סוּר מֵרָע, וַעֲשֵׂה-טוֹב; בַּקֵּשׁ שָׁלוֹם וְרָדְפֵהוּ.
Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it. -Psalm 34:15
Based on this Psalm, you can get a general idea of where I am going with this question, but let’s delve into it a bit further, and I particularly want to focus on the first part (i.e., "depart evil and do good").
The first part, "depart from evil," is telling us to desist from evil. Rabbi Hillel (Shabbat 31a) points out that age-old adage of “do not do unto others as you would have done unto you. This is the entire Torah. The rest is commentary.” This Talmudic verse, which is heavy with libertarian overtone, is also echoed by Thomas Jefferson when stated that he only cared if you “picked his pocket or broke his leg.” The Sages [in Pirke Avot 1:7] even went as far as saying that you shall not associate with an evil person or live in a neighborhood with evil people. The number of negative commandments from the Torah is 365 [out of the 613].
It should be obvious that negative mitzvot have an important role. If we lived in an “anything goes,” anarchic society, it would ultimately end up being tyranny because “might would be right,” and the strong would rule over the weak. It would be such a moral/social regression if we ignored such simple rules as “don’t steal” or “don’t murder.” For a civilized society to function properly, certain boundaries need to be drawn. That works either for a secular, libertarian society or a Jewish society.
As far as a functioning society goes, are prohibitions sufficient for a well-maintained society? Libertarians would answer “yes.” Libertarians enjoy limited government because the government doesn’t have the right to dictate moral behaviors, or any behavior beyond harming another individual and infringing on his right to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. From a libertarian perspective, which religion you practice does not matter, as long as you abide by the aforementioned description. Although I do believe that the role of government should be severely limited, I find that basing a society solely on prohibitions is insufficient, to say the least simply because the morals in a libertarian world would only be minimalistic. This is where Judaism parts from libertarianism.
That being said, we arrive at the second part of analysis, which is to do good. I have come across people who thought they were good simply because they didn’t commit evil. Most people in society would fall under this category of the moralistic spectrum of good and evil. This majority in society is lethargic about political issues unless it affects them personally. The hyper-individualism embraced by most since the counter-culture revolution of the late 1960s has caused many to ignore the plight of their neighbor because they’re too busy making themselves feel better with their self-righteousness caused by an abstract, “feel-good” sentiment of “loving humanity,” which in fact does nothing more than augment one’s sense of smugness and alleged goodness. Ironically enough, those who think they’re good simply because they don’t commit bad acts are ususually highly self-absorbed individuals, and G-d forbid if they actually care about anybody beyond themselves. For those who haven’t quite caught on, this little, tangential diatribe is a societal criticism of what happens when we totally do away with the concept of community and instead, over-emphasize the individual.
To further compound the issue, this complacency is what truly causes conflict in this world. To quote Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, “The opposite of good is not evil. It is indifference. In a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.” One cannot but help to see that this lethargy is what caused Nazi Germany to murder so many innocent people. It was not only Hitler that carried out the Final Solution. It was also millions of indifferent German citizens who did not lift a finger to stop the atrocities that were carried out by their government and merely perpetuated the evils committed.
To summarize thus far, here are a couple of equations to illustrate what I am saying:
Not bad ≠ good
Only Doing Good = Being Good
To bring the issue back to scriptural analysis, sitting back, minding your own business, and only caring about yourself doesn’t make you a good person. In order to live a good life, you have to partake in the second half of the equation, which, as David HaMelech points out, is to actively do good deeds and bring justice to this world. If the purpose of spiritual life was merely to desist from evil, there would be no positive commandments. That is why it is not merely incidental that G-d tells us to pursue justice or to walk in His ways. These imperatives exist because they enhance and refine the individual, as well as society. Goodness is not a state of being. It’s a life-long culmination of good deeds. The sooner we realize the importance of actively pursuing good through our deeds, the sooner the world can truly become a better place.