You might have seen the TV show, The Good Place. It’s a sitcom set in the afterlife – I recommend it.
The premise of the show is that our heroes have died and, as good people in life, they wake up, in death, in The Good Place - a place where everything is really very, very good. Actually, that’s not what the show is about at all, but the premise is good enough to get me thinking. What would The Good Place really be like? What makes a society ‘good’? What I want to do today is sketch out a rabbinic vision of a good place, I want to ask some questions about how we get from here, to there. And I want to suggest some answers.
Let’s start at the top – who should be in charge? As Jews we’ve a bunch of models to draw on. The Torah features God trying out a singular human – but neither Adam or Noah cope. The model of a family too frequently descends into fraternal bickering, if not fratricide. We have prophets, a hereditary priesthood and a monarchy. But the prophets are too unpopular and priests and Kings become corrupted. Eventually, Judaism settles on … rabbis. Now, don’t worry, I’m not planning world-domination myself. The real clue is in the last letter of the word – rabbis. All the greatest rabbinic leaders of the classical rabbinic period come in pairs; you get Hillel and Shammai, Rav and Shmuel, Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Yishmael. And these pairs – or Zugim – argue. They argue about everything from Kashrut to theology to what it means to be kind and compassionate. Chavrtuta o Metuta the Rabbis teach – passionate argument or death. In our Good Place there will be passionate argument.
Here’s the other thing about Rabbis – their leadership isn’t purely dependent on what they know, rather they – we – are expected to be decent, ethical and compassionate. I mean, I know I mess up all over the place, but you can’t be a good rabbi and a bad person.
There’s a famous story about the renowned professor of ethics in some secular university, who was an utterly appalling person. And one day a student finally plucked up the courage to ask their teacher how it was possible for them to be such an expert on ethics and such a vile human being. ‘What’ the professor responds, ‘if I taught geometry, would you want me to be a triangle?’ It doesn’t work for teachers of religion.
On the other hand, here’s one of the greatest Rabbinic leaders, Maimonides;
Assur leadam lehiyot achzari - We are forbidden to be cruel, forbidden to be slow to forgive. Rather we should be gentle, willing and slow to anger. And when one who has sinned against us requests our forgiveness, we should forgive with a levav shalem – a full heart a willing spirit. And even if the person has distressed us greatly, or many times, don’t be vengeful, don’t bear a grudge.
Rabbis are supposed to listen hard to even those with whom they disagree and treat everyone with courtesy and dignity. In our Good Place, leaders – and we would need a plurality of leaders – would be wise, and decent and they would argue out the best way to run society.
It won’t just be the leaders arguing. My vision of a Good Place rejects the seductive appeal of mono-culture at every level. Certainly, a Jewish Good Place will have what the Bible calls gerim, outsiders, refugees, resident aliens – you can pick your contemporary term for the people who are different; probably less privileged, possibly less eloquent in our language, less sure of our customs. Loving the stranger is the most frequently repeated idea in the Bible not, I think, just because it’s a nice thing to do, but because Good Places value difference and diversity as a source of creativity and productivity.
And what kind of society would emerge from all this plurality and wisdom and decency?
Here are three laws which appear in a run of seven verses in the three-thousand-year-old book of Deuteronomy.
1. If you loan someone some money, and they pledge their millstone to secure the loan, and they default, you can’t take the mill-stone away from them ki nefesh hu choveil – it’s their life-blood – you take the millstone, they won’t be able to mill their flour and they will slide into destitution, and that can’t be good.
2. If you loan them some money with a pledge to repay and they default, you don’t go into their house to take their pledge – you wait outside for them to bring it to you. It’s better to be sensitive to their sense of security in their own home.
3. And if they pledged their coat – don’t take their coat overnight – they’ll need it to sleep in. If a person pledges a coat, it’s the only thing they’ve got.
There’s a vision of a Good Place in these ancient verses. I don’t suppose anyone here is reliant on a mill-stone today, and I know we’ve learnt a whole lot about astral physics and evolution and the rest of it in the last 3,000 years, but the values of our sacred texts, the checks and balances and the approach to a good place are, surely, exactly what we need in contemporary society. Is credit necessary for economic advancement? Of course it is. Do lenders and their capital need to be protected by the rule of law? Of course they do.
But not all the time, not to take all pledges from all debtors and not in any way creditors might deem suitable.
The vision of society that emerges, time and time again through the Bible and Talmud is a society that demonstrates compassion alongside a commitment to justice. I’ll take that balance of compassion and justice as a model for my Good Place
And then there will be Shabbat. We’ll have the chance, in our Good Place, for six days of the week, to get on, to make, to create, to seek for more and better. And then we’ll all pause, turn off the phones and the emails and turn our attention towards celebrating what we have. We’ll eat meals with friends and family. We’ll converse without the distractions of screens or headphones. Shabbat, in The Good Place, will help us realise that ‘better’ doesn’t always mean ‘more.’ That should help us find better ways to protect the environment in our Good Place. In my little thought experiment, basic rules of physics will still apply, as God said to first human beings as they guided around the Garden of Eden, “Look at my works! See how beautiful they are—how excellent! For your sake, I created them all. See to it that you do not spoil and destroy My world; for if you do, there will be no one else to repair it.” That one will still apply, but we’ll be ready for it and we’ll take due care.
Well, that’s the vision. Do you like it? It could do with a tweak, here or there, I’m sure. But it would do, no? Creativity, decency, a space to celebrate the gift of our humanity?
Here’s the question. How far away are we? How impossible, how fairy-tale, how beyond the reach of possibility is this Good Place?
I mean, working out how we get the right kind of political leadership is a tricky one, but the really radical thing about this vision of a Good Place is how simple it is.
We could all get on with creating this Good Places even if without the political leadership problem entirely sorted – in fact it’s probably much better if don’t wait on the politicians – they seem to have their hands full for the time being. Certainly, those of us who lend, could lend with the sort of empathy and humanity that the Bible calls for. Many of you, I know, do exactly that. The rest of us can get on with, I don’t know; making sure that the blind aren’t confronted with stumbling blocks, or that if, even our enemy is stumbling we don’t gloat. We could get on with not coveting things that belong to others and we could all benefit from taking Shabbat more seriously and we don’t really need anyone’s permission to do that.
Two other verses from Deuteronomy;
It’s not in heavens that have to ask, who will go up to the heavens and bring it down for us. It’s not beyond the sea that you have to ask, who will cross the sea to bring it back for us.
We all have the possibility of creating better places, for ourselves, for our loved ones, for all of society. In fact, we had better get on with it sooner rather than later.
It will some gumption and well, there’s really no other words I can use, it will take religion and it will take faith.
Here’s the thing that puzzles me. If, I could get a bum-on-a-seat for every time someone told me this past year that they weren’t really into Judaism as a religion, this place would be rammed full. And I wold love to see this place rammed-full on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, but that’s not really the point. The point is, if you want to live in a Good Place, in a better place – where do you find the pointers towards the way that society will function? How do you puzzle your way towards making that vision a reality when your desires come up against the desires of others? How do you protect yourself and your society from the forces that will weaken us and strip our values from us. I’ve an answer – be more Jewish. Do more Jewish stuff, read more about Jewish stuff. Speak up and take more pride in the Jewish stuff. I’ve nothing against other religions, I’m sure other religions can help, and if you’ve another faith tradition that speaks more clearly to you – gei gezunte heit – go for it. But if you are here today, do more of this. Be prouder of this. If you find yourselves in environments where self-declared atheists or lapsed-Jews or any of the like are taking opportunities to explain how much smarter they are now they don’t do Judaism, raise the eyebrow. Ask how they intend to get to a Good Place, suggest that they could do with paying more attention to some very old, very holy and, frankly, very Good suggestions in the pages of the Good Book. Creating the Good Place will take religion. Do more religion.
And it will take faith. Faith is the thing that allows a person to do something they know is right even if the rest of the world thinks you are crazy. Faith is the thing the justifies the sorts of actions that we know are good, even if society doesn’t value their performance – things like being nice or charitable or gentle. These tend to be things society doesn’t seem set up to value, sometimes they are even things society seems ready to mock. But have faith. They will make the world a better place. We know that; we have faith in that. Faith is good. Faith doesn’t require us to use the ‘God word.’ It just requires us to believe there is justification for goodness, even if it’s not immediately apparent. We’ll need some faith to build this Good Place.
We are, quite remarkably blessed to have this heritage. It’s an astounding gift in a world that desperately needs our active, faithful and religious engagement, if it is to become a better place, let alone a Good Place.
Don’t give up on this journey.
It’s the best shot we have at turning this world into a Good Place
It could even come in this new year.
May it come to us all in health, peace and joy, Shannah Tovah