Natural Morality Part 1 of 3

  • Harav Yehuda Amital


I. Natural morality in the world and in man


God created man "in His image" (Bereishit 1:2), endowing him with moral sensitivity and a conscience – in other words, with natural morality. This sensitivity has characterized man ever since the world was created, even when it did not stem from a direct Divine command. God turns to man through his conscience and morals. This is the implication of the Gemara in Eruvin (100b):


Rabbi Yochanan said: Had the Torah not been given, we would have learned modesty from the cat, [aversion to] theft from the ant, chastity from the dove, and [conjugal] manners from fowl.


            Elsewhere, the Sages say (Torat Kohanim, Acharei Mot 9, 13):


"You shall keep My statutes" (Vayikra 18:4) – those laws written in the Torah which had they not been written, it would have been proper to write them. For example, theft, forbidden relations, idolatry, blasphemy, and murder, which had they not been written, it would have been proper to write them.


Such mitzvot – those "which had they not been written, it would have been proper to write them" – are designated by Rambam in his Shemona Perakim (chap. 6) as "rational mitzvot." It is preferable that a person should fulfill such mitzvot willingly, without any internal struggle – "for one who has no yearnings for them is better than one who yearns for them and reins in his soul to avoid them." This is because these mitzvot reflect the natural morality that is demanded of every human being.


            One of the classic expressions of this idea is found in the Torah's attitude towards Ammon and Moav (Devarim 23:4-5):


An Ammonite or a Moavite shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord; even to their tenth generation shall they not enter into the congregation of the Lord forever, for they met you not with bread and with water in the way, when you came out of Egypt.


            The gentile nations were explicitly commanded to observe the seven Noachide laws. These mitzvot do not include the obligation to meet the people of Israel with bread and water. The claim against Ammon and Moav is that natural morality requires a certain type of behavior – helping people in times of trouble. The Torah's severe attitude toward these nations stems from the total absence of this moral sense in their makeup.


            The obligation devolving upon the nations of the world to conduct themselves in accordance with natural morality is mentioned by Rav Nissim Gaon in his introduction to the Talmud (printed in the Vilna Shas, beginning of Berakhot).  Rav Nissim Gaon relates to the question of how it is possible to punish the nations of the world for their failure to observe the mitzvot:


It might also be asked how is it possible to punish them [= the nations of the world] for something that had never been imposed upon them as an obligation nor given to them. Surely they can argue that had they been commanded, they would have performed [the mitzvot], and had they been warned, they would have been heedful and accepted [the prohibitions] just as they [= Israel] accepted them. Surely we can answer these arguments and say that all the mitzvot that are based on reason and the heart's understanding devolve as an obligation upon all people from the day that God created man on earth – upon Adam and his descendants for all generations.


The gentile nations are liable to punishment because they too are bound by the mitzvot that are rooted in natural morality and simple logic.


            This is also how the Chizkuni (Bereishit 7:21) understands the punishment inflicted upon the generation of the flood:


You may ask: Why was the generation of the flood punished when they never received the commandments? It may be suggested that there are certain commandments that people are obligated to observe by force of reason, even if they were never commanded, and therefore they were punished.


            Even after the Torah was given, it is impossible that the obligations imposed by the Torah should be less rigorous than those following from the original moral demand. Rabbi Yosef Karo (Kesef Mishneh, Hilkhot Rotze'ach 2:1) discusses Rambam's ruling that a Jew who killed a resident alien who had accepted some of the laws of Judaism, and all the more so a full-fledged non-Jew, is not liable for the death penalty. He cites Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishma'el (Massekhta de-Nezikin, Mishpatim 4):


"But if a man came presumptuously upon his neighbor" (Shemot 21:14) – "his neighbor" – to include a minor; "his neighbor" – to the exclusion of others [i.e., non-Jews].

Issi ben Akiva says: Before the Torah had been given, we were forbidden to shed blood; now that the Torah has been given, instead of greater stringency, there is leniency? In truth, they said: He is exempt according to the laws of man, but his judgment is given over to Heaven.


            In other words, it cannot be that the Torah is less demanding than natural morality. If killing a non-Jew was forbidden before the Torah was given, the Torah could not possibly have lessened this prohibition.


            This idea also underlies what is stated in Sanhedrin (59a):


The master said: Every commandment which was told to the descendants of Noach… but not repeated at Sinai – was meant for Israel and not for the descendants of Noach.

[The Gemara asks:] On the contrary, since it was not repeated at Sinai, it was meant for the descendants of Noach, and not for Israel!

[The Gemara answers:] There is nothing that is permitted to a Jew, but forbidden to a non-Jew.


            The Gemara rejects the possibility that there are mitzvot that are binding upon gentiles but not upon Jews (see also Sanhedrin 55a; Chullin 33a). As Rashi explains (ad loc., s.v. laze velaze):


For when [the Children of Israel] were removed from the category of descendants of Noach, they were removed in order to become sanctified, and not in order to make it easier for them.




            In his commentary to the Mishna (Chullin 7:6), Rambam writes as follows:


You must know that whatever we do or refrain from doing today, we do only because of God's command by way of Moshe, and not because of God's command to the prophets that preceded him. For example, we refrain from eating a limb removed from a living animal not because God forbade this to the descendants of Noach, but because God forbade it to us when He commanded us at Sinai that a limb removed from a living animal continues to be forbidden… You see that [the Sages] said (Makkot 23b): "Six hundred and thirteen mitzvot were told to Moshe at Sinai," and all these are included among the mitzvot.


            Rambam notes that our obligation in the mitzvot stems from the fact that we received the Torah at Sinai, and not from what was practiced beforehand. The question still remains whether or not, following the Sinaitic experience, there is any significance to the fact that prior to the giving of the Torah, certain mitzvot were already practiced by force of natural morality?


            According to one commonly held opinion, after the Torah was given, natural morality lost its validity, so that nothing in the world has binding force other than Torah. This approach assumes that allowing room for natural morality diminishes the importance of Torah, in that it recognizes an additional source of obligation alongside the Torah. According to this point of view, which zealously tries to defend the honor of the Torah, there is no connection between God, Creator of man, and God, Giver of the Torah, as if that which God implanted in man's heart does not belong to God. What Rambam says in The Guide of the Perplexed (III, 31) may fittingly be applied to this attitude:


There is a group of human beings who consider it a grievous thing that causes should be given for any law; what would please them most is that the intellect would not find a meaning for the commandments and prohibitions. What compels them to feel thus is a sickness that they find in their souls, a sickness to which they are unable to give utterance and of which they cannot furnish a satisfactory account. For they think that if those laws were useful in this existence and had been given to us for this or that reason, it would be as if they derived from the reflection and the understanding of some intelligent being. If, however, there is a thing for which the intellect could not find any meaning at all and that does not lead to something useful, it indubitably derives from God; for the reflection of man would not lead to such a thing.


            Rambam speaks of people who have difficulty assigning reasons to the mitzvot, preferring that they should have no rational explanation. Rambam understands that these people think that anything having an explanation is human, and therefore cannot derive from God. The same applies to the matter under consideration: there are those who prefer that all obligations be derived solely from the Torah and that no significance be attached to any human element.


            This approach weakens natural morality. Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook viewed this as a very negative development (Orot ha-Kodesh III, rosh davar, 11):


Fear of Heaven such that, without its effect on the living, people would be more inclined to doing good and realizing that which is beneficial to both the individual and the community, and because of its effect this active force diminishes – such fear of Heaven is unfit.


            Even after the Torah was given, natural morality retains its special role of guiding man in all his paths. Elsewhere, Rabbi Kook writes as follows (Orot ha-Torah, chap. 12, 2-3):


Morality in its natural state, with all its profound splendor and might, must be fixed in the soul, so that it may serve as a substratum for the great effects emanating from the strength of Torah… Every element of Torah must be preceded by derekh eretz [= natural ethical behavior]. If it is something agreeable to natural reason and uprightness, it must pass in a straight path, with the inclination of the heart and consent of the pure will implanted in man, like theft, illicit sexual relations, and modesty which are learned from the ant, the dove, and the cat, and all the more so those things which are derived from the internal cognition of man himself and his spiritual sense…


            This natural inclination of the heart is found in animals as well. The prophet Yeshayahu opens his rebuke as follows (Yeshayahu 1:3):


The ox knows his owner, and the ass his master's crib; but Israel does not know, My people does not consider.


The prophet means to say that there is a natural feeling that exists even in an ox and an ass. This is the starting point of Yeshayahu's rebuke of the Jewish people, whose sin involved the loss of this natural feeling.


            It follows then that a sin that also involves moral failure is a more serious offense, for it testifies to flawed morality and the absence of a natural feeling that should be found in every individual.


            Regarding the verse, "And the Lord said to Moshe, Come up to Me to the mountain, and be there: and I will give you the tablets of stone, and the Torah, and the commandments which I have written, that you may teach them" (Shemot 24:12), Rabbi Meir ha-Kohen of Dvinsk writes:


[The words,] "which I have written," cannot refer to the Torah and the commandments; see Rashbam. It seems that [we can understand this in light of the rabbinic dictum:] "Had the Torah not been given, we would have learned modesty from the cat, [the prohibition of] theft from the ant, [the prohibition of] forbidden relationships from the dove, and [conjugal] manners from fowl" (Eruvin 100b). Therefore [God] said: "which I have written" – in the book of nature that I created, which is the book of the Blessed One who created it. (Meshekh Chokhma, ad loc.)


At Sinai, then, "the book of nature" remained as one of the sources of obligation in mitzvot and morality.


            Rabbi Yechiel Ya'akov Weinberg (Seridei Esh I:61) understands that this approach may have halakhic ramifications, in that it explains why we do not recite a blessing over the mitzva of mishlo'ach manot (sending gifts) on Purim:


Even though regarding all the mitzvot [we apply the principle that] "He who is commanded and performs [the mitzva] is greater [than he who performs the mitzva without being commanded]," and we recite the blessing [which includes the words,] "and [He] commanded us" – in the case of mishlo'ach manot, it is better that a person give of his own free will out of a feeling of love for his fellow Jew. If he gives only because God so commanded, he diminishes the measure of love. The same applies to charity; if a person gives out of compassion or love for his fellow Jew, it is better than one who gives because of the command and out of coercion… It may be [also] on this account that we do not recite a blessing over respecting one's father and mother.


(Translated by David Strauss)