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Culture vs. Conscience

As we approach the introspective period of the Three Weeks, I’d like to share with you a thought provoking essay written by one of the 20th century’s premier American pulpit rabbis, Emanuel Feldman. Rabbi Feldman holds BS and MS degrees from the Johns Hopkins University and a PhD from Emory University. Over the course of his 40 year rabbinic career, he almost single handedly created a thriving orthodox community in Atlanta, GA. Rabbi Feldman’s article focuses on how one’s environment shapes his or her identity. Perhaps this can give us a deeper understanding as to how the special customs that we uphold during the Three Weeks are meant to affect us and our reality:

Culture vs. Conscience

I like to study ancient Hebrew texts such as Midrash, Talmud, and classic commentators to the Pentateuch. Here in Jerusalem, I usually spend the time in a beautiful new synagogue down the street. It is strikingly designed, with high windows displaying the surrounding Jerusalem hills, the interior tastefully furnished with lovely wooden pews, the Holy Ark magnificently wrought, the floors of colorful Jerusalem stone; all this, plus very comfortable seating. It is a spiritual pleasure just to sit there in the quiet of an afternoon when it is entirely empty—normally it seats three hundred—and to let the ambience seep into me as I study.

On occasion, I go instead to a much more humble place to do my studying, because it houses a specialized library, which is very useful. It is a small, makeshift synagogue in the basement of a refurbished air-raid shelter, which serves as a prayer room and seats no more than thirty people. Although it is just as quiet, there are no windows, the seats are not as comfortable, everything is plain and unvarnished and rather primitive, and the general ambience pales into nothingness when compared to the handsome synagogue.

Which venue do I prefer for my solitary studying? I would like to say that I prefer the tiny basement room because it lacks all material distractions of scenery and rich appurtenances. But I must be honest. I am not a saint (please do not reveal this to my congregants) nor am I a monk, and I prefer the physical beauty of the large synagogue because I find that it affects my inner self and creates within me a sense of calm and peace. I do the identical studying in each place, but somehow the atmosphere of elegance and grace penetrates my soul and gives me a sense of tranquility as I study.

Perhaps this is a paradigm of culture and conscience. Culture is the external, the outside. Conscience emanates from my “being,” the inside. My “being” cannot live independent of its external surroundings. Outside, for good or for ill, affects inside. The external affects the internal. The environment, the atmosphere, engraves itself upon one’s being.

Some definitions are in order—not an easy task, since culture and conscience are broad and vague terms and have no clearly defined markers or borders.

What is culture? Some define it as the collective manifestation of human intellectual and spiritual achievement, with components such as literature, painting, sculpture, philosophy, science, and music. In a broader sense, culture can refer not only to human intellectual and spiritual achievement, but also to the practical application of a collective state of mind, a state of mind that reflects history and religion and family and society and education and upbringing—or the absence thereof.

Culture is not necessarily elevating or positive. It can also be negative. There can be a culture of guns and a culture of caring; a culture of violence and a culture of peace; a culture of love and a culture of hate.

So is it with individuals. A person can be highly cultured in the common meaning of that term. The Nazi guards who listened to Bach and Beethoven while the adjacent gas ovens destroyed millions of human beings were obviously quite cultured. The German professors who stood silently by while their Jewish colleagues were dismissed from their posts and sent to die in Auschwitz for no reason, these were all cultured men and women. Was not Heidegger, the great philosopher, the great Jew-hater and Nazi-lover, a very cultured man? Was not T.S. Eliot a very cultured man, although he was an anti-Semite? Is Heidegger less of a thinker because he carries serious prejudices against other human beings? No. Is Eliot less a poet because he bore serious negative prejudices against other human beings? No. Are they any less cultured? No. Because one can be quite cultured and quite blemished.

If culture is external, originating from without the person, from his/her surroundings and community, conscience can be said to emanate from within the person. That is to say, there is an inner conscience, but there is no inner culture. Culture is imposed on us from without, is imbibed and absorbed by us. But conscience is within us, is part of us. Some would even say that it is natural and inborn.

I cannot really affect or change the surrounding culture, though through an act of will, I can attempt to resist it and can refuse to join it if necessary. Conscience, on the other hand, is internal, and I have some power to mold it, to shape it. When Genesis 6:5 says that “the instinct of a man is evil from his beginnings, ” it does not mean that man is destined to remain evil forever. Rather, for Judaism it has always meant that it is the task of a person to transcend those instincts and to become human, to develop instincts of good and to make them dominant. A surrounding culture of generosity can be of great help. But even in the absence of external assistance, the individual, following the models of other spiritual masters, as well as through prayer, and study, and reflection, can effect such transcending of instincts all on his own.

Conscience could be characterized as man’s inner compass. But conscience is not an innate guide. Each of us must work to manifest it. Some might add that conscience is that aspect of eternity that is within us. Perhaps so, if the individual peels off the layers of self and allows eternity to shine through, which of course is more quickly verbalized than actualized. But in any case, no one claims that culture is born within us.

Is there a connection between culture and conscience? Culture can certainly affect conscience. Those living in a narcissistic, self-absorbed culture will find their inborn selfish instincts to be enhanced and enlarged, while those who live in a giving, tolerant, and open culture will find it easier to overcome those inborn instincts and to transcend them. In such cases, culture affects conscience: a culture of evil can actually obliterate conscience; a culture of benevolence can refine and enrich conscience.

Left by itself, an undeveloped conscience is not always good and noble. My raw conscience could theoretically tell me that I must destroy you—or my conscience could tell me that it is wrong to hurt you. When Shakespeare declares, “conscience doth make cowards of us all,” does he mean that conscience prevents us from doing things that ought not to be done, that are foolhardy, that it makes us think before we speak and before we act? Or does he mean that conscience acts as a brake and will not allow us to act boldly when boldness is required, that it makes us cowardly and timid? Sometimes it might be brave to be cowardly, and sometimes it might be cowardly to be brave. “Let your conscience be your guide” is not always sage advice, because my conscience might already be distorted by the influence of an evil culture surrounding me.

And so we run in circles, culture and conscience chasing one another. Their mysterious interplay needs some further contemplation. I will now visit that lovely synagogue where I can do some serious pondering while allowing its ambience to seep into myself.