Recently, I read an article in the New York Times Magazine that talked about the way that people do or say things, say, supporting a good cause or political opinion, not because they really believe in it, but because they want to signal to their social network that they are virtuous. Apparently, there is a popular new label for this behavior: “virtue signaling.” The author reports that this term is most often used by people on the right against people on the left (“Virtue Signaling Isn’t the Problem. Not Believing One Another Is,” August 8, by Jane Coaston).
My reaction to this accusation is that it reminds me of the way that the classic Torah commentator Rashi describes the evil tribe of Amalek suddenly coming upon the Israelites in the desert (Deuteronomy 25:18): the Hebrew word used to mean “suddenly coming upon you” is karkha. Rashi plays on the fact that this word can also mean “cold” to say that the tribe of Amalek, by attacking the Israelites right after they had come out of Egypt, when the whole surrounding world was in awe of the miraculous workings of God on their behalf, “threw cold water” as it were, on the Israelites and caused that sense of awe and wonder to dissipate and seem naive.
“See, these Israelites are nothing special after all. Don’t believe that New Age woo-woo fluff about ten plagues and a sea splitting! They’re just regular people like the rest of us.”
Now, I’m not accusing the political right of being Amalek, but in this case, they seem to be following their example. Of course people have mixed motivations whenever they do any action! Jewish law recognizes, for example, that people might be motivated to give tzedakkah (charity) by seeing their names prominently displayed on plaques in the synagogue. It’s not the highest motivation, but it is absolutely allowed to give out those honors because we understand that it will result in more giving.
The problem with the accusation of “virtue signaling” is that it attempts to enshrine a cynical “realism” as the only truth. It pours cold water on any idealism by pointing out the imperfections in that idealism. Since we’re human, those imperfections are probably there, to one degree or another, but so what? If we get more idealistic actions in the world that is good, even if someone is getting some social points out of it along the way.
As Rashi’s comment indicates, this problem of cynicism goes way back. I think it goes back to the very nature of who we are as humans. The environmental philosopher David Abrams, in his classic book The Spell of the Sensuous emphasizes that all of human concepts, language, and especially our religious language and concepts originally come from our experience of living on the earth. We experience solidity and the promise of practical sustenance in the form of food from the earth. We experience expansiveness and openness from the sky, and dynamic movement and the power of the invisible from the wind, which also enters us and becomes breath. As Genesis makes clear, we are both: adam from the adamah (humans from the earth) but not fully alive until God breathes the spirit/wind/breath into our nostrils.
One of the ancient Jewish rituals that I find myself using to counter the downward pull of cynicism is the mitzvah of tzitzit. I happen to have a tallit that has the blue thread, the techelet, which I love to look at when I come to that paragraph in the Sh’ma which talks about the tzitzit: “. . . and they shall put a cord of blue on the tzitzit of each corner, and they will be tzitzit; and you will see it and you will remember all the commandments of God and do them.”
The sages say that the blue of the techelet will remind you of the ocean, which itself reflects the blue of the sky, which reminds you of heaven, and of the commandments. The medieval sages Rashi and Maimonides disagree on the exact shade of blue, but they both consider it to be like the sky in one form or another.
When I look at my tzitzit and hold the blue thread in my hand, I think of the sky and I’m reminded of the possibilities of expansive, idealistic action. We need to be earthly (Latin: mundane): practical and realistic. But we also need to breathe the air, and look at the sky and feel the expansive possibilities of life. We need to remember that we are nourished by the unlimited and upward reaching sky and its message of ideals and aspirations. Especially now, as we approach the High Holidays, the time when we return to our highest selves, let us not let cynicism and a soul denying “realism” destroy ability to soar with the wind and strive to make our ideals reality.
This article also appears on Ma’yan Tikvah’s Divrei Earth.