How the wishes of our hearts can change the world
2009 S.H. Parker

Rabbi Yishmael bar Rabbi Yossi says: One who studies Torah in order to teach is granted the ability to learn and to teach; but one who studies in order to practice is granted the ability to learn, to teach, to observe, and to practice.
-- Pirke Avot 4:6

Both of my teachers, Rabbi Gedalyah Engel and Rabbi Joseph Radinsky, taught me that Jewish ethical philosophy looks primarily at what one does. In contrast to Christian ethical thinking, one's motives, are rarely, if ever, relevant in ethical analysis. If one does the right thing, one has done right. Even if one does what was right in the hope of a reward, it is still right. Period. The end.

When I taught Introduction to Ethics, I would start by asking "Is doing the right thing for the wrong reason 'morally right'?" Virtually all of the students answered "no." In fact, they agreed that it was morally wrong (the very few who didn't, I later ran into at Hillel; coincidence?).

They, of course, agreed that one ought to avoid that which was morally wrong.

It therefore followed that they should not save a drowning child if they thought to get a reward. To save the child for the sake of a reward was to do the right thing for the wrong reason and, according to what they had also agreed to, this was not morally right. Therefore, it should be avoided.

At this point, there tended to be a number of confused and tongue-tied students.

Indeed, there appear to be only two commandments in the entire Torah that talk about how we should think or feel. All of the rest are about what we do, with no concern whatsoever about any psychological state. The two? (1) "You will love the Lord your God with all your heart" and (2) "you will not bear your fellow a grudge in your heart; you will love your fellow as yourself" (my translation, emphasis added).

The exception to the "evaluate only the act" philosophy, it seems to me, is when someone really intends to do right, tries hard to the right thing and still has a bad outcome (the hypothetical I had set up for discussion with my Rabbi was a young man who did not like his in-laws but, when they came to visit, tried to show them a good time and ended up making them unhappy). We cannot say he did wrong, I think. We can say his actions miscarried and, therefore, he failed to achieve the intended result. This case assumes, of course, that there was no prima facie reason to believe that the methods chosen, the actions taken would likely failed, could be reasonably expected to have the wrong result.

 :דבר אחר If I recall correctly, it was Rabbi Radinsky who used this to show that the Jewish concept of "guilt" was really very simple (despite numerous comediennes and Jewish -- or Italian or Catholic or ... -- mothers): "If you did what you weren't supposed to do, you're guilty." That's it. No sturm und drang, just a simple empirical, no evaluation intended, though you do need to do something about it, fact. (But, I still think that the case of "the good Samaritan son-in-law," to mix metaphors, who intends good, tries to do good, takes reasonable actions to that end and still doesn't achieve it doesn't count as "doing what you weren't supposed to do.")

Of course, the right thing done for the right reason is better. So, Jewish ethical thinking isn't limited to simple right and wrong. There are significant gray areas, particularly in "doing right." (There are fewer shades of gray on the other side of this.)

I remember learning (I think it is possibly related to Pesachim 50B) a passage in which two similar but mutually exclusive passages in the Torah were brought to teach this lesson.

His mercy is great unto the heavens:

Of one who does the right thing, but for the wrong reason, it is said "His mercy is great unto the heavens."

His mercy is great beyond the heavens:

Of one who does the right thing for the right reason, it is said "His mercy is great beyond the heavens."

(How are these passage mutually exclusive? Something cannot be "unto" and "beyond" a certain place simultaneously. Okay, the Rabbis are probably less concerned with a small literary inconsistency and the consequent hair splitting than with making the point that "regardless of your motives and your desires and your expectations, first, just do the right thing.")

The Rabbis do indeed hold the belief that if you do the right thing, even if for the wrong reason, long enough, you will come to do it for the right reason. My father, of blessed memory, while not highly observant, was imbued with this kind of thinking right to his core. He said, "You cannot change the mind of a bigot but you can make him mighty ... careful where he opens his mouth." His underlying belief being that if you don't make anti-Semitic remarks long enough, you stop thinking them.

He told me of his time in the Army in the early 1940's. He was a First Sergeant. Every once in a while, someone would make a remark. As a Top, he knew how to make things happen in the Army and, presently, the individual would receive orders transferring him to the worst duty assignment available (my father's actual words were somewhat more, uh, colorful). When he knew the person was packing his gear, my father (who was a big man and very fit) would approach him and recount what the person had said. My father says that he would then advise the person "I'm a Jew. I had those orders cut." He would be removing his uniform shirt, thus removing his insignia  of rank, as he said this (anyone who has served understands this gesture). "I want you to know that a Jew did this to you." Then, he would invite "discussion." He said, "there never was much 'discussion'."

I have seen psychologists claim that this sort of thinking, that external behavior can change internal psychology, is naive. But everything we know about operant conditioning (a/k/a reward-punishment conditioning, a/k/a training, a/k/a learning) says that there's something to it (namely, it works).

I remember learning, again from both of my Rabbis, independently, what the "best" reason was ("good" is doing the right thing, "better" is doing for the right reason and the best ... is yet to come). The best motive for doing the right thing (you see there is a "good" motivation and a better motivation), they taught me, was not even thinking about it, actually, not having to think about it. The best motive was doing right instinctively, as a matter of character. And, indeed, we see this sort of thing around us all the time. The person who runs into the burning building to save someone else's child, when told s/he's a hero, looks back at you blankly, truly not understanding what you're saying. "What else would a person do?" is a typical response or "it had to be done and I was right there." So, you see, you have heard of the instinct to do right.

The reason to learn Torah, both Rabbi Engel and Rabbi Radinsky taught, was to so internalize its value scheme that many decisions became "instinctive." A consequence of this, it seems to me, is that those who spend all of their time in study, leaving themselves no opportunity to "practice," are not learning for the best motive. In fact, it is arguable that it is not even a good motive but certainly it is not the best. It seems to me that is an obvious inference from Rabbi Yishmael's torah.

Rabbi Yonason Goldson explores the two types of goals mentioned by Rabbi
Yishmael, in the quote above, in his In the Service of The King, concluding:

Each of us must be worthy in his own right, but we must also have the welfare of the community as our ultimate goal. When we do, we will discover that the floodgates of divine wisdom will open wide so that the life-giving waters of Torah rush forth to nourish our souls and revive the spirit of our nation.