Passionately Curious: Geoffrey Claussen on encouraging critical thinking about moral strengths and weaknesses

Claussen, associate professor of religious studies and Lori and Eric Sklut Scholar in Jewish Studies, is one of eight Elon faculty members featured this year in "Passionately Curious," the annual Elon University President's Report. 

Each year, Elon University points a spotlight on its truly exceptional faculty and their dedication to excellent teaching, scholarly accomplishment and transformative mentoring in the President’s Report. In this year’s report, “Elon University Faculty: Passionately Curious,” featured educators were asked to write about their intellectual passion and how they share that passion with their students inside and outside the classroom. 

Geofrrey Claussen, associate professor of religious studies and Lori and Eric Sklut Scholar in Jewish Studies

All human beings are prone to covering up our ethical weaknesses and faults, ensuring that we look better than we are. We seek to deceive others, and we seek to deceive ourselves. But changing ourselves requires being honest about ourselves. Improving ourselves requires confronting those pieces of ourselves that are hardest to look at.

Teachings along these lines have been important to a variety of human communities. I have encountered such wisdom especially within the teachings of the Musar movement, a pietistic Jewish movement that flourished in the 19th and early 20th centuries and emphasized the work of honestly examining one’s ethics — including one’s struggles and shortcomings.

Much of my scholarship has focused on the Musar movement, and I often draw inspiration from the spiritual exercises it recommended and the penetrating moral questions it asked. Writing as an ethicist, I encourage readers to look honestly at not only their moral strengths but also at their weaknesses, and to consider how they might live with greater compassion, kindness, justice and honesty.

But while the leaders of the Musar movement encouraged self-scrutiny, they were traditionalists who seldom encouraged scrutiny of the traditions they saw as authoritative. Critical thinking about oneself was essential; too much critical thinking about what they saw as the authoritative Jewish tradition was off limits. In this regard, I would not have fit in well within the pietistic academies of the Musar movement. I have a deep passion for not only encouraging people to think critically about their own moral lives, but also to think critically about traditions and communities that claim to have authority in the world.

As a scholar and teacher, I work not only as an ethicist but also as a historian who studies how Jewish ethics and traditions have been constructed over time. Much of my scholarship focuses broadly on how those who construct the meaning of “Judaism” often cover up the histories of what they perceive to be ethical weaknesses and faults, ensuring the tradition will be portrayed positively (as they see it).

Popular presentations of Judaism, in this sense, are no different from the presentations of most other political, cultural or religious traditions. Those who construct the meaning of Christianity, for example, often seek to cover up the histories of what they perceive to be its ethical shortcomings. So too, those who construct the meaning of America often ensure the history of the United States is presented in positive terms.

Honestly presenting the history of ideas of a persecuted minority tradition is especially fraught, however. Given the history of antisemitic misrepresentations of Judaism, many scholars of Jewish traditions have had good reasons to seek to present Judaism in wholly positive terms. But it is clear to me that bringing positive changes to any sort of community requires honesty about that community and its traditions. Improving the United States requires honestly confronting those aspects of our nation that are hardest to face. The ethical improvement of any of the traditions commonly classified as “religions” requires honestly considering the darkest aspects of their histories and contemporary realities.

When I teach about darker aspects of any tradition, I seek to do so gently, supporting students through the learning process and helping them see how honesty in scholarship can lead to a better world. And I help students to pay attention to social and historical contexts, proceed with humility and consider how all human traditions have ethical flaws. Bigots often demonize particular traditions — like Judaism, for example — while failing to confront the darkness of their own traditions. Students who study with intellectual honesty, by contrast, realize that all human traditions are inescapably human, reflecting both the good and the bad in human nature.

Engaging in intellectually honest study will not automatically shape us into better people or create a better world, but critically studying traditions with honesty can help us deepen our own senses of compassion, kindness and justice. We can come to see the forces that shape human societies more clearly and be more thoughtful about how to help others. We can focus our attention on serious problems that partisans might prefer to brush aside. We can even learn to detect elements of these problems within ourselves.

I do think the Musar movement got it right in encouraging deep self-scrutiny and honesty about one’s own ethical strengths and weaknesses. I am passionate about encouraging such work but, unlike the traditionalists whom I study, I am passionate about helping to ensure that ethics is informed by a critical and honest look at traditions that shape us. Critical thinking about oneself is essential, and so is critical thinking about all who claim authority in our world.