The Failure of Societies

It has seemed to me for a long time that Judaism is in large part a mechanism for passing on moral principles to the next generation. Having a deep understanding of the nature of the world does little good if that understanding dies with you. It is just as well that Judaism focuses so much on educating the young, for it seems that we Jews have tended to neglect such things from the dawn of our history.

Our forefather Yitzhak (Isaac) favored his elder son Eisav over Yaakov, despite the elder son's incredible disregard for spiritual principles and exaggerated preference for the physical, as for example when he sold his birthright for a bowl of "this red, red stuff." Yaakov himself learned little from the experience, playing favorites among his twelve sons and exercising no control over them. Shimon and Levi felt free to exterminate the city of Shechem against their father's wishes; Reuven, though firstborn, apparently was never taught how best to lead and repeatedly used his authority poorly.

Later on we had King David, a warrior-poet and prophet. Yet for all of his prowess in battle and rulership he was remarkably lenient with his own sons, and suffered for it. Several of his sons rose up in rebellion against him; his son Amnon raped his own half-sister. Regarding Adoniyahu, who tried to usurp the throne from his brother Shlomo (Solomon) as David lay dying, the narrative says, "His father had never in all his days saddened him, saying 'Why have you done this?' " And Adoniyahu was born after the rebel Avshalom, so it seems that David had not taken the lesson to heart.

When it came time for him to decide the succession, he promised the kingship to the son of Bathsheva, before he was actually born! That Shlomo turned out to be a good ruler was due more to Divine intervention than anything else; yet even so, he was far too wise for his own good. And again, though Shlomo had 300 wives and presumably many sons, he chose as his successor Rechavam, who was so monumentally stupid as to say to his new subjects, "My father beat you with whips; I shall beat you with scorpions!" During his rule, the Northern Kingdom split off and became a perpetual breeding-ground of idolatry.

This chronic inability to pass on wisdom and security from one generation to the next was mirrored by the greater society. The Jews passed through seemingly endless cycles of descent into idolatry and the fertility cults; and God would threaten them with destruction at the hands of their enemies, at which point there would usually be a return to the Torah. Yet there came a point when this was no longer good enough, when the rot had set in too deeply. That point came during the rule of Menashe, descendent of Hizqiyahu (Hezekiah).

Hizqiyahu is widely praised by the rabbinic tradition, who hold that he merited to be the Messiah had the time been right. He oversaw a religious revival, fighting against the encroaching religion of Assyria. Yet he retained the Assyrian methods of organization and strong central government, which were useful for a monarch; and the upper class all spoke Assyrian more often than Hebrew. Hizqiyahu's son Menashe apparently learned the wrong lesson, for when he took power he began a 55-year campaign to eradicate Judaism and set up the Assyrian cults in its place.

Here, the prophets warned that something had changed. God had decreed that Judah would be destroyed and sent into exile, and could only be swayed to mercy by a total, all-encompassing return to Judaism such as had never happened in our history. Even the reign of Yoshiyahu (Josiah), renowned for his righteousness, only delayed the inevitable for the period of his lifetime. After he died, the Babylonians invaded.

Here it gets interesting. For though Jeremiah the prophet warned against resisting the Babylonians, most of the Jews were adamant in their opposition, continuing to fight even while suffering defeat after defeat. Jeremiah knew that the society as a whole was too diseased to merit rescue, and that the fervent nationalism of the people sprung more from reflex than any real moral and ethical vitality. He was proved right after the diplomat Gedaliah was placed as administrator over Judah for the Babylonians. Nationalists in the army assassinated Gedaliah and all of those with him, and then murdered a passing caravan of pilgrims for good measure, dropping the bodies into the city well and totally filling it up.

At this, the Babylonians razed almost all of Judah and exiled most of its inhabitants. The nationalists were allowed to escape into Egypt, where they became mercenaries and sunk into the worst sorts of heresies. Such was the character of their fervor.


Unless a society can consistently propogate its beliefs and principles to future generations, it will inevitably decay. There may well be an appearance of vigor, and often a prideful nationalism, yet it is ultimately built on sand. For the defenders of such a society are defending nothing deeper or more profound than the status quo, once they have lost contact with the principles around which their nation was formed in the first place.

This, perhaps, is the fatal flaw of democracy. Democracy holds no special reverence for tradition and history; such things quickly become irrelevant. Indeed, this ahistoricism is the source for much of democracy's appeal, given the sheer number of evil traditions in the world. Regardless, what must inevitably result is a society dedicated to nothing more than the needs of the moment, rather than any historical legacy or morality. Consider the overwhelming importance of the national economy in American politics, compared to the deafening silence greeting the rise in illegitimacy.

Can democracies endure? Probably. Can they endure as moral societies? I wonder.


Anonymous said...

Given this appalling lack of moral persistence, do we wonder at the corruption of the current Israeli government and the bankrupt nature of the secular society there. That the govt. could level the communities of Gaza with nothing in return, except for the suspicion that Sharon will profit handsomely monetarily; and the great ills in much of Israel's secular society (the country has the dubious honor of being the second most corrupt government in the western world (according to the World Bank -- I believe) and is a major center for human traffiking and drug consumption) -- they have not done a very good job of conveying jewish values and ethical behavior. And the religious community is so turned inward that they are only exacerbating the problem.

As for our own country -- we need all the help we can get as well.

Mastiff said...

Hang on a sec—I do not believe that Sharon was motivated in any way by financial gain (though he might have tried to profit as a fringe benefit, I have no idea either way). Sharon clearly believed that he was doing the right thing, and could therefore trample as many people in the process as necessary.

As far as "nothing in return," while I don't think we got enough in return for the appalling strategic concessions, Israel got a number of benefits. Best of all is the present civil war brewing between Fatah and Hamas; nearly as good is the opening of diplomatic relations with a number of Arab countries.

But the drug trafficking and slave trade is a desecration of God's name. And Israel has yet to decide whether it wants to be a Jewish state, or a state of Jews; until it does, it cannot really take steps to establish a moral environment without angering one side or the other. Obviously, I would prefer a Jewish state…