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Ethical Humility

I have a strong policy of not taking political stands as a rabbi. First, from the moral value of humility - I might be wrong. I have changed my mind politically before and I might change it again. Second, it is not my job, as I understand it. Some rabbis see their work as activists – one of their key jobs is to preach their politics to their congregations or to the community. I don’t see my work that way. When it comes to politics and ethics, I see my work devoted more to how to think, and not what to think.

Here is an example, from a question that came up at one of our two Yom Kippur afternoon study sessions. (I conducted two sessions, at 1 and 4 PM, driven by questions of those who attend). The question regarded my view on the refugee crisis from the Syrian civil war.

All good thinking as problem solving has three dimensions. First, gathering relevant facts. The first thing I thought was that I don’t know enough facts. I have seen the reporting on the crisis, much of which seems to have an editorial bias that European countries – Germany in particular – should take in more refugees. I see much of this “reporting” as attempts to persuade.

Those who want to persuade often times cherry pick their facts in order to guide people to the desired conclusion. Sometimes when I am researching an issue, I am stunned again when I see some piece of data taken out of context, stripped of other data, to lead the reader to foregone conclusions. I am one of those who actually sees this as intellectually corrupt and maybe even unethical.

The reporting has seemed to focus on the war in Syria and is not mentioning that up to half or more do not originate from Syria. The countries of origin of the refugees, large in number, are Syria, Iraq and Iran, to North Africa and into sub-Saharan Africa.

Another dimension is naming things well. I read and hear words thrown around to arouse feelings, not in order to inform. We call this “demagoguery” – using rhetoric to misguide and mislead the people. I know that nearly all naming carries some aspect of valuation, but those who lead and teach can make every effort to name things accurately and explain their terms.

The word “war refugee” is loaded as a conclusion. It seems to me that once a person seeking refuge from the war in Syria makes it out of the war zone into Turkey or safe areas of Lebanon, for example, they have found refuge from war. News agencies seem to take it for granted that Turkey and safe parts of Lebanon are not “refuges” from war, that the only proper place for a refugee is Europe. I, like many others, ask why nations more local, like Saudi Arabia and southern Iraq are not destinations. They speak roughly the same language, and share a culture and a religion.

Other news agencies are more properly referring to those who move once they make it out of the war zone as “migrants,” probably a better term. But “migrant” seems a weak term. The desperation to escape is deep.

The news agencies report on the deaths of migrants in the Mediterranean as somewhat the responsibility of European countries. Not Turkey, for example, that allows such dangerous passage, or the migrants themselves, who put themselves in harms way.

The question asked, “How many migrants should Europe countries take in?” avoids a much more basic question: How do we account for this desperation? How do we account for the failed states in, what is in general, the Muslim and African world? And why are not other Muslim and African countries relatively at peace (Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Morocco, let’s say) not seen as destinations? Why isn’t the world pressuring them? I would like to know the answer to this.

A second thing that I am curious about is the deep attraction of European Protestant countries. From what I have seen, migrants want to stream through Greece, Serbia, Croatia, France and Hungary and other countries to the desired locations of England, Germany and Austria. What do these migrants know that makes getting to Germany, for example, worth so much peril and suffering?

When I was asked the question, my response was to get to the deeper questions, that of failed states on one hand, and successful states on the other. What has made European countries in general, and Protestant countries in particular, so attractive and Muslim/African countries as so repellent? As a side note, the times I have been in Israel recently I have noted the rather astonishing problem of thousands of Muslim Sudanese and Ethiopians fleeing to Israel. Sudanese risk the treacherous passage through the Sinai desert to arrive at supposedly apartheid and Muslim hating Israel.

(I have to mention, as a proud pappa, that our incredibly busy and overloaded daughter in Israel has been volunteering at a center taking care of Sudanese refugees – from since she was a soldier. How often have you seen that reported: an Israeli soldier volunteering off duty time to care for Muslim migrants/refugees?)

After the study session, I was asked, “So you are against Germany taking in refugees?” You can imagine my dismay. First, I spoke glowingly about Germany’s growing self-definition as a multi-lingual, multi-religious and multi-ethnic country. Second, I certainly made no such suggestion. I only stated that facts being presented seem insufficient, and that hard and deeper questions are not being asked.

My heart goes out to the suffering of those fleeing failed states. I am not sure what should be done about it, by whom, short term and long term. I have no advocacy position, certainly, as I won’t have to experience any of the likely consequences of the decisions made. I have to leave that to the people in the arena, who probably have greater access to the facts, to the causes, and an understanding of the short and long term consequences on any decision made.

I call this ethical humility.

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