Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Monday, 17 August 2015

What Guides Us

Its an old and tricky philosophical question - when personal moral feelings and religion conflict, which is the correct path to follow?  In Judaism we hold that God, being perfect, gave us our value system through the Torah and therefore any difference between secular and Torah positions means the secular one is wrong.
The problem with this is that it requires a high amount of faith and also a tremendous amount of resistance to the seduction that the surrounding general culture uses on us to pull our souls away from Torah values.  For many the conflict is very real and there is a genuine desire to try and accommodate both positions, to be a loyal Torah-observant Jew and a good secular member of society.
We see it with gay marriage, for example.  In the non-Orthodox community this is a no-brainer.  Almost by definition, Reformatism today sets its moral compass by the values of secular liberalism and then adds in traditional Jewish values only when they don't conflict.  On the Chareidi side of the community there is also little debate.  The Torah's values rule all and if one has mixed feelings then one is lacking in proper faith.
For those slightly to the left of Chareidism however the picture is not so simple.  Exposed to the world in ways that Chareidim often aren't, the perspective on the outside changes.  Living amongst Gentiles we quickly learn that most of them are quite decent folk.  Many have good senses of propriety, decent and honesty even if their core values diverge from Torah ones.  What's more, in many cases it seems their values are superior to ours, for example when it comes to child abuse and protection from pedophiles and abusive husbands.  Seeing this can really tug at a person and make him wonder if our system really is the best system.
There are other reasons a person can come to doubt whether halacha and received Jewish values are indeed so perfect.  A friend of mine owns an Artscroll book called "What If?"  A translation of several teshuvos by Rav Yitchok Zilberstein, it presents various scenarios from daily life in which two Jews come into conflict and need Beis Din to solve it.  The format of the book is simple.  First the scenario is presented and then the answer.  My friend likes to read the scenario and then ask people what they think the right course of action is.  Then he reads the official answer, what Rav Zilberstein (or rather, what Rav Eliashiv, zt"l) thinks. What worries me is how many times my answer is diametrically opposed to the official answer.
Why is that?  Well, not having an encyclopedic knowledge of Torah my first instinct is to answer the question along the lines of "What would common decency suggest?" or "What would be the best compromise?"    This is almost never the right answer, at least according to this book.
All this is my way of explaining why I think that Rabbi Yissachar Katz of YCT wrote his recent post in Times of Israel claiming that our personal moral sense must trump our religious guide.  On the surface of it, his thesis is antithetical to Judaism.  Our personal moral sense is flawed.  Common sense also seems to be in short supply.  Who is any of us to put that up against the timeless Divine wisdom of the Torah?
On the other hand, as a prominent Israeli rab recently noted, we live in a strange world where a non-religious teenager expresses more basic Jewish values and behaviour than a Chareidi in full garb, especially when the teenager is trying to express a form of chesed and the Chareidi is lunging at people with a knife trying to kill them in cold blood.
But the situation isn't that simple.  The young lady who was murdered at the parade in Yerushalyim might have been demonstrating chesed and was probably everything the glowing eulogies described her as.  Her sympathy for her fellow Jew was laudable, her support for a cause that goes against Torah values not as much.  A truly decent person who, according to secular standards, was doing a noble deed when she was struck down by a psychotic man.
The murderer, on the other hand, was upholding what he believed were Jewish values.  His disapproval of alternative lifestyles, mixed in with his schizophrenia, created a monster with monstrous outcomes.  Was he wrong in disapproving of such a parade on the holy streets of Yerushalyim?  I don't think many observant Jews, if asked privately for their opinion of such an event, would say that they wish it would happen elsewhere if at all.  But to go from that opinion to what he actually did requires a breakdown of all moral sense.  In this regard, he was a mirror image of his victim.
Allowing one's moral sense to dictate our religious sensibilities is dangerous.  The best example of this is Shaul Hamelech who, as the prequel story to Purim tells us, chose to ignore God's command to totally wipe out the local Amalekite tribes and instead spared the cattle for sacrifice and Agag their king for a separate fate.  As the Tanach tells us, he was convinced he was doing the right thing, improving even on God's commands.  The result was his downfall into insanity and the loss of his kingship leading Chazal to remind us that those who are kind when God seems to be ordering cruelty will become cruel themselves even when God advises kindness.  Therefore Torah must be the compass that guides our moral sense.
If that is the case, then, we must be careful as to how we learn and promulgate that Torah.  Being kind doesn't mean accepting things that the Torah forbids or describes in negative terms but it does mean keeping a level head when dealing with proponents of those things, treating them as fellow human beings and Jews with all the respect that warrants.  Hate the sin, not the sinner as the Gemara tells us.  It means disagreeing and holding to the proper position without rudeness or self-righteousness.  It is most difficult since emotions can often cloud proper judgement or lead one onto a dark path that is illuminated by an illusory light.  It the difficulty that comes with following a true Torah path but the one that brings us closer to the Creator.  Ultimately it does demand that we mold, or at least subordinate, our moral sense to the Torah through proper understanding that learning should bring.


Tuv said...

Interesting, but it suggests that without a Torah value system, or one that places G-d at the top, things would get very bad.

What we find is that the systems that keep G-d in mind, but are basically built on natural rights, are miles ahead of religious based systems.

Our society operates very well with this basic foundation.

I find it interesting that Scandinavian countries have the lowest level of govt corruption I the world, and very little G-d awareness (though not none.). They are also high quality of life countries.

Israel and all the Islamic countries, certainly the Arab ones, don't fare as well on govt corruption levels.

Rabbi Ben Hecht said...

The one, albeit essential, problem with Garnel's presentation lies in defining the internal, rational ethical sensitivity of human beings as secular. This internal ethical perception is, in fact, God-given and we are Divinely instructed to apply it. There are many sources to this effect (Rabbeinu Nissim Gaon, Rambam, Ramban and so forth and so forth). As such, our ethical behaviour is actually to be directed by two yardsticks -- an internal one from reason within ourselves and an external one from the Revelation at Sinai. One of the challenges that human beings, as such, face it apparent conflicts between the two. That actually is part of the very dynamic of Torah. The yardstick of Revelation obviously is the one that is to take precedence in matters of conflict between the two but so much of the dynamic of Torah lies in the process of attempting reconciliation between the two. As such we are to find the ethical basis for laws that are Revelational in essence -- amend our internal yardstick through the education of Revelation -- and are to apply our ethical yardstick in furthering our understanding of the Revelational -- when and as appropriate, using the halachic process to investigate further into the apparent Revelational law to uncover a deeper understanding that meshes with the ethical. This is actually the dynamic inherent in the process of shailot v'teshuvot -- but it demands great caution for there is always the problem that within this process one's internal ethical perception could simply override the honest understanding of the Revelational.

I guess what I am trying to say is that Garnel is really touching upon what should be an inherent part of the Torah dynamic -- which many not only do not integrate into their Torah lifestyle but do not really understand its inherent significance within Torah.

Rabbi Ben Hecht

RAM said...

How does a Jew enhance his moral intuition and expand his knowledge base enough to make sense of these issues in line with the Torah? If he casually assumes he's already there, or that our Mesorah is not the yardstick, he's asking for trouble.

Mr. Cohen said...

Vayikra / Leviticus, chapter 20, verse 13:

“If a man has intercourse with another man in the same manner as with a woman, both of them have committed a disgusting perversion. They shall be put to death by stoning.”

NOTE: translated by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan in year 1981 CE in THE LIVING TORAH

Mr. Cohen said...

Shaar HaGilgulim, Introduction [hakdamah] chapter 22:
“He who has sexual intercourse with a man,
he will be reincarnated as a rabbit or hare...”

Arizal was Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, born 1534 CE, died 1572 CE.

שער הגלגולים - הקדמה כב
הבא על הזכר, יתגלגל בשפן או בארנבת

NOTE: Sefer Shevet Mussar explains that the reincarnation punishments are IN ADDITION to punishment in Gehinom [Hell], not instead of it.

Rye said...

I read this book at The Zone and was thoroughly amused at how many answers I got wrong...