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December 11th, 2017

Inspired Living

Reconsidering persistent human illusions

Rabbi Hillel Goldberg

By Rabbi Hillel Goldberg

Published August 11, 2017

Reconsidering persistent human illusions
"Whoever dies with the most fonts wins." This adorned a poster by a former IJN graphics designer. I was reminded of this when I heard a recent pitch on the radio that urged people to make a real impact on carbon emissions. We could all save the planet, the radio advertisement said, by not taking plane trips, not driving a car, eating a plant-based diet and not having a lot of children.

In theory, the part of about no car and no plane trips is great, but I don't think anyone can live that way these days. Even people without cars do not reach zero carbon because they use other forms of public transportation. Plant-based diet? Mostly fine with me. I reserve eating meat for the Sabbath.

Aye, but here's the rub: Do not have a lot of children. Needless to say, if we all stopped having children, the carbon crisis would disappear. No people, no carbon. Whoever dies with the most fonts wins.

Nihilism has moved into center stage in our culture. This is not a factor of Trump or Obama, of Republicans or Democrats. To be sure, the spread of suicide bombings in other cultures has, to a degree, routinzed the negative take on life. But even if suicide bombings had never begun, we would still be just where we are, witnessing the routinized devaluation of human life. Fewer people, fewer carbons.

Children should be the joy of life. The more the merrier. Chldren grow up to invent. Children become discoverers. Children ultimately solve humanity's problems. Children become thinkers, doers. How many Einsteins were murdered in the Holocaust? Let us not attenuate humanity's potential another way, by devaluing families.

Of course, children become none of these magnificent things if parents do not have the wherewithal, financial and psychological, to nurture them. But when we are urged not to have a lot of kids, the practical exigencies of raising children is not the topic. We are urged to cut down on the number of kids in principle. And in principle, children can and do become humanity's problem solvers.

Nihilism pops up everywhere. For another piece of emblematic evidence, go to this letter in the Wall Street Journal (July 14):

"I want the comfort of a law that makes it possible to end my life should I care to. . . . America was founded on the principle of freedom of choice - the freedom to chose where one lives, how one lives, where one prays, etc. It should also include the freedom to choose how one dies. It is nobody else's decision but one's own."

Contra the letter writer, I prefer the rabbinic dictum, "against one's will one is born and against one's will one dies." This reflects a value system that makes human life an absolute, a value higher than freedom of choice, which, incidentally, the Founding Fathers did not extend to killing oneself.

I have become more familiar than I ever wanted to be with the excruciating tensions of end-of-life issues, whose delicate, often medically opaque dimensions, offer no absolute guidelines of any kind. But decisions about the end of life, just like beginning of life and life itself, are framed by a value system. When the governing value system is the freedom to end one's life if one "cares to" (a phrase I find chillingly and tellingly indifferent), the decisions are quite different from when the governing value system is the absolute value of human life.

I am reminded of the statement attributed to Army Major Phil Cannela in 1968 during the Vietnam War: "We had to destroy the village in order to save it." In fact, Cannela may never have said this, but it's as good an encapsulation as I can find to express the devaluation of life that has moved from war zones to hospital rooms and the rest of civilian life.

People who promote the value system that, until recent decades, dominated life in the West are often caricatured as naive believers and hopelessly out of touch with complex modern realities. I am reminded of another statement, this one heard recently from a leading Christian leader in Denver: "We just have to resign ourselves to being seen as politely strange."

Climates of opinion dominate civilizations, and dominate conversations. Climates of opinion close off options in conversation. A belief system that resists the creeping - perhaps the galloping - nihilism is one of those options increasingly closed off. The ultimate losers will not be the absolutists, but the relativists, who may find that in an indiscriminate chase to cut down on carbon, they cut down on life itself.

Then again, one of the persistent human illusions is that people will inevitably acknowledge their mistakes.

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Rabbi Hillel Goldberg is executive editor of the Intermountain Jewish News, where this first appeared, and the author of several books on biblical and Judaic themes. His writings have appeared in JWR since its inception.

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