Monday, November 20, 2006

Secular and Revelational Ethics Revisited

In the sixth chapter of Shmona P'rakim, Miamonides discusses the nature of evil urges. Does the greater person, he asks, innately desire evil, and yet to control these urges, or is it a sign of greater spiritual perfection to never be attracted to evil at all? The Rambam quotes his contemporary philosophers who hold that it is a higher spiritual level to never desire vice. While controlling latent urges is a high level, it is second to the apex of spiritual height.

Miamonides then brings Torath Kohanim on Parashat Kedoshim. There, Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel says: "Do not say that you would not desire forbidden mixtures of milk and meat, or to wear sha'atnez, or to engage in illicit relationships. Rather, say that you desire these things, but, alas, your Father in heaven has forbidden them..." One should, says Rabbi Shimon, desire things forbidden by the Torah. It is a higher level to desire, and curb one's passions, than to never have the desire in the first place.

The Rambam makes peace between the philosophers and the midrash. As we discussed here, our ethical experience is a dialectical one, consisting of the secular, or natual, ethic, and the revelational morality. Miamonides explains that the philosophers he quoted only hold of the natural ethic. Any desire to break this system is a fundamental lacking in one's ethical being. In this case, one who is in better contact to the pulse of the natural ethic will not desire to break it. Perfect humanity would not have that desire in its consciousness. Thus, one who desires to break these ethical rules is not as high as one who never has the desire to begin with.

However, the midrash discusses revelational ethics. The Torah sets rules that may add to, or even contradict, the natural ethic. In this case, Man's tendency should be in opposition to this. Better to submit our natural morality to God's law, maintaining a constant tension between the two, than to lose our natural feeling of ethical ways. This is the higher level of righteousness.

Rabbi Rabinowitz from Mossad Harav Kook points out that the Talmud in Yoma says that forbidden relationships are something that, had the Torah not made them taboo, our natural morality would force us to forbid them. This does not contradict the midrash quoted earlier. The braitha from Yoma discusses forbidden relationships that speak to the natural ethic of humanity. It talks of incest, adultery and the like. These are, in the words of Rambam, Melachim 1:9, 'arayot bnei noach', forbidden unions that all humanity can understand. However, the midrash that Miamonides quotes discusses things like sheniyot and other forbidden unions that the natural ethic would not forbid out of hand. Thus, the two talmudic sources actually reinforce the Rambam's thesis.