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Holding Ourselves Accountable

Can virtuous behavior be taught?

I have had my doubts. Of course, parents do their best to instill their values in their children. In retrospect, however, it seems to me as if I learned from the way my parents lived their lives rather than from any values that they tried to teach me. I would say the same thing about how my own children have turned out. If they are honest or kind, it is not because their parents or religious school teachers told them that honesty or kindness are good, but rather because there were people in their lives who have modeled honesty or kindness.

My skepticism derives, at least in part, from the eight elementary school years that I studied at Yeshiva Rabbi Israel Salanter in New York City. Salanter was an Orthodox Jewish Day School. It was named for Rabbi Israel Salanter, the nineteenth-century Lithuanian founder of the Musar movement, which sought to encourage moral behavior through the cultivation of virtues (middot) such as humility, patience, and kindness. The writings of Salanter and other early leaders of the Musar movement are inspiring, but as those teachings were applied in elementary education in the 1950s, they left something to be desired.

Our teachers’ values at Salanter Yeshiva were drummed into us with a very heavy hand. We heard many stories about people burning in hell (geihinnom) for their sins and were told that if we did not observe all the commandments, we would be joining them. Whether we were asked if we had remembered to pray the evening service the night before or if we had told any lies this week, the emphasis was invariably on the reward or punishment for compliance or noncompliance.

As a result, I have ever since been post-traumatically averse to being held accountable by anyone for my ritual practice or ethical behavior. My spiritual life has flourished only when it is soaked in a marinade of compassion and forgiveness. When I remember that I am human and hence flawed, I remember to be self-compassionate when I act insensitively or hurtfully. If I can forgive myself, I can be compassionate to others. And when I forget, all I think about is what I look like in the eyes of God, who never expected perfection from humans in the first place and loves us nevertheless. I do my best, and I don’t worry whether there is a divine record keeper.

Last week, I may have had a breakthrough that will reduce for me the toxicity of the word “accountable.” The Musar tradition is currently undergoing a metamorphosis in some circles into a much more benign form, and I decided to take a risk and join a va’ad (a mutual accountability circle) at a conference of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality.

One of the teachings emphasized there by Rabbi David Jaffe posits that most of the time, we don’t have the freedom to choose. Rather, we behave habitually, without self-awareness. Sometimes, however, we have “points of choice”—moments when we are pulled to act out of habit but become aware that there is a holier, more virtuous way to act. Out of habit, I might snap at my husband when he does something that annoys me and not even notice that I snapped. A point of choice arises when I notice my irritation and choose to respond lovingly and not out of annoyance. Every time I snap, it is easier to snap the next time. Every time I modify my behavior, it is easier going forward to avoid acting out of annoyance.

It was the last session of the evening, and our “homework” was to notice a choice point before our next meeting. At dinner several hours before, I had bused my dishes and then, without premeditation or even awareness, I had grabbed a second whoopee pie off the table and stuffed it in my mouth, chewing before I became consciously aware of what I was doing. This was by no means a behavior unfamiliar to me. So I decided to observe my choice points around eating.

There had been a lot of talk at the evening session about eating chips, and I was craving a bag of Doritos. I found myself walking to the store in the hotel lobby. I stood in front of the display of chips but stopped myself and walked away.

Up in my room, I discounted the importance of what had just happened. I hadn’t bought the Doritos, I realized, because in thirty minutes, I was supposed to do a private self-examination in conversation with God, and at 8:50 the following morning, I was scheduled to meet with a partner to check in about how our spiritual work had turned out. I had refrained because I felt accountable to external judges. It only counted, I assumed, if my motivation was internally generated.

But as I thought about it, I saw that, my elementary education notwithstanding, I need not regard external accountability negatively. With the help of a weekly check-in partner and a monthly meeting of the mutual accountability group, I might be able to recondition my habitual responses about Doritos and many other things, so that my conscious and unconscious choices might eventually be internally generated. Nobody is judging me. Nobody is threatening me with hellfire. We all acknowledge that ethical and spiritual development is a lifelong journey with successes and failures along the way.

It is a journey that is best not traveled alone.


Rabbi Jacob Staub is Professor of Jewish Philosophy and Spirituality at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, PA, where he directs the program in Jewish Spiritual Direction.

This content was originally published on the website of The First Day, at http://firstdaypress.org/holding-ourselves-accountable.

Type: Essay