Shaya Cohen -


Can We Institutionalize Kindness?

Remember orphanages? Orphanages used to be good places. Places that created a home for the homeless, structure for the parentless, love for the abandoned and lost. Alexander Hamilton was an orphan. His widow, Eliza, was rightly praised for founding the Orphan Asylum Society, the city’s first private orphanage, a home for hundreds of children.

And then, along the way, the orphanage, like so many institutions that are born with the best of intentions, became corrupted. It turned, over time, from its primary mission, and, slowly became a place for the administration and staff to assure their own futures. When the full weight of the inhumanity of orphanages became clear to all, they were phased out in favor of foster care and other approaches. (Note that Hamilton’s orphanage continues, in a different form, today).

We have seen this trend across virtually every institution that was designed to care for others. Public schools were once truly excellent. Then, as the institutions aged, they sought to do what all bureaucracies do over time: perpetuate themselves and maximize power. Teachers Unions are now about the teachers, not the students. And in recent years we have seen the corruption of the once great institution of public schools extend to include the promotion of transgenderism and grooming. The question of whether students are being treated kindly is laughably distant from reality: today’s children are being brutally used and manipulated to promote and expand specific ideologies.

It is clear that in the normal course of events, all institutions are subject to this kind of decay. In many respects, the history of the orphanage is not that different from any kind of organization that settles in and, over time, loses its way. (Private companies in a reasonably free market are subject to feedback loops that ensure they fail, sooner or later, if they take their eyes off the ball.) Government entities lack basic corrective feedback mechanisms, so we get the FBI, CIA, EPA, NSA, FDA, TSA (and countless others) that are so far away from the principles that spawned them that they are all worse at performing their missions than if they did not exist at all. It is clear that most older institutions, like the orphanages of yore, should be scrapped entirely in favor of something else, something that would be an improvement if for no other reason that it would be young, staffed by people who are attracted to the mission more than the pension. But even if we scrap the old and bring in the new, the reasonable best case result would be “rinse and repeat.”

If we are trying to institutionalize kindness, then, we end up with a bit of a paradox: any formal organization will, over time, atrophy — even if it started with the best of intentions. The key is that we need to de-emphasize the institutions themselves, and focus on the people themselves. We need to find a way to motivate generations of people to keep aiming higher.

Because ultimately, people should not be cogs in a machine. We are, each of us, individuals. And people are not “touched” by an institution: we are touched by other people. Everyone remembers a teacher who made a difference, for good or ill. The specific school that paid that educator was no more or less than an enabler for the human connection that leads to dedication and inspiration. It is the individual teacher who ultimately makes the critical connection to the student. The teacher who does this is, for lack of a better phrase, a “true believer.” Such teachers are not mere employees, going through the motions. They find meaning in their jobs, purpose that drives them as they go through their days, to go above and beyond the requirements and rituals of managing a classroom. The institution can help or hinder a great teacher, but the building and the bureaucracy can never replace that teacher.

Any and all institutions fail over time. This includes secular and religious orphanages and schools, as well as large bureaucracies originally designed to do things like eliminate poverty. Everyone ends up looking out for #1, sooner or later.

But all is not lost! Because there is a secret ingredient that perpetuates the mission of an institution: a touchstone document that is accepted as irrefutable. In the United States, we have the Constitution. When it is treated almost as holy writ, the Constitution has, by and large, done its job. Constant reference to it as the foundation of all governmental rights and limitations has kept America “free” for a very impressively long time, indeed. But in order for this to work, there has to be an ongoing process of nourishment and replenishment, constant reference to the text revitalizing old and failing institutional bureaucracies. As and when the text is no longer considered definitive, then the nation falters and fails.

The Constitution is not about kindness, so the example is a peripheral point. But it provides a useful reference for the ultimate document on kindness: the Torah. After all, why should any of us be kind to anyone else? Plenty of societies in the world do not share the belief in being nice to other people. I am aware of no kindness enshrined within paganism, or atheism- at least not when times are tough. Indeed, utilitarian “might makes right” societies like Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia measured a person by their value to the Greater Good. Consequently, the old or the frail or the unborn, with little or no measurable value in the near term, can be measured, found wanting, and eliminated.

The founding principles of unfree societies, after all, are inimical to human rights because they do not acknowledge one of the first things we learn about man in the Torah: Each person is endowed with a divine spark. And as such, honoring and respecting everyone we meet is doing no less than honoring G-d Himself. The belief in the inherent value of every human life, coupled with the central commandment of the Torah: “Love your neighbor as yourself,” (which is NOT the Golden Rule), is at the heart of the idea of kindness in a society.

But without a text to tell us so, it is all too easy to put kindness aside when it is in our way. Just as there are very few atheists in a foxhole, there are very few people who manage to be kind when such kindness comes at a real cost. And yet, it is during challenging times that kindness is most precious and most important.

It is easy to be nice when it costs you nothing, just as it is easy to vote for higher taxes for the other guy. The real test is the stress test. When it can come down to “me or you,” most people look out for #1, no matter what.

The only kind of institution that we know can persist, therefore, is the institution that withstood the test of time thus far: the foundational documents of Western Civilization. Whether through the Torah and/or the New Testament, the people who connect best to other people are consistently those who also try to connect most fully with their Creator. This is the magic ingredient without which every institution becomes self-serving and ultimately evil. Because without such a touchstone text, practitioners invariably end up putting themselves ahead of their mission, and there is no corrective mechanism to cure the corruption.

I find it interesting that the “ideal society” is not laid out in the Torah beyond the core principles given. The Torah requires and expects no institutions beyond a court system that exists to ensure that society pursue justice. No specific form of government is mandated; the priesthood is largely disseminated within the population (as teachers); and even the Temple, the tabernacle established in one place, has a very small staff and no natural pathway to expansion. And we learn from history that every institution that Jews (and others) have, across history, layered on top of the Torah requirements for society can be counterproductive just as easily as they can be forces for good (ask any Protestant for their view).

The Constitution or the Torah or the New Testament are all documents that have been shown to be able to keep a people from straying too far from foundational principles that help us find our way despite the corruption and atrophy that afflicts every institution, sooner or later. These documents have withstood the test of time, capable of speaking to people across centuries (and even many millennia). But they all, in their own way, have to be accepted on faith before they can work their magic.

Comments are welcome!

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