Tzvi Chulsky 3 months ago
One area where the Jewish approach to life clashes violently with the Christian one is that in post-Pelagian times, the mainstream Christian view is that what defines a successful life is not whether one chooses to live a good, moral life, but whether one accepts the Christian faith. When explaining this, one example Martin Luther cites is the commandment of “not coveting,” which, in our parashah, begins with לא תחמד, and explains that God commands people to not experience a feeling. No human can accomplish this, he argues, and therefore it is, as Christians put it, “by faith and not deeds” that one has a successful life.
We, of course, believe that it matters very much what we actually do, and that the mitzvot were given in order to be followed. So are we actually commanded not to experience a feeling?
Rabbeinu Avraham Ibn Ezra divides the mitzvot into three categories, which we could roughly call duties of the heart, duties of the tongue, and duties of action. He writes that the duties of the heart are the most important of all, and notes as an example that thinking idolatry is a crime. When it comes to coveting specifically, he simply asks the reader to imagine a man of the village—איש כפרי—who sees a pretty princess. His argument is that he would not covet her at all, כי ידע כי זה לא יתכן—because he knows “it ain’t gonna happen.”
Nechama Leibowitz, writing about this last bit of the Ibn Ezra, asserts that it “cannot appeal to us in this democratic age,” though she agrees with the idea behind it: “Man can train himself not only not to commit adultery or steal, but also not to covet and desire things not his own.” Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg’s view is different from Ibn Ezra’s only in that he does not see not coveting as something that happens simply by knowing something cannot be had, but writes that when one follows the mitzvot of the Shema, particularly to love God בכל לבבך—with all one’s heart—there is no room left in the heart to covet.
The Rambam, too, sees the human as responsible for his emotions. He writes that “the moment one has thought about [acquiring his neighbors property] and his heart has been aroused by it, he has violated a negative commandment.”—כיון שחשב בליבו…ונפתה ליבו בדבר, עבר בלא תעשה.
Progressive politicians today rail against “millionaires and billionaires.” A meme went around a few years ago suggesting that after you earn your first billion, “we throw a party for you and take the rest.”
When not talking about numbers, progressives often talk about inequality. We have discussed in prior posts that if one cared about the condition of the poor, one would worry about the condition of the poor, and would not care about the condition of the rich. When contemplating a scenario in which the wealth of the poor doubles and (progressives might say “but”) the wealth of the rich increases tenfold, one who cares about the poor would see the goodness in the increased wealth for the poor.
Capitalism has brought incredible changes for the poor. Americans below the poverty line today live far wealthier lives than European nobility 200 years ago. Progressives, who claim to champion the poor, should be ecstatic about this; alas, progressivism is a religion of coveting, and as long as richer people remain, no increase in wealth will mollify them.
Martin Luther, unlike progressives, does not endorse coveting—he simply claims that the only way to “fulfill the law” is to accept Christianity. Looking at history, this method does not always seem to work. We believe in a different approach: following the Torah, one can train oneself to live well, including training oneself not to covet. We would even argue further, that the Torah advises us to train ourselves to choose our feelings in general, and then to make our desires the same as those of God.
Next time we say the Shema, let us think about Rabbi Mecklenburg’s suggestion with regard to it. We are expected to make a conscious choice about what feelings we will have, and we are commanded to choose love. We must fill our hearts with love to the point where forbidden feelings—like coveting—have no place there.
 Pelagius, c. 355 – c. 420, was a Christian philosopher who taught that one chooses whether or not to live a good life. During his lifetime, largely in response to this, he was accused of “Judaizing” (he did in fact write positively about Jews, though there were plenty of other reasons, personal and political, for which he was opposed), and his views rapidly fell out of the Christian mainstream. The topic is referred to now as the “Pelagian controversy.”
 N.B. that “thinking about idolatry” is not the same thing as “thinking idolatry”!