An Undignified Society?

Mordy Oberstein

The effects of society upon the mind of a person should not be taken lightly. Each society has fine subtleties that we become so accustomed to: we do not question the notions by which we abide. We are complacently unaware of them. We see this phenomenon even on an intergenerational level. For example, the WWII generation often complains that the younger generation lacks a certain work ethic, to which the younger generation is wholly unaware. It is only through a distant lens that one generation may make such observations of another. My intrigue however does not concern the idiosyncrasies of one generation relative to another. I question whether or not our entire weltanschauung in regards to certain aspects of our lives are completely off kilter due to the latent notions of our society: in particular, the idea of human dignity.

There is a very deep and strong drive in man to achieve the notion of human dignity. Though we often cannot fully conceptualize what we mean by human dignity, it is nonetheless a seemingly very natural striving of man. Describing dignity as a natural part of man is actually a very appropriate way to relate to human dignity. Human dignity means to consider or treat oneself according to our design, as well as our place in the world. As such, human dignity depends very much on our specific nature; hence we have the isolated category of human dignity. This intuitive reference is actually quite on target, as the dignity of an animal would certainly be different, since its role or place in the world is certainly different due to its unique nature. 

As such, man upholds a unique posture in reality. Unlike the animal kingdom, he is not the limp subject of the forces of reality; rather he establishes a partnership with the world around him. Man is the great perceiver, God has majestically endowed man with the ability to perceive that which exists outside of himself, via an intellect. Man’s activities are much more than monotonous reactions to impulse as seen in the animal kingdom. He has the ability to take control of his life, pause the forces of internal impulse or coercion, and act after diligent analysis. He acts based upon understanding. He moves when he decides to move; he moves where chooses to move, instead of simply reacting to his sublime instinctual impulses. Similarly, the S’forno comments on the Pasuk in Bereishis (1:26) which states that God created man “ our image,” that this refers to mans capacity for understanding. He specifically remarks, “indeed, that he be in a small way like the Heavenly hosts, insofar as they function with knowledge and understanding”.  The Rav formulates an exact equation between human dignity and the creation of man in the image of God (i.e. as S’forno stated, with action based upon understanding). The Rav states “…to be created in the image of God = to be endowed with human dignity.” (Out of the Whirlwind, pg. 109). That is to say, action based upon understanding, without persuasion by impulse, this is the sum of human dignity.

Control and human dignity are concepts that go hand in hand. A person who is not in control of his responses to reality is a person who does not react with reasoning and understanding. The intellectual prowess of man allows him to stop short the rash and domineering instinctual impulse and allows him to regain control of his reactions. The Rav in the Lonely Man of Faith expounds on this point when he says “ The Brute’s existence is an undignified one because it is a helpless existence…..dignity is unobtainable as long as man has not reclaimed himself from coexistence with nature and has risen from a non-reflective, degradingly helpless instinctive life to an intelligent, planned, and majestic one” (Chapter I). 

We see this phenomenon as well in regards to a Navi. The Gemara in Nedarim (38a) requires that a Navi be wealthy on his own. That is the equivalent of saying that a Navi must function based upon his understanding, based upon chachma, reliant on none other and in control of his own destiny. Furthermore, in order to be in a state of Nevuah, his life must be based upon his understanding of reality, not the pragmatism of making an employer happy. The Navi’s sole source of activity must be founded upon his understanding of God’s world. Direct reliance on another for sustenance often demands that we adhere to their, not our, understanding. It is no surprise now, that the Torah considers nevuah the height of human activity as a life in the image of God, based upon understanding. We see a similar concept by how we are instructed to treat the needy. The Torah tells us that the highest form of charity is in giving the needy a means of sustaining their own existence. We thereby not only provide for the practical necessities of those less fortunate, but return a dignified life to them as well. 

With a basic understanding of human dignity it is now possible to return to the original issue at hand and determine if human dignity is facilitated by our society. 

In Torah, we often speak of the removal of the internal forces of coercion from our lives. We seek to limit the forces of the sexual and appetitive drives so that their impulses do not dictate our actions. It is a central theme of Torah to gain freedom from these compelling forces within the personality. But should we apply this idea to external forces, can we make the same claim? Can we make the same claim that we are opposed to the coercive forces which make us act based upon impulse, without understanding and without dignity, but rather out of fear etc.? While we certainly agree and are fervent to be wary of our internal forces that coerce us into action, can we say we have the same sensitivity and awareness of the external forces in society that compel us to act? In fact, I believe if we were to look around at our society and be honest with ourselves, we may find that many more of our actions are the result of compulsion rather than our personal, internal understanding. 

The gamut of this is so vast, how often do we question certain etiquettes and other social behaviors? How much of an effect do the values of our society have on us without our noticing? But even beyond the social underpinnings that often go unrecognized, how often in our society are we being told what to do? How often are we being told what to do under the threat of fines and penalties, ticketing, and taxation? If we were to think about our days and ask ourselves how many times we acted to avoid being ticketed, to avoid a fine, to avert being “nickeled and dimed” by some bureaucratic nonsense, how often would that be? Is this the sum of human dignity? Is this the result of action based upon our understanding of how the world works? Or is this being put under the gun and reacting off our gut instincts, of reacting out of compulsion and coercion, out of fear? 

How much thinking is involved in these activities compared to how much action out of impulse to avoid trouble? Coercion inherently means that we are not acting based on understanding, but being manipulated into a position where certain psychological forces overtake us. When was the last time you were driving and thought about what speed limit makes sense for the conditions you were currently driving in? How many times while driving have you thought about what the speed limit was so as to avoid being pulled over by a cop and avoid a fee and points on your license? My point exactly, when was the last time you chose and didn’t just respond?