Why be Good?: Response to The Reasons of the Scriptures

Laurie Zoloth
Northwestern University

My student asks: Dr. Zoloth, why do I have to be so good ? I am teaching young obstetrics & gynecology residents why they should not take bribes from drug companies, something I thought I could wrap up in 10 minutes, but it is not going well. They all know the name, for example, of the Ortho-Nova drug rep, “CHRISTI! “they chorus, their hands up in the air, white coats rustling, but they do not know the name of our Dean, for it is Christi who leaves free drug samples and they and their girlfriends take them. The drugs are for the poor, theoretically, and when I point this out, they tell me that are poor residents.

It was August and in the cycle of the Torah the Jews of the world were reading our way through Deuteronomy, thinking of poverty and residents aliens and I am a Scriptural Reasoner, and then there is that whole Christi problem, and I think, textually, about this irony for a moment, pausing, thinking: ” if your brother grows poor and his hand falters with you, you shall support him, as though he is a resident alien, do that he shall live with you,” (Leviticus 25:35) . And my student asks again. “Like, when I see a beggar on Michigan Avenue, and he comes to me, why do I have to give him my money?”

I say, “You are going to be a doctor, and if I have anything to do with it, a moral agent.” And, thinking of Bashit Koshul , I say, “there is a link between economy and a moral life, and the link between the two is such that engaging in a particular type of economic activity either facilitates or hinders the possibility of morality.” And not just your salvation, I mutter, but the possibility of mine.

I am an ethicist, and the call to tell of scripture, which turns us toward the past, and towards the task of the recovery of the past, always makes me slightly guilty, for text study is always a task done with a deep joy that is tempered by the sound of the present, and that is a sound like the shattering of glass. It is the sound of the army in the temple (and I might add, today, in the mosque.) One studies the text of debt and release and of forgiveness in a world pulled away from such a call, and one reads the response, from the Jew, and the Muslim and the Christian, and this stops the world, as these radical world-stopping texts were meant to. But the texts are about the future, of course—we are here, right now, but our problem is how to make the future fair, a future moment that begins when you walk out that door, at the moment when you hear the first cry of the poor, and stretches all the way out to Moshiach . But are we, perhaps, possessive of a contingency? Perhaps our stuff is ours, and our way is singular, or perhaps shared only with other contented, successful people, the ones who work hard, and take personal responsibility for their fate. Perhaps the world, suggest my students, is like this—perhaps it is for us, ours, in the ways that are most important—ownership, control, autonomy.

So as an ethicist, and a guilty one at that—and my warrant for reading is that it must be an ethical gesture—I want us to stay with the text, for it is literal, and I have literal questions to ask of it, and of my colleagues: mostly, do we really mean it? How can we live it? What does the theory we create do for the actual practices in which we find ourselves? It is not entirely the medical resident’s fault, it is a problem in the academy—we have made them little businessmen, and given them ethics as secular autonomy, in which bodies are a kind of property, in which we contract not to violate rights.—and we have taught them that a person is a bundle of rights. We do not teach them duty, nor hospitality, so they cannot think clearly about justice. It keeps coming out as a weak, sappy, sort of pious charity—a Christianity with the gift giving drug rep “Christi” at its core instead of the cross or the Akedah.Not to mention scripture, not to mention God, is to allow them to think it is all a matter of personal, inchoate niceness. But the student has asked a real question—”I’ve worked hard—he hasn’t—what does justice have to do with it?” Luckily, I can say—well, let me ask Gibbs, Hardy and Koshul: and my colleagues on the panel answer for me—

First: The shared past is slavery, and in its name we are responsible to undo slavery. But before slavery? What is that? Our pasts are the stories of critical betrayals between brothers—times when a kinsman has come to you in his need, and you have turned away. Cain and Abel, Ishmael and Isaac, Jacob and Esau; Laban has sold you into a sort of slavery, Jacob; and Jacobs’s sons have sold their brother into slavery, and that is how we are in Egypt in the first place.The consequent economy is based not only on exchange but repair, not only on liberation from slavery, but a covenant based on being forgiven for having failed precisely in this way.

Second: What is the problem that the text worries its way through? It is, our papers argue, the Kantian problem—that one might get confused and make a critical ethical error: one might think that people are things. But why could such a confusion possibly occur—that you might think your sister, whose baby word named you, or your brother, who taught you to count, might suddenly become a stranger’s body to you? I think this is possible, of course, after war—when bodies lie on the ground as so much kindling. Think about the kinds of times in which the need for a law about the crisis of debt occurs. In all three texts, it is a time of reordering after war, wars in which what is at stake is God in the world. Soldiers were everywhere, and their swords—yet the conflict is completed, or paused and now the task is to remake a world beyond victory—but there has been so much loss, so much death, perhaps, one might think, that is merely the way of the world? Might you not think, well, all this stuff, I, chosen of God, I must deserve it?

In the Hebrew text, we are stopping at thresholds. Looking across at new terrain, Moses worries if the future will be fair, and if the community of children he has watched grow into men and women can both do the difficult work of daily life and the far harder work of caring for each other. What must I do about the suffering of the other? The ideal of justice—just words until now, since the children did not really have to share anything—is also transformed into a tangible physical reality. Every family is to have its particular plot of land. But the world is a chancy thing, as this law reminds us. Your own family, your best friend may lose faith, your neighbor may fail and come to you wearing nothing but his last coat, having nothing but her desperation—having nothing but her open hands.

In the Jewish tradition, the texts of Deuteronomy and debt release are read frequently—they are read on the second day of the pilgrimage holidays to which they refer, in perhaps the most difficult part of the law. You must take the poor into your homes, and you must take them with you to Jerusalem, the whole pack of you. You must include, at the end, even the gerim , the widows, the orphan, all into the deal. The poor surround you at all times, they stand in the edges of the field like it is their field, surround the sharp corners, rounding the place you live, encircling you in the need of others. They are there when you cheerily celebrate your stuff, and eat, there in your joy, because the world is not a thing that you personally were given. Neither your riches or your neighbor’s need belongs to them alone, both of these are the exchanged in all of these economies.

In this relationship, as an adult, not a child munching on manna, but one who now must pray for daily bread, you will need both courage to proceed to the place that will be yours in the future—the “sort of yours” future, and the “really yours” future—and the terrible wisdom to forgive terrible failure. With the Islamic texts, Koshul reminds us: the roles landholder and land loser might be at anytime reversed.

Third: But the problem is not only how to give freely. It is not only about how to have the complex, failed, messed up person in your crowded living room, sleeping on the couch, it is even harder—it is how to forgive debts, after you have done all that you have done, when she still cannot repay you. How to return to the original position, despite all that is true of her failure? When you were born, says the text, or reborn as My People, you were idol worshippers and you were enslaved. And only with these laws can you avoid a return to these terrible curses, can you avoid being thrown into jail—or perhaps it is an iron cage?—with no real possibility for repayment. You hang between re-capture and abundance, but only if you can make the pilgrimage with everyone. And now, the task of forgiveness will be the first job for people interested in second chances, in a fair future. Debt occurs because human beings make horrible mistakes, because crops fail and insects are also hungry. To loan money is to give a kinsman your hope that she can work her way back into the community with this chance. The thing about forgiveness of debt, and release of slaves is that it asks for both remembering and forgetting at the same time for both parties to the loan—remember your obligations to the poor, act on them, remember that you remember to pay back with your work this debt you have incurred. But there are limits to this essentially marketplace, capitalist exchange. In part what is exchanged is also memory—of oppression, redemption, relationship and of God. For French philosopher Paul Ricoeur, the point is to leave the logic of scarcity and move to the logic of abundance. Koshul reminds us that such an interaction is also based on the reality that the ledgers of the economy at every scaled level are based in far more than the seen exchange—and the hiddenness of the exchange enhances it, but also might recall for us how deeply other aspect of loan and reward might go.

What of a debt that is endless, asks Daniel Hardy ? What of a man who owes you everything? What is at stake here seemed to be yet another missed truth: the parables of owing impossible amounts are precisely the ones that are most in the realm of a spiritual economy. One can easily misunderstand, as my student does, as the servant in the Luke parable does. For the debt the patient owes the physician is enormous—his life, literally. (And thus, understandably she might think herself as having given a great deal to him.) But the debt that the physician owes the patient is far larger—unimaginably larger, for it is only by and through the bodies of the patient that the doctor is a doctor at all—both in an ontological way, and in the tangible way at the heart of practice. When one comes to you in their nakedness, having failed at everything, needed help or they will die that day, one might be tempted to use them as things, and their life and death might come to mean nothing. But the field of responsibility, Hardy reminds us, is a particular sort of exchange of goods. Let me parable the parable: the student is the one in debt, who ought to fall on her knees before the patient, who is of course, the bearer of the face of the Holy One,which perhaps the student does not know she has been seeking. When the patient’s body has been given over, and the student is now a doctor, and her debt is forgiven, and forgotten (or this story would not seem so strange to us, so inverted) then the doctor has an obligation to be transformed—to transform solidarity into living by mercy.

Whose hands are open? The hands of the poor, who carry nothing, who have given you the last covering for their skin; the hands of the Jew on the Sabbath who can carry nothing into the world; the hands of patients, from whom all is taken, whose bodies are naked—their rings taken off before the surgeon’s knife can begin, or the MRI is taken and captured, they too have given to the doctor all but their skin as guarantee for their need. Also the giver is open handed—”you must open your hand”—for look—presto chango—nothing is there! You have nothing, and you must see that before you can really give, for this is an economy in which the autonomy of wealth is an illusion, a magic trick from the magicians of Egypt perhaps, the real deal being that the open hand you offer is full of the goods and grace of the Lord. And when even the slave serves her time, she will be set both free and free with not-empty-hands, and that will be the alchemy of Exodus.

I have asked the texts in the hands of my friends to do several jobs—to be read word by word, so we remember the story; to be remembered into the word of God, theology, and then to go back out to the clinic, where the particulars matter—which call to answer. My student is not an Enron executive, both because she is herself an immigrant, an actual alien, from a poor family on their small plot, and also because medical residents are rather like a recently freed slaves—out of grad school, and needing to know how to become a person at each quotidian moment—this one on the street, this one in the clinic, this sister on my doorstep. I want her to desire the terrain of sociability and to understand that if she opens her hands—the place of her skill, the place she will catch babies and learn to cut and repair—she must know the poor have the right to take what they need from her. The economy of medicine, but not more or less, these texts remind, is not merely an economy, but a theo-political exchange.

What does our study of scripture offer her? In a way, my three friends have told her: it is a circular argument, an argument about a circular economy, and about an encircled economy—an economy for right now that has in mind a spiral upwards—a blinding eschatology, a Jubilee. You must be good because we must still live in a world where it still could be true that your brother is freed directly from your empty hands.

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