions on Jewish law, but the job spec has now widened to include pastoral duties.
This is particularly pronounced in Reform and Liberal communities, where a considerable part of rabbinic training covers personal and family issues.
The episodes also beg the question of why congregants share problems with their rabbi. Sometimes, it is simply because they respect the person and want sound advice. Other times, they are keen to have specific Jewish guidance and told the right course of action according to Jewish ethics. In some cases, they want to be reprimanded. In others, they are seeking forgiveness. They may also want the chance to let go of the past and start afresh.
Lest readers think that Maidenhead is a hotbed of problems, I should add that many of the cases come from people I have met in other roles, whether as police chaplain, prison chaplain, working nationally with mixed-faith couples or the countless individuals throughout the country who write to me following my broadcasts on the BBC.
In all the instances, the real revelation is whether we recognise aspects of ourselves, be it with a wry smile or sense of alarm.
You were mistaken, Dad, rabbinic life is not living in an ivory tower, but surfing a human ocean, swirling with currents of both warmth and treachery… and a wonderful job for a Jewish boy or girl to help others to navigate a way through.
Should I ban the bride’s father from her chupah?
‘Confessions of a Rabbi’ is published by Biteback at £12.99 and is also available post-free from: admin@ maidshul.org
SOME OF you may find what you’re about to read disturbing, as we broadcasters are wont to say. Those of a sensitive disposition are advised to remove their spectacles now. OK, you’ve been warned. So, here goes. Imagine a brother and sister who decide to have sex together. They use two forms of contraceptive to ensure no pregnancy can result. They enjoy the experience but decide to keep it a secret and not to repeat it. They are entirely undamaged by it and continue to live perfectly normal emotional lives.
What do you think? Was what they did wrong?
Yuk! What a ludicrous, offensive question. Of course it was. But why? Perhaps because of the danger they would produce an impaired child. But, no, we’ve discounted that possibility. Perhaps because of the inevitable psychological trauma. But, no, we’ve been told that the episode left them unharmed. Why, then?
Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist now at New York University, calls these sorts of cases “moral dumbfounding.” People try to offer a rationale but eventually reason runs out of steam. They’re still convinced that it’s wrong, but they’re puzzled as to why. They scratch their heads seeking, and failing, to find reasons to justify their conviction.
Haidt’s work on moral dumbfounding is one of many experiments he’s conducted and part of a centuries-old battle between those who think our views are governed by reason, and those who argue that emotion holds sway. For fans of reason, it’s not comforting news.
In one of many striking metaphors Haidt talks about the Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail. Our intuitions do almost all the work: reason steps in later, as post-hoc justification. In another evocative metaphor, Haidt refers to reason as the spin doctor of the emotions. He’s also described the mind as being like a rider on an elephant. The tiny little rider is the conscious, reasoning part of our brains — the 1%. The rest, the 99%, is the elephant, the automatic processes hidden from view.
Jonathan Haidt Haidt has turned his psychological gaze on politics. In particular, and based on a vast collection of questionnaire data, he’s sketched out a sort of typology that explains why conservatives and liberals can’t agree.
He describes five sources of moral intuition. There is the harm principle (people shouldn’t be hurt), the fairness principle (people should be treated justly), group loyalty (we owe special obligations to our family, friends, neighbours, compatriots), respect for authority (and the need to maintain order), and notions of purity/sanctity (for example, about the body, or the burning of the national flag).
The first two (harm and fairness) are what motivate liberals. They’re quick to dismiss the other three as being irrelevant to morality. But, the more conservative you are, the more seriously you take these others. Liberals, to adapt another Haidt metaphor, are restricted to the BBC and ITV, while conservatives adopt a more multi-channel approach.
These results, these differences between the political left and right, have been replicated by Haidt in numerous countries around the world. Haidt was raised in a relatively assimilated Jewish family in New York.
All four of his grandparents were born in Russia and Poland — and worked in the schmutter trade. He says he has a strong Jewish identity but no Jewish faith.
Religion is best analysed as falling within his group-loyalty category: he describes religion as “a team sport.”
And he accuses atheists like Richard Dawkins, who bang on about the irrationality of religious belief, of missing the point.
Intriguingly, his research has made the liberal Haidt far more open to conservative ideas. Professor Haidt now pleads with his liberal friends — who dominate research in the humanities — to show a bit more humility, to be a little more open-minded, less smug, to recognise they may not have a monopoly on the truth.
Certainly reading Jonathan Haidt brings a whole new perspective to the appeal of Donald Trump.
Haidt says reason is the spin doctor for our emotion
David Edmonds is a journalist with the BBC. @David Edmonds 100