[Avodah] VBM - Natural Mortality

Micha Berger micha at aishdas.org
Fri Apr 12 11:32:59 PDT 2019

Two comments on the article below:

I am not sure I agree with RAB's depiction of the Aish Qodesh's
position. To me it looks like the Piasecner is saying more that there is
a concept of natural morality, but that it is insufficient for a Jew to
use it as a motivator. After all, for a non-Jew he believes that natural
morality does appropriately provide a calling.

AISI, Hillel's "de'alakh sani" as a summary of the entire Torah al regel
achas is a strong support for RAYK's position. After all, isn't Hillel's
rule in fact a description of natural morality?


PHILOSOPHY > Topics in Hashkafa
Rav Assaf Bednarsh
Adapted by Leora Bednarsh
Yeshivat Har Etzion

		      Shiur #25: Natural Morality (part 1)

Is there morality without the Torah? Throughout the history of philosophy,
philosophers have debated whether there exists a natural morality that is
binding even in the absence of any legislated ethical rules. Similarly,
Jewish philosophers have debated whether there would be objective moral
right and wrong if God had not revealed His will and commanded us various
moral obligations, from the seven Noahide laws through the six hundred
and thirteen mitzvot of the Torah.[1]

The Eish Kodesh: No Natural Morality
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The Piaseczner Rebbe, in his collection of sermons Eish Kodesh,[2]
asserts that a gentile who acts ethically does so because he believes
in the existence of an independent moral truth. According to this
conception, the commandments of God reflect that pre-existing, independent
truth. However, we Jews believe that God is the only valid source of
moral truth. According to the Piaseczner, it is forbidden to steal only
because the true God commanded us not to steal, and it is forbidden
to murder only because the true God forbade murder. Those commandments
created a moral truth because they issued from the true God.

He proves this contention from the fact that Halacha does permit moral
wrongs in certain circumstances, which would not be possible if they
were objectively forbidden. For example, theft is permissible when
authorized by the court (hefker beit din hefker). More radically, God
Himself explicitly permitted murder in the commandment to Avraham to
sacrifice his son Yitzchak, which constituted a binding obligation,
although it was eventually rescinded due to external considerations.

According to this approach, there is no objective moral right or
wrong in the world. What we call natural moral intuition is merely the
influence of secular ways of thought or the clever workings of the evil
inclination. The only valid source of truth is Divine revelation.

This negation of any valid truth that emerges from human reasoning
or intuition strikes us as very devout, and in fact corresponds to a
general repudiation of the conclusions of unaided human reasoning, which
is pervasive in certain religious communities. But is this perspective
consistent with the source texts of our tradition?

Two Talmudic Passages that Assume Natural Morality
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We find two Talmudic passages in which the Sages relate explicitly to
the theoretical question of what would have been had God not revealed
His will in the Torah. The Talmud states:

    R. Yochanan said: Even if the Torah had not been given, we would
    have learned modesty from the cat [which covers its excrement],
    and that stealing is objectionable from the ant [which does not
    take grain from another ant], and forbidden relations from the dove
    [which is faithful to its partner]. (Eruvin 100b)

One may wonder why we would have learned modesty from the cat and loyalty
from the dove, and not lethal violence from the lion or evil cunning from
the snake. It seems that R. Yochanan did not intend to suggest that we
merely emulate what the animals around us do, but rather that we use our
natural moral intuition to observe the behaviors of the various animal
species and intuitively realize which of those features are worthy of
emulation and which should be condemned. In any case, R. Yochanan clearly
states that even if God had never revealed His will to us, we would be
responsible to learn morality on our own.

Likewise, we find in another Talmudic passage:
    The Sages taught: "You shall do My ordinances [and you shall keep
    My statutes to follow them, I am the Lord your God"] (Leviticus
    18:4) - ["My ordinances" is a reference to] matters that, even
    had they not been written, it would have been logical that they be
    written. They are the prohibitions against idol worship, prohibited
    sexual relations, bloodshed, theft, and blessing God [a euphemism for
    cursing the Name of God]. "And you shall keep my statutes" - [This is
    a reference to] matters that Satan challenges because the reason for
    these mitzvot are not known. They are: The prohibitions against eating
    pork and wearing sha'atnez (garments of wool and linen); performing
    the chalitza ceremony with a yevama (a widow who must participate
    in a levirate marriage); the purification ceremony of the leper;
    and the scapegoat. And lest you say these are meaningless acts [as
    they have no reason], therefore the verse states: "I am the Lord,"
    to indicate: I am the Lord - I decreed these statutes and you have
    no right to doubt them. (Yoma 67b)

The Talmud explicitly states that those commandments of the Torah that
are labeled mishpatim should have been legislated even if they were
not written in the Torah. In other words, we are expected to intuit and
follow certain rules of morality even in the absence of revelation.[3]

Ramban and Rambam Support Natural Morality
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This is also the position of Ramban, as expressed in his commentary to
the story of the deluge.[4] Ramban asks why, according to the midrashic
tradition, the fate of the generation of the flood was sealed because of
the sin of theft, as opposed to their many sexual perversions. He answers
that the prohibition of theft is intuitive and is therefore binding
even in the absence of prophetic revelation. The generation of Noach
was punished for violating the natural moral law, even in the absence of
revelation. Likewise, R. Yosef Albo[5] explains that there exist three
types of law, the first of which, called natural law, is binding in all
times and places, even without an act of human or divine legislation.[6]

Similarly, Rambam writes that the unaided human mind can deduce the
existence of various moral precepts. He writes explicitly that the seven
Noahide laws can be known by our moral intuition even in the absence
of revelation,[7] and he states that a gentile who obeys these seven
Noahide commandments merely because of the inclination of human reason
is considered wise, even though he is not pious, because he follows the
path of wisdom even though he does not heed revelation.[8]

R. Saadia Gaon
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R. Saadia Gaon is perhaps the most ambitious in his formulation of the
significance of natural morality. He explains that God implanted in human
psychology a moral intuition that is capable of discerning moral truths
that are universally binding.[9] R. Saadia Gaon states clearly that
even before the revelation of the Torah, we were obligated to follow
the dictates of natural morality. He further assumes that the Torah
cannot possibly contradict natural morality, and boldly asserts that
if Moshe had descended from Mount Sinai and commanded us a Torah that
contradicted the dictates of natural morality, we would have been bound
to reject it. He even assumes that even God Himself is bound by natural
morality, and it was therefore a moral imperative for God to promulgate
the commandments found in the Torah, because natural morality dictates
that a wise ruler who is able to encourage moral practice must do so.[10]


The Eish Kodesh claims that from a religious perspective, there is
no true morality other than that revealed by Divine command. We have
demonstrated, based on two Talmudic passages and the statements of the
great medieval Jewish philosophers, that from a Jewish perspective,
the human mind is capable of attaining binding moral knowledge. God
Himself, who implanted a moral intuition in human beings, expects all
people to follow the dictates of natural morality even in the absence of
revelation, and He holds us responsible if we fail to do so. Even a Jew,
then, can agree that there is an objective moral truth independent of
Divine commandments.

R. Lichtenstein: Natural Morality is Superseded by Torah
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R. Aharon Lichtenstein, in an article about this topic entitled
"Does Judaism Recognize an Ethic Independent of Halakhah,"[11]
likewise concluded that the mainstream Jewish tradition does recognize
the existence of binding morality even in the absence of revealed
commandments. R. Lichtenstein then asks a second question. If we assume
that there is some system of morality that would be binding upon us
had we not received the Torah, but we did in fact receive the Torah,
what relevance does natural morality have for us now that we are bound
by the Divine morality of the Torah?

R. Lichtenstein answers that, at least on an operative level, natural
morality has no relevance to the life of a Jew who is obligated by
the commandments of the Torah. The Torah, argues R. Lichtenstein,
constitutes a complete moral system that includes all the principles of
natural morality, in addition to the more advanced moral and spiritual
demands that apply particularly to the Jewish People. Natural morality
has thus been superseded by the Torah, and we may conclude that the
natural moral order has no relevance whatsoever to a Jew, because
following the commandments of the Torah will fulfill all the demands of
natural morality, plus much more.

R. Glasner: Natural Morality Supplements the Torah
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Another twentieth-century Jewish thinker and leader of religious Zionism,
R. Moshe Shmuel Glasner, took a radically different approach to this
issue.[12] He suggests that while the Torah did command us all the moral
precepts necessary for spiritual perfection, which could never have been
discovered by natural means, the Torah omitted some moral obligations that
are known by unaided human reason and were therefore deemed unnecessary
to repeat. Examples of this include the prohibitions of cannibalism,
eating disgusting creatures, and public nudity, and the obligation of
a father to support his young children. R. Glasner explains that these
moral obligations are binding on us even though they were not written
in the Torah. Furthermore, one who violates the principles of natural
morality commits a worse sin than one who violates a commandment of
the Torah, as he betrays not only his commitment to Judaism, but his
very humanity. Therefore, when faced with a choice between violating a
Torah commandment or a principle of natural morality, one must choose
the lesser evil of a Torah violation rather than the greater evil of
transgressing natural morality. For example, one who is stranded on
a desert island and must eat either non-kosher meat or human flesh in
order to survive should eat the non-kosher meat, which constitutes a
more serious halachic infraction, rather than the human flesh. which
constitutes an infraction of natural morality.[13]

R. Kook: Natural Morality is the Foundation of the Torah
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A third answer to this question is found in the writings of R. Kook. In
contrast to R. Glasner, R. Kook is convinced that the Torah encompasses
the whole of morality and omits nothing. However, experience proves
that those who insist on following only that which they learn from the
Torah, suppressing their natural moral intuition, do not achieve moral
perfection and often act immorally while professing unswerving loyalty
to the Torah.[14] R. Kook explains that natural morality is crucially
important and indispensable for a Jew who strives to serve God. However,
natural morality is not more important than Torah observance, nor is it
a necessary supplement to Torah observance.

According to R. Kook, there is nothing greater than the fear of Heaven and
service of God expressed by following His Torah. However, not everyone
who professes to follow the Torah is in fact interpreting the Torah
properly, and not everyone who claims to act out of fear of Heaven,
or even believes that he does so, is in fact inspired by true fear of
Heaven. It is all too easy for the fear of Heaven to be adulterated
and for the Torah to be misunderstood and corrupted so that it serves
selfish and unethical motives instead of the true service of God. Even
the Torah itself cannot guarantee that it will not be misinterpreted and
its intention perverted. What, then, can guarantee that a student of Torah
achieves a proper understanding of Torah and that one who strives to fear
Heaven can attain an authentic fear of Heaven? According to R. Kook,
this is the role of natural morality. The litmus test for authentic
fear of Heaven is whether it suppresses our natural ethical instinct or
raises that instinct to higher levels of power and sophistication.[15]
One possessed of a healthy moral intuition who leads an ethical life can
then look into the Torah and find the path to spiritual perfection. In Rav
Kook's words, "to such a person will be opened gates of enlightenment,
which are broader, brighter, and holier than any enlightenment than can
be achieved by human reason alone." However, if one does not have the
necessary moral infrastructure, and particularly if one approaches Torah
with the idea that true commitment to Torah necessitates a suppression
of one's moral instincts, then he cannot possibly find enlightenment or
holiness in his Torah study.[16]

Rav Kook describes the relationship between natural morality and Torah
with a beautiful parable, comparing natural morality to a foundation
and the Torah to a beautiful palace. The palace is incomparably greater
than the foundation, and we want nothing more than to live in the grand
and majestic palace. However, the foundation is a prerequisite for the
existence of the palace. A palace built on a sturdy foundation will serve
its function well, but a palace built without a foundation will quickly
come crashing down and destroy its inhabitants.[17] On a practical level,
R. Kook concludes that we must embrace the educational vision of the
Sages, who taught us that derekh eretz kadma la-Torah, ethics precedes
the Torah.[18] In every generation, we must teach natural morality as a
prerequisite for understanding the Torah, and in fact there is no part of
the Torah that can be appreciated properly without natural morality.[19]

We have thus seen four approaches to the relationship between natural
morality and Torah. The Eish Kodesh maintained that there is no such thing
as natural morality; a Torah Jew must realize that morality is found only
in the Torah and not anywhere else. R. Lichtenstein argued that there
is a natural morality that is binding in God's eyes, but the Torah has
superseded that morality and constitutes a complete and sufficient system
of morality. R. Glasner claimed that even after we received the Torah,
we need to heed the commands of our moral intuition, because not all of
morality is found in the Torah, and those moral precepts which are not
found in the Torah are even more binding than those explicated in the
Torah. R. Kook held that the Torah subsumes all of morality, and one who
properly understands Torah morality lacks nothing. However, the Torah was
not meant to supplant natural morality, but rather to raise and advance it
to immeasurably greater heights. One who begins with natural morality can
reach higher levels of holiness and spirituality by following the Torah,
but one who attempts to fulfill the Torah without the prerequisite of
natural morality will instead corrupt the Torah and pervert its intention.


[1] The question of whether morality exists in the absence of Divine
revelation is not equivalent to the question of whether morality
could exist without God, one side of which was memorably formulated
by Dostoevsky: "If God does not exist... then all is permitted." It is
certainly possible to claim that morality cannot exist in the absence of
God but could exist without Divine revelation. In this shiur, we will
not analyze the question of whether there could be morality if God did
not exist. Since we believe that the entire world would not exist if God
did not exist, it is impossible to inquire as to what would be were the
world to exist without God. Instead, we will assume the existence of a
world created by God and analyze whether God would hold us accountable
to behave ethically if He had not commanded us to do so.

[2] R. Kalonymus Kalman Shapira (Poland, 1889-1943), Eish Kodesh,
p. 68. This particular sermon was delivered on Rosh Hashanah 1940 in
the Warsaw Ghetto.

[3] Marvin Fox ("Maimonides and Aquinas on Natural Law," Dine Yisrael
3 [1972], pp. 5-27), who denies the existence of natural morality,
interprets these two Talmudic passages as stating merely that it
would have been practically beneficial to deduce and legislate these
moral principles, not that they would have been ethically binding.
However, this is not the straightforward reading of these passages,
and it certainly contradicts the opinion of Ramban and other medieval
Jewish philosophers quoted below.

[4] Ramban to Bereishit 6:13.

[5] R. Yosef Albo (Spain, c. 1380-1444), Sefer Ha-Ikarim, book 1,
chapter 7.

[6] His other two categories are conventional law, which is binding as
a result of human legislation and aims to improve society in accordance
with the specific needs of the time and place, and Divine law, which
is ordained by Divine revelation and aims to achieve spirituality and

[7] Hilkhot Melakhim 9:1.

[8] Hilkhot Melakhim 8:11. An alternate version of this text of the Rambam
states that such a gentile is neither pious nor wise. However, all the
manuscript evidence supports the reading that we have adopted. See the
critical notes in Mishneh Torah, Sefer Shoftim, ed. Shabse Frankel.
Rambam's position on the nature of moral knowledge is complex. In both
texts from Hilkhot Melakhim, Rambam states that logic inclines towards
these moral precepts, but not that it absolutely demonstrates their
correctness. Likewise, in the introduction to his commentary on Masekhet
Avot, known as Shemonah Perakim, Rambam takes umbrage at R. Saadia
Gaon's characterization of those commandments that overlap with natural
morality as "logical" commandments (mitzvot sikhliyot), because Rambam
holds that moral knowledge does not have the same epistemological status
as metaphysical knowledge and is not subject to strict logical proof. See
Shemonah Perakim, ch. 6; Moreh Nevukhim I:2, III:27. For the purposes of
this shiur, however, we will not differentiate between the position of
Rambam and that of R. Saadia Gaon and other medieval Jewish philosophers.

[9] Philosophers have proffered a number of theories regarding what
the source of natural morality is. Many philosophers have theorized
that natural morality consists of those obligations that can be derived
from certain first principles that are assumed to be axiomatic, e.g.,
utilitarianism or Kant's categorical imperative. Conversely, R. Saadia
Gaon and other philosophers hold that the source of natural morality
is not any philosophical system, but rather a moral intuition that is
naturally found in the human mind. According to this conception, it is
possible that there is natural morality but not natural law. In other
words, we can inherently know the general principles that govern moral
behavior, but not necessarily all the specific rules that constitute
the application of moral principles to the real world. For the purposes
of this shiur, however, we will not distinguish between the question of
natural morality and that of natural law.

[10] R. Saadia Gaon claims that even those parts of the Torah that deal
with our ritual obligations towards God and could have not have been
known via natural morality nonetheless fall under the obligations of
natural morality. Morality dictates that we repay kindness with thanks
and appreciation, and we are therefore morally bound to praise and serve
God, because He created us. Natural morality, however, does not specify
the particular ways in which we should express our appreciation to God.

[11] R. Aharon Lichtenstein, "Does Judaism Recognize an Ethic Independent
of Halakhah?," reprinted in Leaves of Faith: The World of Jewish Living,
vol. 2, pp. 33-56.

[12] R. Moshe Shmuel Glasner (Hungary, 1856-1924), Dor Revi'i, Petichah
Kelalit, section 2, pp. 57-58.

[13] It is well known that the two founding Roshei Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har
Etzion, R. Aharon Lichtenstein and R. Yehuda Amital, disagreed regarding
this theoretical scenario. R. Amital, quoting R. Glasner, was of the
opinion that one must consume the non-kosher meat rather than the human
flesh, and R. Lichtenstein ruled that one must consume the human flesh
before eating non-kosher meat. This fits R. Lichtenstein's approach as
explained above. If, in fact, the Torah does include all necessary moral
principles, then if the Torah did not include a severe prohibition of
cannibalism, we must conclude that the prohibition of cannibalism is
not particularly severe compared to that of consuming non-kosher meat.

[14] It we were to envision such a person, R. Glasner would explain
his failing as a neglect of those moral principles not found in the
Torah. Based on R. Lichtenstein, we would have to assume that a true
follower of the Torah could never be an unethical person, and therefore
such a character must not have learned Torah properly. The Eish Kodesh
would suggest that there is nothing wrong with such a character at
all. If he authentically follows a valid interpretation of the Torah then,
by definition, he is moral. If our ethical intuition judges otherwise,
then we would we be required to ignore it and follow the Torah morality

[15] R. Avraham Yitzchak Ha-Kohen Kook, Orot Ha-Kodesh, vol. 3, p. 27.

[16] R. Kook, Mussar Avikha, ch. 12, par. 5.

[17] Ibid., par. 2.

[18] Vayikra Rabba 9:3.

[19] R. Kook, Mussar Avikha, ch. 12, par. 3. In a later essay (By
His Light, appendix to ch. 1, pp. 21-23), R. Lichtenstein echoes R.
Kook's position and suggests that although the Torah supersedes natural
morality on an operative level, morality serves as the basis for the
Torah on an axiological level. He also uses the metaphor of a foundation
and a building for the relationship between universal values and Torah.

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