‘Mom, today Naomi broke the Ten Commandments five times! She lied three times and stole two times.”
That was our 6-year-old son Ezra’s prosecutorial summation of his 5-year-old sister’s activities, delivered to my wife Nika as the kids were being tucked in one recent evening. Nika reminded Ezra that tattling is also not nice, and anyway Naomi’s crimes were on the order of “stealing” Ezra’s pizza slice. But I was secretly pleased at the earnestness he brought to the self-appointed role of playroom district attorney.
Of course, Ezra’s moral stance will need to be refined and educated. Most importantly, it must be redirected at himself rather than at other people. Yet I was happy to see genuine, if childish, moral fervor in my son. Actually, I was relieved.
Why relieved? Allow me to be candid and confessional.
In our society, two worldviews contend for dominance. One is the ancient view that life is a moral test. It says we are born indebted to God for our lives. We can’t hope to have a relationship with Him unless we’ve made an effort, necessarily inadequate, to show our gratitude through the grammar of divine commandments, and through praise and worship.
It’s like being a guest invited to an elaborate dinner party. You bring a bunch of flowers as a token of thanks. Though your bouquet of tulips counts for little when compared to the efforts your hostess poured into the meal, you would feel like an idiot if you showed up empty-handed.
Another view insists that there is no test as traditionally understood. Or if there is, everyone gets an A if they’ll only sign their name. This view typically moralizes things that tradition never thought worthy of attention, things that make you feel good about yourself while providing ammo to condemn others.
Thus while Judaism asks that we calculate our moral debts on a periodic basis, this worldview also calls for a calculation — of your carbon footprint, your daily saturated-fat intake, or other moralesque matters. As for traditional measures of our behavior, it holds many of those in contempt. I’ll always remember a conversation I had with a close friend from college a couple of years after we graduated. He had come out, revealing that he was gay. Some time after that, we talked about his lifestyle in light of my recently adopted commitment to Orthodox Judaism. He wanted me to assure him that I had no problem with his sex life. I told him that since I wasn’t his rabbi or his father, it was not my job to approve or disapprove.
That wasn’t good enough for my friend. He wanted, in effect, a stamp across his forehead bearing the word in big red capital letters, “approved.” Since I couldn’t provide that, he told me our friendship was finished, that my religious view made me a bad person — those were his exact words. To my sadness, we haven’t spoken since.
The difficulty with being a parent today is that even mothers and fathers who are committed to a traditional worldview often can’t escape being infected by the moralesque alternative. I know that I am.
A classic 18th-century work of Jewish moral reproof, Moshe Hayyim Luzzatto’s “The Path of the Just,” uses the image of a garden maze to describe the moral life. In the image, everyone is trying to reach the center of the maze. There are many paths leading to the goal and they all seem equally likely to lead us there. But only one really does.
In the center of the maze is an elevated gazebo, from which an appointed guide — ancestral tradition — can see us and we can see him. His job is to coach us to take the right path. The trick is, you have to place your trust in the guide, otherwise you’ll remain lost.
In modern life, trust is replaced by doubt. We live in a culture of doubt that infects everyone, including parents, including me. It’s a plague, wider in the scope of its effects than the hysterically anticipated flu pandemic. Without intending to, fathers and mothers bring it home to their children.
You can try to isolate your kids — with religious schools, a religious community, no regular TV access, and so on. But you, their father or mother, go off into the world of sickness every day. My own failings, the details of which I’ll spare you, are a function of that and my kids see them, or at least many of them.
Even if they were blind to my faults, they would be able to judge the comparative prestige of tradition as compared to the moralesque. William James, the 19th-century philosopher and psychologist, shrewdly noted that people mostly base their beliefs about all kinds of things — politics, religion, science — not on an intelligent weighing of the arguments but simply on the prestige of the view under consideration.
In our culture, it’s the moralesque view that gets the prestige. That can hardly escape the attention of a thoughtful child, even if there’s no TV in the house.
We’re the walking sick but, because the infection is so widespread, we hardly notice it. If a child shows signs of wellness that persist — which is the key, and I’m waiting anxiously to see what happens with my kids — it’s a surprise, against all odds, a miracle.
David Klinghoffer a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, is the author of the forthcoming “How Would God Vote? Why the Bible Commands You to Be a Conservative” (Doubleday).