This week I spoke with someone on the phone who asked me several questions about Sabbath observance. He told me he found it interesting but was raised as a Catholic and is now lapsed. "I don't really believe in any religion. I don't have a faith. I raise my kids with one principle." Naturally I was curious and asked him to share his singular distilled value. "It's simple: don't be a jerk." I couldn't help it. "John, if you don't mind my saying, that's quite a low bar."
His principle was not entirely unexpected. I frequently hear that there is no reason to keep strict adherence to any rigid set of laws. "I'm a good person. Isn't that enough?" Naturally the minute someone advertises his or her own goodness, I am instantly suspect.
Who defines goodness anyway? Often it's a mask for an arbitrary determination of moral stasis. Good is wherever I am and whatever I am doing. The Hebrew Bible has some choice words for this kind of ethical anarchy: "You shall not do according to all that we are doing here today, everyone doing whatever is right in his own eyes..." (Deuteronomy 12:8). The Book of Judges ends with a civil war and a description of what happens when there is no leadership: "In those days Israel had no king so everyone did as he saw fit." (Judges 21:25). When every person has his or her own prescription for goodness it often means that there is no reigning expectation of what constitutes that unique combination of compassion, kindness and justice that goodness is. It becomes descriptive of where you are rather than aspirational of where you might one day be if you work hard on it.
John's principle reminded me of something I first read decades ago that was fundamental to my own thoughts about traditional observance. In their seminal work, The Nine Questions People Ask about Judaism, Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin also challenged those who think being good is good enough without necessarily defining goodness:
Simply not being a jerk is not asking enough of what humanity is capable of achieving with intention and moral energy. This week we've been given a little lift in this effort. David Brooks' new book The Road to Character is finally out. There he writes that "we live in a society that encourages us to think about how to have a great career but leaves many of us inarticulate about how to achieve an inner life." Life has often taught us to be overconfident about moral character and unprepared for what really matters. It would be better to say, "I don't know what goodness is" than to label ourselves as instantly good and then always suffer the deficiency.
Telushkin and Prager remind us: "You do not have to do something bad in order to do bad; you only have to do nothing. This is why Judaism consists of so many positive laws of goodness." We have to teach ourselves to refrain from gossip, to visit the sick, to attend to the poor, to mourn with those who are grieving, to sacrifice for charity.
Maybe you're good. If you assigned yourself that label, make sure you've earned it. There is plenty of literature by atheists who are trying in earnest to work out a shared moral code without God. But if that is not you, then ask yourself - when it comes to a tough and enduring moral compass, are you really good enough?