Commentary: The Temple's Columns

September 2012

Commentary: The Temple's Columns

Randy Cohen

Photo by Adam Nadel.

For the 12 years I wrote “The Ethicist” column for The New York Times Magazine, responding to readers’ moral dilemmas, I took a resolutely secular approach to the job. I did not refer to religious doctrine; I did not consult the clergy of any faith for moral guidance.
Instead, I made a reasoned case for what I concluded was right conduct. I examined the quandaries put to me through a variety of lenses that philosophers have provided, from greatest-good arguments (What action will benefit the most people?) to Kant’s categorical imperative (What if everybody acted similarly?). I regarded these approaches to ethics not as rules but as tools, as ways to analyze a situation.

I am similarly secular away from the office. I was raised in a Reform Jewish household. My family went to Friday night services and my sister and I attended Sunday school. But I have not been inside a synagogue in more than 40 years, except for other people’s commemorations—bat mitzvas, weddings and sadder ceremonies. (I am the embodiment of the old joke. Cantor: The synagogue is overrun with mice. What should we do? Rabbi: Have them bar mitzva’d, and we’ll never see them again.)

And yet.

While preparing a book that reflects on my tenure with the column, I was struck by how often my advice comported with the Jewish values I learned growing up. Foremost among these was a commitment to justice—not only as fairness to the individual but also as social justice. We strive not just for personal rectitude; we respond to suffering in our community, our nation, our world. I expressed this as secular ethics, and sometimes as progressive politics, but I might have called it tikkun olam.

Or perhaps I was reluctant to proffer advice that would contradict my mother. At work and at home, it was her voice I heard in my head when considering right and wrong. In this way, I unconsciously consulted a personification of Jewish values.

After I’d been writing the column for about 10 years, a rabbi approached me with a book idea. We’d collect the most intriguing questions sent to me and provide two sets of responses: my secular advice, and his advice drawing on Jewish moral thought. We sketched out some sample pages, and then we dropped the project. Our answers were just too similar. My ostensibly secular ethics generally (albeit not always) led me to conclusions much like his. No contrast, no debate, no drama: no book worth doing.

Apparently you can take the boy out of the synagogue, but you can’t take the synagogue out of the boy.
Simply writing the column was a very Jewish act. The prototype for advice columns was created in 1906 when The Forward (then Der Forvitz, a Yiddish daily) launched the column “A Bintel Brief” (a bundle of letters), responding to queries from new immigrants. Dear Abby and Ann Landers, the two most prominent modern advice columns, were written by Jewish sisters. Miss Manners is the work of the witty Judith Martin, nee Perlman. More recently, Emily Yoffe’s Dear Prudence found a following at Slate. (We were once on a panel together at—where else?—The Eldridge Street Synagogue.) We Jews are an advice-giving people: analytic, humane, interested in others, perhaps a little meddlesome (in a nice way, of course).

Also Jewish, and also me: an eye for the ethical implications of the ordinary actions of daily life. We’re a people who live in a moral universe. I just mapped my corner of that universe with secular tools and described my findings in profane language. Mazel Tov.

The original writer of “The Ethicist,” Randy Cohen’s new book is Be Good: How to Navigate the Ethics of Everything (Chronicle Books).

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