In recent decades, the familiar list of seven deadly sins drawn up by the Church has become attractive to writers who wish to combine personal glimpses with sociological and moral insight; I think Henry Fairlie of The New Republic was the first modern journalist to try his hand at the genre. Why this rubric has become fashionable is a question in itself. Seven Deadly Sins: A Very Partial List is Aviad Kleinberg’s current entry. It proceeds from two general chapters through a review of the seven sins to which Kleinberg appends an eighth, that of self-righteousness.

Kleinberg is a Beersheba-bred, Canadian-educated professor of history at Tel Aviv University. His academic specialty is the medieval Church: he has published two books about the cult of saints. In Israel he is also known as a vigorous intellectual in the public arena; among other things he is the editor and chief interviewer of several volumes addressing social topics, frequently from unexpected angles.

To me the freshest elements in this book are the places where Kleinberg speaks from experience. The opening discussion establishes the mysteriousness of evil by means of an “Augustine moment””an incident in which the young Kleinberg, like Augustine robbing the pear tree, commits an act of gratuitous evil. While Augustine acted in company, Kleinberg’s destructive deed is solitary. In secretly hurting a child more lonely than he, however, young Kleinberg may have been trying to identify, inexplicably, with the inside group from which he felt himself excluded. This may be, for many readers, the most memorable passage in the book. Later on, as he discusses pride, Kleinberg devotes several pages to his efforts to assimilate into the academic elite at the university.

Kleinberg’s insights into sloth gain from hisclaim to familiarity with the academic world. He distinguishes between “pessimistic sloth””which he defines as a “spiritual despondency” belonging to “those with free time and high pretensions,” like the ancient monks who spoke of acedia”and “optimistic sloth””the laziness characteristic of people who would rather be idle than labor at tasks they did not choose. With the rise of modern efficiency, free time is available to the masses, and sloth, under the name of boredom, has become a challenge.

The chapter on gluttony ends with the claim that excess sometimes is not vicious at all, but is, instead, a simple, innocent pleasure. He gives as an example his own teen-aged son who, on reaching puberty, abandoned childhood’s fussiness and began to eat with gusto. The author responds to his son’s demand for “real food” by inviting him to a steakhouse, where the young man happily digs into two-and-a-half pounds of bloody prime beef: “His hands and jaw moved in perfect harmony. I watched him with admiration.” The scene is interesting because the paradigm case of gluttony in the Bible is in Deuteronomy 21:18“20, in which the disobedient adolescent son is a glutton for meat and wine. What makes the biblical son worthy of extraordinary condemnation is not his appetite alone, however, but its conjunction with rebelliousness towards his parents. Kleinberg’s example is one in which paternal approval seems to remove the viciousness of the feral impulse. One wishes that Kleinberg had noted the parallel.

Throughout the book Kleinberg is preoccupied with traditional religion. Presentation of Jewish and Christian sources far outstrips references to the Greco-Roman heritage, and Kleinberg is not conspicuously engaged in the intellectual history of the modern West or in contemporary analytic philosophy’s revival of interest in the particular virtues and vices. It is disappointing that his tone often is one of glib journalistic disparagement and that his citations are tendentious at crucial points.

Typical of the former is the closing section of the chapter on anger. After he observes that “the European bourgeoisie has domesticated its warrior class,” and that we therefore disapprove of the rage and violence expressed by “formerly colonized and formerly enslaved people,” regarding it as irrational, Kleinberg reminds us that “not so long ago, rage was good enough for our own God.” Three pages are devoted to chronicling the murderous rage of the biblical deity, culminating in John Cassian’s insistence that such verses are blasphemous unless interpreted as metaphors: “Divine fury is merely another name of divine justice.” Kleinberg paraphrases what he sarcastically calls “a beautiful interpretation” as follows: “if you have a ‘short fuse’, you’d better be omnipotent. Then you’ll have defenders who will find excellent explanations for each and every one of your acts. If you’re not omnipotent, calm down please.”

The question of divine anger is, in itself, a serious one, as witnessed by the theological effort exerted to avoid it. It is indeed sharpened by the way Western culture has evolved. Kleinberg may even be right when he implies that the dissonance between the reality of divine anger and the message of peace is greater for Christians than for Jews. It is unclear, however, whether Kleinberg’s impatient polemics either elucidate the theological issues at stake for those who are believers or promote greater self-examination on the part of those who are not.

At times Kleinberg attacks Christianity for “wanting the masses.” The Church preyed on the masses, he contends, and addressed “the lowest common psychological denominator: the unheroic fear of punishment.” On the same page Kleinberg also expresses unhappiness that Pauline Christianity sets the bar too high, that it “detaches ethics from reward and punishment,” so that “religion ceases to be a certificate of guarantee (‘Seek me and live’) and becomes an act that is truly heroic (Seek me even if you will not live),” while the Jewish God, faced by human sinfulness, “simply lowers His expectations . . . willing to be satisfied with the relative righteousness of humans.” All these allegations may be correct, but without further elucidation it is not even obvious that they are consistent.

The chapter on gluttony further exhibits Kleinberg’s selectiveness. The vice attacked in this chapter is not so much overindulgence as extreme asceticism. One main point is that contemporary rejection of the body (as in rigid dieting) is, morally, even less admirable than bingeing: Both betray a pernicious obsession with food. One need not be a medieval historian to have heard the anecdotes about St. Francis of Assisi breaking his body mercilessly, only to be rebuked, too late, by the friar who reminded him that his body had always obeyed him and, as a faithful friend, did not deserve his abuse”or to shudder at tales of St. Catherine of Siena, who drank stinking pus and henceforth needed no nourishment but the host. Although Kleinberg is careful to distinguish between this kind of self-mortification and anorexia, insofar as the medieval fasting women were not preoccupied with body image, the portrayal is anything but edifying. To this outlook Kleinberg contrasts Maimonides’ advocacy of moderation and strong rejection of extreme asceticism.

No doubt Maimonides and most Jewish legal authorities would condemn Catherine of Siena’s behavior. Is the contrast, however, fair to Christianity? Judaism, too, has its athletes of unnatural self-mortification. Can one compare the advocacy of a legal authority with the rapture of a devout virtuoso? In a Hebrew essay with the suggestive title “No,” Kleinberg holds that the legal content of mainstream Judaism, no less than that of classical Christianity, consistently restrains the expression of certain natural human desires, so that the difference, on Kleinberg’s own account, is more a matter of degree than of kind. Moreover, in the very same law code from which Kleinberg quotes at length, in which Maimonides lays down the law to be followed by all Jews, there are other passages that recommend more rigorous abstinence for certain individuals and in particular circumstances.

To be sure, one may argue for the validity of Kleinberg’s contrast along several lines. Perhaps the centrality of law in Judaism helps to ensure a degree of uniformity in conduct and orientation that is relatively independent of subjective temperamental extremes and that may even curb “enthusiastic” tendencies. Furthermore, Judaism champions not only adherence to the Torah’s norm, but also perpetual intellectual occupation with the law. While the passage Kleinberg adduces is known and studied by virtually every Orthodox high school student, there may be no corresponding doctrine of moderation that is studied with similar dedication as part of Christian education, thus leaving the door open for the mystical extremes that Kleinberg identifies with Christianity.

Kleinberg does not pursue such inquiries. It is a bit disappointing that, as a historian specializing in medieval Christianity and a public figure who has decried the Orthodox rabbinate’s reluctance to study Christian sources and culture, Kleinberg seems satisfied with his somewhat sensationalistic generalizations and does not seek to better educate his readers.

One wonders whether something about the exercise of writing tourist guides to the by-now-familiar list of canonical sins encourages a chattiness that promises life-affecting moral insight but falls short of philosophical rigor or historical illumination while also failing to speak in a tone of moral urgency. Jewish ethical texts arranged according to a list of virtues and vices tend to be compendia of normative dicta, instructive to the faithful but not transformative to the indifferent. This is not the way writers such as C.S. Lewis and Samuel Johnson, or any of the great novelists, do their work of shocking us into new modes of moral feeling.

A few of Kleinberg’s sentences fail to convey their intended meaning in English. On page 25, “waiving the contract,” rather than the almost opposite “waving the contract,” is what Kleinberg presumably intended. An unedited “not” at the bottom of p. 82 has a predictable effect on the truth value of the sentence in which it occurs. On page 30, Fairlie’s book The Seven Deadly Sins Today , published in 1978, is footnoted as evidence that “since the end of the twentieth century, sin as a living presence has gone out fashion in the West.”

In the coda to this not infrequently insightful and fluent book, Kleinberg confronts the great, familiar frustration we all face as we aspire to reform ourselves: Each of us is attached to our vices and bad habits. “These deadly sins are no longer generic. They are my pride, my lust . . . and, yes, my self-righteousness.” We do not love the sin that is our “master,” yet we do not want to go free, either. Kleinberg then announces his intention to conclude with the poem “Account,” by Czeslaw Milosz. In it, the poet concisely and regretfully reviews the “history of his stupidity” that “would fill many volumes” but that will never be written because “it’s late. And the truth is laborious.”

Kleinberg cannot resist the temptation to add one last paragraph of his own. “Am I,” he asks, “ready to resign myself to my stupidity? Am I ready to declare that it is too late? Although the basket on my back is full of tailless lizards [a reference explained earlier in the book], I still have my eye on the white whale of happiness.” The reader may wonder how much deeper and more powerful this entertaining piece of intellectual journalism might have been had Kleinberg been less ready to dilute insight and scholarly argument with cliché and wisecrack.

Shalom Carmy is chair of Bible and Jewish Philosophy at Yeshiva College and editor of Tradition , the theological journal of the Rabbinical Council of America.

Articles by Shalom Carmy

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