Living In a Post-Moral World – Rabbi Haskel Lookstein

Here is a snippet from Living In a Post-Moral World Sermon for Parshat Noach delivered by Rabbi Haskel Lookstein
October 29, 2011

And lest you think that this phenomenon is out there and has nothing to do with your world and my world, I actually found this problem this September in my sex ethics class in the 10th Grade at Ramaz. I gave the students an assignment to read an article about something quite grotesque: it described a group of Jewish married couples who gather periodically and engage in what is popularly called swinging, that is, spouse swapping. A sort of round robin sexual orgy. I asked them how many of you think that this is wrong? And only a few students raised their hands. Astonished, I asked them how could they not think that this was wrong. I got answers like: “well, since it is all out in the open and everybody knows that everybody is doing it, there is nothing fundamentally wrong. No one is cheating on a spouse because the spouse was also swinging.”

I said to them: “what about the seventh commandment – do not commit adultery.” One student answered that these people are really not religious. What the students didn’t seem to understand was that whether they were religious or not, there is a moral code that is rooted in the Bible which defines for us what is right and what is wrong. The problem is that when pressed, many of the students simply said that if it feels good and if it feels right then who am I to judge? I told them I wasn’t suggesting that they go over to somebody who is engaged in swinging and chastise them, but that they had to
have an opinion on this practice. They looked at me with some disbelief. Now, please understand, these are good kids. I don’t for one minute believe that they will engage in this kind of debauchery when they are married adults. This is not related to what they are doing or will do; this is simply an indication that these children are not thinking in moral categories and that they feel that it is somehow politically incorrect to judge another’s behavioral choices. They are picking up from society in general a reluctance to judge.

I confess that I was so disturbed about their reaction that I spent much of the course, which is actually ending next week, coming back to this subject again and again in order to show them how far they have wandered intellectually from the religious sources in which they believe. These are children who follow the Torah which tells them to keep Shabbat, Kashrut and Yom Tov and to pray. They all do these things. But they don’t seem to understand that the same Torah is the source of our moral values, and morality is not simply a matter of opinion. God gave the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai not the Ten Suggestions ! Morality is not personal; it is ultimately ordained by a higher authority. Read the Rest Here

Just a reminder to send me sermons notable for social history or theology.

h/t ASC

12 responses to “Living In a Post-Moral World – Rabbi Haskel Lookstein

  1. I think there are people who will argue that even if the Bible is a source of morality, it’s moral code contains things we view as good and bad. For example, the Torah tells us to exterminate certain nations and to exterminate those who turn to Avodah Zara. So how do we choose which parts of the Biblical moral code to adopt. Doesn’t this force us to recognize some other moral code by which we judge the Biblical moral code? And if so, what is the source of THAT code?

    I, for one, agree that our civilization is losing, or has lost, any sense of restraint, but how do we get it back? By appeal to the Bible? I don’t think that will work. We need to develop a rational moral code that can be accepted by most people without resort to Divine authority.

  2. Perhaps it’s just my yeshivish education, but isn’t it a bit strange for a rabbi to be handing out an article describing swingers parties, even for discussion in an educational context to a class of 16 year-olds? I can’t imagine many 16-year olds even know about this stuff – if there’s one sure fire way to get them to go home and google it, this is it.

  3. Isn’t this a logical consequence of nihilistic libertarianism allying politically with religious fundamentalism? Also: doesn’t it prove that people do not feel committed to the logical outcomes of their beliefs in the way described by inferentialists like Bob Brandom?

  4. This is a required class that everyone must take in 10th Grade. The kids call it “sex with the rabbi” (in 11th grade they “do drugs with Mrs. Cohen” in a class about substance abuse). It is a very good class. Rabbi Lookstetin talks a lot about respect and morality. It is a 10 week class. The first 2 weeks of the class the kids are typical raunchy teens but they always calm down and really think, participate and use their individual and collective conscious. He really engages the kids and uses them as examples to teach morality (i.e. he would walk over to a very shy girl, put his hand on her shoulder and say something like, “how would you feel if such and such happened to her?”) By the time he does this the class usually becomes upset and depending on what the example is they sometimes get outraged. The kids are forced to think about morality and their own lives and “what if something like this happened to them?” Some examples are date rape, drugging kids drinks at parties, spreading rumors about someone’s sex life just to be mean. The kids come out of the class with a real and much more awareness of the real world and themselves.

  5. It’s not “post-moral” to conceive of ethics primarily as proscribing behaviors that harm others, it’s simply the kind of morality that naturally tends to predominate in a post-traditional multicultural society.

    On the one hand this seems to deprive the moral sphere of many things we value like honor, integrity, humility etc., on the other hand, we’ve really gotten pretty good as a society at not harming each other – at least by historical standards (see Steven Pinke’rs new book).

  6. I tend to agree with AS. My question is whether Rabbi. Haskel Lookstein would say the same thing about homosexuality and homosexual relations? If not, why?

  7. AS, R’ HL isn’t trying to convey the moral values of the honor/integrity/humility axis; he is trying to convey the moral value of revulsion to unsanctioned sexual activity.

    What I find most interesting is the total lack of moral or philosophical self-reflection at work here, in his assumption that “Torah” and “moral values” are synonymous. A generation before he was born, Rav Kook noted the religious challenges of living in a global, multicultural society; Lookstein never noticed. In this he reminds me of his slightly older contemporary R’ Norman Lamm, who has positioned homosexuality on a moral slippery slope leading to polygamy, apparently unaware that the Torah does not see polygamy as immoral.

    I suspect it is worse than Lookstein knows. I suspect that most of his students could be easily convinced that kiddushin is as immoral of its close halachic cognate, slavery.

  8. Interesting, though not surprising, to see no mention of reasons why his students might not conflate torah with morality – e.g., they are all aware of financial crimes committed by members of the Observant community, v difficult to pin that behavior on outside immoral influences

  9. It’s worth reading the sermon in its entirety,
    It is telling that he cites David Brooks as a moral exemplar; for a more philosophic and learned view of Brooks, here’s a critique of a column from this week about Herman Cain. Brook’s method is well summed up by critic Marc Sobel:.

    Every Brooks article has at its base a lie skillfully tossed off as a self evident truth.

    But, if you’re a moral relativist fighting on behalf of the Party’s culture wars, all is fair.

    Personally, the fact that Lookstein’s high school students share early decade 21st century American values rather than their rabbi’s mid-20th century values fills me with a modicum of hope.

    I am curious about a phrase in a lengthy quotation from Hirsch, who gives as examples of “corruption of morals” a situation where “the young are rebellious and marriages have rotted from within.” Was Hirsch, gifted in the 19th century with Ruach Hakodesh, bashing the 1970s hippies and women libbers who no doubt shocked and offended Lookstein (Lookstein being then the proverbial generation “over 30” who R’ Abby Hoffman wisely counseled against trusting)? Is this a general crankiness of the old and conservative, shared by Lookstein, Brooks, Hirsch, and the Sumerian critic of rebellious youth and publishers without standards? Or is there a particularly 19th century German influx of liberalism and libertinism that Hirsch was imposing?

    (Has anyone written a history of sermons in response to the historical winds of post-War America? I would love to see how the response of Lookstein and Lamm to McCarthyism, the Civil Rights struggle, and the events of the ’60s compared to that of their similarly situated non-Orthodox uptown rabbinic colleagues.)

    But Lookstein leaves his congregation with no recourse but to wage the culture war, to fight against “moral relativism.” He doesn’t understand that even if he succeeds in convincing his adolescents to take moral categories seriously — and I have no doubt that he can teach them that drunk driving and date rape are bad and worthy of moral condemnation — the morality they arrive at thoughtfully will be a far cry from the morality he hopes to inculcate.

  10. Maybe I’m taking too many liberties, but I inferred from the student who said that “these people aren’t really religious” that the students embrace some notion of voluntary covenant in a R Yitz Greenberg sense. The students hold themselves to a standard which excludes swinging, but others. Others, who have not adopted such a rule, can only be held to a more modern version of Sheva Mitzvot Bnai Noach perhaps – an avoidance of harm to others, coupled with honesty and transparency in your relationships.

  11. The sermon reminded me of Charles Murray’s critique of American elites: they do not preach what they practice. While it does not seem accurate to describe the rather socially-conservative lifestyles of “blue state” voters as post-moral, their reticence in opening endorsing the code which works rather well for them is (LAD) a problem. It’s good to eschew the swinger-lifestyle, but maybe Torah requires more than the internalization of its norms.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s