The great English jurist Lord Moulton claimed that the most important space in society is the “middle land” between law and absolute freedom, in which the individual has to be “trusted to obey self-imposed law.” The key requirement for a healthful middle ground is personal restraint.
Sadly, it is precisely the absence of restraint that is the hallmark of contemporary society. We seem completely unable to resist any kind of temptation. Self-control is out; letting it all hang out, doing whatever we want when we want — is in. The results are the daily narratives of greed, corruption, theft, murder, and debauchery in low and high places, all symptoms of a society wallowing in moral decay. And when moral decay, in the name of civil rights and social justice, becomes legalized — as is the growing norm in the West — the entire culture of Western civilization is at the edge of the abyss. We have lost control of self-control.
How to get back this nearly-lost commodity? The journal Psychological Sciences reports on research that demonstrates that triggering “subconscious thoughts of faith increase[s] self-control.” Experiments with those whose subconscious was programmed to think of G-d indicate that such people were more liable to endure greater personal discomfort and were also more able to delay gratification than those who had no thoughts of G-d . The mere thought of the presence of a Divine imperative — even if the person himself claimed to be an atheist — was enough to trigger greater resistance to temptation and to offer greater self-control. Thoughts of G-d, in the words of the scientists involved, “seem to provide the mind with important psychological nutrients that refuel our inner resources,” much like a cool drink refreshes the body after a long run.
Judaism has always known that the greatest personal tribulation is to live without any overriding rules and without any discipline. If people are to live fulfilled lives, they need Divine boundary lines, limitations and regulations. On the surface, to be able to do what we want when we want might seem like freedom, but deep within the human psyche this becomes a slavery to the self and to the baser instincts. A life without limits on behavior is a life of misery. What would tennis be without the net, or football without sidelines? We crave rules. Once we have those rules, it becomes much easier to do what is right, and to be content while doing so. But moderns are intent on casting off rules, and the result is societal chaos.
This speaks to the quality of our performance of mitzvos. And here’s the interesting question: Who is more valuable in the eyes of G-d, the person who gives tzedakah because he wants to, or the person who gives tzedakah because G-d wants him to? On the surface, it would seem that the one who gives of his own volition is more commendable. But the Sages say otherwise: “Gadol hametzuveh v’oseh mimi she‘eino metzuveh v’oseh — The one who performs mitzvos because he is commanded to do so is greater than the one who performs them on his own” (Kiddushin 31a). The awareness that there is a Metzaveh, a Commander of the mitzvah, is crucial to our performance of it. To perform mitzvos without such awareness is to engage in empty gestures.
Not surprisingly, these new studies demonstrate that Jewish tradition is far ahead of the times. We have always stressed yiras Shamayim and yiras cheit — the fear of Heaven and the fear of sin, as the mishnah in Avos 2:1 reminds us, “An eye sees, an ear hears, and all your deeds are inscribed in a Divine Book.” Sophisticates scoff at such things. To base one’s morality on fear of Divine retribution, they claim, is terribly primitive and hopelessly unmodern. But now we sense that it is precisely yiras Shamayim and yiras cheit that are integral components of living a happy and meaningful life. It is these that make the great “middle land” livable.
The famous critic G.K. Chesterton once said: “Religion has not been tried and found wanting; religion has been found difficult and not tried.” This is something that a society run amok could well take to heart. Everything else has been tried. When all else fails, try G-d. We always knew this; now science is catching up. What took them so long?