It seems we are living at a moment where much of our society’s moral compass has been turned upside down, or at the very least, has ceased to operate. The moral equivalency between Hamas and Israel; the lack of response in the university world to the Hamas atrocities, when a micro-aggression in such institutions will get you expelled or fired; and many other examples that have crossed my screen and podcast listening, as I expect it has for others.
I recently listened to a fascinating interview with Jacob Mikanowski on Conversations With Tyler. He’s a Polish born and American raised Jew who has spent his professional life exploring Eastern Europe, something I know perilously little about (except the horrible years of 1933-1945, and a modern amount as a part of generic European history – though mostly focused on the West). It’s worth listening to on its own, but it was one of the concluding questions that has stuck with me these last few days, especially given the situation I described above. The question was about what Mikanowski had learned from his many years in Eastern Europe, and while the answer was not exactly aligned with the question, it was fascinating nonetheless.
He said that his biggest learning comes from the Holocaust. He is Jewish, and some of his family survived, while most of them were killed. Amongst those who survived, some did so because they were saved by others. His question was: what kind of person saves another human being, when the risk to themselves (and their family) is death? Who has the moral courage, the value set, the strength, to make such a decision?
To answer this, he first set the historical context. At the beginning of the war there were more people who hid Jews for money or reward, and others who did so on principle. For the former, the relationship was transactional. As the war dragged on two things happened. The money began to be depleted, and the risk increased, either because neighbors discovered what they were doing and turned them in, or the risk simply became too big to manage. Money was not sufficient in providing moral courage, in most cases.
Who was most likely to save Jews? What do they have in common that we can learn from?
Mikanowski makes a few fascinating observations:
- It was the people who did not take money, but saved Jews because it was the right thing to do, that did so for the longest, and did not turn in their hidden Jews. Once the relationship became transactional, it could be superseded by something of greater value, like a loaf of bread when food was scarce. But if it was based on a value in and of itself, that was rarely overturned.
- It was often people at the margins of society – religious, geographic, social – that were most likely to save Jews. He doesn’t flesh this out, but I think he’s pointing to the way independence of thought follows a kind of independence of living, and how easily (and without awareness) we follow those around us. I thought this was fascinating as a way to think about independence of mind.
- We never really know what we’ll do in such extreme moral circumstances until they are actually upon us. We’d all like to think we’d do the right thing, but most of us don’t. While we all pray we should never be in such situations, I think there are many kinds of low hanging fruit in our daily lives. Did we shelp to Washington or Ottawa for the rallies to show our pride in being Jewish and Canadian (or American), and the values that that doing so represented? Did we give a more than our annual ma’aser expectations given the crisis in Israel? Did we go out one evening for that extra learning/tehilim for the soldiers instead of staying comfortably at home? While there are many non-Israel related questions here, these are the ones that come up for me now.
I found this incredibly powerful, both in my personal and professional life, although the reality is that given the ease of Canadian living (at least up until now), I’ve been able to get away with very little challenge of this sort in my personal life. In my professional life however, as any leader knows, having some independence of mind, let alone moral courage, is imperative – and extremely difficult. The constituents of schools, especially Jewish private schools, can bring a lot of pressure to bear. Knowing one’s own mind and having a set of clearly articulated values makes an incredible difference (as does having a strong lay partner as support).
Praying for strength for us all.