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How Do We Relate to Morally Difficult Texts in the Jewish Tradition?

by Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz

February 24, 2013 | 11:16 am

We have all become familiar with the tactics of bigots who distort our religious beliefs or make up horrible lies to advance their hatred. Fortunately, most people in our pluralistic society recognize and reject these tactics.

But how would we respond to a skeptic who points to the morally troubling verse, “When...the Lord your God delivers them to you and you defeat them, you must utterly doom them to destruction: grant them no terms and give them no quarter” (Deut. 7:1-2)?

Or consider the many admonitions in the Torah to be kind to strangers, and to remember that we were once strangers in the land of Egypt. How do we reconcile this noble idea with these seemingly contradictory commands, “In the towns of the latter peoples, however, which the Lord your God gives you as a heritage, you shall not let a soul remain alive. No, you must proscribe them—the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites—as the Lord your God has commanded you” (Deut. 20:16-17), and  “Samuel said to Saul, ‘I am the one the Lord sent to anoint you king over His people Israel. Therefore, listen to the Lord's command! ... Now go attack Amalek, and proscribe all that belongs to him. Spare no one, but kill alike men and women, infants and sucklings, oxen and sheep, camels and assess’” (I Samuel 15:1,3)?

There are four primary philosophical approaches in relating to difficult texts like these.

First is the “Divine Command Morality” argument; i.e., because G-d is the source of and determines all morality, there is no contradiction between morality and G-d’s commands. Only the Divine can understand the big moral picture and thus only G-d has moral reasoning and authority. The problem here is that humans must abandon some of the greatest G-d-given gifts: moral conscience, reason, and autonomy.

Second is the argument proposed by 19th-century theologian/philosopher Søren Kierkegaard; i.e., if it appears that there is a contradiction between religion and morality, it is only because G-d has the power to suspend morality, and we must abandon our human conscience in heroic sacrifice to the Divine command, which supersedes all. This binding of Isaac-type mentality creates the religious personality. The problem here is that one must consciously act against their own moral intuition and that is spiritually and socially dangerous.

Third is the “heretical argument,” that there is indeed a contradiction between morality and the religious command, and that we must choose morality as we understand it over religious duty. This individual may be moral but they are generally not deemed religious.

Fourth is the “casuistic argument”; i.e., we need both the truths of human morality and of Divine command and that all contradictions can be resolved. Through moral reasoning, we can come to understand and embrace the Divine command. We are never compelled to obey anything immoral if we cultivate our intellectual and spiritual faculties to really understand that, to the well-organized mind, religion and morality can always be reconciled.

This last approach is most compelling, and demanding, for the modern religious person. In working every day to understand our texts, our world, and our hearts and souls, we can best achieve our Jewish mission. Rav Saadia Gaon, the 10th century Jewish philosopher, explained that if we find a contradiction between tradition and reason then we have made a mistake and we must continue to learn the text over and over and analyze our reason over and over until they are consistent. The text is our starting place, read charitably, but we never neglect our crucial human faculty of moral reasoning.

Rav Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of Israel, said it well:

It is forbidden for religious behavior to compromise a personal, natural, moral sensibility. If it does, our fear of heaven is no longer pure. An indication of its purity is that our nature and moral sense becomes more exalted as a consequence of religious inspiration. But if these opposites occur, then the moral character of the individual or group is dismissed by religious observance, and we have certainly been mistaken in our faith (Orot HaKodesh 4e).

We are following the path of Avraham who asked, “Shall the Judge of all the earth not act justly?” (Genesis 18:25), as we continue to challenge all dogmas to achieve the full truth. We should bear in mind that Avraham came from Ur in Mesopotamia, in modern-day Iraq. This region has for millennia been plagued by absolutist god-kings who waged brutal wars on one another. Even when codes of law were created, they often reinforced the extreme powers of the monarch. We should be grateful that we emerged from this land as a people of faith, law, and morality, while acknowledging that we did not always measure up to those ideals. We should remember that the best purpose for studying our sacred texts is not to puzzle over troublesome passages or justify the behavior of another era, but to become motivated to act, today, in the true spirit of tikkun olam.

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder and President of Uri L'Tzedek, the Senior Rabbi at Kehilath Israel, and is the author of "Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century.” Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America."

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz...

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