Cover image for The banality of good and evil : moral lessons from the Shoah and Jewish tradition
The banality of good and evil : moral lessons from the Shoah and Jewish tradition
Blumenthal, David R.
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Publication Information:
Washington, D.C. : Georgetown University Press, [1999]

Physical Description:
viii, 326 pages ; 23 cm.

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BJ1401 .B58 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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People who helped exterminate Jews during the shoah (Hebrew for "holocaust") often claimed that they only did what was expected of them. Intrigued by hearing the same response from individuals who rescued Jews, David R. Blumenthal proposes that the notion of ordinariness used to characterize Nazi evil is equally applicable to goodness. In this provocative book, Blumenthal develops a new theory of human behavior that identifies the social and psychological factors that foster both good and evil behavior.

Drawing on lessons primarily from the shoah but also from well-known obedience and altruism experiments, My Lai, and the civil rights movement, Blumenthal deftly interweaves insights from psychology, history, and social theory to create a new way of looking at human behavior. Blumenthal identifies the factors -- social hierarchy, education, and childhood discipline -- that shape both good and evil attitudes and actions.

Considering how our religious and educational institutions might do a better job of encouraging goodness and discouraging evil, he then makes specific recommendations for cultivating goodness in people, stressing the importance of the social context of education. He reinforces his ideas through stories, teachings, and case histories from the Jewish tradition that convey important lessons in resistance and goodness.

Appendices include the ethical code of the Israel Defense Forces, material on non-violence from the Martin Luther King, Jr., Center, a suggested syllabus for a Jewish elementary school, and a list of prosocial sources on the Web, as well as a complete bibliography.

If people can commit acts of evil without thinking, why can't even more commit acts of kindness? Writing with power and insight, Blumenthal shows readers of all faiths how we might replace patterns of evil with empathy, justice, and caring, and through a renewed attention to moral education, perhaps prevent future shoahs.

Author Notes

David R. Blumenthal is Jay and Leslie Cohen Professor of Judaic Studies in the Department of Religion at Emory University. Among his numerous other books are God at the Center (Harper & Row, 1988/Jason Aronson, 1994) and Facing the Abusing God: A Theology of Protest (Westminster/John Knox, 1993).

Reviews 1

Choice Review

Blumenthal (Emory Univ.) has written an unusually well reasoned, well researched, and well presented book involving his post-Holocaust moral and religious reflections on preventing future genocides. His goals are to identify key psychohistorical factors that facilitate good and evil behavior and to sketch some normative ingredients for a more prosocial climate, one that may likely abort any serious turn toward genocide. The author draws from relevant important social scientific literature (e.g., Staub, Milgram, Muller, F. Katz, et al.) to support his sometimes provocative but invariably interesting views. For instance, he speculates that if the Pope had made it punishable (e.g., by excommunication) for any Catholic to contribute to the Nazi-engineered murder of Jewish people during the Holocaust, which after all occurred in Christian Europe, the number of victims would likely have been less. If that had happened, it would have demonstrated that the voice of religious authority is more effective in influencing behavior, antisocial or prosocial, than is merely holding religious or educated beliefs. Blumenthal's effort to integrate his science-based findings about values with selected prosocial teachings in Judaism and to commend this approach for those of other faiths adds a traditional richness to his work. Good index and bibliography. Suitable for upper-division undergraduates, graduates, scholars, and the educated lay public. A. S. Rosenbaum; Cleveland State University

Table of Contents

Forewordp. vii
1 Roadmapp. 1
I Knew a Jewish Nazip. 1
Analytic Reprisep. 4
Counterpointp. 7
Getting from There to Herep. 9
On Matters of Personal Privilegep. 11
Counter-textp. 15
Part 1 The Descriptive-Analytic Taskp. 17
2 The Fieldp. 19
The Studiesp. 19
Some Philosophical, Moral-Legal, and Methodological Problemsp. 21
Toward a Field Theory of That which Facilitates Both Good and Evilp. 27
The Art of Moral Livingp. 32
Counter-textp. 33
3 Hierarchy and Rolep. 35
Insertion into a Hierarchy Which Does, or Which Tolerates, Evilp. 35
Insertion into a Hierarchy Which Does, or Which Tolerates, Goodp. 41
Role and Rule in Determining Antisocial Action and Responsibilityp. 45
Role and Rule in Determining Prosocial Action and Responsibilityp. 51
Summaryp. 55
Counter-textp. 55
4 Teaching and Praxisp. 58
Teaching That Leads to Evilp. 58
Teaching That Leads to Goodp. 66
The Praxis of Evilp. 75
The Praxis of Goodp. 80
Summaryp. 82
Counter-textp. 82
5 Childhood Discipline and Personalityp. 84
Insights from the Model of the Abused Childp. 84
Insights from the Model of the Authoritarian Personalityp. 92
Abuse, Authoritarianism, and the Culture of Crueltyp. 96
The Prosocial Childhood and the Altruistic Personalityp. 97
Modeling, Prosocial Discipline, and the Culture of Carep. 100
Summaryp. 101
Counter-textp. 101
Part 2 The Prescriptive-Normative Taskp. 103
6 Transitionp. 105
Recapitulationp. 105
God's Griefp. 106
Humanity's Responsep. 108
Co-textp. 114
7 The Affections and Value-Concepts of the Prosocial Lifep. 115
"Affections"p. 115
Eleven Affections of the Prosocial Lifep. 116
"Value-Concepts"p. 117
Twelve Value-Concepts of the Prosocial Lifep. 119
Weaving the Web: Value-Concepts, Affections, and Teachingsp. 123
Weaving the Web: Moral Structures and Patterns of Behaviorp. 124
Co-textp. 125
8 Do Thisp. 126
Pre-textp. 126
Religion and the Secular Humanist Traditionp. 127
Failure Creates a Problemp. 128
Four Very Strong Recommendations for Encouraging Prosocial Attitudes and Behaviorsp. 132
The Ten Commandments for Resistant and Caring Livingp. 138
Co-textp. 139
Part 3 The Voice of Jewish Traditionp. 141
9 The Tradition and the Problemp. 143
The Tradition and the Social Sciencesp. 143
Reading Rabbinic Textsp. 147
Counter-textp. 148
10 Some Jewish Prosocial Value-Conceptsp. 149
Tselem (Image)p. 150
Brit (Convenant)p. 152
Tsedek (Justice)p. 157
Hasidut / Hesed (Caring)p. 160
Counter-textp. 166
11 Stories of Resistance and Goodnessp. 168
Resistance to Human Authorityp. 168
Stories of Goodnessp. 173
Resisting Godp. 174
Counter-textp. 180
12 Teachings of Resistance and Goodnessp. 182
Hokheah Tokhiah (You Shall Surely Reprove Your Acquaintance)p. 182
Lo Tisna' (Do Not Hate Your Fellow in Your Heart)p. 184
Yetser Tov (Good Impulse) and Yetser ha-Ra' (Evil Impulse)p. 188
Kiddush ha-Shem (Martyrdom)p. 193
Counter-textp. 195
13 Four Case Studiesp. 196
'Ein Shaliah le-Dvar 'Avera (Military Disobedience)p. 196
Lo Tihye Aharei Rabbim Lera'ot (Judicial Dissent)p. 202
Lo Ta'amod (The Obligation to Rescue)p. 206
Violence and Nonviolencep. 212
Counter-textp. 220
14 Hierarchy, Authority, and Autonomy in Teaching Judaismp. 221
Applying the Lessonsp. 221
Counter-textp. 227
Aftermatterp. 229
A The New Ethical Code of the IDFp. 231
B The Ten Commandments of the Solomon Schechter Day School Communityp. 239
C The 198 Methods of Nonviolent Action (The Einstein Institute)p. 241
D Six Steps for Nonviolent Social Change (The King Center)p. 245
E Six Principles of Nonviolence (The King Center)p. 247
F List of Prosocial Resources on the Webp. 249
G Syllabus for "The Problem of Evil"p. 252
H Social Action Rabbinics Curriculum: Na'aseh ve-Nishma'p. 256
I Introduction to Holocaust and Human Behaviorp. 262
Notesp. 265
Selected Bibliographyp. 307
Glossaryp. 315
Subject Indexp. 317
Source Indexp. 321