Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Bamidbar - Shavuot 75 - The Positive and Negative of In-group loyalty

The Book of Numbers begins with God's commandment to take a new census of the Israelites as they were about to enter the land of Israel. A census was needed to prepare for the military campaign and know how many people were eligible to receive a portion in the land according to their tribes. Unlike previous censuses, this census counted the people according to their tribes. It took place after the building of the sanctuary – mishkan, a year after leaving Egypt.

The literal reading of take a census - ' S'ooh '- is elevate the heads of the assembly of the children of Israel. It is forbidden to count people, so a census was taken by counting half-shekel contributions made by the people for the running and upkeep of the sanctuary –mishkan. If we counted people, we might be mistaken and think that the ' whole is the sum of the parts.' Knesset Yisrael ' – Israel as a unified group are so much more than the sum of all the individual Israelites. Individuals now share the destiny of the group and benefit both the blessings and power of prayer of the group.

By being part of the group or community individual choice is limited, but  choice per se is not,  as the community has the ability to get people to cooperate and work together to provide for people and solve problems collaboratively.  The author and speaker Jonathan Haidt who studies Moral Psychology says HERE  in his Ted Talks that when people become loyal contributing members of a group they feel uplifted and elevated and experience a sense of spirituality. They ' transcend themselves ' and attach themselves to the group and its values. They lose themselves and give up their selfish and personal interests for the group. This is why it is so important in education to create schools that are cooperative communities of caring and responsible kids who love learning. Instead of rewards and punishments that focus on self-interest, kids in the community now ask themselves moral questions - how my behavior impacts on others, what type of person do I want to be, what type of school or community and their values I want my school and community to be and have.

After examining multi-disciplinary literature on morality, Jonathan Haidt came up with the 5 foundations of morality, the draft of the moral mind with which we are born.  Harm and care - caring, bonding, feeling compassion for people and strong feelings against those who cause harm to others. Fairness- reciprocity as expressed by the Golden Rule –' treat people as you would like them to treat you.'  In- group/loyalty – Being loyal to a group, contributing and cooperating. Authority/ respect – ideally based on voluntary deference and even at times, love. Purity/Sanctity  - not  a hedonistic  life , but controlling what you do with your bodies and what you put into your bodies – the political right moralizes more  about sex and  the political left is doing a lot of that with food. Conservatives generally have more of a five-foundation  morality. Liberals have a kind of  two-foundation  morality – care/harm and fairness/reciprocity. They have problems with in-groups, authority and purity as these can become the foundations of xenophobia, authoritarianism and Puritanism preferring to celebrate diversity, questioning authority and saying 'keep your laws off my body'. These foundations can be repressive and restrictive to those at the bottom, women or those who do not fit in. On the other hand we need some ideology that tells people to suppress their carnality, to pursue higher and nobler ends rather than individuals focusing on their own individual pleasures and self-interest which ultimately will reveal the truth of social entropy. Moral arguments within cultures are especially about issues of in-group, authority and purity.

One of the most important principles of morality is that morality binds and blinds. It binds us into teams that circle around sacred values and thereby makes us go blind to objective reality and the truth. Because when people all share values and morals , they become  a team and once you engage the psychology of teams , it causes polarization, shuts down open-minded thinking and paralyses any chance of society dealing with the major issues facing that society.

Jonathan Haidt shares 4 asteroids that are on their way and will  cause disaster and destruction – Global warming, wealth and income inequality, family values- risingnumbers of  single mothers, and national debt. Each group has their own agenda. The left – global warming and poverty. The conservatives deny the problem of global warming, it does not exist and the solution for poverty is with the individual – no raising of taxes.  A rising National debt is not an issue or problem for the left and the kind of family is a choice. Wealth and income inequality divides and separates people. Some people are sitting safe and sound in gigantic yachts while others are clinging to a piece of driftwood. When we are not all in the same boat that means nobody is willing to sacrifice for the common good.

That reminds me of the public discussion and debate within the Orthodox Jewish world between those who champion keeping most men in full-time learning as long as possible to deal with the challenges of the open society and those who say - not only is this unsustainable but people have to contribute to society by serving in the army and support the economy by working. Because each value is the agenda of the other group, it becomes a non-issue for the opposing group. The challenges of the open society for those in the army, working or studying in universities with regards to modesty, keeping mitzvoth  and dedication to learning etc. is not an issue for the  group that is very involved with the world, while  dealing with poverty in a way that individuals make a contribution – is not an issue for the more insular  group.  So society is polarized and issues are not addressed.

The answer is in Parashat Bamidbar - the census according to the tribes and encampment around the Sanctuary – mishkan and the lesson of Matan- giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. The counting of the people according to tribes could lead to tribalism and factionalism, but after the building of the Sanctuary-mishkan, the tribes now all shared the same values and formed a circle around the sanctuary. The separateness of each tribe was only there to support them in their service of the nation as a whole and support national unity.  ויחן שם ישראל נגד ההר'' (שמות יט, ב). ופרש''י (שם) עפ"י המדרש: "ויחן שם ישראל – כאיש אחד בלב אחד". At Mount Sinai, at the giving of the Torah there was an incredible unity - the nation was like one man and one heart  - a precondition of being able receive the Torah and strive for the truth.

 Unity, feeling we are in the same boat, is a prerequisite for seeing the objective reality and truth. Jonathan Haidt quotes the Zen Master Seng-ts'an ' if you want the truth to stand clear before you, never be for or against. The struggle between for and against is the mind's worst disease'.
Society can face the asteroids and deal with problems only by feeling we are all in the same boat, objectively looking at problems ,collaborating and addressing the concerns of all and being guided by the values of the Holy Torah.

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