Ought is one of the 3,000 most frequently used words in English. We say one ought to do something as an indication that some action is good, proper, expected or owed. The word should carries many of the same implications. In recent years, should and ought have been criticized as being negative words, engendering guilt and removing individual initiative from people. People have begun to say, “I don’t like shoulds” or “Religion is too full of shoulds.”
The contemporary psychological pushback against ought and should is rooted in efforts to help people feel better about themselves. Moreover, it is suggested that, to liberate ourselves from should statements, we must more clearly express what we want and why we want it. It is important to fill in the gap between, “You should take out the garbage,” with the reasons why such an action is desired.
In many ways, the contemporary discussion is based in the work of David Hume (1711–1776), the great Scottish philosopher. He noted that many people make factual observations, describing events or people, and then make a casual transition from statements about what is to claims about what ought to be. In his Treatise of Human Nature, Hume cautioned against using descriptive statements (about what is) as the basis for prescriptive statements (about what ought to be). For example, the observation that locally grown produce is readily available in the market and the claim that one ought to eat local are not connected. What is missing is the explanation of why eating local might be environmentally beneficial, economically justified and morally desirable. The present situation may be described as it is. But if we think that something should (according to our values) be changed, we can begin to think about how to change things that are into what we believe they ought to be.
The claim that there is a smaller Jewish community now because of the Holocaust does not immediately lead to the conclusion that one should financially and politically support the state of Israel. Making the moral claim is not enough. We must be able to give reasons to fill in the gap between the demographic implications of the deaths of so many Jews and the importance of Israel to the continuation and rebuilding of the Jewish people.
Yet ought and should are also ways of thinking aspirationally, articulating what we hope or want to be. My colleague, Rabbi Harold Schulweis, has written about the is/ought dilemma in a way that reminds us of the power and possibility of ought (and should):
“Think ought. Not what is a Jew, but what ought a Jew to be. Not what is a synagogue, but what ought a synagogue to be. Not what prayer is, but what prayer ought to be. Not what ritual is, but what ritual ought to be.
“Focus from is to ought, and our mindset is affected. Is faces me toward the present; ought turns me to the future. Ought challenges my creative imagination, opens me to the realm of possibilities and to responsibilities to realize yesterday’s dream.
“Ought and is are complementary. Without an is, the genius of our past and present collective wisdom is forgotten. Without an ought, the great visions of tomorrow fade. Ought demands not only a knowledge of history but of exciting expectation. Is is a being, ought is a becoming. Ought emancipates me from status quo thinking. Ought is the freedom of spirit.”
The Torah tradition is built around the idea of ought and should. “Barukh atah … Praised are You who commanded us” is a core concept of Judaism, critical to who we are as Jews. This idea is at odds with contemporary sensibilities that seek to discard shoulds and oughts. We recognize responsibilities, obligations, mitzvot, as essential to the building of individual character and collective community. Whether those obligations are interpersonal or directed toward the Holy One, they encourage us to look beyond ourselves to see a greater good.
Many times during the Days of Awe, we will use the words should and ought. Instead of thinking of these words as ways of placing guilt on others, let us try to explain why something – attending shul with the family, marrying within the Jewish community, giving tzedakah – is important. Let’s try to fill in the reasons for our claims of should and ought.
As well, the Yamim Nora’im lead us to see statements of should and ought as moral claims that extend beyond past history. We might hear such comments as indications of our responsible aspirations and our hopeful desires. Then should and ought can be motivational terms. They push us forward toward making the world, our society, our family and our closest relationships a bit better.
Rabbi Baruch Frydman-Kohl is rabbi emeritus of Beth Tzedec Congregation in Toronto and is a rabbinic fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute of Jerusalem. He is the author of scholarly articles in the area of Jewish philosophy and mysticism. For more articles from the SHI, visit hartman.org.il.