Does Judaism Care About Morality?

Just a few weeks ago we read the story of how Ya’akov gained the legal right to be considered the eldest child from Eisav, but for those who need a short refresher, this is what happened1:

  1. Ya’akov was making a lentil stew when Eisav came in form the field, apparently incredibly tired.
  2. Ya’akov traded the stew to Eisav in exchange the legal rights of being the eldest son (the “bekhora”) to Eisav, who reasoned “what do I need the ‘bekhora’ for?”
  3. Eisav swore to hold by the deal, and took the stew, “belittling” the birthright.

Now, as a child, I was given to understand that Ya’akov’s actions should be considered moral and good so that even an objective bystander who is not familiar with our tradition would understand it this way. That is to say, I was taught that Ya’akov would never act in a way that is not moral according to man’s rational understanding of what morality is.

I do not want to bring a proof for this point of view about Judaism since I think probably most people who read blogs are familiar with it, but rather for the alternate view, which is that Judaism does not in fact abide by rational understandings of morality. This view can be found in many places, and here in particular I came across it in a quote from Rama2 in Avi Sagi’s interesting Judaism: Between Religion and Morality3. The cited quote comes from Rama’s book “Torat HaOleh”, and the translation here is my own:

“And there (are things which are) good and bad according to civility4, and (those things) are not (understood to be) good and bad according to the Torah, like killing idolaters5, as it says in the Torah “do not let even one soul live”, and this does not abide by civility, and similarly that Saul was bothered that he did not kill Agag, even though there is no good attribute like the quality of kindness, and (that) Jacob bought the ‘bekhora” from his brother with a lentil stew when he was starving6; all of these were good from a religious perspective, but are bad according to man’s rational thought…”

Thus, as Sagi explains, Rama proposes two systems of good and bad: 1) what is good or evil according to man’s rational understanding, and 2) what is good or bad according to the Torah. In Rama’s opinion, we should only pay attention to the religious system, which is our guide7.

All of this isn’t to imply Rama’s view is the only traditional Jewish view, and indeed the disagreement regarding morality and Judaism may be found in our earliest sources, so that no matter if one thinks Judaism must be moral according to human understanding8, or that it simply has its own system of good and evil, there is always a strong tradition to rely on.

Now that I’ve written this, I’m actually a bit worried that not everyone is aware that Judaism has a strong objectively moral tradition, so if anyone is interested, please either comment below or message me on facebook and I’ll post some sources next time.

1Gen. 25:29-34, in Parshat Toldot.

2Rabbi Moses Isserlis(רב משה איסרליש=הרמא), famously known for his notes on Rabbi Yosef Kairo’s ‘Shulhan Arukh’.

3Hakibbutz Hameuchad Publishing House Ltd. 1998, p. 58

4נימוס”. This word refers to “politeness” in modern Hebrew, but the connotation here refers to a moral civility arising from rational thought.

5העובדים”

6רעבונו”. If we translate this simply as a regular hunger the passage makes no sense, as Rama assumes the sale was unfair.

7We may find that even in his opinion the two systems overlap quite a bit, as may be implied in the famous incident with the orphaned bride.

8eg. like Rabbi Sa’adia Gaon

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Does Judaism Care About Morality?

  1. Great post – I would also say that morality is subjective. Society dictates right and wrong, and we’re judging Yaakovs actions based on our modern Western definition of morality. If we were to put all the Avot under todays moral scrutiny I think most of them would come out lacking. It’s important to try and relate to the stories in the Torah but I think it’s also important to keep in mind how diffrtent the world was back in the day.

    • Yitzchak Sprung

      Thanks Shev!
      I agree with you that the avot should be viewed in context, though how sure are you that society has to be the source of morality? maybe you can come to an objective understanding of morality?(I think rama doesn’t deny this possibility, so much as think we should choose the Torah over what may seem logically clear to us).

  2. Pingback: Is There a Future for Modern Orthodoxy? | ThinkJudaism

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