Natural Morality Part 2 of 3

  • Harav Yehuda Amital


iii. obligations stemming from natural morality after the giving of the torah.


Another question may be raised: Are there any obligations that go beyond the strict requirements of Halakha and stem from natural morality? Regarding the verse: "And you shall do that which is right and good" (Devarim 6:18), Ramban writes:


Our Rabbis have a beautiful midrash on this verse. They have said: "['That which is right and good'] refers to a compromise and going beyond the letter of the law." The intent of this is as follows: At first, he [Moshe] stated that you are to keep His statutes and His testimonies which He commanded you, and now he is stating that even where He has not commanded you, give thought, as well, to do what is good and right in His eyes, for He loves the good and the right.

Now, this is a great principle, for it is impossible to mention in the Torah all aspects of man's conduct with his neighbors and friends, and all his various transactions, and the ordinances of all societies and countries. But since He mentioned many of them – such as, "You shall not go up and down as a talebearer" (Vayikra 19:16); "You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge" (ibid., v. 18); "Neither shall you stand idly by the blood of your neighbor" (ibid., v. 16); "You shall not curse the deaf" (ibid., v. 15); "You shall rise up before the hoary head" (ibid., v. 32) and the like – He reverted to state in a general way that, in all matters, one should do what is good and right, including even compromise and going beyond the requirements of the law.

Other examples [of "good and right" behavior] are the Rabbis' ordinances concerning the bar metzra (the prerogative of a neighbor to receive preference in buying a field adjacent to his, Bava Metzia 108a), and even what they said [concerning the desirability] that one's youthful reputation be unblemished, and that one's conversation with people be pleasant (Yoma 86a). Thus, [a person must seek to refine his behavior] in every form of activity, until he is worthy of being called "good and upright."


            How can one know what is "right and good"? Clearly, it is natural morality and human feeling that define the right and the good. After natural morality decides that a certain deed reflects what is right and good, that very deed turns into a mitzva.


The Maggid Mishneh (at the end of Hilkhot Shekhenim) explains the parameters of this mitzva:


Similarly, regarding the verse, "And you shall do that which is right and good," this means that a person should conduct himself with other people in a good and right manner. It would have been unbefitting to command the particulars, for while the Torah's mitzvot apply at all times and at every hour and in all circumstances, and a person must perforce perform them, man's traits and conduct vary in accordance with the hour and the personalities involved. The Sages, of blessed memory, recorded a few helpful particulars which fall under these general rules…


The fact that proper conduct varies according to the circumstances and according to the individuals involved in a particular case demonstrates the importance of natural morality in defining the practical details of the mitzva of "doing that which is right and good."


            Moreover, Rambam writes in his Guide of the Perplexed (III, 17) that reward and punishment apply also to obligations stemming from natural morality, even though they are not explicitly stated in the Torah:


For Him, may He be exalted, justice is necessary and obligatory; namely, that an obedient individual receives compensation for all the pious and righteous actions he has accomplished, even if he was not ordered by a prophet to do them, and that he is punished for all evil acts committed by him, even if he was not forbidden by a prophet to do them; this being forbidden by the inborn disposition – I refer to the prohibition against wrongdoing and injustice.




All the importance of natural morality notwithstanding, walking in God's ways will advance a person's conduct beyond what could have been achieved through natural morality alone, and elevate him to a very high level. The Torah states (Devarim 13:5):


You shall walk after the Lord your God, and fear Him, and keep His commandments, and obey His voice, and you shall serve Him, and hold fast to Him.


Chazal comment (Sota 14a):


Rabbi Chama son of Rabbi Chanina said: What is the meaning of the verse, "You shall walk after the Lord your God" (Devarim 13:5)? Is it possible for a human being to walk after the Shekhina?  Surely it has been said: "For the Lord your God is a devouring fire" (Devarim 4:24)!

Rather [the meaning is] to walk after the attributes of the Holy One, blessed be He.

Just as He clothes the naked, for it is written: "And the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife coats of skin, and clothed them" (Bereishit 3:21) – so too must you clothe the naked.

The Holy One, blessed be He, visited the sick, for it is written: "And the Lord appeared unto him by the oaks of Mamre" (ibid. 18:1), so too must you visit the sick.

The Holy One, blessed be He, comforted mourners, for it is written: "And it came to pass after the death of Avraham, that God blessed Isaac his son" (ibid. 25:11) – so too must you comfort mourners.

The Holy One, blessed be He, buried the dead, for it is written: "And He buried him in the valley" (Devarim 34:6) – so too must you bury the dead.


            Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, in the beginning of his Tomer Devora, describes the high moral level that one may reach through the fulfillment of this obligation, for God acts with lovingkindness even with someone who at the very moment is sinning against Him:


Furthermore, there is never a moment that a person is not sustained by a heavenly force that fills him. You will find that there was never a time that a person sinned against God when at that very same moment He was not filling him with life force. Even though that person used that force for sin, He did not withhold it from him. Rather, the Holy One, blessed be He, suffers the insult to fill a person with life force, even though he expends that force at that moment on sin and transgression, causing the Holy One, blessed be He, to become angry and to suffer… This is an unspeakable example of insult and tolerance.


Man is called to walk in the ways of God with regard to this trait as well:


This is a trait that man must adopt for himself, I mean to say, tolerance. Even when he suffers insult to such a degree, he should not withhold his goodness from its receiver.


            If a person experiences in the depths of his soul the feeling of "From my flesh, I shall behold God" (Iyyov 19:26), he will be able to reach the highest levels of morality. Along the same lines, Rabbi Kook writes (Orot ha-Kodesh III, rosh davar, no. 11):


A sign that one's fear of Heaven is pure is when one's natural morality, that which is implanted in man's nature, rises with it to levels that are higher than where it would have stood without it. 


v. mitzvot that contradict natural morality


We occasionally encounter mitzvot and halakhot that cannot easily be reconciled with our natural moral sensitivities. At times, we come across biblical stories that cause us the same difficulty.


In all such cases, we must first examine what is stated in the Oral Law. For example, the mitzva to destroy the seven Canaanite nations and the mitzva to wipe out Amalek seem to involve collective punishment that ignores the fact that we are dealing here with human beings who were created in the image of God. When, however, we examine what Rambam says on the matter, things look entirely different. In his Hilkhot Melakhim (6:4), Rambam writes:


If the seven [Canaanite] nations or Amalek do not accept peace, not one of them is spared. As it is said (Devarim 20:15): "Thus shall you do to all the cities, etc.," and (verse 16): "But of the cities of these peoples… you shall save alive nothing that breathes."  Similarly, it says regarding Amalek (Devarim 25:19): "You shall blot out the remembrance of Amalek."

From where do we know that this refers only to those who do not make peace? As it is said (Yehoshua 11:19-20): "There was not a city that made peace with the children of Israel, except the Chivi, the inhabitants of Giv'on: they took all in battle. For it was of the Lord to harden their hearts, that they should come against Israel in battle, that He might destroy them utterly." This implies that [Israel] offered them peace, but they did not accept it.


            Rabbi Yosef Karo explains (in his Kesef Mishneh, relating to Ra'avad's critical note on Rambam's ruling):


Included in making peace is the acceptance of the seven [Noachide] laws, for if they accept upon themselves the seven [Noachide] laws, then they are no longer considered as belonging to the category of the seven nations or to Amalek, and they are like any upright gentiles.


            Let us take another example.  If we limit ourselves to the Written Law, we get the impression that the death penalty should be applied frequently. When we examine the Oral Law, however, we find the famous words of the Mishna (Makkot 1:10): "A Sanhedrin that executes one person in seven years is called 'murderous.' Rabbi Eliezar ben Azarya says: Once in seventy years."


            Similarly, the Written Law says (Vayikra 24:20): "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth; as he has maimed a man, so shall it be done to him." The Oral Law, however, asserts (Bava Kama 83b): "'An eye for an eye' – this refers to monetary compensation." Thus, when faced with a morally problematic mitzva or story, the first thing a person should do is to examine the Oral Law.


            Second, there are certains things that are God's prerogative to do: God gives life and takes it away, and He can demand of man to take the life of his fellow. Therefore, even when the Torah commands us to act contrary to our natural morality, this does not mean that we are supposed to modify our moral outlook so that it should be in keeping with the Torah's commands. Our sensitivity should remain as is, but we must recognize that at certain times God commands us to do things that cannot be reconciled with our natural morality. We cited earlier the talmudic passage in tractate Sota regarding the duty to walk in God's ways and cleave to Him. But we are not called upon to emulate all of His traits. God is also jealous and vengeful, and we were never asked to imitate Him regarding these qualities.


            Maharal (Netivot Olam, Netiv Gemilat Chasadim 1) explains why man is called upon to walk in God's ways with regard to the trait of lovingkindness:


It is because this quality is something that man does of his own accord. But regarding justice, it cannot be said that a person is walking in God's ways, because ["walking in God's ways" means] walking of his own accord, acting independently and of his own free will… But as for justice, a person is obligated to do justice, and therefore he cannot be referred to as walking in God's ways. Only when he performs acts of lovingkindness, beyond the letter of the law, and he does them on his own and of his own free will – this is called walking in God's ways.


            Only the pursuit of lovingkindness flows from the recesses of one's individual personality, while the laws of justice are derived from general principles and hence do not stem from man's essence.


            The Gemara in Yoma (22b) states:


"He [Shaul] contended in the valley" (I Shmuel 15:5).  Rabbi Mani said: This verse concerns the issue of [an egla arufa (a heifer whose neck is broken when a murdered person's body is found outside a town and the murderer's identity is unknown), which is killed in] a valley.  [How so?]

When the Holy One, blessed be He said to Shaul: "Go and strike down Amalek" (ibid. v. 3), [Shaul] argued: "Now, since regarding one life the Torah said to bring an egla arufa, then with regard to all these lives [i.e., wiping out Amalek], all the more so! And if a man sinned, how did the animals sin?  And if the adults sinned, how did the minors sin?  [I.e., why should Amalek's animals and children be killed?]"

A heavenly voice issued forth and said to him, "Do not be overly righteous" (Kohelet 7:16).


            We see that the objection raised against Shaul was not about his feelings, but rather about his failure to act; despite his moral conflict, he should have submitted himself to the Divine command.


            We learn the same thing from the story of the akeida, the binding of Yitzchak. Were man required to bend his natural sensitivities to accord with a command that he cannot reconcile with morality, then surely Avraham should have bound his son Yitzchak on the altar joyfully and full-heartedly. The picture painted by Chazal is, however, very different.  On the contrary, from God's perspective the real test was when He drew out His command saying, "Take now your son, your only son Yitzchak, whom you love" (Bereishit 22:2). And from Avraham's perspective, Chazal describe at length the emotional suffering which Avraham experienced as he prepared himself to fulfill the mitzva (Yalkut Shim'oni, Bereishit 101):


Avraham set his eyes upon the eyes of Yitzchak, and Yitzchak set his eyes upon the heavens. Tears flowed and fell from the eyes of Avraham to the point that he was floating in tears. [Avraham] said to [Yitzchak]: "My son, since you have begun with a portion of blood, your Creator will prepare another sacrifice in your stead." At that very moment, his mouth opened wide with great weeping and wailing…


The same idea may be learned from the story of Sedom; there, too, Avraham refused to subordinate his natural morality to God's command. It was clear to Avraham - and the implication of the biblical text is that God agreed with him on the matter - that it should be possible to reconcile God's edicts with justice and righteousness. It is only on this assumption that Avraham could have voiced the argument: "Shall not the judge of all the earth do justice?" (Bereishit 18:25).


            The essence of this idea finds expression in Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch's commentary to the Torah (Bereishit, end of chap. 18):


This dialogue – so to call it – between Avraham and the Judge of the world, in which a creature of dust dares to step before the Presence of God with his feelings of justice and finds agreement and approval, is a guarantee of the godliness of the voice within us which pleads for justice and righteousness. Though we are "dust and ashes" – founded from dust and destined to ashes – not everything within us is dust and ashes. In this body of dust and ashes, there is a spark of the Creator of the universe and an echo of His spirit. Humanity and justice and all the spiritual and moral assets of man received their eternal confirmation through this Divine echo in the heart of man; and they stand above all the teachings of dust and ashes of material wisdom.


            Even within the framework of Halakha, there is room for considerations of natural morality. The story is told about Rabbi Yisrael Salanter that he would fulfill the mitzva of washing his hands using as little water as possible. When asked about the practice, he responded that did not want to make it any more difficult for the maidservant who would bring the water from the well. Rabbi Salanter did not necessarily activate halakhic reasoning, weighing out the mitzva of "loving your neighbor as yourself" against performing the mitzva of washing hands in the best possible manner. Rather, his behavior testifies to a healthy sense of natural morality.


            When Rabbi Feivel Meltzer, son of my revered teacher, Rabbi Isser Zalman Meltzer, zt"l, came before Rabbi Yechezkel Abramski, zt"l, who was serving as head of the London Rabbinical Court, Rabbi Abramski introduced him to those present, saying: "This is the son of Rabbi Isser Zalman. Do you know who that is? Even if Rabbi Isser Zalman knew nothing about Torah learning, nothing at all, not even the slightest bit, he would still be the most beautiful Jew in all of Jerusalem." Why so? Because of his character traits and natural uprightness.


(Translated by David Strauss)