In the opening post, I argued that legal and sociological decisions in the Jewish world are often debated on the wrong terms. Specifically, I noted that the substantive moral element in a debate is often ignored, in favor of more procedural types of arguments. To give a concrete example of this relatively abstract idea, I chose the recent controversy surrounding the blessing, "שלא עשני אשה". Rather than a full blown discussion about what the blessing means, and whether it's seeming praise of male superiority is morally correct (if that is indeed what the blessing is saying), many argued that it cannot be eliminated because of tradition, because of the consensus of poskim (rabbinic decisors), or for other sociological reasons. These may or may not have moral weight, I argued, but the argument should be on the merits. Does the moral weight of adhering to tradition in such a case outweigh the moral wrong committed by a proclamation of women's inferiority?
The comments of one particular individual have caused me to realize that I need to take a big step backward. I had made several assumptions, chief among them the assumption that halacha was in some way concerned with/related to morality. Further, I had assumed as both an empirical (how it is) and theoretical (how it should be) matter that most Orthodox Jews are concerned with acting in a morally correct way.
Many, however, have long held that halacha is and should be independent of outside morality. Rav Solovetichik often described a halachic system that operated with its own independent rules. For example, his staunch opposition to Rabbi Emmanuel Rackman's Beit Din was based largely on his view of a halachic system that operated independent of reality (I will describe this more in its own post if you're unfamiliar with the incident). Further, the great Israeli scholar Yeshayahu Leibowitz (see here) frequently and vociferously argued for a Jewish law divorced from morality. There was a certain fear that modern values are temporary, and the mere product of feeble human contemplation. Are we so arrogant as to give religious significance to the contemporary morals and values we believe in? Further, the halachic system was often viewed as completely divine, and so the insertion of modern values into a halachic debate would represent modern man claiming he knows better than God himself.
While there is certainly value in caution, and we should not be too hasty in our approach to halacha, I believe that the approach outlined above is both dangerous and incorrect.
The whole purpose of this blog is to discuss the relevance of Orthodox Judaism in the modern world. Divorcing the halacha from morality leads to a huge problem. If halacha does not coincide with morality, then why follow the halachic system. Many people would rather be moral than halachic, and understandably so, if the two can be pitted against each other.
Moreover, one cannot hide behind the divinity of the halachic system. It is not right to assert that halacha defines morality, and what the halacha says is by definition the morally correct path, simply because it is the word of God. While the commandments are from God, many of the most controversial issues in the modern day concern Rabbinic enactments, the pure product of the human mind. Further, many more modern controversies concern custom, the product of communal action over the years. While we have been blessed with enlightened Rabbis and holy communities, they have certainly not been immune to the prejudices and biases of the past. Humanity has progressed in many areas, and we have often led the charge or jumped right on board. Judaism realized the value of monogamy, even though it was customarily permitted. Judaism realized the evils of slavery and human ownership, no matter how kind the master was to his slaves, so slavery was strictly forbidden. Judaism realized that women are not intellectually inferior to men (as it once believed), and so we now permit women to engage in the study of Torah. Lastly, many of the actual commandments in the Torah seem to codify ancient values and norms, but this doesn't necessarily mean that they've been endorsed. Just because the Torah orders people to engage in animal sacrifices doesn't necessarily mean that God is endorsing this method of service. In fact, the Rambam argues that people had been used to this type of religious worship, and to provide for some other kind of worship would have been too dramatic for the early Israelites; therefore, a foolish ritual was given divine sanction.
I have argued that it is wrong to divorce Torah and morality. In the next post, I will expound upon the views of Rabbi Eliezer Berkovitz, the great 20th century thinker, and elaborate on why Halacha and morality are and should continue to be intertwined.