March 26, 2010
The Tyranny of Perfection
The advent of Passover and Easter, which always fall around the same time, beckons a deeper discussion about one of the principle differences between Judaism and Christianity. In essence it is the difference between a values system based on struggle and a values system based on perfection.
The reason there are no perfect people in the Torah is that we don’t believe in perfect people and we do not respect perfection. Do you know what the perfect person lacks that the imperfect person has? An imperfect person fights to do what is right. He struggles with his conscience. When you fight for something, you demonstrate its worth.
Look at the contrast with every other belief system. Christianity is predicated on perfection, on the idea that Jesus was tempted but never fell. The same is true for Muslims and Mohammed. In Buddhism, the Buddha is perfect. In Hindu, Krishna is perfect. Even in the pantheon of great American heroes, our founding fathers were once portrayed as saints. I remember being taught as a young boy that George Washington never told a lie and that Abraham Lincoln walked miles to return a single penny. Both these stories were pure invention, but the idea was: How could you respect the founder of your nation if he was flawed?
Here in America we live under the tyranny of perfection. We are constantly being sold glossy images of people with perfect bodies, perfect résumés, and perfect lifestyles. Convincing people of their inadequacy in relation to these paragons of physical, intellectual, moral, and aesthetic perfection has always been a good racket, but never more so than today.
It even seeps into our religious debates. The insinuation that Jesus was lonely and required the love of a woman, as Dan Brown suggested in The Da Vinci Code, deeply offended many of our Christian brothers and sisters. When I debated Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, D.C., about the subsequent movie, he said that the film’s protestors should remain calm but he could understand why people were upset. I said I understood how the departure from New Testament orthodoxy was provocative, but why was it deemed so hurtful? Dan Brown and the moviemakers didn’t say anything bad about Jesus—they said only that he got married! So what? If he were a young Jewish man growing up in the Galilee region in ancient Israel, not only would he have been expected to marry but it would have been sinful for him not to.
Why were Christians offended at the thought that Jesus married? Because the idea suggests he felt something was missing in his life. In short, he wasn’t perfect. As a perfect being, he required the love and validation of no one. You and I? We get cold and need comfort and want to be held. We feel dispirited, and we need someone to inspire us.
I am always impressed at the deep spirituality of my Christian brothers. I am a rabbi with a deep love and awe for the incredible commitment to goodness and faith that is so characteristic of my Christian colleagues. But ultimately Christianity loses me when it dismisses the humanity of Jesus in favor of his divinity. Jesus is so much more interesting when we read of his struggles in the New Testament to fulfill the will of G-d, like when he says, while dying on the cross, “My G-d, my G-d, why have you forsaken me?” And I am always puzzled why my Christian brothers and sisters seem disheartened to discover Jesus’s vulnerabilities.
Personally, I have no patience for perfect people. I find them boring, predictable, and judgmental. It is human beings whose goodness is real, yet purchased amid Herculean effort and struggle, whom I find so endlessly fascinating.
Judaism doesn’t value perfection. I believe that perfect people are sweet and nice but I have no relationship with them, nor would I seek one. If they’re perfect, they don’t need me. It has been estimated that in many marriages, the criticism-to-compliment ratio is three to one. The argument troubled couples make is always essentially, “but my spouse is so imperfect!” I counsel them to remember that if their spouse were perfect, he or she would never have married in the first place. So why not be thankful for our loved ones’ imperfections (as long as they take responsibility for their actions and apologize sincerely when they’ve done wrong)?
I am not a Christian not because I was born Jewish, because if Christianity were true I would be obligated to convert. Rather, perfection has no appeal for me. Perfect people do the right thing every single time. How could they understand someone like me, for whom every day is a struggle?
Being with perfect people is like watching a movie when you already know the ending. You can’t thrill to perfect people’s victories because they don’t involve real courage. Real courage means to be victorious over fear. If you were never afraid, were your actions courageous? No.
People used to think Martin Luther King Jr. was a saint. He started the civil rights movement when he was only twenty-four years old. He was killed before his fortieth birthday. Of course, one thought, saint that King was, he was able to lead those marches in Birmingham and in Selma and inspire a whole generation. No wonder he was so incredibly eloquent and courageous. He was perfect. But then we discovered that in fact he was deeply human and did things that betrayed big character flaws. Suddenly we saw him differently. In fact, his true greatness was thereby manifest: He was flawed and frail and still he accomplished so much. You mean he was scared in front of those attack dogs and Bull Connor? He had to struggle to do those things? My G-d, that truly is a great man.
To me, that is so much more inspiring. King wrestled with his conscience. Now he speaks to me, because I’m just like him. He was not an angel, not a saint, just a person who struggled to live righteously and courageously. And in so doing he changed America, dealt a fatal blow to racial injustice, and restored the country to its founding creed of all men being created equally by G-d. And he did all this not intuitively or instinctively, but amid great effort and struggle. It was never easy. But if he could do it and he was human like me, then I have no excuse not to try to rise to similar acts of courage.
The truly righteous man is not he who never sins but rather he who, amid a predilection to narcissism and selfishness, battles his nature to live a virtuous life. The truly great man is not he who slays dragons, but he who battles his inner demons, who struggles with himself to improve and ennoble his character.
The truth is that perfection fosters dependency. It is an engine that actually retards human progress, because it continually tosses humans back on a sense of their own inadequacy. Rather than lift them up, it keeps them down. That’s why kings used to claim they were perfect beings, kissed by G-d and standing high above their lowly subjects—because if you can convince people that they’ll never be as good as you, they won’t even try. They will worship you and hate themselves.
Those for whom life has been so sweet and smooth, those who refuse to struggle, will never know the true taste of courage. They will never develop the ability to overcome obstacles to do what is right. They will never firmly establish that their convictions are not just feelings. Struggle is where the infinite value of goodness is established.
The Zohar says that every single time you choose to subdue and subjugate evil, G-d’s glory rises higher and higher. Every time you exert the effort to choose righteousness over selfishness, you are showing that righteousness is precious to you, that G-d is a living presence, and that you are prepared to fight. Even when it’s inconvenient. Even when it entails sacrifice. Struggle is what establishes the infinite preciousness of righteousness.
Israel literally means “he who wrestles with G-d.” It was the name given to Jacob, who wrestled with a brother who sought to kill him and a father-in-law who sought to enslave him. Most of all, he wrestled with an angel. Israel is he who wrestles with the G-dly portion of his existence.
Most of what we cherish in life involves a struggle. I was a child of divorce, so I was extremely excited to be married. I anticipated perfection. Shortly after our wedding in Australia, I went out, a newly married man, to buy a camera. And in the camera store I couldn’t help but notice that the woman behind the counter was pretty. I was mortified. This is ridiculous! I thought. What kind of husband am I? I came home and confessed to my wife that I had noticed that another woman was attractive. She laughed at my naïveté. But it still bothered me, so I thought deeply into this. Why did G-d make love so imperfect? How do we even notice the opposite sex when we are in love with our spouse? Why is it that even in the best marriages we still recognize that other people are special?
Now I understand why G-d made love imperfect. Relationships are special when you choose each other anew every single day. Some think marriage is when you choose your spouse under the chuppah—the canopy used in Jewish weddings—and you’re done. Married! You never make that choice again, and your choice becomes a thing of the past. The marriage becomes stale and ossified, and the commitment is never renewed. But because we all struggle to keep the passion and intimacy in our marriages alive, because we struggle to compliment and love each other, because we wrestle with our nature to always focus on each other, love each other, and put each other first, we choose each other over and over again, and that’s why love is imperfect. The man who chooses his bride and never has to choose her again is one who takes her for granted, who doesn’t seek to bring novelty to his relationship, who allows it to stagnate. But if you forever renew your commitment and investment, your goodness and your relationship never go stale.