Wednesday, April 23, 2014

What is Goodness? Or a Gift of Charoset

What is goodness? It’s a question many moral philosophers have wrestled with. In one of his final works Justice for Hedgehogs, the late NYU professor of philosophy and law Ronald Dworkin, dealt with the question of the person who is so intent on self-sacrifice that his good intentions become self-destructive and hence no longer a form of good. In everyday life these matters come up all the time and homilies like “no good deed goes unpunished” are a response to these kinds of ethical conundrums. The Jewish holiday of Passover is a wonderful litmus test for such concerns since people are so intent on doing good deeds, one of which is contributing dishes to the Seders to which they have been invited. So let’s take the case of someone who brings charoset (the mixture of nuts and apples that is put on the matzah along with the bitter herbs to commemorate the mortar that the Jewish people used when they were slaves). Sometimes charoset is made with wine and let’s say the charoset is brought as a contribution to someone who is a recovering alcoholic. The person would like to show their gratitude for the contribution, but at the same time is reticent to put the charoset with the wine on the table—as it will result in a Megillah of explanations. Not wanting to break his or her anonymity the host might simply give the charoset back, pithily saying that they already had plenty. On the other hand, choroset can be an exhausting dish to make and if the host felt that rejection of the charoset contribution was going to cause unhappiness, he or she might do something (out of guilt) that could end up being a major discomfort to him or herself. One charoset is often indistinguishable from another and there is a definite risk of dipping a matzah into the wine infused charoset. Interestingly these kinds of eventualities are often the stuff of commentary by great Jewish thinkers like Nahmanides and Maimonides or, though it is unlikely that any of them ever actually addressed the issue at hand.

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