Morality and Halakhah

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A common theme in R. Aharon Lichtenstein’s lectures and essays is that of morality and halakhah. There are many different paths to investigate in the commonalities and divergences between the two, including whether there can be divergences. R. Lichtenstein takes an approach with which I am comfortable, but that I acknowledge is only one of many possible Torah views.

In a particularly trenchant lecture that was adapted into an essay in In His Faith, R. Lichtenstein deals with the problems involved with teaching morality as a separate subject to students. It is quite possible that the students will use the philosophical tools of morality and find certain problems with Judaism based on their evaluations of what is and is not moral. R. Lichtenstein, honest scholar the he is, admits that this is a very real possibility and suggests the following solution:

What we need to do is not to instill morality less, but yirat Shamayim more.

I recall in my late adolescence there were certain problems which perturbed me, the way they perturb many others. At the time, I resolved them all in one fell swoop. I had just read Rav Zevin’s book, Ishim Ve-shitot. In his essay on Rav Chayim Soloveitchik, he deals not only with his methodological development, but also with his personality and gemilut chasadim (acts of kindness). He recounted that Reb Chayim used to check every morning if some unfortunate woman had placed an infant waif on his doorstep during the course of the night. (In Brisk, it used to happen at times that a woman would give birth illegitimately and leave her infant in the hands of Reb Chayim.) As I read the stories about Reb Chayim’s extraordinary kindness, I said to myself: Do I approach this level of gemilut chasadim? I don’t even dream of it! In terms of moral sensibility, concern for human beings and sensitivity to human suffering, I am nothing compared to Reb Chayim. Yet despit his moral sensitivity, he managed to live, and live deeply, with the totality of Halakha – including the commands to destroy the Seven Nations, Amalek and all the other things which bother me. How? The answer, I thought, was obvious. It is not that his moral sensitivity was less, but his yirat shamayim, his emuna, was so much more. The thing to do, then, is not to try to neutralize or de-emphasize the moral element, but rather to deepen and increase the element of yirat Shamayim, of emuna and bittachon.

I have subsequently thought of that experience on many occasions. I recall once hearing someone, regarded as a philosopher of sorts, raise moral criticisms of various halakhic practices. When asked about these criticisms, I said, “I know that particular person. He doesn’t look for a foundling on his doorstep every morning.”

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student has served two terms on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and currently serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

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