Hesperus is Bosphorus

A group blog by philosophers in and from Turkey

When a predator wants to pray

with 5 comments


The case is philosophically very interesting in various regards. I recommend at least a quick look. Below, I will summarize and make an observation.

There is a show on NBC where they catch pedophilic sexual predators red-handed and on one of their episodes they caught a 56 year old (prominent) rabbi soliciting sex with a 13 year old boy. (According to the evidence police later found this was not his first time. He also had a long and explicit sex-chat with the decoy posing as this underage boy during which he sent the boy a picture of himself performing oral sex on another man).

Then the rabbi got a 6.5 year sentence and served his term. When he got out, he declared that he repented (the Hebrew word for this official repentance seems to be “T’shuvah”) he wanted to be allowed to pray in a relatively inclusive synagogue on the sabbath days. The community of the synagogue initially allowed him, but as the news of his past deeds became widely known in the community, some people expressed strong objections to his presence citing the presence of children in the building on the sabbath days as a safety concern.

After a “backbreaking amount of time” was spent on debating “how to handle the former Rabbi’s presence in the synagog” involving online forum debates about their moral duty to a fellow faithful and consultations with expert psychiatrists, prosecutors and detectives, “the Board decided that without agreement on suitable strictures for this individual’s attendance, this person would, sadly, not be welcome.”

My observation is this: This is a tough moral dilemma. Any community, especially those which consist of very well-intended people, would struggle to come to a solution which would satisfy every member. (And they couldn’t reach a consensus in the case, the vote was not unanimous at their board.) I don’t profess to have a good solution either. But if religion can provide significant moral guidance into people’s lives, which is unattainable without faith, why didn’t religion make the dilemma easier to solve for this particular religious community? Why do their reasoning and deliberation process sound very much like what would have happened in a non-religious community with the same amount of social cohesion and generosity?

This question bothers me a lot, because I see atheists being criticized time and again on the grounds that atheism impoverishes the moral dimension of the individual and society, whereas faith in God provides moral guidance. Unless this moral guidance is as invisible as God himself, shouldn’t we be able to perceive its effects somehow?

My own take on this matter is that we are all permanently stuck in the same moral ambiguity. Believing in God or having faith in commandments doesn’t solve any problem. Yes, we can assume that there is a god commanding us to do x and even reach at quick verdicts with harsh punishments, unconditional forgiveness, or principled indifference, but this case shows that when a well-intended epistemically responsible group of adults who care for each other face a tough moral dilemma it shall remain tough, regardless what the creator of the universe commands. This is so in part because there is an ambiguity about what the command is, born out of the puzzlingly cryptic and convoluted statements through which the alleged commands are conveyed. But even if the commands were utterly unambiguous, the question “Is God’s command righteous?” is always a meaningful question to ask even for a theist, assuming that the theist wants to do his epistemic duty to find a satisfactory solution to the dilemma as the good people of the synagogue tried in this case.


Written by burkayphil

October 11, 2012 at 9:48 am

5 Responses

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  1. I’m sure I’m going to get some flack for this.

    I don’t see it as a dilemma. I think the congregation acted wrongly, and that the congregation was reasoning according to the world’s standards and not the Torah’s. As long as reasonable safeguards are in place to protect the children of the Synagogue (e.g. not allowing him to be alone with children) he should be allowed to pray there.

    If they did believe he repented, and don’t think he’ll do it again, there is absolutely no reason to not let him pray there.

    Here’s just a few passages from the Hebrew Bible in support of forgiveness and reconciliation:

    “I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions, for my own sake, and remembers your sins no more.” Isaiah 43:25

    “The Lord our God is merciful and forgiving, even though we have rebelled against him”
    Daniel 9:9

    Micah 7:18-19
    “Who is a God like you, who pardons sin and forgives the transgression of the remnant of his inheritance? You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy. You will again have compassion on us; you will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea.”

    I could go on. I don’t believe that the scriptures here under-determine a response. There is a long tradition in Judaism of sincere repentance followed by complete reconciliation with God and the community.

    But, I do believe that there will be moral ambiguities and problems with scripture as a guide, but that will be true no matter what moral system is in place. There is NO Holy Grail of ethics, which is a function which acts to crank out from a domain of situations to a range of actions. At least there is no function like this available to us.

    And perhaps that’s for the best, if there is some intrinsic good in wrestling with moral questions.


    October 11, 2012 at 4:15 pm

  2. Hey Mark! It is great to hear from you. Your reply raises an interesting challenge. Let me engage two aspects of it: (a) There is no moral dilemma in the case (or at least not the one I hinted at, you dont rule out moral dilemmas about broadcasting this issue on TV, or people making money off this crime.) (b) That the Hebrew bible has specific passages that provide the guidance in question.

    (a) The moral dilemma I take stems from not being able to trust his repentance and rehabilitation. Some moral dilemmas are purely ethical (as in the trolley stories) and some owe their toughness in part to epistemic uncertainty (such as some moral dilemmas occurring in combat and strategic bombing, abortion, issues relating to race and crime). My claim was that this case belongs to the latter impure category.

    (b) There are also passages in the Hebrew bible that teach merciless conduct towards the reprentees. God killed David’s son though David and his wife repented for their sinful marriage. God commanded Israelites to show no mercy to the tribes they will encounter in their journey to the promised land. In a twisted irony of history, perhaps Qur’an provides more unambiguous moral advice to the believers, though I fear, the advice is often decidedly inhuman.

    But perhaps we don’t disagree too much really. After all you recognize that there is no Holy Grail of ethics. I concede that too. All I am saying is, if religion made some contribution, we should be able to detect it from an empirical point of view by looking at the conduct of religious and comparing it to the conduct of non-religious. To my knowledge, there seems to be no detectable difference.


    October 12, 2012 at 2:05 am

  3. Yes, I guess there is not really all that much disagreement. There are many articles and books written about those specific passages you mention, but I guess this is not the place to go into all the details (not that I know them all anyway).
    One big detectable difference would be if there are moral obligations and duties one owes to God and religion X lays them out, and we assume X is correct. If it is, then X is certainly giving more moral guidance about our duties to God than a worldview which assumes we have non whatsoever because God doesn’t exist. And this is a detectable difference, as some can be empirically detected to be worshiping and others are not.
    The biggest problem it seems to me about religion as a guide is that it is a guide for human beings, and we’re pretty weak sauce.
    I have seen some empirical evidence about religious versus non-religious people as far as happiness in marriage, charitable giving, overall happiness, and so on, and there does seem to be some detectable differences, sometimes in favor of the religious, sometimes not. But I’ve seen a lot of conflicting information on this.


    October 15, 2012 at 9:49 am

    • I think this is hasty generalization. The story shows that this particular congregation couldn’t solve its
      problem (on the face of it, the solution is reasonably clear), not that Religion in general
      makes no moral difference. In my experience as a practicing Jew, Jewish congregations
      often have serious problems along moral lines. When my young sister was crippled permanently by a stroke, I moved her into nursing home next to a synagogue and asked the leadership of the
      synagogue to wheel her in for services. They refused. I called a rabbi of another synagogue
      and asked him if they could send members of the synagogue to visit her, as she greatly
      wanted to be part of the Jewish community. He refused. I tried for years to get the large
      and widespread Jewish community of the city in which she lived to visit her, etc, and
      came up empty. My effort was joined by a Jewish speech therapist who spoke fluent
      Hebrew. She worked for two years and came up empty.

      Meanwhile Christians were calling me up asking what
      they could do to help. A Lutheran Women’s group gave my sister birthday parties,
      took her shopping, etc.

      I never drew the conclusion that there was something the morally lacking with religion per se.
      I did draw some conclusions about the practical morality of Judaism. In my experience
      with Christian churches in the same sort of situation, the ‘rabbi’ would have been
      allowed to stay, finally, with appropriate oversight of both himself and children. Not
      that Christians couldn’t go wrong, but they are more likely to act out of love
      and forgiveness, and people who go wrong, even seriously wrong,
      are of special concern to them. I am not, by the way, a Christian.

      jim stone

      October 16, 2012 at 2:47 am

      • Your claim that “On the face of it, the solution is reasonably clear.” may be true as far as “is reasonably clear” refers to an individual’s opinion, not a community’s near-consensus. After all, almost all moral dilemmas have “reasonably clear” solutions, if you ask an individual. A moral dilemma is tough usually only when you consider it from a community’s perspective, or try to think about it from behind something like Rawl’s veil of ignorance.

        Perhaps I did not express myself with absolute clarity but looking back to what I wrote, I really cant see how you got the impression that I drew “the conclusion that there was something the morally lacking with religion per se.” or any other conclusion about what any religion or religious community morally lacks.

        My point was simply that as far as I can see in this example and other examples I am familiar with (including your own unfortunate experiences), religion doesn’t give a better vantage point in resolving moral dilemmas on average. I am not claiming that it makes things worse, for I haven’t seen any statistical evidence supporting such a claim. This should also suggest that your comment regarding me committing a hasty generalization from one single case is a bit off target too. The case of the rabbi was not the only evidence I had in mind. I was thinking about all religious communities I am familiar with either through direct acquaintance or indirectly.

        Moreover, I am not really criticizing the ultimate decision of the community in the case, nor am I presupposing that what you describe as the christian point of view is morally superior. The nature of the ultimate verdicts is not the issue here. My observations were all about how the difficulty of the decision making procedure was almost indistinguishable from the non-religious counterparts. After all, the verdicts will differ from time to time. I don’t believe in God, let alone following any allegedly holy scripture. So, I will not be as inclined to forgive someone for a past transgression as a devout christian maybe. But my claim is, when we sit down and grapple with a tough moral dilemma with out peers, we will both have a hard time. That’s the observation I made. Not that the christian, the muslim, the jew or the atheist is morally superior or inferior.

        To my knowledge, there hasn’t been any statistical studies of how different religious communities grapple with moral dilemmas. (There have been analyses of serious crime statistics, and the differences between self-proclaimed religious individuals and non-religious individuals mostly disappear when you control for other factors like education, finances, etc.) However, if you know a statistical study testing my hypothesis, I would love to hear about its findings.


        October 16, 2012 at 3:44 am

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