Aharei Mot & Kedoshim
For the week of May 2, 2009 / 8 Iyar 5769
Torah: Vayikra / Leviticus 16:1 - 20:27
Haftarah: Amos 9:7-15

Pragmatism Doesn't Work

And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, "Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, I am the LORD your God. You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you. You shall not walk in their statutes. You shall follow my rules and keep my statutes and walk in them. I am the LORD your God. You shall therefore keep my statutes and my rules; if a person does them, he shall live by them: I am the LORD." (Vayikra / Leviticus 18:1-5; ESV)

I was having a discussion with one of my son's politically savvy friends who was defending pragmatism as a foundational value for society. Merriam-Webster defines pragmatism as "a practical approach to problems and affairs," which commonly is taken to mean making decisions based upon what works rather than upon principle. This carries a subtle or not- so-subtle critique of idealists, who seem to want to stick to a set of ideals whether or not those ideals produce anything.

The pragmatist's criticism of the idealist is at times well warranted. Idealists can tend to so consume themselves with their grand theoretical notions that they don't allow their ideals to be proven in the real world. At the same time the pragmatist's commitment to "what works" tends to suffer from short-sightedness. Their supposed expertise in getting the job done doesn't easily embrace a long-term view. The pragmatist's apparent short-term gain rarely takes into account associated long-term losses.

One of the reasons for the dominance of pragmatism is un-pragmatic idealism. Understandably when a society's ideals don't seem to work, they will be challenged. While this critique of society's ideals is valid, the solution to ineffective ideals is not necessarily the giving up of those ideals. In fact, it is possible that the ineffectiveness of our ideals may have more to do with our failure to truly adhere to them, rather than an inherent weakness in the ideals themselves. There is nothing that renders grand ideals more ineffective than when we who claim to abide by them, actually deny them by our actions. That's called hypocrisy.

What the pragmatist fails to recognize and the hypocrite knows nothing about is that God's ideals are pragmatic; they really work! They may not deliver the kinds of immediate results that many of us prefer. Following God's ways can be inconvenient, difficult, painful, even embarrassing at times, but they produce long-lasting benefits. Note that following God's ways is also exhilarating, joyful, meaningful, and rewarding, but a focus on short-term results can rob us of these blessings even in the shorter term.

Is it that difficult to see that a good part of the reason for the current economic crisis, the breakdown of the family, and the sexually-transmitted-disease epidemic is due to the rejection of God's ideals in favor of short-sighted pragmatism? And yet I wonder how many of us think that this current crisis will be fixed with the very pragmatism that helped create the crisis in the first place. Pragmatism is not really pragmatic. If our so-called solutions just create more problems, they are not solutions. Pragmatism doesn't work.

It is only as we return to God's ways that we as individuals and communities will find real solutions to today's problems. Real commitment to God's ideals is the only thing that will truly work.

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