Sunday, 6 January 2008

Is There a Unique Torah Understanding of Morality

Originally published 1/6/08, 10:43 PM, Eastern Daylight Time.
I recently read an article on good and evil that I found in the Dec. 3 edition of Time magazine. As I read the article, I found that I had somewhat of an issue with the very definition of good and evil. The article never really defined it but it clearly presented a view of what it thought was good and evil. My problem with the article, though, was that I felt that I had a different definition as a result of my Torah studies. This led me to a question I posed in a Nishma publication many years ago:
Is There A Distinctive Jewish Ethical Perspective?
( See http://www.nishma.org/articles/update/update5755-2.htm#PERS)

What do you think?

Rabbi Ben Hecht

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

In the modern world it is hard to distinguish between ethics that the world has learned from us and ethics that we may have learned from them. For example, the gemara is not exactly a bastion of women's rights. Yes, over the years the halachic system has developed and the role of women has changed, but how much of that change would be considered a "bedieved"? Is the halachic system of ethics really a proponent of these modern values, or have we merely adapted along with the rest of the world?

Garnel Ironheart said...

The distinctiveness of the Jewish perspective is that there is a concept of absolute good and evil that does not change over time and circumstances. In secular morality, what is good today might not be tomorrow and vice versa. Thus even if some Jewish ethics and morals resemble those current in society today, it's not a reflection of society but rather a coincidence that the secular world has chosen to assign the term "good" to those values.

Rabbi Ben Hecht said...

The relationship between natural morality and Torah is extremely complex and one of the complexities is regarding the dynamic movement of ethical constructs over time. Natural morality has clearly moved over time -- partly in response to the teachings of Torah. But Torah morality is also dynamic; there has been movement in halachic constructs. Even take for example mitzvot d'rabbanan -- they can be seen as an effective change on previous standards, in a world without these d'rabbanan. The question is: what does Rabbinic legislation mean in terms of the movement of underlying ethical principles? It may not represent the great dynamic movement that occurs in natural morality but it does represent a movement -- otherwise we will be lessening the significance of Chazal's dictums. The idea of asmachta, especially as understood by the Ritva, furthers this understanding. And perhaps this development does bring into the dynamic, ideas that we learn from natural morality, although such a concept must be approached carefully and within proper parameters that do not weaken the force of Torah itself.

The fact is that, from the story of the eitz ha'ad'at tov v'ra, we see that God created a system of understanding morality that is within mankind but, from Har Sinai, we see that God also created an external system that does have precedence but does not exist in a vaccum. As such we are caught juggling these two systems that God has implanted within us. The point is though that we should always remember that while our internal system will affect our understanding of Torah -- as it should for it is what causes us through halachic questioning to find out what the Torah really means -- we cannot let it misread Torah and turn Torah into just another presentation of what we think is moral from our internal natural feelings on the subject. As such, even as Halacha is dynamic in affecting the world's natural morality and allowing some aspects of natural morality to have a voice in working out the meaning of Torah, Torah's external essence from Revelation must always yield a uniqueness.

Anonymous said...

I have a very simple approach, which diametrically oppose that of the ethicists. The late Rabbi Hertzberg, an ethicist, once said that whenever there is a conflict between Halakha and ethics, he would always choose the ethics side. I say the opposite, namely whenever there is a conflict between Halakha and ethics, he would always choose the Halakha side.
This approach is pretty safe. The only issue could be when Halakha conflicts with the law of the land. This could most of the time be mitigated by the “Shev vi’al ta’aseh” approach. In the few cases when this does not work either, then we have oppression based on religion.
ZA

Garnel Ironheart said...

That assumes that ethics and Halacha are different. One of the principles of halachah is that it IS ethical and that anything opposing it isn't.

Rabbi Ben Hecht said...

I don't think that garnel ironheart's comments can be taken so simply. Of course, much depends on the definition of ethics and if ethics simply means observing the Will of God then obviously there cannot be a conflict between Halacha and ethics. But if ethics refers to a seperate system of evaluating behaviour, which humanity may have an inherent sensor (eitz hada'at tov v'ra) than it may be more complicated as the external system of Sinai does not always connect with our internal sense of ethics. That in itself creates an issue that must be dealt with but nonetheless it creates a complication in the simple statement that ethics equals Halacha. Oftentimes, it may also be the internal ethical sense that motivates one to investigate the Halacha and find out that the original perception ofthe Halacha was wrong and a "heter" is found. In the end Halacha does equal ethics but there first must be the recognition of the chasm -- and the ability to live with the chasm especially in the event that a "heter" is not found. That may lead to new dynamics to improve one's personal sensor but the relationship of ethics to Halacha must be recognized as complex.

Rabbi Ben Hecht