Ethics in the Thought of R. Meir Simcha
MODERN RABBINIC THOUGHT
Lecture #23: Ethics
in the Thought of
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,
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,
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,
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 toar (the beautiful
captive). Conversely, those who
believe in natural morality may feel the need to explain why the Torah sanctions
Those troubled by
slavery may object to the narrative in which Yosef arranges to subjugate all of
When you go out to
war against your enemies and God gives them over to your hand and you take
Joy at the Enemys 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.
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
We can now explain an oddity regarding
Pesach. Gods command regarding the
paschal lamb in
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.
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.
Despite the above,
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 Gods people were prophets (Bemidbar 11:29). This reveals authentic humility.
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 Sofers responsa, he writes that Avraham chose to give up some spiritual achievement in order to live a life of communal responsibility.
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.
One final insight relates to running a
 Meshekh Chokhma Devarim 30:11-14.
 Meshekh Chokhma Shemot 20:7.
 Meshekh Chokhma Bereishit 47:19.
 Meshekh Chokhma Devarim 21:10.
 Meshekh Chokhma Devarim 13:19.
 Meshekh Chokhma Shemot 12:16.
 Meshekh Chokhma Shemot 21:14.
 Meshekh Chokhma Devarim 5:15.
 Meshekh Chokhma Bereishit 18:27 and 32:6.
 Meshekh Chokhma Bemidbar 16:15.
 Meshekh Chokhma Bereishit 9:2.
 Meshekh Chokhma Devarim 22:4.
 Meshekh Chokhma Vayikra 18:5.