A Talmid’s Dilemma
Torah Academy of Bergen County’s talmid, Jacob Horn, asked how one should handle portions of the Torah which appear to not be in harmony with one’s sense of morality. Jacob wondered whether we should just submit to Hashem’s will and disregard our sense of right and wrong.
Respecting Our Sense of Morality
In response, we—first—clarify that a sense of right and wrong is essential to the Torah. Sefer Devarim (23:4-5) records the prohibition of marrying an Ammonite or Moabite. One reason for this prohibition is their failure to provide bread and water when we passed through their land on our journey to Eretz Yisrael.
Many ask why the Torah holds Moav and Ammon accountable for not sharing food and drink. After all, sharing bread and water with passersby is not among the seven Noahide commands. We answer that although it was not commanded, basic human decency demands we share food and drink with hungry and thirsty travelers. Again, although it was not commanded, we must follow our moral compass and share bread and water in such circumstances. Hashem regards refraining from such basic kindness as a failure of great proportions.
The Torah demands that we exercise our basic sense of morality. Sefer Devarim (6:18) instructs us to do the straight (yashar) and the good (tov) in the eyes of God. The Ramban (ad loc.) explains: “This verse intends to teach that while we must keep God’s specific laws, we must also intuit what is ‘the good and straight’ in those areas for which God did not issue any specific rules.”
The Torah (Vayikra 19:2) similarly instructs us to be holy. The Ramban explains that this Pasuk demands that we act ethically and avoid being a naval bireshut haTorah, a scoundrel within the bounds of the Torah. We must intuit what holy behavior is, even when the Torah does not issue a specific directive about a particular situation.
Morality vs. Ideology
What, however, if one’s ethical sense conflicts with Torah? The first step in resolving such a conflict is distinguishing between morality and ideology. For example, people report hospitals pressuring them to withhold basic end-of-life care for relatives expected to die in short order. Often such demands conflict with halacha. When they respond that the hospital’s stance conflicts with Jewish law, families are—sometimes—told that their refusal to let a loved one die is unethical.
The hospital official’s accusation that Jewish law is immoral stems from an ideology—not a basic sense of right and wrong. Some may view it unethical to allow a dying person to remain alive. Halacha, however, often regards hastening death as equivalent to murder.
Another example is gender roles and gender identification: Many today consider it an ethical imperative for men and women to be treated equally. Some adherents to this view denounce halacha as immoral for denying women rights to aliyot and leading the services. In addition, the Torah rightfully advocates for firm boundaries between males and females and masculine and feminine behavior.
Such condemnation also stems from ideology, and not basic human decency. The Torah believes that men and women have equal existential value, but different roles. Women and men have an equal share in Matan Torah, but their Torah obligations differ.
One may object to capital punishment and wonder why the Torah—sometimes—calls for this ultimate consequence. The answer does not lie simply in the halacha severely limiting the application of the death penalty. Rather, denying capital punishment even in extreme cases, such as the execution of the Nazi criminal, Adolf Eichmann, is a point of view that the Torah rejects.
I once heard a Reform Jewish leader arguing that there is a basic human right to sexual happiness, which overrules Torah rules. We, as Orthodox Jews, unwaveringly and unapologetically disagree. One should never confuse ideology and morality. Moreover, using the claim of righteousness as a club to attack an ideological opponent is immoral and unethical.
Refined Understanding of the Torah
Sometimes, Torah laws seem to conflict outright with basic human decency. For example, the rule of “ir hanidachat” (Devarim, perek 13) demands that we kill every resident and destroy a city where most inhabitants worship avodah zara. This rule feels horrifying.
However, upon close examination, no conflict exists. The Gemara (Sanhedrin 71b) teaches that a city cannot become an “ir hanidachat,” even if the city has just one mezuzah (since we may not destroy Hashem’s name). The Lubavitcher Rebbe said that if he heard of a town about to be designated an ir hanidachat, he would quietly attach a mezuzah. Thus, the halacha of ir hanidachat is not a call to destruction and murder. Instead, it is a demand not to allow a Jewish community to be bereft of, at least, one tiny spark of Torah.
Another example is mamzerut. It seems grossly unfair to prohibit—as the Torah does—a child of an adulterous or incestuous relationship from marrying most Jews. However, upon analysis, one discovers that the poskim make every effort to determine that someone is not labeled a “mamzer.” Furthermore, mamzerut is a powerful tool to protect the integrity of a Jewish family.
While the elimination of Amalek seems cruel—in reality—the elimination of evil is acting kindly on behalf of humanity. Thus, sometimes, what we wrongly perceive as immoral is—in reality—a very moral and kind rule.
Upon scrutiny, the gap between halacha and morality is much narrower, than appears to be the case on a superficial level. However, we recognize that halacha expresses Hashem’s will. Even if we do not understand Him, we must honor His mitzvot. Avraham Avinu sets the example by obeying Hashem’s directive to sacrifice his child. No matter what, Avraham Avinu follows Hashem’s command. Noblesse oblige, our noble status as Jews demands we do no less.
Rabbi Haim Jachter is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck. He also serves as a rebbe at Torah Academy of Bergen County and a dayan on the Beth Din of Elizabeth.