Why be good?

My October column for the Voice & Herald.

I once worked as the librarian at a Catholic girls’ high school. Before I took the job, I worried that my background would be a barrier. But the nuns loved having a Jewish librarian. They saw me as a direct line to their religious roots, and I began playing up my Judaism in order to please them. Everything was fine until Sister Mary Emilie invited me to address her Religion 9 class in a sort of Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Judaism session.

The students submitted questions in advance. Lots of them were easy. What is a bar mitzvah? Why do men wear those little beanies? Why don’t Jews celebrate Christmas? Other questions were trickier. Do Jews like Jesus? What about hell?

A few days later, I stood before a room full of fourteen-year-olds in matching yellow blouses and checked skirts. Flipping through my index cards, I talked about coming-of-age rituals and covering the head as a sign of respect. I told the girls that Jews consider Jesus a great teacher, but don’t believe anyone can be the son of God. As for hell, I said, it’s part of Jewish folklore, but not doctrine. “Nobody tells Jewish kids that if they sin they’ll go to hell,” I added.

Hands shot up all over the room.

“Then why be good?” A girl in the front row asked.

Because it’s good to be good? I wanted to say. A good person isn’t just out for number one – even in the very long term. Jews don’t need threats to do the right thing, I thought, trying not to look smug.

“Because being good makes the world better,” I said.

Sister Mary Emilie smiled at me from the back of the room. The girls seemed less convinced. But I was at a loss as to what else to say. I was a school librarian and Jewish. That hardly made me an expert.

Three decades later, I’m still thinking about that girl’s question.

It comes up when I’m reading Torah. Sure, we don’t read about guys in red Spandex suits brandishing pitchforks, but a parasha rarely passes when God doesn’t threaten to subject sinners to some living hell. Crops fail, armies invade and the nation is scattered, all becauseIsraeldoesn’t act right. One particularly pretty passage pictures evil doers eating their own babies. Do stories like these teach us right from wrong, or just bully us into submission?

The question comes up a lot during the high holidays, when divine judgment gets personal. We have committed all sorts of sins, the story goes, and God really ought to smack us. But if we pound our chests hard enough and say we’re sorry sincerely enough, maybe we can avert the harsh decree. If we’re more concerned about being judged than about what we did, what kind of morality is that?

For folks like me, who don’t believe famines and foreclosures are divine judgment, the Machzor suggests picturing God as a parent. The image is a lot easier to identify with than that of a king, or a judge with a ledger. And the idea of an internalized parental voice describes pretty well how it often feels to make moral decisions.

But how does the Be Good For Mommy model stack up morally? That depends. Suppose the voice in your head is warning you to be good or else. Even if you’re just trying not to feel guilty, if that’s the only thing keeping you from cheating your customers or punching your sister, you’re still basically acting out of self-interest. It’s good that your sister’s arm doesn’t hurt and your customers aren’t ripped off. But it doesn’t make you all that good.

What if the voice in your head wants to kvell? Do it for me, you hear your mother saying, as you write that check for tzedakah. Make me proud. Wanting to make someone else happy, or to shed a good light on them, is morally better than doing it for yourself. But best of all is if the voice of your parent – or teacher, or tradition – is there to remind you about the underlying principles that let you distinguish right from wrong on your own.

Don’t take my word for it. Listen to Maimonides. “A man should not do the mitzvot and learn Torah so that he will receive the blessings promised or obtain the hereafter… only the ignorant and the children are trained to worship God from fear, so that they will develop and worship God out of love.”

Not interested in worshipping God? Maimonides also articulates behavioral goals that should motivate any moral person. “The purpose of the laws of the Torah…is to bring mercy, loving-kindness and peace upon the world.”

If only I had said some of that to Sister Mary Emilie’s students. Instead, I turned to my next index card. “Someone wanted to know about Christmas?” I asked.

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