Fear and Distress

Yesterday I had lunch with my friend Rabbi Noman Cohen, senior rabbi of Bet Shalom temple in Minnesota. As it always does, our conversation spanned a range of subjects, and at one point turned to the Torah reading for last night’s Shabbat service.

In the reading from Genesis, Jacob and Esau are about to meet for the first time in over twenty years. This meeting is a source of anxiety for Jacob, as he knows that his brother had once sworn to kill him in revenge for stealing his birthright. Jacob, who has sent messengers ahead has been told by the returning messengers that Esau is coming to meet Jacob, accompanied by four hundred men.

The next line of the scripture tells us that “Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed.”

Many people view the phrase “afraid and distressed” as a duplication of descriptions of Jacob’s state, as expressing a single emotion.

However, Rabbi Cohen explained to me, a midrash (the term for a learned interpretation of the Torah) to the passage draws an important distinction between the two terms. It suggests that the use of “afraid” conveys Jacob’s fear that his brother would kill him, while the use of “distress” conveys Jacob’s concern that he might be forced to kill his brother in self-defense.

Why would Jacob feel distress? Surely killing his brother could be morally justified; Jewish law clearly recognizes the permissibility of killing in self-defense.

The midrash reminds us that there is something more at stake than the ethical question of whether an act of violence against another can be morally justified – an important reminder to us as we evaluate individual and national actions in the world today.

That reminder is expressed clearly in a sermon by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi (Orthodox) of England, that my friend sent to me following our lunch. Discussing Jacob’s distress, Rabbi Sacks suggests that there is a moral dilemma here. He says

I ought not to do A (allow myself to be killed); I ought not to do B (kill someone else); but I must do one or the other. To put it more precisely, there may be situations in which doing the right thing is not the end of the matter. The conflict may be inherently tragic. The fact that one principle (self-defence) overrides another (the prohibition against killing) does not mean that, faced with such a choice, I am without qualms. Sometimes being moral means that I experience distress at having to make such a choice. Doing the right thing may mean that I do not feel remorse or guilt, but I still feel regret or grief that I had to do what I did.

A moral system which leaves room for the existence of dilemmas is one that does not attempt to eliminate the complexities of the moral life. In a conflict between two rights or two wrongs, there may be a proper way to act (the lesser of two evils, or the greater of two goods), but this does not cancel out all emotional pain. A righteous individual may sometimes be one who is capable of distress even when they know they have acted rightly. What the midrash is telling us is that Judaism recognises the existence of dilemmas. Despite the intricacy of Jewish law and its meta-halakhic principles for deciding which of two duties takes priority, we may still be faced with situations in which there is an ineliminable cause for distress. It was Jacob’s greatness that he was capable of moral anxiety even at the prospect of doing something entirely justified, namely defending his life at the cost of his brother’s.

Rabbi Sacks’ explanation illuminates why I was so uncomfortable when people cheered when Osama bin laden was killed. It may have been morally justified to kill him, but that doesn’t mean the killing should not cause us distress. Our inflicting harm on another – albeit justified – takes something from us. Rabbi Sacks quotes Yitzhak Rabin, who made the same point about the reaction of Israeli soldiers after the Six Day War in 1967. Rabin said

We find more and more a strange phenomenon among our fighters. Their joy is incomplete, and more than a small portion of sorrow and shock prevails in their festivities, and there are those who abstain from celebration. The warriors in the front lines saw with their own eyes not only the glory of victory but the price of victory: their comrades who fell beside them bleeding, and I know that even the terrible price which our enemies paid touched the hearts of many of our men. It may be that the Jewish people has never learned or accustomed itself to feel the triumph of conquest and victory, and therefore we receive it with mixed feelings.

The dilemma is a real one, and we should acknowledge it.


Faith Formation

Earlier this week, I gave a talk at a parish in St. Paul on the importance of formation in the life of a parish. Among the topics I addressed in my talk were the goals of adult faith formation. As I see it, there are at least five related pieces to formation: prayer, knowledge of the faith, moral formation, social justice/missionary spirit and liturgical life/communal life.

Prayer is obviously the fundamental starting point because without prayer, everything just becomes “head” stuff and there is a real risk of not being guided by spirit. Therefore adult faith formation has to include some emphasis on things that will encourage and deepen the prayer life of parishioners, the teach people new ways to pray, and to give them places to share fruits of prayer.

I include knowledge of the faith because lamentably, many people lack a basic understanding of many of the fundamentals of the faith. At the most basic level, we want to encourage people to focus on what it is that we recite every week at Mass in the Creed. The Creed contains the basic irreducible elements of our faith that every Catholic should understand. Yet, many people recite it by rote, giving little or no thought to what they are affirming.

When I speak of moral formation, I mean to include not just the dos and don’ts, but also the bases for the moral choices we are asking people to make. In many ways Catholicism is counter-cultural. Both for parishioner’s own understand and to contribute to their ability to evangelize others, it is incumbent on us to find ways to help people understand the bases for the moral judgments the Church has made.

Social justice…sigh. What I often hear from people in parishes is “you know, people are not all that interested in social justice. My response is always, “tell them to read Matthew 25.” I don’t think one can call oneself Catholic and not care about social justice.” As Catholics, our faith is about who we are in the world. That means that an adult faith formation has to include helping people understand principles of Catholic social thought and how they apply in their lives.

The final goal of adult faith formation is conveying something of the importance of our communal liturgical and other celebrations. As Catholics, our faith is not an individual faith but a communal one. It is important, therefore, to foster an understanding of the communal and liturgical aspects of our faith.

My talk also covered issues having to do with the challenges we face in designing successful adult formation program and the preliminary question of why we should care about formation. But I’d be interested in knowing if others perceive there to be other goals or areas important for adult faith formation to address other than those I have identified.

What is Church: A Reality Check

I just finished reading The Good Life: Where Morality and Spirituality Converge, which I already mentioned in a post a couple of days ago. The book is an effort to explore what are the characteristics of the appropriate response to the God who speaks to us first, who makes the first move to invite us into relationship with Him. In the author’s words, it “is based on the conviction that, when it comes to living the good life, character and virtue matter; that is to say, the moral life and spiritual life converge when we begin to explore the sort of persons we ougth to become and the sort of lives we ought to live in ourder to flourish as authentic human beings.” The book is well worth spending some time with, both for its thought-provoking text and for the reflection exercises with which each chapter ends, which are suitable for both individual and group prayer. I suspect it is a book I will keep close by and go back to often.

Although there are many places in the book where I have underlines, asterisks or marginal notes, one of the things that particularly struck me was the book’s discussion of church. Church membership, the author explains, “is far more than the passive acceptance of doctrines or the submission to a set of precepts.” Rather, belonging to the church

is an adventure of following Jesus in new and ever-changing situations. The church is to give the world a hint of what life looks like when we take God’s love to heart and Jesus’ vision of discipleship into the home, the workplace, and the marketplace.

That strikes me as a wonderful definition. But it invites the reality-checking question: do our churches look like that? Do they offer to the world a vision of Kingdom? Do they offer a model of Jesus’ vision of discipleship? Do we even think in those terms?