Throughout the history of man, we have seen cruelty and insensitivity. Man has killed his fellow man, cheated and robbed him, enslaved him, and tortured him. And at times it’s not been individuals who made life miserable for others. Sometimes it’s been whole nations, or a society as a whole that has made it a living hell for some minority… or rival group of human beings. This has happened so often, that we have managed to forget some really outstanding atrocities, simply because there were others that happened afterwards.
Of course, there have been almost as many explanations for the phenomenon as there have been incidents of man’s cruelty to man. Most of us realize that we have both tendencies… empathy and compassion on the one hand, and cruelty on the other. In my generation, we had two major examples of cruelty. They were the Soviet Union and communism as they practiced it, and Nazi Germany, and the fascist governments that emerged at about the same time. We saw extreme ideology as a threat to peace and freedom. But in the wake of the defeat of Nazism, we saw the rise of single minded capitalism, and so many sensitive and liberal souls started pointing out capitalism as the source of all evil. Of course, there was always prejudice and racism. The Nazis were for it. The Communists were against. And the capitalists didn’t care that much… as long as it didn’t interfere with business.
The present day generation sees the church, and western religion as the villain of today’s society. You know, they promise us heaven, but those priests abuse little boys sexually. They’re hoarding money in their basements. They tell us what to do, but enjoy themselves far too much. And there are so many fakers around. The Reverend Moon is just an example. You can find the most bizarre madmen among the religious. I’ve given a lot of thought to this issue. Because I personally, have suffered cruelty. I wanted to understand it. Looking back, just over two hundred years ago, we saw one of the most enlightened revolutions in the history of man. That was the French Revolution… which brought to the fore ‘the rights of man’, reflected in their mantra: ‘liberty, equality, and fraternity’. Prisoners were released from jails, the religious institutions were limited and much of their property confiscated, and the piggy rich and royals were demoted from their high bred social advantages. But within a relatively short period of time, even that beacon of light turned into a reign of terror, resulting in rampant executions and political intrigue. The guillotine became the symbol of the failure of that revolution.
So what are we to make of all of this. Is it really the good guys against the bad guys? If we were to study history together, I would point out that the Chinese had their excesses too during the cultural revolution, and that, on the other hand… the Germans contributed greatly to thought, science, and judicial propriety before the Nazis gave them a bad name. And we could discuss the history of the protestant movement within Christianity, and the different stages of Moslem development, and how it interacted with neighboring religions. Not to speak of the fact that as a Jew, I have access to a very lengthy history, for we are an ancient people and there is much to learn from our own history.
I have come to believe that it isn’t the good guys versus the bad guys. It seems to me that both good and bad are part of our personality. I see human beings as a herd animal… and most of us want to be in the middle of the herd. I see us as being selfish and intolerant of differences… even of different practices or customs. Just as we have many positive and beautiful personality traits, we have some very negative ones that are both injurious to our neighbors and self destructive to ourselves. Usually, our attitude and behavior affect others very similarly to the way they influence ourselves. And so the biblical injunction to love our neighbor as we do ourselves is not surprising. Actually it might have been enough to tell us to love ourselves. But it is even clearer and more obvious when we are asked to love our neighbors. Among our worst traits are insensitivity, hostility, and self righteousness. This last quality is usually fostered by egocentricity, which in itself is an infantile behavior characteristic.
Think about self righteousness, and you can understand the behavior of the worst of the communists, the religious, as well as xenophobic nationalists, and many of the common hate groups within society. But this quality doesn’t always appear in its most radical form. Look around you and observe the way smokers have been persecuted in recent years. Is this the worst of possible sins? Are those who have forced smokers out of buildings to freeze in the cold of winter, without sin? How long will it take before there will be similar programs to force people to lose weight? There was a time when you couldn’t sit in certain restaurants without a tie around your neck. And then it seemed that the chimes of freedom were heard. And now, here we are again, dictating to our fellow citizens what is the right way to live and what is not. Woe to the eccentric who doesn’t want to inoculate his children with the many varied shots that are now considered mandatory for good health.
And why have I raised this topic today? Well, my new landlord, in my most recent temporary apartment back in Jerusalem, objected to my smoking in his house. You could have knocked me over with a wet noodle when I heard that. As I mentioned when I first moved in here, my present home is not a luxurious palace, exactly. Though highly priced, the accommodations were very modest. Were I the complaining type, I could have made a long list of everything that was wrong about this place. From the dirty windows, to the dusty curtains, to the chairs that come apart to the door that doesn’t close properly… But I respect my fellow man, and immediately went looking around for other housing. And it looks like the next blog post will come from some other quarter. The pictures in this post are of my present temporary room and the neighborhood around it. Here I go again.