In the road to character, David Brooks sets out to recover what he describes as “a vast moral vocabulary and set of moral tools, developed over centuries and handed down from generation to generation." To reclaim that moral vocabulary and path of life, he consciously adopts a religious vocabulary and vector. He notes, “We don’t live for happiness, we live for holiness. Day to day we seek out pleasure, but deep down, human beings are endowed with moral imagination [and] seek to lead lives not just of pleasure, but of purpose, righteousness, and virtue.”
A committed Jew (one of his sons served in the IDF), Brooks uses a theological framework developed by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik to interpret the two narratives of Creation. Soloveitchik suggested that there are two types of human beings portrayed in the first chapters of Genesis. Adam I seeks to conquer and control, to achieve and accomplish in the technological world. Adam II is committed to reflection and rumination, contemplation and the development of character and culture. “To nurture your Adam I career, it makes sense to cultivate your strengths. To nurture your Adam II moral core, it is necessary to confront your weaknesses.”
As we slowly slide into the summer, many graduates will be given Oh, The Places You’ll Go! One of the lines expresses what Brooks terms “Big Self”, emphasizing following your passions, a vision that involves self-trust, self-love, self-expression, self-esteem and self-actualization.
“You won’t lag behind, because you’ll have the speed. You’ll pass the whole gang and you’ll soon take the lead. Wherever you fly, you’ll be best of the best. Wherever you go, you will top all the rest.”
Dr. Seuss then adds an awareness of failure and the need for humility: “Except when you don’t. Because, sometimes, you won’t.” Brooks writes that “the awareness that you are an underdog in the struggle against your own weakness” is the starting point of the road to character and spiritual sustainability. Self-restraint, steadiness and a sense of purpose slowly help us to craft and sustain our souls.
I am drawn to the strength of soul and moral vision that Natan Sharansky cultivated during his years in Soviet prison. He will be our guest on July 15, in dialogue with Professor Irwin Cotler, to discuss human rights and Jewish life. This is one of the events planned to mark the 60th anniversary of our congregation. I hope it will lead to continued personal and communal reflection on who we are and where we want to be.
Living in what Brooks calls “the age of the selfie”, we valourize the Lone Ranger, the solitary soul who somehow succeeds. But Brooks points to community as critical to our moral development. “Much of our character talk today is individualistic, like all our talk, but character is formed in community”.
Returning to Brooks’ riff on Rabbi Soloveitchik, Adam I is career-oriented and ambitious. Adam II wants to nurture core moral qualities. Adam I is about your résumé, while Adam II is about your eulogy. “The résumé virtues are the … skills that you bring to the job market and that contribute to external success. The eulogy virtues … get talked about at your funeral, the ones that exist at the core of your being—whether you are kind, brave, honest or faithful; what kind of relationships you formed. … [But] most of us have clearer strategies for how to achieve career success than we do for how to develop a profound character.”
The great Protestant theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, reminded us of the need to nurture an extended perspective. “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we must be saved by love.”
Niebuhr’s teaching is deeply Jewish. As Brooks notes, “In a sense, we are all ultimately saved by grace. It may come in the form of love from friends and family, in the assistance of an unexpected stranger, or from God. But the message is the same … [other] hands are holding you up. We are all stumblers, and the beauty and meaning of life are in … trying to become more graceful as the years go by.”
In 1961, ten years after Niebuhr’s book, Joan Didion wrote an essay in Vogue (later reprinted in Slouching Toward Bethlehem) about the development of moral character. “Character—the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life—is the source from which self-respect springs. Self-respect is something that our grandparents … had instilled in them, young, a certain discipline, the sense that one lives by doing things one does not particularly want to do, by putting fears and doubts to one side, by weighing immediate comforts against the possibility of larger, even intangible, comforts… Self-respect is a discipline, a habit of mind that can never be faked but can be developed, trained, coaxed forth.”
Twenty years later, Alasdair MacIntyre wrote After Virtue to challenge the trajectory of modern philosophy. He argued that classical moral discourse was in better shape to cultivate the habits and knowledge that would lead to a virtuous life. Attacking the contemporary cultural emphasis on individual accomplishment, MacIntyre argued that virtues can only be comprehended through their relation to a real community rooted in history and tradition.
Brooks doesn’t cite Niebuhr, Didion or MacIntyre, but his book has a similar arc. “We’ve accidentally left this moral tradition behind. … we’ve lost this language, this way of organizing life. We’re not bad. But… we’ve lost the understanding of how character is built… The central fallacy of modern life is the belief that accomplishments of the [résumé] can produce deep satisfaction… The ultimate joys are moral joys.”
Perhaps because I am reflecting on the conclusion of my years at Beth Tzedec, I think of the difference between the résumé and the eulogy. If the résumé model emphasizes what we can accomplish before we move on to something else, the eulogy virtues are about consistency and commitment over the long haul.
Over the years at Beth Tzedec, I have tried to emphasize the moral vocabulary of Judaism, the ritual and ethical practices of Torah and the importance of community. I have directed attention to strengthening internal Jewish life as well as the significance of engagement with other sectors of Canadian society. I have stressed the importance of a long perspective and a gradual process of Jewish transformation—for individuals and communities. I strive to motivate our community to deepen its involvement with Jewish life, and remain painfully aware of the gap between aspirations and actuality.
Brooks offers some advice that recent graduates and veteran grandparents, synagogue leaders and Jews in the pews might equally take to heart. “A turning point in a life toward maturity is looking inside yourself and saying, “What's the weakness that I have that leads to behavior that I’m not proud of?” … For me, it used to be… life on the surface …politics or… superficial success only. I think I’m a little better at that, but I still have the core sin of wanting everybody to love me and avoiding conflict. And so I have to look at that everyday and figure out: How can I be a little better on that?”
As we head into the summer, let’s each focus on one virtue and ask, “How can I be a little better on that?”
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