Thursday, September 16, 2010

Can you really get moral values from the Torah?

Recently I have been thinking about morality and its relationship to the Torah. Now I know there are many people who look at the Torah and say it isn't moral because of various reasons. For example, there are many passages which describe that the Jews are obligated to kill off every person of certain ethnic groups. Today when many frum Jews are confronted with this challenge there is the tendency to rationalize it. To explain that first off there are no Amalekites or Canaanites around anymore so we don't have to kill them off. Secondly they claim the situation was different back then so it was OK to kill innocent civilians, children, infants, etc.

Not only do I currently reject these apologetics, but the whole rationalization process seems nonsensical to me. For those who claim that without a completely good omnipresent being out there to tell us what is absolutely right and wrong there is no morality, in other words there is either absolute unchangeable morality or no morality, why in the world are you trying to apply your weak human reason to rationalize this absolute unchangeable morality in the first place? I thought the point of the Torah was to open it up, it tells you what is moral and what isn't, and you just accept that.

The reason, in my opinion, is that there is no such thing as an objective morality, there is only an internal morality we all develop over the course of our lives and then many try to explain their actions and cultural documents to fit their preexisting morality, sometimes in a very contrived manner. For example, when a person picks up a Torah they don't read it and follow it blindly, they examine it to see if it fits with their worldview. If the literal version doesn't do that they result to apologetics and contrived rationalizations, but if all you are doing is trying to fit this book to support your already existing worldview what point is having the book in the first place?

Comments, objections, corrections are all more than welcome.


  1. Another one of you guys? {Sigh}

    One of the Jewish definitions of God is that He is good. Not that's He's a good god or such a thing, but that He IS Good. Being perfect, His morality is therefore perfect according to this definition. Now, you don't have to accept that definition but a believing Jew does. Therefore if there is a command from God to wipe out all Amalekites (by the way, there is no command to wipe out any other nation in toto) then doing such a thing IS good no matter how uncomfortable we are with the idea. I might say that I don't understand, that I don't like the idea but since God says "Do it" then as a believing Jew I subordinate my imperfect feelings to His perfect knowledge.

  2. Another one of you guys? {Sigh} (just kidding)

    That is definitely a fine opinion and I respect that attitude more than those who try to rationalize everything by saying stuff like that isn't what Hashem meant or that these people were somehow subhumans or something. The consistent thing to do is just accept the fact that Hashem is commanding you to kill innocent civilians and children, and that is a good thing in Hashems eyes.

    Personally I find that idea repugnant and I question the sanity and morality of those who don't, but everyone is entitled to their beliefs.

  3. I think you're better off saying that the Torah did introduce a higher level of morality to the world than what existed back then. But, the world has continued to progress since that point. Our job as Jews is to take the moral lessons of the Torah and continue to build on them.

    Example: the Torah says to treat slaves well. That was quite a liberal innovation back then. But if you still have slaves now, even if you treat them well, you're probably not going to be considered enlightened.

    Yes, I think this approach only works well if you assume people wrote the Torah. But people have written plenty of meaningful and inspiring things.

  4. Basically, you nailed Garnel with a form of Euthyphro. Well done, my chaver. Had I done the same thing a few years ago, I would have saved myself a whole lot of agmas nefesh.

  5. I don't think those things in the Torah are really defensible, nor can I buy into Garnel's definition of "good" as "whatever God says." Perhaps it's my own bias, but I have a visceral dislike for any notion of morality that rests, ultimately, upon the rationale "because _______ said so."
    On the other side of the coin, I think it's also fair to say that Judaism is not a "fundamentalist" religion, in the sense that the Torah's text is not-- by any means-- the last word on our practical notions of morality. Generally speaking, Jews honor values like honesty, courage, integrity, mercy, charity, etc. (just as many others do). Reproaching Jewish ethics with theoretical questions (what about Amalekites?!) seems a bit academic in the face of a practical situation that is really no worse (and frequently better) than that of many other religious groups.

  6. I think a distinction needs to be made between Jewish ethics/Judaism and the Torah. I would say that in many ways Jewish values are on a much higher level than the values described in the bible. That being said my issue I brought up in this post has little to do with Jewish ethics in general but rather with the idea that morality is derived solely from the words in the Torah.

    The Torah may very well have been an introduction for many moral ideas for the ancient Israelites, but it is by no means an entirely moral document and people should not derive all of their morality from this document, IMHO. I have a feeling that most people really only apply their existing morality to the document rather than reading the document without presuppositions and then deriving their morality strictly from the text itself.

  7. I think that to be fair to the text, one must examine it on a macro level, and cannot rely on individual positions it takes. One must examine not only the Torah, but also the Mishna and Talmud, if he wants to see where it stands morally.

    To begin, I look to the story of Noah, who despite being the most righteous man of his day, is a drunkard and curses his sons who tried to help him in his recovery. After that comes Abraham, who despite his notable moral superiority, accepts unquestioningly the command to sacrifice his son even though he had vehemently fought for the lives of people to which he had very limited connection. From Noah to Abraham, something changed, and where previously the most moral man was a drunk who did nothing to support the lives of his friends and neighbors, now the most moral man was one who fought for faceless strangers, but saw it as acceptable to sacrifice his own son.

    By Joseph, we see a man who seems uncomfortable at the notion of sexually engaging with a married woman. Moses murders a violent task master and flees out of fear (and perhaps guilt), then goes on to promote a Hammurabian legal system, the gold standard of the day. As the Jewish people moved into the land of Israel, they were given the order to leave certain trees untouched for fear of starving the local population (according to one approach). By the time the Sanhedrin was established, the former legal approach to actions deemed death-worthy was lightened in order to avoid capitol punishment in all but the most severe of cases.

    The Jewish texts can be taken as an examination of the development of morality, where some things which were culturally acceptable at the time were deemed immoral and others lauded. As time passed, the bar was set higher and higher on both an individual and societal standpoint. Reading the Torah, accepting the cultural norms of the time and comparing them to those of the Torah, and seeing how it has grown throughout history, one can see a beautiful message of aiming for moral high ground even in amoral times. The text may be immoral on our current standards in various perspectives, but its message of growth is universal, and it should not be dismissed.

  8. Jared,

    I see what your are saying, but I guess my point is that even under your approach you are not really taking morality from the Torah as it presents morality, but you are rather applying your own sense of morality to the text.

    This approach may very well lead you to a greater understanding of moral concepts, but this could be done with any text. For example I could read Mark Twain's "Huckleberry Finn" and glean many great and remarkable moral outlooks, but I would not be deriving my morality strictly from that book itself. Mark Twain's book does not claim to be a moral guideline though, and so no one would suspect to read and then base their actions on what it says one should do.

    Parts of the Torah on the other hand are strict moral guidelines explaining what is and is not moral. Sure you can glean moral insights from the narrative parts of the Torah just as you can from any book, but that is not what I am disputing. What I am disputing is the claim that all morality is found at its core within the moral guidelines set forth in the Torah. The Torah claims that for Jews eating shellfish is morally abominable. It also says that Homosexual acts are also morally abominable. It sets forth those precepts as moral laws. A person can read these laws and accept them as is and that would be a consistent approach as long as they accept all the precepts as moral. Or they could understand the laws as being set in a particular time frame and by saying this claim that it was once moral to commit mass murder and to execute people for breaking Shabbos or having homosexual relations (I personally don't feel that these are moral regardless of time, but that is not my point). But when you say that it was morally relevant for their time but not ours, then you are no longer getting your morality from the Torah itself, but rather applying your own developed/developing morality to the laws of the Torah.

    I am not dismissing the Torah as a relevant or interesting anthology from which people can glean insights. I am dismissing it as a book of morality. For some fundamentalists it can be a book of morality, but as I said above, if that is the case then I question their morality and sanity.

  9. I see your point, and it is a fair one. I anticipated this response and put much thought into it. If you see the Torah as absolute and divine, it is clear that these questions are entirely invalid. God gave us a perfect Torah, and therefore it is perfectly moral. But to approach the Bible critically, it is necessary to then read it from an historical perspective rather than one of Divine Will. To say that the Torah is imperfect but still impose upon it a reading that assumes otherwise is unfair to the historical context of the text.

  10. Jared,

    I don't particularly read the Torah with the implicit assumption that it claims to be perfect. I don't. What I disagree with is reading the texts as if they are authorities on morality and ethics.

    That is all I am saying. Not that the Torah or the Talmud should be dismissed (I have a lot of respect for both texts and admire them as great works) nor that people are unable to develop some morality while using the text as a platform for discussing moral issues. I am only disputing that they are authorities on morality and that people generally don't treat them as such anyways, unless you're an extreme fundamentalist.