Thursday, November 09, 2006

Ethics, the Divine, and Parashat Vayera

Every Rosh Hashana, Parashat Vayera is the first to bring us into contact with the disconcerting possibility that divine commands may clash with accepted moral norms. Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son at God's command can be unsettling. It opens the door to questions regarding the obliteration of Amalek, various death penalties, and other examples of apparent immoral behavior required of halacha. These questions are vast, as are the works that respond to them. I add my views to them. The present analysis is inspired by Rabbi Carmy's Pluralism and the Category of the Ethical (Tradition, 30:4, Summer 1996). While the key element is taken from Rabbi Carmy's writing, the subsequent analysis is mine, and thus, any complaints or comments should be aimed in my direction.

Rabbi Carmy, influenced by R. Soloveitchik, presents Man as possessor of a dialectical moral consciousness. The first is the natural consciousness. This includes what may be considered the secular ethical drive. This is representative of Man approaching God, the Infinite. The second is the revelational consciousness. This is indicative of God nearing, as it were, mankind, and creating a bridge for humanity to traverse the abyss towards the infinite. It is the law which defines the way we are to interface with the Divine.

While the ethical norms of secular morality have inherent importance and meaning, they are a subset, or at least subordinate to, the revelational. Without the nomian structure, ethics become elastic, and may conform to the vagaries of society in general. Nothing remains absolute, and even the most obvious immoralities can evolve into neutral, or even desirable, actions. Without halachik or legal definition, terms can be nudged slightly in meaning, thus permitting or forbidding new things.

For example, most societies consider murder to be an thoroughly immoral action. However, though murder may always be wrong naturally, it takes the legal structure of revelation to define it and set its boundaries. Without that, the sliding scale can conveniently be placed at a position that permits any killing that a society desires. To wit, Nazi Germany slid the definition of murder to exclude Jews and other undesirables, redefining their termination as killing. This removed the moral stigma, and allowed the murder millions with almost no visible moral interference.

The ethical is incomplete, or at least insufficient, regarding telling us how to act at any specific time. It must either be trumped by God's revealed will, or at least subsumed in it, in order to be able to define a consistent frame of reference for right and wrong, good and evil. Thus, it is understandable that there will be situations where the revelational consciousness will require actions that the secular ethic will consider abhorrent. In these situations, the ethical is either overruled, or redefined, by the revelation. So, the ethical choice may not be the right one, and the right action may end up, in a vacuum containing only contemporary secular ethics, seeming wrong. Abraham's willingness to offer up his son is a result of his consideration of the revelational as trumping the ethical.

An important side-note is that some possible unethical things are permitted by the law, but not required. For example, slavery, polygamy, eshet yefat to'ar, among others, may be permitted de jure, while they cause the natural, secular ethic to rise up in revulsion. These may be explained as situations where the ethic is really defined through a social-cultural perspective. As citizens of our times, we fulfill our natural ethic by not participating in these actions, and they do not exemplify a clash of the natural and revelational consciousnesses. (I point out that the view in this paragraph is not held in agreement by all streams of Jewish philosophy. See, for example, Rav Kook's views on slavery. However, this concept of an ethical standard that is not built into the Torah, but develops afterwards, as a sign of cultural and societal spiritual growth is already found in Rambam's Guide, where he says, "It is impossible to go suddenly from one extreme to the other. It is therefore, according to the nature of man, impossible for him suddenly to discontinue everything to which he has been accustomed...I do not say this because I believe that it is difficult for G-d to change the nature of every individual person. On the contrary, it is possible and it is in His power . . . but it has never been His will to do it, and it never will be. If it were part of His will to change the nature of any person, the mission of the prophets and the giving of the Torah would have been superfluous. " On July 12, 2011, I was heartened and proud to see that my point in this paragraph is also made by R Eliezer Berkovits, in his distinction between Torah-tolerated and Torah-taught ethical rules.)

The Talmud (Yoma 22b) tells of Saul's attempt to present an ethical argument against the total annihilation of Amalek. He uses his natural consciousness, and finds his charge to be repulsive. A heavenly voice emanates from on high, proclaiming, "Do not be overly righteous...(Eccl. 7)" We cannot be more righteous than God. This is the revelational consciousness, which asserts itself over the natural ethic. When our understanding is contradicted by the Divine Infinite, which we, as finite beings, cannot fathom, there is no choice but to retreat.

(27 Kislev, 5769: Revisiting this issue, my chevrusa and I discussed the ethical in light of the Torah. Our discussion concluded that perhaps an individual halacha, such as Amalek could not be used in isolation to teach the ethics of the Torah, for it is a product not of a purely ethical form or category, but a result of various competing ethics and considerations. For example, the act of torture may be morally reprehensible. However, when used to urge a terrorist to reveal the location of a ticking time bomb, the overall ethical thing to do is to use torture. Some actions should define us (being kind, being peaceful), and are inherently ethical, while other actions, though sometimes employed, do not define our ethic, and only receive the nod of approval because of surrounding considerations. Thus, while an individual halacha may not define morality, the totality of halachot and hashkafa do, and provide a framework and set of rules to, with all the complexities of life, choose the best possible course of action when none may always be perfect. אשת יפת תואר and עמלק are thus not necessarily so different. They are both the best course of action for imperfect situations.)