Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Thoughts on "Moral Equivalency: "Apples and Oranges or Chicken Pox and Shingles?

Both Jewish and Islamic spirituality link our understanding of the human spirit to our understanding of the human body.  Great thinkers like Maimonides and Imam al Ghazzali speak of diseases of the soul or diseases of the heart. They see religious practice as a medical regimen to cure these diseases administered by righteous scholars who are, in effect, doctors of the soul.  So it is fair, I believe, to use medical analogies to understand how the human spirit works.

Consider the case of Chicken Pox and Shingles. These are two very different diseases. One, Chicken Pox, affects children as an itchy but relatively painfless rash over much of the body, The other, Shingles, affects older people (most people over 85 will get it) as an intensely painful thick rash over a small area of the body.  They are two very different diseases., one clearly worse than the other.  Or so it would seem.

In fact, Chicken Pox and Shingles are both caused by the very same virus, varicella voster. The virus contracted in childhood lies dormant in nerve cells after the pox-like symptoms are long gone.  Triggered again in adulthood, that virus presents as Shingles.  Are they equivalent?  They certainly don’t feel equivalent but there is no escaping the fact that their etiology, their origin is the same.

This is a commonplace of the diseases of the heart and soul.  The self-same disease of "anger" gives rise to wanting to tell lies about someone and to punching them in the nose, or even to murdering them. The same "self-loathing" can lead to simply letting our bodies go to waste through neglect or G-d forbid shooting ourselves.   Some manifestations of these diseases are more benign and some are less.  Without addressing the root pathogen, though,  neither disease can be cured.

Is sitting around your living room and talking disparagingly about an individual or a group the same as taking pot shots at them with a rifle?  No.  Are they “morally equivalent?”  No. There are better and worse, more and less violent, more and less harmful ways of being and behaving in this world and it is our job to foster the better and do what we can to curb the worse. 

For the doctor of the soul and/or their aspiring patient that may be less interesting and less useful than knowing the root of disease. For those of us, whose faith moves us to seek the higher ground , it is crucial and important to know, that the pangs of anger, jealousy and greed that we attend to in our moments of solitude are the seeds of some very bad things both great and small.  Its important for us to look under the microscope at our own spiritual viruses and know that there are many patients out there with the same virus. Some are better off than we are, some are worse off, and some seem to be suffering from something so severe that it bears little relation to us.  But it does.  In the moral universe, it does not allow us to excuse the extreme breaches but it allows us to understand them from the inside out, to seek a cure and to help others seek a cure.

It may not be fair to compare apples with oranges but any doctor who failed to compare Shingles to Chickenpox wouldn’t be much of a doctor.  


  1. Brilliant analogy; I'm sharing it.

  2. I am so glad it worked for you. Please feel free to share anything on the blog at any time.