[Avodah] VBM-Hashkafa- 26: Natural Morality (2)

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Sun Apr 14 02:55:45 PDT 2019

PHILOSOPHY > Topics in Hashkafa > Shiur #26: Natural Morality
Rav Assaf Bednarsh
Adapted by Leora Bednarsh
Yeshivat Har Etzion

			Shiur #26: Natural Morality (2)

What is one to do in the face of a seeming clash between the demands of
natural morality and the prescriptions of the Halakha?

Perhaps the most famous example of such a clash is in the case of
akeidat Yitzchak, in which God's commandment to Avraham contradicted
the prohibition of murder, the most basic of all moral imperatives.
While the primary test in this episode was the personal sacrifice of
Avraham giving up his beloved son, the Sages were also sensitive to the
moral conflict involved in this commandment, noting that an element of
this test was Avraham's willingness to subordinate the moral norm to
the divine command. The midrash tells us that Satan appeared to Avraham
and attempted to dissuade him from fulfilling God's commandment. He first
argued that it was unreasonable of Avraham to give up his beloved son whom
he had waited for until the age of one hundred. When that tactic failed,
he appealed to Avraham's moral conscience, warning him that tomorrow he
would be accused of murder for killing his son:

    "And Yitzchak spoke to Avraham his father, and said: My father"
    (Bereishit 22:7) - Samael went to our father Avraham and said: "Old
    man, old man! Have you lost your mind [lit. have you lost your heart]?
    You are going to slay a son given to you at the age of a hundred!"
    "Even this I do," replied he... [Samael said:]"`Tomorrow He will
    say to you, `You are guilty of murder; you murdered your son!'" He
    replied: "Still I go." (Bereishit Rabba 56:4)

Avraham passed the test through his willingness to engage in both personal
and moral sacrifice for the sake of God.

The Akeida as a Rejection of Natural Morality:
""" """""" "" " """"""""" "" """"""" """""""""
Eish Kodesh and Yeshayahu Leibowitz
"""" """""" """ """"""""" """""""""

As we noted in the previous shiur, according to the Eish Kodesh, the
message of this story is clear. If God could command Avraham to kill
his son, this proves that there is no independent moral prohibition of
murder. If so, there cannot be any natural moral order, as the prohibition
of murder is the most basic of all moral obligations.

Similarly, another twentieth century Jewish philosopher, Yeshayahu
Leibowitz, understands the lesson of the akeida as the conquest of our
natural instincts in order to serve God. He includes in our natural
instincts not only our psychological and physical desires, but our moral
instincts, which are binding only from a secular perspective and have
no significance in the worldview of the Torah. According to Leibowitz,
the passage in the siddur introducing the story of the akeida, in which
we pray to God to help us subdue our inclination in order to serve Him,
includes the subduing not only of our inclination towards evil and
selfishness, but the subduing of our moral inclination as well.[1]

We argued in the previous shiur, however, that the mainstream tradition
of Jewish thought disagrees with the Eish Kodesh and holds that there
exists a natural moral order that is binding even in the absence of
divine revelation. If so, how are we to understand the commandment of
akeidat Yitzchak?

We could perhaps argue for a position very close to that of the Eish
Kodesh: There exists a natural moral order, but God is not bound by
that order, and His commandments do not necessarily conform to natural
morality. When faced with a clash between natural morality and divine
command, we are bidden to follow the example of our forefather Avraham
and transgress the obligations of morality in order to fulfill the divine
will. This position was made famous by the Danish protestant philosopher
Soren Kierkegaard in his book about the akeida.[2] He argues that there
is no possible moral evaluation of Avraham's behavior other than as a
transgression of morality. The greatness of Avraham, according to this
understanding, is that he placed his loyalty to God above his commitment
to morality and suspended the ethical obligation in order to follow the
more authoritative obligation of serving God.

According to the approaches we have mentioned, whether we grant the
existence of natural morality or not, the message of the akeida is
clear. Divine commandments are not meant to be in consonance with any
system of morality; the task of a Jew is to overcome his moral feelings
and submit instead to the divine command.

The Akeida as an Affirmation of Natural Morality:
""" """""" "" "" """"""""""" "" """"""" """""""""
R. Kook and R. Lichtenstein
"" """" """ "" """"""""""""

A strikingly different approach is taken by R. Kook in his commentary to
the story of the akeida. While the Eish Kodesh focused on God's initial
commandment as paradigmatic and viewed God's later command not to harm
Yitzchak as an expression of divine grace that could just as easily
not have occurred, R. Kook focuses instead on God's final command as
definitional. He explains that when God commanded Avraham not to harm
Yitzchak, His intention was to reveal the uncontested ethical truth that
Avraham could never have been permitted to kill his son. R. Kook explains
that neither the natural instinct of a father protecting his beloved son
from harm, nor the natural moral prohibition against murder, lost any
of their binding authority due to the commandment of the akeida. God
prohibited Avraham from harming his son not as a divine fiat, but
specifically because of the moral reprehensibility of such an act.[3]

As we discussed in the previous shiur, R. Kook believes that natural
morality and Halakha form one continuum, in which morality serves as the
basis for spiritual growth, and Halakha expands, deepens, and sharpens
the moral order. R. Kook understands that this is precisely the moral
message of the akeida, which is meant to teach us that God's will is
always in consonance with morality and that He would never command or
desire that we act in an immoral fashion.

This raises the question, of course, of how R. Kook understands
God's initial commandment to Avraham to slaughter his son. If God's
commandments are always in consonance with natural morality, how could
He have commanded Avraham to commit murder, even if He later revoked
that commandment?

Perhaps we can explain this based on the midrash that describes a
conversation between God and Avraham in the wake of the akeida:

    R. Acha said: Avraham began to wonder: "These words are only words of
    wonder. Yesterday, you told me: `Because in Yitzchak will your seed be
    called' (Bereishit 21:12). And [then] you went back and said, `Please
    take your son.' And now You say to me, `Do not send your hand to the
    youth.' It is a wonder!" The Holy One, blessed be He, said: "Avraham,
    `I will not profane My covenant and the utterances of My lips, I will
    not change' (Tehillim 89:35). When I said, `Please take your son,'
    I did not say, `slaughter him,' but rather, `and bring him up.' For
    the sake of love did I say [it] to you: I said to you, `Bring him up,'
    and you have fulfilled My words. And now, bring him down." This is
    [the meaning of] what is written, "it did not come up on My heart"
    (Yirmeyahu 19:5) - that is Yitzchak. (Bereishit Rabba 56:8)

According to this midrash, God's commandment never contradicted the
dictates of natural morality, but only seemed to do so. In accordance with
all the information available to Avraham when he set out to the akeida,
there was a clash between the divine command and natural morality,
but in truth there was never a clash.

Perhaps this can serve as a paradigm for all clashes between Halakha
and natural morality. A Jew who is faced with such a clash is certainly
being tested. According to R. Kook, however, one does not pass the test
by discarding morality and committing oneself to worshiping a God who
does not care about the moral order. Rather, God desires that in face
of an apparent contradiction between morality and the divine will,
we remain steadfast in our faith that He is ultimately just, and that
there is some information of which we are not aware which can resolve
the contradiction. We pass the test by continuing to believe in the
morality of Halakha, although we do not yet have an explanation for how
that morality is expressed in this particular instance.

R. Lichtenstein, in his discussion of the akeida, explains the matter
similarly. On the one hand, we must always give precedence to the
divine command over our moral conclusions. On the other hand, however,
we must remain steadfast in our belief that loyalty to the dictates of
natural morality is an expression of, rather than a contradiction to,
yirat Shamayim (fear of Heaven). The integration of moral goodness and
obedience to Halakha, according to R. Lichtenstein, is a principle that
can never be compromised, even if that requires that we admit, as did
Avraham on his way to the akeida, that there are apparent contradictions
whose resolutions we have not yet succeeded in finding.

R. Lichtenstein draws a number of practical conclusions from this
understanding. First, R. Lichtenstein concludes that it is not only
legitimate, but necessary, that when faced with such a clash between
morality and Halakha, we feel the weight of the contradiction and
are troubled by our lack of understanding. R. Lichtenstein assumes
that during the three-day journey to the akeida, Avraham wrestled and
grappled, attempting, albeit unsuccessfully, to find an answer to the
burning question of "Can the Judge of the whole world do injustice?"
This grappling, explains R. Lichtenstein, is not a religious flaw, but
rather a religious accomplishment, so long as it is undertaken in the
context of ultimate submission to the wisdom of the divine command.

Second, R. Lichtenstein suggests that our moral intuition has a role
in an interpretive capacity. When the halakhic directive is unclear,
we must seek out an interpretation that accords with natural morality.
Just as we would interpret one passage in the Shulchan Arukh in such
a way that it would not contradict another halakhically authoritative
passage, we must likewise interpret the halakhic texts in a way that
they do not contradict the authoritative divine will expressed via
natural morality. Nonetheless, ultimately, a Jew must be prepared to act
like Avraham and submit to the divine will even when he cannot find any
resolution to the conflict, neither by re-examining his moral conclusions
nor by re-examining his interpretation of the divine command.[4]

According to the midrash, the answer to his question was revealed to
Avraham shortly after the akeida concluded. Not every Jew merits such
revelation, however, and sometimes we may have to live with the conflict
for years or decades. R. Lichtenstein admits that from an educational
perspective, such an approach is much more difficult to sustain than the
competing approach of the Eish Kodesh, who understands yirat Shamayim as
a rejection of natural morality. It is always simpler to remain committed
to one set of values and reject all others, rather than believing in
the integration of values that do not always integrate effortlessly. It
may be more challenging for our students to remain committed to Halakha
if we challenge them to live with conflict rather than dismiss it. The
easy path, though, is not necessarily the correct path. R. Lichtenstein
concludes that if we want to imbue our students with loyalty to Halakha
in the face of these challenging conflicts, we must teach them to love
piety more rather than morality less. The solution is to deepen yirat
Shamayim rather than to jettison morality.


We have seen two general approaches to understanding the story of
the akeida, and more generally to understand clashes between Halakha
and morality. The approach of the Eish Kodesh and Yeshayahu Leibowitz
attributes philosophical significance only to God's initial commandment
to sacrifice Yitzchak, learning from the akeida that we are bidden
to deny the significance of natural morally and heed only the divine
command. Even if one were to admit the binding obligation of natural
morality, one could conclude from the akeida that although morality is
authoritative in the absence of revelation, divine commandments are
independent of and more authoritative than natural morality. We must
sometimes transgress morality in order to fulfill the divine command.

The second approach, exemplified by R. Kook, understands God's initial
commandment as merely a test and attributes philosophical significance
to God's second commandment forbidding Avraham from harming Yitzchak.
According to this approach, we learn from the akeida that natural
morality and Halakha are integrated and that ultimately there can be no
contradiction between the natural and the prophetic revelations of divine
will. Any apparent conflict between Halakha and morality is merely a test,
as in the akeida.

R. Lichtenstein explained that we pass the test by heeding the divine
command, but while our loyalty to Halakha takes precedence over our
understanding of reality, we are not meant to reject either our commitment
to morality or our belief in the integration of morality and Halakha. We
are meant to struggle, to wonder, to ask questions, to seek alternative
explanations, and ultimately to have faith that someday we will find a
resolution that vindicates our belief that loving piety more does not
entail loving morality less.


[1] Yeshayahu Liebowitz, "Religious Praxis: The Meaning of Halakhah,"
reprinted in Judaism, Human Values, and the Jewish State (Harvard
University Press, 1992). Some students of Liebowitz, however, understand
that he acknowledges the binding obligation of natural morality but
disassociates it from Halakha. In this case, his view would be similar
to that of Kierkegaard, as opposed to the Eish Kodesh.

[2] Soren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, chapter 3.

[3] Rav Kook, Siddur Olat Re'iyah, pp. 92-93.

[4] R. Aharon Lichtenstein, By His Light: Character and Values in the
Service of God, chapter 6, part 4, pp. 122-124.

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