Rabbi Marc Gellman writes about religion for Newsday.
QUESTION: I've just finished reading Harper Lee's second novel, "Go Set a Watchman." Reviews have cited the lower quality of the writing compared with "To Kill A Mockingbird," and I agree. However, much more importantly, the book presents an opportunity for readers, and all Americans, to begin a serious dialogue on prejudice. Scout, like so many of us, placed her father, Atticus Finch, above human frailty, but in "Watchman" he's a racist. We, like Scout, must live with others who disagree with our views because, like the three blind men who try to describe an elephant by feeling different parts of the animal, we often fail to get the full view. This failure is just a reflection of the way so many people don't listen to their "watchman." But can we accept our illogical prejudices and begin a dialogue? What are your thoughts on all of this?
-- R., Glenwood Landing, New York
ANSWER: Harper Lee's book "To Kill a Mockingbird" and the movie starring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, were powerful influences on the early growth of my spiritual, moral and literary life.
Like you, the deluge of publicity about "Watchman" has intrigued and troubled me. Perhaps the manuscript, as some have suggested, was just a raw first version of "Mockingbird" that should never have been published. I tend to agree. However, I do want to take up the great spiritual and moral issue raised by "Watchman": Can bad people do good things? "Watchman" transforms Atticus from a saintly, pure crusader for justice into an aging racist who, although he always believed in justice for all people, never really believed in the equality of all people.
My view, supported by biblical wisdom, is that bad people do fewer good things than good people, but bad people still can do good things.
The case study in the Bible comes in Genesis: Noah and the Flood. Ten generations after Adam, God gave up on humanity. The motivation for the Flood is recorded in Genesis 6:5:
"And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually." Strangely, after the flood, in Genesis 8:21, where God is explaining that he will never again bring a flood to destroy humankind, the same reasoning used to justify bringing the flood in the first place is repeated: "...and the Lord said in his heart, I will not again curse the ground any more for man's sake; for the imagination of man's heart is evil from his youth; neither will I again smite any more everything living, as I have done." The resolution to this contradiction is that God understands that although we're not perfect, even in our imperfection we can occasionally achieve a measure of virtue that gives us a glimpse of what it truly means to be made in the image of God.
Although we are not fully good, we are good enough for God, so we must try to be good enough for one another.
Historically, remember all the good that has been done by people who were not purely good. Many of the founders of our country owned slaves. To their credit, they brought forth a vision of freedom that was spectacularly good, but to their shame, it didn't include black people.
There were people who risked their own lives saving Jews during the Holocaust who also believed that the Jews they saved were going to hell because they didn't accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior.
We are a mixed multitude. Each of us has within us a good inclination and an evil inclination that are constantly at war. We bear within us both versions of Atticus Finch. So what are we to do? Here's a good time to remind you of my favorite story: An elder Cherokee man was teaching his grandchildren about life. He said to them, "A fight is going on inside me. It's a terrible fight between two wolves: One wolf represents fear, anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority and ego. The other stands for joy, peace, love, hope, sharing, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, friendship, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith. This same fight is going on inside you, and inside every person." The children thought about this, then one asked the grandfather, "Which wolf will win?" He replied simply, "The one you feed."