Character is the composite of repeated actions, employed values and refined qualities, so it is somewhat absurd to judge people – usually to condemn them – based on one deed or misdeed. Should Moshe’s reputation be tarnished irrevocably because he failed to bring his generation or himself into the land of Israel? Should even the spies that he dispatched or Korach his cousin and nemesis be cast into eternal ignominy because of their sins? Should one wrong action outweigh a lifetime of accomplishment?
Part of the moral malaise of modern man reflects this very question. It is not only the absence of heroes that can inspire anyone to do good but also the penchant of many individuals, and even the delight some take, in destroying great people’s reputations, knocking them off their pedestals, exposing and publicizing even a single flaw, and even uncovering the misdeeds or sometimes just words that allow people to conclude, “You see? They were no good. We are all no good. There is no such thing as greatness, moral attainment, or holiness.” It is as if to say because there are no perfect people, there are no people worthy of emulation.
But is that true? Are there no heroes left anymore? Does the slightest blot on one’s escutcheon destroy whatever good anyone did? Well, it depends, but on what?
If I thought for a moment that any of these modern critics were sincere and trying to make the world a better place, I would hesitate, but I don’t believe that at all. It’s mostly virtue-signaling – the public display of one’s moral superiority on the cheap, without any sacrifice, consequences, or real accomplishment. It is as if one gains moral standing merely by pointing out the failings of others, lifting up themselves by lowering others. It is as pathetic as it is commonplace.
We are living in an age in which virtue-signaling matters much more than actual virtue, and thus one can proclaim that there is no such thing as virtue because there really are no virtuous people. It is very cynical – and wrong.
For example, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Andrew Jackson are today routinely derided as slave-owners and racists, whose names and pictures in public places cause offense, especially to the easily offended. References to them are being systematically excised in places in America where virtue-signaling is rampant and tolerance is in short supply. Abraham Lincoln, who freed the slaves and preserved the Union, sometimes expressed racist views and is similarly excoriated as unenlightened. Add to this list the flaws of FDR, for whom thinking Jews bear ill will because of his studied indifference to the Holocaust, or JFK and his moral indiscretions, and a host of others.
Poor Joe Biden keeps falling into the clutches of the virtue-signalers almost on a weekly basis. I don’t carry his water, but he got a raw deal when he declared it an asset rather than an iniquity to work together with segregationist Senators with whom he disagreed vehemently. Of course, he erred only in implying that they were Republicans; they weren’t – the two Senators he named, Jim Eastland and Herman Talmadge, were Democrats. So he didn’t exactly reach across the aisle but rather to the people sitting right next to him. Perhaps some courageous reporter will ask Biden why he joined the party of segregationists in the 1970’s and what measures he took to weed them out of his party.
And now it’s Martin Luther King’s turn. His Pulitzer-Prize winning biographer, David Garrow, an unabashed admirer of King, could not get an essay published in America (it was published in a British periodical; there is some protection left for secular saints, sometimes) that detailed repeated salacious, scandalous and criminal behavior on King’s part, all recorded by the FBI on audiotape to be released within a decade So is there no one beyond reproach? What do we really gain from all these takedowns?
Nothing at all. But here is where we got off track and how we can get back on track. The critics are not approaching these individuals from a religious or objectively moral perspective, and do not generally take Christianity seriously, but they have embraced Christian doctrine that has skewed their outlook: that of the “perfect person.” There can be perfect people, and only the perfect person should be admired or worshipped. Everyone else is fallen, disgraced, abominable and nothing special. But the Torah never proposed such an idea and definitively opposed it. There are no perfect people. The greatest among us – Avraham, Moshe, David, etc. – all stumbled, all sinned, and all repented. That is what defines human character at its best – especially the capacity to do wrong, admit it, repent, and regain one’s moral standing.
To be sure, certain crimes are so heinous that they tarnish the person forever (homicide leaps to mind, among a number of other sociopathic acts), but aside from that, the criterion we should utilize in measuring the heroes of the past and even present is this: were their moral weaknesses or flaws part of their life’s purpose or major accomplishment or distinct from it? The lives of Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, Kennedy, King – and most of the other targets of today’s virtue-signaling hypocrites – were not defined by their flaws but by the good that they did, and the good they did was completely unrelated to their sins and moral failings. Obviously the same pertains to Moshe – but not to Moshe’s spies whose mission in life (“all noblemen, leaders of Israel”) was undermined and vitiated by their sins, and not to Korach whose rebellion overwhelmed and destroyed any accomplishments he had.
We should realize that even worse than living in a world where people search for flaws in others as if they are looking for chametz on the night before Pesach – with a microscope, a magnifying glass and then a megaphone – is living in a world where we think there are neither heroes nor people of accomplishment, and we conclude that there is no goodness worthy of emulation in this world because no one is perfect. That is a world of despair and emptiness, a sad world that needs real uplifting.
Rather than indulge the virtue-signaling dwarfs who are nibbling at the ankles of giants, all to further a political agenda, we should recognize human complexity and admire the struggles and achievements of great people not despite their imperfections but precisely because they were imperfect, and still achieved so much. Erasing their names and pictures is insensitive – to truth, reality and to a true understanding the nuances of human nature.
Judaism always advocates dealing with people with “chesed ve-emet,” kindness and truth. Kindness alone and truth alone can very often distort reality and impair our perception of what is good, moral and just. Kindness and truth must work in tandem, as we need both to survive and appreciate the good in each other.