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yesh omrim

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Rambam, repentance, and racism

19 March 2009

As you may have heard, there’s a massive…words fail me…going over the fannish segments of the Internet, particularly LiveJournal, that some have dubbed “RaceFail ’09”. (See here for a chronological and comprehensive list of links. Note that despite the “Fail” in the topic as a whole, the content is a mix of the thought-provoking and the cringe-inducing.) I have been reading a lot of the stuff posted under this heading, commenting a little, reading a lot, commenting a little, reading a lot, thinking a lot… I think I’m ready to post a little now.

Let me start by quoting Maimonides, Laws of Repentance 7:3.

Do not say that one should only repent of sins involving deeds, such as lechery and robbery and theft. Just as one has to turn away from these, so too does one have to search for bad character traits and turn away from them—from anger and from hatred and from envy and from strife and from mockery and from chasing money or honor and from gluttony, and so forth—from all of these, one must penitently return from. And these corruptions are harder than the ones involving deeds, because when one becomes embedded in them, it is hard to separate from them. And so it is written (Isaiah 55:7): “Let the evildoer abandon his way and the corrupt man his thoughts.”

A bad character trait is not a sin. (Maimonides uses different Hebrew words—avonot and aveirot—to refer to the two things.) People usually don’t decide to be angry or envious in the way they decide, say, to eat a cheeseburger. But Maimonides teaches us that no matter how those bad traits got into us, we have a duty to take them out, and he warns us that it’s not going to be easy.

We might see the improvement of our own character as a form of prudence. Anger leads to assault, envy leads to theft, and so on, so if we control the roots of bad character we can prevent the weeds of overt sin from surfacing. We might even notice that bad character makes it harder to repent of our overt sins and easier to rationalize them. (“OK, I hit her, but she deserved it, and I didn’t leave any bruises…”)

Maimonides teaches us to go further. Even if we know with perfect certainty (as if we ever could) that our character flaws have not led us to do anything wrong, we still have to work on uprooting them. The flaws are bad in and of themselves, not just bad for what they do.

Moreover, we have an obligation to look for those bad traits—to turn over the wet rocks in our own souls and see if anything slimy and ugly has made a home there. It’s not enough to leave them all untouched until someone else says “dude, I think you have some envy issues you need to work on”. It’s certainly not enough to wait for that “someone else” to phrase his or her critique in a given way.

This is great news, because it means we will always have something to do. If God set a standard of human virtue and said “get up to here”, then anyone who reached that standard would have little motivation to go higher, and anyone who found that standard impossible would have little motivation to rise at all. But the commandment of repentance focuses on our direction, not our position.

Almost all of us are tainted by the corruption of racial prejudice, but we can repent of it. I am a racist, but if I make the right effort today, I will be less of a racist tomorrow than I was yesterday. That’s a capability I can be proud of… if I use it.

OK, back to reading a lot.