Monday, April 26, 2010

Ralph Nader: Tying In Civic Ethics with Jewish Ethics

I wasn’t expecting Ralph Nader's secular speech on civic duty to inadvertantly turn into a lesson on Jewish ethics. One of the things that struck me was his approach as to why most people don’t participate in civic life. He says that for many, people feel powerless in terms of the say they have of how their government works. Even if they didn’t feel powerless, they’d fall back on the excuse of “I don’t know how to even get started.” And even if they can get past that, there’s the excuse of “what if I get attacked.” And if backlash isn’t of concern, you still have to deal with “well, what I would do anyways wouldn’t make a difference.” As I am listening to this description, it sounded like something that was all too familiar—the יצר הרע‎ (evil inclination). Nader was giving the secularized message that we constantly give ourselves excuses not to be actively involved in life. If we let the evil inclination get the better of us, we waste our lives. What separates us from the animals is that were more than creatures of instincts and mass consumption. Even when you look at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (diagram below), self-actualization (and an example of that would be engaging in civic life) and being driven by purpose are at the top.

Embellishing on his point of civics was another point he brought up—responsibility for others. The Hebrew word for responsibility, which is אחריות. Etymologically speaking, אחריות has the same root as the word for other, אחר.  Even our Sages (Pirke Avot 1:14) asked the question of "if I am only for myself, what kind of person am I?"  The reason why Jewish tradition emphasized responsibility as such an important aspect of life is because it takes ego out of the equation.  The ego is only obsessed with pleasing the self, something which can never be actualized.  Even when looking at the Hierarchy of Needs, one cannot reach their full potential without developing a sense of responsibility.  Plus, when you read the Torah, you realize that it is not a monastic practice.  Much of it has to do with one's interactions with man and developing a sense of communal responsibility.      

Finally, a message I had gathered from Nader's talk, was the important concept of self-empowerment. It’s safe to say that I don’t agree with the man’s politics. His call to aggrandize the government is abhorrent, as far as I am concerned.  However, I do respect him because he has an exceptionally strong work ethic and is a self-made man, both traits I admire greatly. Self-empowerment has its Jewish roots, after all. We were brought here to exert our free will, yet another characteristic to separate us from the animals.  If it weren't for free will, our moral choices would be meaningless, which is why Judaism doesn’t believe in the doctrine of predestination.  I had recently blogged about how Jewish rituals play a role to ultimately help us realize our roles to do acts of loving-kindness.  "And what does the L-rd require of you?  To do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with G-d (Michah 6:8)."  This cannot be done without developing a sense of helping the other.  Even by acting justly in a secular arena such as civic life, we have the potential to hasten the coming of the Messiah.  May Moshiach come soon!


  1. Nader is not Jewish.

  2. I'm well aware that he comes from a Christian, Lebanese-American background. The purpose of this entry was to point out the parallels between the civic ethics he was talking about and Jewish ethics, none of which Nader was aware.