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Ethics in the Thought of R. Meir Simcha

  • Rav Yitzchak Blau


By Rav Yitzchak Blau


Lecture #23: Ethics in the Thought of R. Meir Simcha



Natural Morality


Challenges to the idea of natural morality come from divergent sources.  On the one hand, contemporary skeptics deny our ability to form reasoned moral judgments.  On the other hand, some religious thinkers feel that ascribing validity to natural morality detracts from the idea that all values stem from God.  Despite these concerns, R. Meir Simcha endorses the idea of natural morality.[1]  God created humanity with an innate ability to perceive basic moral judgments, such as, “What is hateful to you, do not do unto your neighbor.”  Desire sometimes clouds this natural perception, but even then, after the enjoyment ends, the sinner often regrets the immoral act.  In this sense, the gemara (Ta’anit 11a) says in reference to someone indifferent to communal distress: “A person’s soul testifies against him.”


            R. Meir Simcha utilizes this idea in his reading of a Talmudic source.  R. Akiva and Ben Azzai debate which verse constitutes the kelal gadol ba-Torah (the major precept of the Torah).  R. Akiva endorses “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Vayikra 19:18).  Ben Azzai counters with “This is the book of the generations of man” (Bereishit 5:1).  Commentators wonder why Ben Azzai prizes this particular verse.  R. Meir Simcha explains that the verse emphasizes the basis of good behavior in the very creation of humanity.  God fashioned mankind with the ability to distinguish wrong from right.


            This idea also inspires a creative reading of a biblical verse.  After the first sin, God says that humanity will be “like one of us, knowing good and evil” (Bereishit 3:22).  Though it does not reflect the simple meaning of the phrase, R. Meir Simcha translates “mimenu… tov va-ra” as conveying the notion that basic wisdom regarding good and evil comes from within.


            Jews do not have a monopoly on this innate wisdom; non-Jews also share in it.  In fact, Halakha assumes that non-Jews are obligated not to violate the natural moral code even when the specific violation fails to appear among the Noachide laws.  The seven Noachide laws make no mention of iniquities such as taking a false oath or an oath in vain.  Nevertheless, R. Meir Simcha posits that a Gentile who violates these norms would be subject to divine punishment.  Human reason demands adhering to one’s oath and a person should do so irrespective of whether or not a given legal code requires it.[2]


Morally Difficult Aspects of Torah


Those who deny natural morality have little trouble with morally challenging aspects of Jewish law, such as slavery and the eshet yefat to’ar (the beautiful captive).  Conversely, those who believe in natural morality may feel the need to explain why the Torah sanctions these institutions.  R. Meir Simcha’s Torah commentary relates to both slavery and the eshet yefat to’ar. 


Those troubled by slavery may object to the narrative in which Yosef arranges to subjugate all of Egypt to the Pharaoh.  R. Meir Simcha minimizes the scope of Yosef’s activities.  Yosef says to the people: “Hen kaniti etkhem ha-yom ve-et admatkhem le-Pharaoh, I have purchased you today and your land for Pharaoh” (Bereishit 47:23).  The placement of the word “ha-yom” between the acquisition of the people and the acquisition of the land seems odd.  R. Meir Simcha explains that Pharaoh acquired the land forever, but he acquired the people only on a temporary basis.  The word “ha-yom” modifies only the acquisition of the people.  R. Meir Simcha explicitly states that Yosef hated the idea of slavery, namely, that one person should control another.[3]  Here, his moral stand clearly emerges.


“When you go out to war against your enemies and God gives them over to your hand and you take captives…” (Devarim 21:10).  R. Meir Simcha infers from this introductory verse that the law of the captive woman applies specifically to a scenario of total victory, in which the enemy is “given over to your hand.”  In a normal war, both sides take captives and eshet yefat to’ar does not apply, because we assume that the two sides will ultimately exchange captives.  How could we keep a woman from the opposing nation if it entails our own people remaining trapped in captivity?[4]  Although we could argue that close reading and pragmatic considerations motivate R. Meir Simcha’s comment, a moral intuition to limit the scope of eshet yefat to’ar may also have motivating force.


Joy at the Enemy’s Downfall


Our reaction to the death of the enemy also presents a morally complex situation.  On the one hand, we obviously feel joy when we win a war and do not suffer casualties.  On the other hand, rapturous dancing at the deaths of fellow human beings appears inappropriate.  R. Meir Simcha was quite sensitive to this point.  The last verse in the section describing the ir ha-nidachat (the city that goes astray after idolatry) uses the phrase “la’asot ha-yashar” (Devarim 13:19).  Chumash often connects the word “tov” (good) with the word “yashar” (right) (see Devarim 6:18, 12:28).  R. Meir Simcha argues that the Torah purposely leaves out the word “tov” in the verse above, since wiping out a city of idolaters may be necessary but it is not good.[5]


            This theme runs through many of our festivals.  The historical basis for the festivals of Pesach, Chanuka, and Purim all include the deaths of enemies.  However, we do not celebrate that per se.  Rather, we celebrate the purification of the Temple or the salvation of the Jewish people.  Our religious authorities took concrete steps to clarify this message.  They fixed the Purim celebration on the day that we rested from our enemies, rather than on the day of the military triumph itself or on the day of Haman’s hanging.  Megillat Esther emphasizes that we rejoice on the day that “the Jews rested from their enemies” (Esther 9:22).


R. Meir Simcha eloquently explains the source of our Chanuka celebrations.  “The day marks nothing but the lighting of olive oil, the dedication and purification of the house of God, and the divine providence that watches over His nation Israel at a time when prophecy had ceased.”  The Maccabean military victory enabled all of the above, but we commemorate positive religious values rather than rejoicing in the suffering of others.   


We can now explain an oddity regarding Pesach.  God’s command regarding the paschal lamb in Egypt incorporates the idea of a seven-day festival (Shemot 12:15-16).  Yet the mishna states that “Pesach Mitzrayim” (the Pesach holiday as observed at the time of the Exodus) only lasted for one day.  (Pesachim 96a).  Why does God mention a detail not immediately relevant?  R. Meir Simcha explains that the Egyptians drowned on the seventh day. If the command to celebrate day seven followed this episode, people might conclude that we celebrate their deaths.  Since the command precedes the Egyptians’ demise, there must be a different source of joy.[6]  Not surprisingly, R. Meir Simcha cites the famous midrashic explanation for why we shorten Hallel on the seventh day of Pesach: human suffering and death reduce our joy.


Attitude to Gentiles


Those who endorse natural morality are more likely to emphasize decent treatment of non-Jews.  After all, our ethical intuitions instruct us that every human being deserves dignified interaction.  On the other hand, someone who denies natural morality might infer from particular halakhot that we need not care much about how we treat Gentiles.  R. Meir Simcha indicates concern for the welfare of non-Jews in his Meshekh Chokhma.


The Halakha states that the murderer of a Jew receives the death penalty, but the murderer of a Gentile does not (instead, he is punished by death at the hands of Heaven).  Even though both acts are forbidden, the legal discrepancy could engender the argument that we remain indifferent to the fate of Gentiles.  R. Meir Simcha suggests a remarkable rebuttal of this inference.  We do not give the death penalty to a Jew who murders a non-Jew because that punishment fails to atone for the magnitude of the crime.   Halakha treats every murder as a heinous crime, but a Jew murdering a Gentile also constitutes a desecration of God’s name.  These twin transgressions need more than a death penalty to achieve atonement.


In fairness, R. Meir Simcha does put forth an additional explanation.  A Jewish life is exceedingly precious to God, and God will only demand the taking of such a life for the act of murdering a fellow Jew.  This interpretation drives a sharp divide between Jews and Gentiles.  At the same time, R. Meir Simcha focuses his discussion on the criminal’s worth and not on the relative value of the respective victims.  In other words, this second interpretation agrees that murdering a Gentile is horrendous.  However, it values each Jewish life too much to call for the death penalty.[7]


R. Meir Simcha also makes the novel suggestion that Shabbat applies to non-Jews on some – albeit minor – level.  The gemara permits Gentiles to bury our Jewish dead on Yom Tov but not on Shabbat.  Tosafot (Bava Kama 81a) point out that the same leniency logically applies to Shabbat as well.  They explain that it would be embarrassing and degrading for the deceased to be buried on a Shabbat, even if Gentiles perform the burial.  Why does the identical shame not apply to a festival burial?  R. Meir Simcha argues that the festivals recall great deeds that divine providence performed for Am Yisrael, and these days bear no connection to Gentiles.  Shabbat, on the other hand, commemorates the universal theme of God’s creation.  As a special gift, this day was reserved for Jews, but in its essence, it could apply to non-Jews.  Therefore, the shame of Gentile burial exists only on Shabbat.[8]  I contend that willingness to apply some form of Shabbat to non-Jews indicates a relatively positive orientation towards the Gentiles.


Despite the above, R. Meir Simcha conceives of a significant gap between Jew and Gentile, even comparing it to the divide between humanity and the animal kingdom.[9]  I find the analogy troubling.  Nonetheless, this conception clearly did not lead R. Meir Simcha to indifference to Gentile suffering.  R. Kook proves an instructive parallel.  He endorses an ontological divide between Jew and non-Jew, yet still writes forcefully about our concern for Gentiles.       


Ethical Insights


R. Meir Simcha’s commentary includes some profound insights into ethics and character.  He notes the difference between the genuinely humble person and one who makes a show of humility.  The latter finds it easy to profess inadequacy in comparison to those beneath him.  As the others are not significant rivals, a few words of modesty prove easy.  The real challenge happens regarding those of equal or superior rank.  In such contexts, the phony cannot squelch the spirit of jealousy and competition.  Not so the truly humble.


Moshe Rabbeinu was the paragon of humility.  “I did not do evil to one of them” (Bemidbar 16:15). The word “echad” can refer to the distinguished among the community.  Moshe not only did not harm those beneath him; he also showed great respect for those who might be construed as his rivals.  For example, when Yehoshua gets upset that others prophesy, Moshe states, “Would it be that all of God’s people were prophets” (Bemidbar 11:29).  This reveals authentic humility.[10]


Another penetrating insight relates to the perennial conflict between solitude in the search for spiritual growth and the responsibility of communal involvement.  One approach is to portray this as an irreconcilable clash, with the need to make a choice that sacrifices one ideal.  In the introduction to Chatam Sofer’s responsa, he writes that Avraham chose to give up some spiritual achievement in order to live a life of communal responsibility. 


R. Meir Simcha, to some degree, denies the dichotomy.  He argues that the hermit ends up regressing, while communal involvement inspires spiritual greatness. One midrash says that Moshe begins as an “ish Mitzri” and becomes an “ish ha-Elokim.  In contrast, Noach start as an “ish ha-Elokim” and becomes an “ish ha-adama.”  For R. Meir Simcha, these diverging fortunes stem directly from religious choices relating to communal involvement.  Noach chooses the isolationist route and eventually flounders.  Moshe returns from seclusion in Midyan to his people in Egypt and he flourishes.  True growth of character and development of wisdom depend upon the difficulties involved in interacting with others.[11]


The mitzvot to help another person load and unload his donkey use greatly different terms to describe the person being helped.   The verse in Shemot (23:40) refers to “your enemy,” whereas the verse in Devarim (22:4) mentions “your brother.”  R. Meir Simcha explains that Halakha allows hatred of the sinner.  However, such a posture assumes that the one hating stands on a high religious level.  Those with significant shortcomings themselves should not be so quick to look so negatively at another.  The verse in Shemot precedes the sin of the golden calf, but the latter verse follows it.  Following the transgression of the golden calf, hatred for the sinner became unjustified.[12]


One final insight relates to running a moral society.  R. Meir Simcha notes that individuals find the rational commandments easier than the chukim.  Our intellect and intuitions identify more easily with the former.  However, on a national plane, the chukim are easier.  The messy complications of balancing various ethical pulls on a grand communal scale make it easier simply to encourage the observance of sha’atnez.  His insight is reminiscent of Reinhold Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society.[13]  

[1] Meshekh Chokhma Devarim 30:11-14.

[2] Meshekh Chokhma Shemot 20:7.

[3] Meshekh Chokhma Bereishit 47:19.

[4] Meshekh Chokhma Devarim 21:10.

[5] Meshekh Chokhma Devarim 13:19.

[6] Meshekh Chokhma Shemot 12:16.

[7] Meshekh Chokhma Shemot 21:14.

[8] Meshekh Chokhma Devarim 5:15.

[9] Meshekh Chokhma Bereishit 18:27 and 32:6.

[10] Meshekh Chokhma Bemidbar 16:15.

[11] Meshekh Chokhma Bereishit 9:2.

[12] Meshekh Chokhma Devarim 22:4.

[13] Meshekh Chokhma Vayikra 18:5.