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The Origin of Ethics

The comments section on any social media is generally filled with vitriol, nastiness, and trolling. There is something about the distance created between the speaker and the listener that gives voice to some of the worst in the human soul. Warfare between nations has a similarly frightening component. Generals and political leaders may be hundreds or even thousands of miles away from the targets of their violence. They order destruction and devastation that they will never see.

An ethic of the abstract value of human life has little efficacy. Immanuel Levinas, the great French-Jewish ethical philosopher, wonders about the value of ethical teaching. For it to have value, he says, it must be more than a game. The ethics that we unearth must bind our hand from striking another or cause us to hold our tongue from an insult. And yet, most such teachings have done little to restrain violence, destruction, and insult.

I believe ethics can never arise from the abstract. Instead, the authority of the ethical voice comes from the face to face connection just as Levinas teaches. When I sit with another person, something remarkable happens. People are restrained from the worst they might say. People will hold their tongue so as not to cause insult (or retaliation). We feel somehow drawn to help the person in front of us in a way that suffering at a distance evokes far less empathy.

I know intuitively that the person in front of me has value. The true face to face encounter in which I am open and curious of the humanity of the other stirs in me a responsibility to safeguard the unique otherness that I confront. When I let go of my own ego-self, I realize that there is something here that I want to safeguard and allow room for its own self expression.

This encounter is not certain. That is, many have committed violence even in that closeness whether of word or deed. Sometimes we have habituated ourselves or dehumanized the other such that we overcome the barrier raised by being in the presence of the obvious sanctity of another person. Yet it requires effort to overcome that barrier. We notice a resistance even in the moment of surpassing it.

While the face to face encounter is imperfect, unlike any other moral system, it has actually slowed the hand of the murderer and stilled the tongue of the hater. Unlike any other system, it has awakened connection and love that then motivates our actions in the service of the other’s humanity. And so as much as it is imperfect and limited, it opens a possibility to an ethic that matters. It opens the door to an ethic that can actually limit power from being exercised and instead creates room for the other to explore their own interiority and self.

The face to face encounter becomes the key, the opening, to ethics. From that face to face, we can extrapolate out. I realize the impact that being in the presence of another human awakens in me. From this, I can realize that had I the capacity to be in the presence of each person that experience would again occur. Each time I would have a unique awareness of another life, a life of interest and value. (This is true even of people I don’t like. I still see in their presence something that must be protected.)

For justice to flow like a mighty stream we need to take that experience of presence and realize it belongs everywhere in the world. We need to open ourselves to in person communities like our Shabbat services. We want to use our powers to preserve that otherness, to value that humanity, even of those we have never met and will never meet. This feeling inspires deeds of charity and acts of compassion. Then we realize we were seeing the face of God the whole time.

Shabbat Shalom

Sat, December 9 2023 26 Kislev 5784