The Scarlet Letter

June 20, 2008
By Mara Lindel, Setauket, NY

In the Yiddish language, a mensch is a person of high integrity and honor. Being a mensch has nothing to do with looks, wealth, success, or intellect. A mensch exudes the characteristics of being a truly honest person, an all around “stand-up guy”. A mensch is someone who is willing to unselfishly help others. He is someone who pays back society, without an ulterior motive. He is someone who does the right thing the right way. However, to be considered a mensch, is it necessary to observe all of the holy laws and obey every aspect of Judaism? If you are unable to fulfill your religious duties but you fit all of the characteristics of being a mensch, does this negate you from being such an admirable person? These questions can be applied to all religions. If you do not obey all of the laws of your religion, does this make you a bad person?

The character Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale from the classic novel The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne exhibits unethical behavior. He is a sinner against man, against G-d, and against himself. However, he is still held to be somewhat of a “mensch” in his religion. The general congregation of his church generally places him on a pedestal and basically worships his being. The congregation makes the misconception that because Reverend Dimmesdale is such a high figure on the church hierarchy, he is an admirable person and can do no wrong. Despite what they believe, Dimmesdale is in fact a very sinful person; he committed adultery. According to the Ten Commandments, which Puritans value very highly, “thou shalt not commit adultery” (Matthew 5:27-28). Not only did Dimmesdale commit adultery, but he was not true to himself either. He completely contradicts himself, and everything that he preaches. Dimmesdale is a very well respected reverend and when he preaches the word of G-d, he urges the congregation to confess openly and repent unto G-d. This is ironic because he was the one who needed the repenting. Instead, he kept his secret of adultery to himself for seven years. Consequently, the truth was devouring him inside. “And the man that committeth adultery with another man's wife, even he that committeth adultery with his neighbour's wife, the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death” (Leviticus 20:10). And this is in fact what happened to Dimmesdale. Hiding his secret and not asking G-d for forgiveness took a huge toll on him both physically and mentally, making Dimmesdale extremely weak which ultimately led to his death.

Is Dimmesdale a good, genuine person? It can be disputed that he committed adultery out of love, so therefore he had good intentions. However, he still defied one of the Ten Commandments, one of the ten laws of his G-d. Is this forgivable? Dimmesdale is willing to unselfishly help others and does give back to the society by preaching to others the qualities of being a “mensch”, and tries to instill these values into them. Even if this is true, should he still be placed on such a high pedestal after what he did? It is very debatable if Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale is considered to be a bad person because he broke one of the laws of G-d, even though he still is willing to help others.

Margaret Sanger, the person behind the legalization of birth control, violated her religious beliefs as well. Since she was Catholic, the usage of methods like birth control are considered to be extremely immoral. According to Catholics, contraception is wrong because it is a deliberate violation of the purpose of sexual intercourse that G-d intended, which is for pro-creation. The Bible mentions at least one form of contraception, but in a negative way. A man by the name of Onan was supposed to follow the ancient Jewish law of fathering children for one's dead brother. “Judah said unto Onan, ‘Go into your brother's wife, and perform the duty of brother-in-law to her, and raise up offspring for your brother.' But Onan knew the offspring would not be his; so when he went in to his brother's wife he spilled the semen on the ground, lest he should give offspring to his brother. And what he did was displeasing in the sight of the Lord, and he slew him also” (Gen. 38:8-10). This excerpt from the book of Genesis displays how Catholics feel about methods of birth control; they completely condemn it. They find it to be entirely unethical because it was not G-d's original intention behind the purpose of sex. Catholics feel that if people are having sex for reasons other then procreation, then they are sinning and they should not be having sexual intercourse. Consequently, methods of birth control would be completely unnecessary and nonessential. When Margaret Sanger began to push for the legalization of birth control, it was seen as very controversial, especially because her mother was such a devout Catholic. However, Sanger's rationale behind promoting birth control was to help people, especially those of the lower classes. With the usage of birth control, women will get pregnant a lot less often, making it more affordable to raise a family. Sanger had good intentions when she was promoting birth control, however it did go against everything that the Catholic church believes in, so does this make her a bad person?

What I sit here and wonder about now is, what are the real qualifications for being a good, genuine person? Is obeying your religion more important than obeying your own true beliefs? As much as I try to come up with an answer, I feel that I will never know for certain. Personally, I think that as a human being, no one is perfect and everyone has done something that they are not necessarily proud of. About three years ago, I went away to sleep away camp and while I was there, I deeply hurt someone that I really cared about. When I got home I tried to confront this person and apologize for my actions. I even felt so guilty that I went to services at my temple almost every Saturday for an entire year as an attempt to repent my sin. One afternoon I talked to my rabbi about it, and he told me that everyone makes mistakes, it is only natural. He also said that I would be forgiven as long as I realized what I did wrong, and took with me this knowledge that I had been given. Even though it took about two years to make amends with this person, I do feel that I did in fact redeem myself. I certainly am trying to work my way towards incorporating the characteristics of being a mensch into my life, and I will forever have inscribed in my mind the rabbi's words. I think that I am a good person for trying to learn from my mistakes, even though I may not necessarily be a mensch.
In my personal opinion, I feel that both Reverend Dimmesdale and Margaret Sanger are good people. Although it did take Dimmesdale seven years to confess his sin, he eventually owned up to it, redeeming himself in the eyes of G-d. I do believe that Margaret Sanger is a good person too, because even though she did not follow all of her religious beliefs and sacrificed her place at the church, she did it for the good of America, which I think is more important and perhaps even mensch-like. We will never know for sure what constitutes a person as being good, but we can try to keep improving our lives in hopes of becoming an even better person. This I feel is the reason why there is no definite answer. There is no limit to how good of a person you can be.

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