Presented to the Philosophers’ Club of Rochester, New York, on September 26, 2011.

Missing the Mark

(September 26, 2011)

This week marks another turn of the calendar, according to Jewish tradition. On Wednesday evening at sundown begins Rosh Hashanah. In Hebrew, “rosh” means head, and “ha-shanah” means the year. It’s the head of the year: it’s New Year’s.

The Jewish New Year differs in some fundamental ways from our secular New Year. The observance, for example, is far more muted. This is because the Jewish New Year is largely a period of introspection that begins with Rosh HaShanah and extends for ten days until Yom Kipper, the Day of Atonement. This ten-day period, also called the Days of Awe, is meant to be a time of stock-taking, of self-reflection. It is customary during this time, for example, to seek out in person those whom we may have offended in the proceeding year and ask forgiveness. In this age of the Internet, however, it’s not unusual to receive a mass e-mailing from a friend—I’ve already received one—saying, in essence, “Hey, any of you I’ve hurt this year, I apologize and ask your forgiveness.” I’m not sure this long-distance, aseptic apology is what the ancient rabbis had in mind, but I guess it’s better than nothing. At any rate, this period of ten days, these Days of Awe, is a time principally to reflect on how we are conducting our lives and specifically, how we may have messed up. Given the scope of that task, sometimes I think ten days is not enough.

The Days of Awe concludes on Yom Kippur. If there’s any day of the year that even the most non-observant, non-believing Jew goes to Temple, this is it. Anyone my age remembers with pride when in 1965 Sandy Koufax of the Los Angeles Dodgers refused to pitch in Game One of the World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur. (Instead of Koufax, Don Drysdale pitched and gave up seven runs in less than three innings. “I bet right now you wish I was Jewish, too,” Drysdale said to manager Walter Alston when he came to the mound to pull him from the game. The Dodgers lost to the Minnesota Twins, 8-2.)

Why does virtually every Jew in the world go to Temple on Yom Kippur? What happens there that day that is so compelling?

In the broadest sense, what Jews do in Temple on Yom Kippur is stand together as a community and publicly confess their sins. The Jewish concept of sin differs in some important ways from that of other religions. Judaism teaches that humans are born with free will, and morally neutral, with both an inclination toward goodness, leading a productive life, and concern for others, but also an inclination toward evil, baser instincts, selfishness. The moral laws in the Torah—starting with the Ten Commandments but including hundreds of other commandments—are meant to help steer one’s behavior toward the good.

The Hebrew word most commonly translated as “sin”—cheit—literally means “to go astray.” An alternative meaning of “cheit” is an archery target. So sinning is like an arrow missing the target. Sinning, in short, is missing the mark.

The ways in which individuals can miss the mark during the course of a year are many, and in the Yom Kippur service we stand all together and recite them out loud. The list we recite—and we do it multiple times—runs through the alphabet with each letter corresponding to a different sin. This doesn’t mean we have committed only 24 sins—the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet—but that we have committed the whole range of sins—from A to Z—the full gamut of possible human failings. Every mark that could have been missed, someone among us surely has missed, and sometime in our lives, we have missed it. So we stand together and say aloud, “We have been arrogant, we have betrayed, we have stolen, we’ve corrupted our own characters, we’ve corrupted others’ characters, we’ve been deceitful, we’ve ridiculed good people, we’ve made misleading statements.” And every seven or eight sins or so, we stop and ask God’s forgiveness (presumably we’ve already asked forgiveness from the people we’ve actually hurt). We say, “For all these sins, forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.” And then we continue with the list. “We’ve made false promises, we’ve given false counsel, we’ve abused the trust of others, we’ve taken advantage, we’ve lied, we’ve stolen, we’ve slandered.” It goes on. “For all these sins, forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.”

This full day at Temple, by the way, is done while observing a complete 24-hour fast. (The traditional Yom Kippur greeting from one Jew to another is, “Have an easy fast.”)

It’s odd, I suppose, that people would willingly do this year after year, would fast and give up a major league baseball game to participate in all of this. But I guess on some level, it works: we’ve been doing it for several thousand years.

I like the Yom Kippur ritual because it presupposes that human beings are fallible, that we all miss the mark, and that with effort, we can control some of our baser urges and maybe do better next year. I find reciting the litany of possible failures is a good way to take stock: as I say the list out loud together with the congregation, I often think to myself, “Yup, did that one. Yeah, did that one, too. Oh, there’s one I’m not guilty of—at least this year.” For me, there are always more “guilties” than “not-guilties,” but it’s interesting year to year to see how my failings either remain consistent or shift with circumstances. But I like that I get to keep missing the mark without being labeled a bad person. I just have to make my apologies, hitch up my belt, and try to do it better next year.

But worse than missing the mark, in my opinion, is not even knowing there are marks to miss. Huh? Who would not know that? You don’t have to be Jewish to know that these listed behaviors are, well, sins. Right? They or their close equivalents can be found in most religious teachings, most systems of philosophy, most secular systems of morality and ethics. They’re pretty much universal, aren’t they?

Well, perhaps not. Not if you’re a typical American on the cusp of adulthood.

That is the surprising conclusion of a recent report on the moral map of American young adults. The report is contained in a new book, Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood, by Christian Smith and colleagues, published by Oxford University Press. I haven’t read the book yet—it’s that new—but I’ve gotten the gist from a number of thoughtful reviews and printed commentary.

During the summer of 2008, Smith, a professor at Notre Dame and a well-known sociologist of religion, led a research team that surveyed more than 3,000 young people across the country, asking about their moral lives. They conducted in-depth interviews with 230 of that group, many of them in college or university.

The results are depressing. As New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote in his column of September 12, “It’s not so much that these young Americans are living lives of sin and debauchery, at least no more than you’d expect from 18 to 23 year olds. What’s disheartening is how bad they are at thinking and talking about moral issues.” In his column, entitled “If it Feels Good…,” Brooks went on to say:

The interviewers asked open-ended questions about right and wrong, moral dilemmas and the meaning of life. In the rambling answers . . .you see the young people groping to say anything sensible on these matters. But they just don’t have the categories or vocabulary to do so.When asked to describe a moral dilemma they had faced, two-thirds of the young people either couldn’t answer the question or described problems that are not moral at all, like whether they could afford to rent a certain apartment or whether they had enough quarters to feed the meter at a parking spot.

Not many of them have previously given much or any thought to many of the kinds of questions about morality that we asked,” Smith and his co-authors write. When asked about wrong or evil, they could generally agree that rape and murder are wrong. But, aside from these extreme cases, moral thinking didn’t enter the picture, even when considering things like drunken driving, cheating in school or cheating on a partner. “I don’t really deal with right and wrong that often,” is how one interviewee put it.

The default position, which most of them came back to again and again, is that moral choices are just a matter of individual taste. “It’s personal,” the respondents typically said. “It’s up to the individual. Who am I to say?”

Still quoting David Brooks,

Rejecting blind deference to authority, many of the young people have gone off to the other extreme: “I would do what I thought made me happy or how I felt. I have no other way of knowing what to do but how I internally feel.”

Many were quick to talk about their moral feelings but hesitant to link these feelings to any broader thinking about a shared moral framework or obligation. As one put it, “I mean, I guess what makes something right is how I feel about it. But different people feel different ways, so I couldn’t speak on behalf of anyone else as to what’s right and wrong.”

Smith and company found an atmosphere of extreme moral individualism—of relativism and nonjudgmentalism. Again, this doesn’t mean that America’s young people are immoral. Far from it. But, Smith and company emphasize, they have not been given the resources—by schools, institutions and families—to cultivate their moral intuitions, to think more broadly about moral obligations, to check behaviors that may be degrading.

In this way, concludes Brooks, the study says more about adult America than youthful America.

So what does this study say about adult America? Sometimes, maybe, it takes someone looking at us from the outside to see it clearly. In this case, the British magazine, The Economist, has also reported on Lost in Transition, and concluded with this warning:

“What is striking about the responses to a whole string of questions probing how these young people deal with moral issues is how few of them seem to grasp what is being asked. . . (M)any young adults have been taught not just to tolerate other people’s views and behavior, but to see them all as equally valid.. . (A) standard answer is that it is up to each individual to decide for himself. Very few seem to think that right and wrong are rooted in anything outside personal experience.

Concludes The Economist, “It is really a warning to parents. In the guise, often, of teaching tolerance, we are failing to ensure that our children understand how to frame moral issues and make judgments about right conduct and about what is good in life.” The Economist (Sept. 17, 2011, pp. 91-92).

Recently, I took a few minutes of time in the writing class I teach at RIT, to discuss the conclusions of Lost in Transition with my students. They did not dispute the findings. When I asked why this was the situation with people their age, several echoed The Economist: Said one (and I’m paraphrasing), “From elementary school, we’ve been taught to respect diversity and tolerance, so if everyone is different but we have to accept all different ideas, whose to say one set of values or ideas or ethics—whatever you want to call it—is better than another?”

Another student put it more succinctly: “Hey, it’s all about political correctness. If everybody’s right, nobody’s wrong.”

My students are bright. They are our future engineers, artists, and computer scientists. But I found that, much like the students in the national study, they not only are largely unschooled in matters of morality and ethics, they don’t have the language to discuss these topics intelligently.

All of which leaves me concerned, and confused, and a little sad. I support diversity, I love that in our communities kids go to schools amidst a richly diverse, multi-cultural student population, and that they learn tolerance and they learn to celebrate diverse heritages and cultures. And yet, I’m concerned that somehow political correctness may have pushed us too far, so that these same young people do see all value systems as equally valid and therefore have grown up with no moral compass but the one they create in their own heads.

It worries me because human beings are fallible—that’s what the Day of Atonement is all about—and we know from history that if what’s right is only what seems right at the moment, we are in danger of losing the connecting fabric that holds together a civil society. As a Jew, I am particularly aware of where moral relativism can lead when, under the right historical circumstances, it may be mixed with latent prejudice, economic hardship and political demagoguery.

In Jewish tradition, this ten-day period, these Days of Awe, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is seen metaphorically as an open book—the Book of Life—during which time each person’s fate is written for the coming year. The tradition says repentance, prayer, and deeds of charity can affect the final decree. But in the last hours of Yom Kippur, as the sun sets, the congregation rises and affirms that as the Book of Life closes, we accept that our fate for the coming year has been sealed: “Who shall live and who shall die? Who shall have rest and who shall wander? Who shall be at peace and who shall be pursued?”

Societies, like people, can also face times of introspection. And the fates of societies can also be determined: which ones will be at peace and which at war, which will continue to flourish and which will decline. This worries me, because it’s one thing to miss the mark; it’s another to no longer even know that the mark exists.

©Peter Lovenheim