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  • The Banality of Good and Evil: Moral Lessons from the Shoah and Jewish Tradition
  • Zev Garber
The Banality of Good and Evil: Moral Lessons from the Shoah and Jewish Tradition, by David R. Blumenthal. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 1999. 326 pp. $23.95.

A professor of Judaic Studies at Emory University who has written books on Jewish mysticism, theology, and theodicy, David R. Blumenthal begins with a basic assumption: “[B]anality of evil does not make humans, nazis or others, less culpable morally. Humans are responsible for the evil that they do, regardless of why they do it. They are accountable before humanity and God.” Yet in spite of many articles and books, researchers and scholars are not of one opinion as to why ordinary people do extraordinary evil. Regarding the murder of European Jews, for example, there is a mass of evidence, often contradictory, about the motives—social, politial, psychopathic, religious—which appear to have influenced those who ordered the murder, those who actively participated, and those who were aware of it and chose to do nothing. It seems that there is no satisfactory answer to why humanity has a propensity to do evil. And yet there are examples of individuals doing the right thing. The goal of this book is to examine this core paradox in the process of human thinking and decision making.

For Blumenthal, issues of evil and good cover the spectrum of human behavior: on the one hand, how are patterns of and obedience to evil generated and controlled and what role do heritage and culture (genetics is not considered) play in fashioning individual abuse and making for a disobedient society? And on the other hand, from whence spring selfless caring and devotion to the welfare of others? To answer these questions and others, the author resorts to a plethora of stories, teachings, and case histories from the depth of the Jewish tradition which are informed by pages of endnotes, a selective bibliography, and a wide range of sources, including Hebrew Scriptures, rabbinic sources, medieval sources, and contemporary scholarship.

Drawing from the voice of Jewish tradition, and supported by non-Jewish examples, The Banality of Good and Evil suggests guidelines in sociological, religious, and ethical categories to bring about a caring and moral society. Blumenthal’s writing is disciplined, his research is well founded, and it is evident that he is out to clear the muddle in educational and religious institutions that impedes prosocial education. It is clear that the author has little tolerance for the guardians of Jewish values who do not apply deed to creed, and he argues that the current focus of Holocaust as the catch-all of evil ultimately anesthetizes us to smaller acts of pain and suffering. In the long run this bodes ill for the Jew and confirms the ancient stereotype of the Jew as chosen to be slaughtered. To counter this state of affairs, he discusses core value-concepts from the wellspring of sacred Jewish texts—image of God, covenant, justice, caring—together with lessons, teachings, and case histories in order to show that Judaism expects—no, demands—more from its adherents: by doing acts of everyday goodness (ethical [End Page 150] humanism) and holiness (ethics from Sinai) we provide a major step forward to repair our fractured contemporary world.

Blumenthal invites the reader not only to read about moral education but to confront the process itself. He moves through his sources painlessly, pausing whenever he wishes to illustrate a lesson, taking what appears to be a detour until we are brought back again to the true course, enhanced by the sights we have seen, perfectly confident that we have been all the time in good hands. In each chapter, his hypothetical assertions and his analytical reasoning at problem-solving are supported by either a co-text or counter-text, and the study is further enhanced by appendixes revealing hands-on teaching experience.

It is possible to praise the volume without ignoring a serious limitation. Some may object to the multiple staccato, almost epigrammatic, paragraphs—a sign of a sure writer but a possible irritant to lay readers. That is to say, initiates may find...

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pp. 150-151
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