Religious Life

Morality and the Jewish State – A Weekly Letter From Rabbi Davis – October 19, 2018

Shalom Chaverim

Is the Torah the sole source of morality or are there moral voices independent of, even in contradiction to, the word of God?

This essential question of religious life has been debated for thousands of years and it continues to be relevant. For example, new sensitivities around gender, sexuality, pluralism, tolerance of the other, etc. challenge traditional religious moral codes and law. Where Torah is the sole determining factor of what is moral, contemporary morality is irrelevant.  However, if factors outside Jewish law are permitted to influence what we understand as moral, a person of faith must address and perhaps accommodate modern moral criticism.

This topic is explored in an essay by Rabbi Donniel Hartman called, “Judaism: Between Religion and Morality.” I look forward to welcoming Hartman, a modern Orthodox rabbi and president of a Jerusalem-based, pluralistic Jewish research and education institute, to Beth El for our annual AIPAC Shabbaton, Nov. 9-10. I know that people have different understandings of what it means to be “pro-Israel.” Whatever your opinion, I want to encourage you to attend. Hartman, generally associated with the center-left, is a gifted teacher and compelling speaker.

Many classic Jewish texts can be brought to bear on the question of the source for morality in Jewish law. Often, we look for insights in stories about Abraham (arguing over Sodom and Gemorah and nearly sacrificed Isaac). Hartman examines a story I had never much appreciated. On the Israelite’s journey to the Promised Land, God commands Moshe to attack the Amorite people saying, “Set out across wadi Arnon for I am giving into your hand the King of Cheshbon and his land. Begin the occupation; engage him in battle. For this day I am putting the dread and fear of you upon the peoples.”

Even though Cheshbon falls outside the boundaries of the Land of Israel, God orders Israel to attack. God wants to demoralize future enemies by instilling in them a fear of Israel. Moshe initially refuses the order and does not attack. Instead, “I [Moshe] sent messengers to the King of Cheshbon with an offer of peace saying, ‘let me pass through your country. I will keep strictly to the highway” (Deut. 2:24-27).

The Torah largely overlooks Moshe’s rebellion and the story continues with the King of Cheshbon refusing to let the Israelites pass through his land. But the rabbis are quite taken with Moshe’s approach. They rewrite the story and instead of God ignoring Moshe’s request for a peace offering, God changes God’s mind saying, “I will cancel my opinion and follow yours” (Midrash Rabbah, Bamidbar 19:13). Moved by his own moral calculus, Moshe’s approach becomes the new legal paradigm for the morality of war. Before starting a war, one must first attempt to seek a peaceful resolution. God learns from Moshe and later adopts this approach saying, “When you approach a town to attack it, first offer terms of peace” (Deut. 20:10).

There is no definitive answer to the question of the source of morality in Judaism. To be fair, more teachings suggest that we must bend our will to the will of God. For, to assume that we know better than God is to perceive oneself as superior to God, an assumption that is tantamount to idolatry. At the same time, there is an undercurrent in the Torah calling upon us to develop our moral voice not in opposition to but as an expression of our faith. As Hartman writes:

Individuals must know that a moral conscious is not the enemy of faith but its greatest ally. They must be taught that religious piety is also expressed in the willingness to stand up and morally criticize one’s tradition. They must be taught that a commitment to tradition can also lead one to endeavor to ensure that one’s tradition represents the best and noblest of moral principles, and consequently employ legal and interpretative measures to ensure the assimilation of these principles into Judaism. (Judaism and the Challenges of Modern Life, p. 58)

Rabbi Alexander Davis