Senator, You’re No Jonathan Edwards

Ought parents provide clear moral guidance and a set of definite values to their children, by orchestrating what they are exposed to and what not? John Edwards doesen’t think so.

At the Dartmouth presidential debate in late September, the candidates were asked what they thought about a Lexington, Mass.teacher who read a story to second graders about a prince who married a prince, i.e. about same-sex marriage. Senator Edwards supported the notion:

Second grade might be a little tough, but even in second grade to be exposed to all … to all of those possibilities because I don’t want to impose my view. Nobody made me God. I don’t get to decide on behalf of my family or my children, as my wife, Elizabeth, who’s spoken her own mind on this issue. I don’t get to impose on them what it is that I believe is right.

Despite Suha Arafat’s absence from the room, Hillary made no attempt to protest, to distance herself from the remark. Neither, for that matter, did any of the other candidates. The point was subtle enough that perhaps the rest of them should probably not be blamed. May G-d save us, however, from the moral vision of John Edwards.

One does not have to be G-d to forcefully teach children the difference between right and wrong, and a set of strongly-held values. It does, however, usually help to believe in G-d, and several of the Democratic candidates have been going out of their way to stress their belief. Believing in G-d, among other things, allows parents to view their task as fulfilling a Divine mission, not just providing gametes and game boys. Believing in G-d allows – often forces – believers to embrace some values as better, not just different.

Part of the challenge of parenting is to be clear enough in one’s own values to be able to impart them to the next generation. The values that make a difference – the ones that require sacrifice and effort – compete with many counter-values. They are not so likely to survive if they are either unclear and conflicted, or “imposed” (to use Senator Edwards’ word) by force and coercion. The trick is to understand them well enough to be able to demonstrate their value to children. This involves different lessons appropriate to children at different ages, and protecting them against exposure to harmful experiences and examples.

Put more simply, there is a world of difference between education and imposition. But letting children chose from competing systems like sampling the dishes at a smorgasbord is a dereliction of parental duty. It will also spell the end of America.

One who would have had a hard time accepting Senator Edwards’ premise is Jonathan Edwards, one of America’s most important and effective colonial preachers. The earlier Edwards is almost synonymous with fire-and-brimstone presentations, and was not averse to strong guidance of children. He supported preaching terror, if that was needed. Even children, who in God’s sight “are young vipers,” would gain from being struck by the fear of the L-rd. Today, this sounds like a sure-fire way to drive people away from belief. But if we had to choose between the two Edwards, I would go with the older, for reasons that become clear in one of the earliest narratives in Chumash, a story that I think would have given Jonathan Edwards much consternation as one known to take the Jewish Bible very seriously.

At first blush, there is something profoundly disturbing about the story of Kayin and Hevel. It is a story about the encounter of the good guy and the bad guy. When the dust settles, however, the good guy is dead, and the bad guy cops a plea. Is that a message for all times? Shouldn’t the guys in white triumph over their counterparts in black?

Maharal (Derush for Shabbos HaGadol, pgs. 201-202) has a chilling explanation. Kayin represents the person in the throes of the yetzer hora. Hevel is true to his name – emptiness, vacuousness. Even when he does good, such as in bringing the offering to which Hashem responds, it does not flow from some internal font of goodness. His actions – even his good actions – are superficial and not an expression of his essence. (The brother yet to be born, Shes, would represent the actualization of yetzer tov; his descendants would inherit the new, post-Flood world.)

Kayin, then, represents strong-willed evil, while Hevel represents wimpy, irresolute good.

When they clash, it is not even a close match. Sure-footed evil will triumph over good that stumbles and falters.

Until Moshiach comes, there will be no shortage of evil, much of it focused and determined. Good doesn’t have a fighting chance if values are picked like choosing between different colors of wallpaper. Good needs to be conveyed with the passion and conviction of a Jonathan Edwards, although we Jews would prefer a very different message. Edwards the contemporary, however, will not equip the next generation with the survival tools to resist the evil that lurks at the gate. He may not produce an immoral America, but it will likely be an amoral one, a country not very sure of what it stands for, and where it is going.

Kayin is alive and well. Hevel just won’t make the cut. The story of the struggle between the two brothers is crucial at the dawn of humanity, because it underscores the need for Hashem’s guidance – the rest of the Torah. Having benefited from that guidance, we can find the mandate and the confidence necessary to be parents unashamed of making choices for our children. That doesn’t make us G-d, it makes us G-d’s partners.

You may also like...

13 Responses

  1. Bob Miller says:

    If Hevel was as described in this article, why was his sacrifice accepted?

  2. mb says:

    The first religious act was followed by the first murder!

  3. Benzion Chinn ( says:

    What is the difference between reading public school children a story about two princes, in order to make expose children to different beliefs, and reading the New Testament or the sermons of the 19th century Jonathan Edwards to public school children in order to expose them to different beliefs? I doubt many public school children of been exposed to the sort of worldview one finds in Jonathan Edwards.

  4. David Alt says:

    Regarding the d’var Torah, rather than the Edwards section:
    Many of us assume that we are descended from Shes, but this is only 1/2 true. Noah’s wife descended from Kayin, so the original female contribution to today’s world population starts there, from (quoting R’ Adlerstein) “strong-willed evil.” So I wonder why “strong-willed evil” seems to be a mostly male attribute.
    Is it that humanity needs some of this attribute, and it’s safer to have it come from the female than the male?
    Could this contribute to the folk-image of women being a source of certain varieties of evil (witchcraft, enticement, etc.)?

  5. Yitzchok Adlerstein says:


    That is very much part of Maharal’s point. It really wasn’t a “religious” act. It was indeed a good act, in the sense that superficially it made a good point: recognition of Hashem’s world in his bounty, and thanking Him for it. This was enough for HKBH to accept it and value it (perhaps as much as all of the mitzvos we perform not quite lishmah!) But it was only a superficial recognition, and a superficial thanks. It did not come from a firm, internalization of the principle. It was an expression of a nice idea that he picked up from his older brother (whose “religious” component in bringing the korban was even less laudable), but not of inner conviction. It did not have the strength to change Hevel for the better; nor did it confer the protection of shluchei mitzvah upon him.

    So if you want to draw any conclusions about mitzvos leading to murder, a more accurate way of seeing it may be that half-hearted, botched, or internal contradiction-ridden good deeds can indeed lead to all sorts of mischief.

    David –
    I’m not sure why “strong-willed evil” is related to males. Have you forgotten Izevel and Shulamit Aloni? 🙂 Strong-willedness per se is definitely seen as positive when used properly. Chazal call KY עזין במצות. Maharal in particular writes in many places that things (and people) of real substance are not easily moved, but stand their ground – physically and intellectually. Na’amah’s presence on the teivah likely represents the distillation of all that was accomplished by the less-deserving line of Kayin, and its being coopted by the progeny of Shes.

  6. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Yitzchok Adlerstein: Ought parents provide clear moral guidance and a set of definite values to their children, by orchestrating what they are exposed to and what not? John Edwards doesen’t think so.

    Ori: I wonder how he’d react if his kids did anything that risked his political career – would he still be so “virtuously” neutral.

  7. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Bob Miller: If Hevel was as described in this article, why was his sacrifice accepted?

    Ori: Maybe because G-d wanted to test Kayin(1). Or maybe because even the slightest good from somebody like Hevel needs to be encouraged in the hope he’ll improve.

    (1) Cain

  8. Charles B. Hall says:

    Jonathan Edwards’ famous preaching eventually proved unsuccessful: It alienated members of his congregation, who eventually convinced the town government to fire him. (Church and State were not separate in colonial Massachusetts.) Today, his old congregation in Northampton, Massachusetts to which he preached for two decades is officially “open and affirming” to gays and Lesbians.

  9. mnuez says:

    Nope, I’M Jonathan Edwards:

    Your wickedness makes you as it were heavy as lead, and to tend downwards with great weight and pressure towards hell; and if God should let you go, you would immediately sink and swiftly descend and plunge into the bottomless gulf, and your healthy constitution, and your own care and prudence, and best contrivance, and all your righteousness, would have no more influence to uphold you and keep you out of hell, than a spider’s web would have to stop a falling rock. Were it not for the sovereign pleasure of God, the earth would not bear you one moment; for you are a burden to it; the creation groans with you; the creature is made subject to the bondage of your corruption, not willingly; the sun does not willingly shine upon you to give you light to serve sin and Satan; the earth does not willingly yield her increase to satisfy your lusts; nor is it willingly a stage for your wickedness to be acted upon; the air does not willingly serve you for breath to maintain the flame of life in your vitals, while you spend your life in the service of God’s enemies.

  10. HILLEL says:



  11. Toby Katz says:

    If Hevel was as described in this article, why was his sacrifice accepted?

    Comment by Bob Miller — October 26, 2007 @ 8:50 am


    The Maharal’s teaching was an important lesson but not pshat.

  12. Yitzchok Adlerstein says:

    The Maharal’s teaching was an important lesson but not pshat.

    I’m not familiar with anything the Maharal wrote that he would not consider pshat. He often makes the point quite explicitly, that those who understand will recognize that his (Maharal’s) explications are indeed pshat. In this he parts company with many others, including some like Abarbanel, who offered both pshat and meta-pshat, sometimes in the same piece, serially.

    I don’t see the difficulty here. See my comment above at #5

  13. Lawrence M. Reisman says:

    To quote from one of the classic sermons of Jonathan Edwards:

    “The Spirit of God speaks here of the greatest revival and the most glorious advancement of the Church on earth, the blessings of which will benefit the Jewish nation. … the Spirit of God takes the opportunity from there to speak of the incomparably greater blessings on the Church, that will attend and follow her deliverance from the spiritual Babylon … Although this prophecy literally refers to the Jews return from Babylon, its fulfillment cannot be seen there for no such things spoken of here attended their return. Therefore, it must refer to the great calling and gathering of Jews into the fold of Christ, and to them receiving the blessings of His kingdom.”

    If Rabbi Adlerstein would choose the earlier Edwards, that is his privilege. But I doubt the earlier Edwards would want much to do with an arrogant Jew who repeatedly and brazenly refuses to see the light of truth as understood by Jonathan Edwards.

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This