Not The Usual High Holiday Reading

By Minna Jacobson. 

It’s once again the season of apples and honey and soul-searching. For some unconventional High Holiday reading, take a look at the work of Peter Singer, a renowned ethicist and professor at Princeton University, whom The New Yorker calls the “world’s most influential living philosopher.”

Singer first stirred controversy in 1972 with an essay entitled Famine, Affluence, and Morality in which he declared: “[T]he whole way we look at moral issues . . . needs to be altered, and with it, the way of life that has come to be taken for granted in our society.” It is not enough, Singer believes, to take care of our families and to assist members of our community. We are also morally obligated to make substantial donations to help people facing life-threatening poverty in the developing world. Singer elaborates on this idea in his book, The Life You Can Save, discussed below. In many ways, Singer’s “radical” thinking about helping the needy echoes the Jewish concept of tzedekah (“justice”), because tzedekah is obligatory, rather than an optional act of generosity.

Singer has said in interviews that his sensitivity to ethical issues likely stems from his family’s tragic history. His parents and grandparents were Viennese Jews whose lives were upended when Nazi Germany annexed Austria in 1938. Singer’s parents escaped to Australia, but his four grandparents were deported to concentration camps. Only his maternal grandmother survived. In his most personal book, Pushing Time Away: My Grandfather and the Tragedy of Jewish Vienna, Singer writes about his maternal grandfather, a scholar like Singer himself.

Pushing Time Away

Like many Holocaust stories, Pushing Time Away is a story broken in two: before the Nazis and after. Singer’s grandfather, David Oppenheim, was an eminent classicist who became deeply interested in human psychology. For a time, David was a member of the Vienna Psychoanalytical Society, the elite group that met weekly in Sigmund Freud’s home. David later broke with Freud over Freud’s dispute with his former disciple, Alfred Adler.

After the Nazi invasion, the tone of the story changes; David’s intellectual musings are replaced by a taut narrative of telegrams and denied transit visas as the Oppenheims try, but fail, to escape Vienna. The grim irony is that David, a man who dedicated his life to studying human nature, failed to recognize in time the danger posed by the Nazis. Through David’s story, we see that the Nazis not only destroyed European Jewish civilization, but also extinguished the humanistic culture that thrived in the academies, theaters, museums, and coffee houses of Vienna.

The Life You Can Save

In making his case that we in the developed world are obligated to help the world’s most needy, Singer is provocative; he contends that most dollars we spend—on comfortable homes, dinners out, new clothes, even donations to local art museums—should have been donated to international aid organizations. To Singer, failing to make life-saving contributions, when we could easily do so, is as morally wrong as ignoring a toddler drowning in a shallow pool in front of us.

Although the book can be unsettling, it is also uplifting. Deaths from poverty are decreasing, and we have the power to decrease them still further. The Life You Can Save delivers a good, solid shove towards a more ethical life—especially appropriate at the High Holidays.