Conscience: The Duty to Obey and the Duty to Disobey
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About the Author
Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis, one of the most respected spiritual leaders and teachers of his generation, has been a rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, California, for close to forty years. He is the founding chairman of the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, an organization that identifies and offers grants to those non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews threatened by the agents of Nazi savagery. He is also the founder of Jewish World Watch, which aims to raise moral consciousness within the Jewish community. Synagogues and other religious institutions are now supporting this effort across the country.
Rabbi Schulweis is the author of many books, including: Conscience: The Duty to Obey and the Duty to Disobey (Jewish Lights), Approaches to the Philosophy of Religion, For Those Who Can't Believe, Finding Each Other in Judaism, In God's Mirror, and two books of original religious poetry and meditation--From Birth to Immortality and Passages in Poetry. His Evil and the Morality of God is regarded as a classic.
It doesn't take a genius to figure out when one receives a letter from a charity informing one that whether they had two million or ninety million invested with Madoff that something is wrong with our world. One of the wisest men I have met, Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis has written Conscience: The Duty to Obey and the Duty to Disobey (Jewish Lights $19.99). It is pertinent today as it is in discussing the Old Testament.
Oddly enough, Hebrew had no word for "conscience", modern Hebrew has the word "matzpun" which is derived from the Hebrew "tzafun" which connotes hiddenness. The major question Schulweis addresses is "What is the appropriate response to divine laws that run against the grain of conscience? He points out Abraham's dialogue with God over God's intention to kill all of Sodom. God is not the implacable authoritarian commander whose plans cannot be questioned. Rabbi Schulweis points to Moses convinces God that the second commandment to visit the sins of the father on the next generation was wrong. As we talked, I did ask Rabbi Schulweis, "Does God have a conscience?"
In the light of torture at Abu Ghraib in our days, one can use the question, "Must an immoral law, divinely given, be observed?" God's Law or Halacha must have conscience, and yet changing times can have their affect. By what sort of logic are divine laws overturned? In the case of a wife suspected of adultery, she was to drink the waters of bitterness and hear the priest give a horrible curse. If she was guilty, her body would swell and her thighs would "fall away". To change a bad law requires compassionate conscience and moral courage.
Conscience allows us to tell truth to power, which is the irony that Eli Weisel's Foundation should have lost so much money in the Madoff debacle. Where were those who questioned the man's investing policies who did not speak up? Does greed overcome conscience? He quotes Thomas Malthus and Herbert Spencer that attend the voice of conscience and our economy will be drained and our energy exhausted.
Rabbi Schulweis told me about his foundation, the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, dedicated to the study and recognition of the phenomenon of Christian rescuers and to raise funds so that in their waning years they have some security, recognition and material help. So far they have given help to over 2,000. He includes in the book the remarkable help given to the Jews in the Holocaust by diplomats who gave over and above documents to rescue them from the Naziis. Among those mentioned are Aristides de Sousa Mendes of Portugal and Sempo Sugihara of Japan.
Rabbi Schulweis ends the book with the thought that we are frozen in the overwhelming bias toward the duty to obey without question. A fact that has led us to war in Iraq and blind belief in an economic fantasy led by a duplicitous Pied Piper.