Friday, 30 November 2007

Vayeishev: What is Morality?

Originally published 11/30/07, 1:08 PM, Eastern Daylight Time.
From the archives of Nishma's Online Library, we have chosen an article that relates to the week's parsha, both to direct you to this dvar Torah but also for the purpose of initiating some discussion.

This week's parsha is Vayeishev. The topic is the nature of morality. Does morality have its own inherent value or is it simply defined by the Will of God?

The story of Yehuda and Tamar begs this question. How are we to understand why a tzaddik, such as Yehuda, went to a prostitute. Was he coerced by the Divine? Or was there no problem, as prostitution was not forbidden until Sinai? Was it still immoral? What is morality? Nishma Spark of the Week 5754-10.


Anonymous said...

I would argue that harlotry is one of those acts that does "touch the moral gestalt of both heart and mind." The statement that on this issue "the mind and the heart do not fully connect" is made without explanation, and, to me, seems innacurate. Could you elaborate further? The reasons for forbidding harlotry seem as explainable as any other prohibition.

Rabbi Ben Hecht said...

Our world today presents a strange response to the prostitute or the star of pornography - both cases of individuals involved in "sex for money." On one hand, our world attempts to be liberal; there are organizations devoted to the social acceptance of thses "professions." For example, a once saw a woman lawyer advocating for the rights of the prostitute within society; this lawyer, obviously articulate a bright, a former member of that profession. She was treated with the utmost respect by the interviewer. Her previous word was portrayed to be simply a trade that was not accepted but the argument was that it should be. The reality is, though, that even all these liberal individuals advocating for an acceptance of prostitution and pornography would be upset if their childern were members of these professions.

There is a rift sometimes between our mind and our heart. This is such a case. The negative attitude that is maintained -- sometimes silently -- is from our heart. We can't always articulate a definitive reason why a certain behaviour is immoral. If a person wishes to be a pornographic star, can we definitly intellectually state that it is wrong. Every argument would be based upon other perspectives that could be challenged on other grounds. For example, we could maintain that this person is being manipulated but what if this is not the case? The fact is that we ultimately have an emotional response -- it is wrong because we feel it is wrong, and cannot necessarlily justify it through a reasoned argument. That is also an aspect of the broad category of morality.

Anonymous said...

Anything could be argued on the same basis--even murder can be questioned, from that perspective (hence, the question of whether morality exists outside of halacha). However, the essay outlined four categories, and I would surmise that it places prostitution in a different category than murder (which affects both heart and mind as much as anything I can think of). I think that, like murder, the repulsion to prostitution is both emotional and intellectual, despite advocate groups such as the one described. After all, today's society is hardly proof of anything; nowadays you can find someone pardoning even the most heinous acts.

I can think of two primary intellectual reasons why prostitution should be considered wrong: (1) on a very practical level, it breaks up the normal family structure--which is a very unstable thing for society; (2) it brings the relationship between man and woman to a purely animalistic level, making it totally physical with no emotional repurcussions and no strings attached.

interlocutor said...

I think that there is an overlap between heart and mind and maybe this is the basis of anonymous's challenge. Furthermore, it is often difficult to disentangle our heart from our mind once we have established a philosophy. 'Breaking up the family structure' might be disruptive to our current society as we have designed it but one can certainly fathom a functioning society in which the family structure is not so significant. And, anyway, who's to say that regular visits to a prostitute will invariably disrupt the family structure? Perhaps a solid marriage is unaffected by such jaunts. (Does that elicit an emotional response or an intellectual response, anonymous?) The second suggested intellectual argument against prostitution, that it reduces 'the relationship between man and woman to a purely animalistic level,' seems, to me, misguided as well. First, the 'strings attached' are the ones that Rambam describes--it is a mini-marriage, in a way. As for the 'emotional repercussions'--is this a rational argument for an emotional response? Is it possible to further clarify the distinction between a purely emotional mishpat (meaning, an intellectual chok) and a purely intellectual mishpat (or emotional chok)?

Rabbi Ben Hecht said...

When I originally considered this idea I recognized that it demanded much more analysis and thought and I approeciate this dialogue in furthering this analysis. At the root of my contemplation of this topic is the Rambam's reference to this mitzvot that are perceived to be understandable as mitzvot sichliyot, i.e. rational or thoughtful. Upon further thought I found them to actually be more tied to an emotional response of disgust rather than an intellectual response. For example, the incestual prohibition regarding siblings, when I asked classes for why this was so morally repugnant, the answer always came back to this issue of forced relations (i.e. an older sibling raping a younger sibling) or the genetic problems involved. When I challenged this response, by projecting a case of a 28 yr. old brother wishing to marry a 25 yr old sister, or I said that there would be genetic testing or an agreement not to have children, the response of the audience began to change. They still were repulsed by the idea but could not articulate a cogent intellectual argument to defend this repugnance. This led me to re-consider Rambam's use of the term "sichliyot".

Upon further contemplation, I also recognized that Rambam presents reasons for the chukim as well. Without getting into further viewpoints on the extended definition of the mitzvo, in that Rambam also maintains that all mitzvot really have a reason, this further led to me to consider that the distinction is not really based upon the thoughtfullness of a mitzvah but rather on an internal mechanism within human beings that feel what may be termed a moral repugnance for certain behavious seperate from the intellectual arguments that explain what the problem may be. Simply our intellectual responses may not really jive with our emotional responses.

I think that prostitution may be such a case. Clearly the intellectual arguments you present explain the problems with prostitution but what we are seeing within our society are responses to these arguments that basically maintain that one can have their cake and eat it to. Much of the new sexual mores within our society, including even premarital relations as a simple existent fact, continues to be accepted because the arguments of challenging the family structure or reducing women to a purely animalistic level have been discounted for various reasons given within our society. It really comes down to the emotional notwithstanding the proper intellectual nature of these arguments. My point is simply that we must be aware of this. I am not stating that prostituion has no intellectual basis for being deemed by a society as a problem. I am stating though that when we stop recognizing that morality has an unexplainable non-intellectual side to it that cannot be ignored.