How rea­son­able are we re­ally?

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - EX­PE­RI­ENCE JONATHAN RO­MAIN

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.

More re­cently,

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.

Brexit, too.

Haidt says rea­son is the spin doc­tor for our emo­tion

David Ed­monds is a jour­nal­ist with the BBC. @David Ed­monds 100

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