11/17/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Our Morality is Killing Us -- A Reflection for Rosh Hashanah

It is said that you can take the religion out of the Jew, but you will never take the Jewish part out of our intestinal tracts. As a secular Jew, pre-season anticipation of the coming High Holiday still pulls me into mixtures of nostalgia and guilt, of yearnings for the sweetness of apples dipped in honey that extends to wishes for a sweet New Year and moments for reflection.

In the 1972 book Insight and Responsibility, psychologist Erik Erikson drew a contrast between morality and ethics. He saw morality as based on threats -- of abandonment, of punishment, of shame. By contrast, he saw Ethics as more mature, related to mutuality of primary relationships -- parent-child, teacher-student, etc. Mutuality, with freedom of movement, promotes a different level of caring and a more authentic interpretation of the Golden Rule.

Ironically, it is the stricter morality that leads to harm, since humiliation and punishment oppresses people and they hold on to the rage at those who punished them harshly.

What is often missed is that we more effectively learn by example than from any preaching. When we "teach" and warn by dividing the world into good vs. bad, we miss the shades in between, and we are stuck in place, passively incorporating the justifications given to us.

We aren't trained to think critically about commandments presented as absolutes, and so we become too scared to evaluate the rules to which we pledge our loyalty. Instead, our anger at having felt oppressed can come out in a compulsion to break all of the rules. More often it becomes a means of identifying with those who taught us so solemnly with threats of doom so that we too go on to teach through fear and humiliation.

Erikson knew well that we could potentially use the strictness of moral regulations to hide our darker sides and, in the extreme, rationalize our behavior with, "all the vindictiveness of derision, of torture, and of mass extinction." He didn't shy away from connecting with care and deliberation the human capacity to do good and the equally strong tendency to use moralistic means of indoctrination with the eventual humiliation of others as a result. He cared deeply about our planet, and he felt, in ways that seem odd to those of us who spout moral judgments daily, that it was this "morality" that had been overdeveloped in our species and needed to be rethought.

Where there is fear, there is congestion of emotion and of thought. The resiliency of learning from mistakes rather than avoiding them is negated as we become passive consumers of whatever advice or loyalty oaths are the fashion of the day. We can become passionate rebels, but without the connection to our empathy we will cease communicating with each other and certainly with our enemies. No doubt this has been realized in our current national debates.

It is another New Year for the Jews, but it is also the official opening of schools, the beginning of another new year of learning; perhaps of learning how to question as much as to answer. Suitable questions from this vantage point might include: Can we interrupt our pace to reflect, and to find the connections between ourselves and the others we tend to consider implacably violent or even stupid? If some of our own "moral" codes have contributed to violence, can we merge the ethical with the practical to create a discipline which protects us from actual harm and which encourages the ecological connections missing in the actions of people towards one another?

There is no democracy without the ethics of respect for each other and a capacity to discuss ideas and differences without violence. And there can be no room for information or ethics if we cannot admit ignorance and confusion so we can learn from each other in the process.

As a stubborn optimist, my wish is for a New Year with sweetness that tastes like honey and moves us to reflect. My hope is that we might begin with reflection rather than our frequent rush to judgments. And that we might take some full breaths and begin to rise to the best occasions of our lives, to see what we can see.

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