Shiur #02: Natural Morality and the Divine Spark

  • Rav Binyamin Zimmerman


Bein Adam Le-Chavero: Ethics of Interpersonal Conduct

By Rav Binyamin Zimmerman


Shiur 02: Natural Morality and the Divine Spark



In last week’s introductory shiur, we encountered an array of sources that indicate the centrality of proper interpersonal conduct within the Torah’s outlook.  One might wonder what is singularly Jewish about many of these mitzvot bein adam le-chavero.  After all, a significant number of interpersonal imperatives are often assumed to be rational necessities, inherently obligatory even for the ordinary human being.  The notion that it is necessary to treat people kindly and not cross certain lines of decency is relatively ubiquitous, accepted by many who have no religious affiliation whatsoever. 


Many point to the existence of a universal moral code — unwritten, yet widely accepted.  The notion that there is a universal moral code is often referred to as natural morality.  Some go one step further and insinuate that there is even natural law, which not only directs us towards proper moral behavior, but demands and requires these ideals of us even in the absence of a divine directive.  Certainly, the concept of crimes against humanity and international justice seems to presuppose that at least most of the world accepts minimal standards of ethical and moral behavior. 


After presenting sources exhibiting the importance of ethical behavior for the Jewish people, we must ask: what regard does the Torah have for the seemingly natural sense of morality inherent in humanity?  Does Judaism recognize its existence and acknowledge its importance? 


In this lesson, we will begin by setting out to prove that Judaism recognizes the existence of an inherent natural morality in man.  After doing so, we will attempt to understand its source and expound on its significance.


Ethics and Morality


Before we continue, let us try to define and differentiate between two terms that will be used many times: ethics and morality.  While often used interchangeably, we will try to utilize unique usages for each of the terms.


Ethics, as defined by Aristotle and the ancients, are the rules of conduct by which one achieves happiness, while morality is the set of behaviors that guide one’s acceptable behavior towards one’s fellow.  Ethics focus on that which is instrumental for human wellbeing, while morality focuses on the objective standards of proper behavior.  There are those who feel that morality is to be defined by ethics, while others feel that moral behavior is independent of the pursuit of happiness in ethical teachings.  With this in mind, in adopting the concept of natural morality, one would presume that there are innate, rational guidelines for acceptable interpersonal conduct.


Natural Morality — Does It Exist?


Prior to analyzing the expansive rabbinic literature on these topics, a mere perusal of the first portions of the Torah suffices to convince us that God endorses minimal standards of human interpersonal conduct.


Ten generations from the dawn of creation, God destroys almost all the inhabitants of the world for the crime of chamas, often translated as treachery or robbery.  Only Noach and his family are spared, for Noach is “a righteous man (ish tzaddik), wholesome (tamim) in his generations.” 


Ten generations later, in the time of Avraham, the city of Sedom is overturned and destroyed.  Our Rabbis explain that its crime, the “scream” which the Torah says reached God (18:20-21), was born of the depraved actions of an immoral society which justified its behavior by saying it adhered to the letter of its system of unethical laws (e.g. Sanhedrin 109a-b).


God’s obliteration of unethical communities seems to give the clear message that an immoral society loses its right to exist.  In fact, the Ramban explains in his commentary at the beginning of the Torah (Bereishit 1:1) that the lesson of the Book of Bereishit is that exile or destruction is the punishment for iniquity:


The Garden of Eden, which was the choicest of places created in this world, became the foundation of his dwelling, until Adam’s sin drove him from there.  The Generation of the Flood, in its sins, was driven from the world altogether.  Only the righteous one, Noach, survived with his children.  The sin of their offspring caused them to be scattered to many different places…


Thus, it is fitting, if a nation should sin again, that it lose its land and that another nation come to inherit its land.


This is understandable in light of our previous shiur, where we saw that one of the three pillars of the world is kindness (Avot 1:2) and that the world survives on justice, truth and peace (Avot 1:18).  If so, a city like Sedom or a society like the Generation of the Flood, devoid of the foundations of existence, loses its right to continue.


In fact, there is another sinful generation near the beginning of time, and it seems to blunder in a more severe fashion, but it is treated much less harshly.  Several generations after the Flood, humanity gathers together to build the Tower of Bavel.  Numerous sources seem to indicate that the tower was not meant to be merely a lavish architectural structure, but rather a battle station to reach the heavens and wage war against God.  Nevertheless, rather than unleashing another natural disaster, God punishes the builders by dispersing and scattering them; He chooses separation and language barriers instead of obliteration.  Rashi (Bereishit 11:9) explains this seeming anomaly:


Which sin was greater, that of the Generation of the Flood or that of the Generation of the Dispersion?  The former did not stretch forth its hand against God; the latter did stretch forth its hand against God, as it were, to war against Him.  Nevertheless, the former was drowned, while the Generation of the Dispersion did not perish from the world! 


The reason is that the Generation of the Flood was composed of thieves, and there was strife among then; therefore, they were destroyed.  [The members of the Generation of the Dispersion] on the other hand, conducted themselves with love and friendship, as it is said (11:1), “They were one people and had one language.”  You may learn from this that strife is hateful [to God], while peace is great.


In essence, the builders of the Tower of Bavel receive a less severe punishment because their failure is not a moral one, like the Generation of the Flood.  What is the source of the obligation of that generation to live by a moral code?  How can the Generation of the Flood be held accountable for its behavior without an explicit command? 


The Ramban (Bereishit 6:2) explains that the crimes of the Generation of the Flood are not fully elaborated upon in the Torah, but are succinctly described as chamas, including activities that are never explicitly forbidden in the Torah — but do not need to be.  The Torah does not explicate these prohibited activities.  Their punishment is justified by their classification as chamas, interpersonal treachery; acts of this type are logically forbidden, so there is no need for the Torah’s censure.  All people are liable for such actions because they are bound by the mitzvot that are rooted in natural morality and simple logic. 


As Rav Aharon Lichtenstein writes,[1] the sources are clear that uncommanded man is not ethically neutral.  Even if there is no natural law that would bind one through some unwritten code of rules, “There is a natural morality, a universal moral ideal, though it contains more of a spirit than specific behavior,” and one can be held accountable for violating it.


At certain times, it seems that the violation of one’s inner moral calling is treated more harshly than infractions of more explicit prohibitions.  These crimes indicate moral failure and are, therefore, viewed more severely.


Menschlichkeit and Derekh Eretz


The requirement of minimal standards of behavior expresses itself in an untranslatable word from the European tradition, the Yiddish “menschlichkeit, which I shall render, for lack of a suitable synonym in the vernacular, as the basic behavior expected of a person.  The literal meaning of mensch is “man”; therefore, menschlichkeit is manlike behavior, as opposed to that of a beast.  In the Talmud and Midrash, there is a description of a concept known as derekh eretz, literally “the way of the world,” from which the idea of the mensch was probably derived, but the concept of menschlichkeit takes it even further.


Rav Yehuda Amital speaks of the responsibility of menschlichkeit and writes about it extensively.[2]  He cites the line from our daily liturgy, "Le-olam yeheh adam yerei shamayim," "A person should always be God-fearing."  Jews in prewar Eastern Europe would paraphrase the expression thusly: "Le-olam, yeheh adam," "One should always be a person" — that is, first one must be a mensch; afterwards, one can fear God.  The Torah reinforces and deepens the idea of menschlichkeit, but this quality is demanded of man even before one acquires Torah, as stated by the Sages (Yalkut Shimoni, Bereishit 34):


"To guard the derekh [to the Tree of Life]" (Bereishit 3:24) — this refers to derekh eretz.  This teaches that derekh eretz preceded the Tree of Life, and there is no tree but Torah, as it says: "It is a tree of life" (Mishlei 3:18).


The Mishna in Tractate Avot (3:17) makes the relationship reciprocal:


Rabbi Eliezer ben Azarya says: “If there is no Torah, there is no derekh eretz; if there is no derekh eretz, there is no Torah.”


The understanding that there are minimal standards of behavior and lines which may not be crossed is seemingly expressed in a famous dictum which paraphrases the teaching of the Yalkut Shimoni: “Derekh eretz kadma la-Torah,” i.e., derekh eretz preceded the Torah.  The question remains: what is derekh eretz?  It seemingly refers to ethical behavior, but it literally means “the way of the world.”


The Maharal defines the idea of derekh eretz (Netivot Olam, Netiv Derekh Eretz) and explains the significance of placing it before the Torah:


Derekh eretz is comprised of all the ethical teachings in Tractate Avot, as well as the ethical teachings mentioned [elsewhere] in the Talmud and all other ethical teachings.  It consists of conduct that is proper and that is pleasing to people.  One must be mindful of its teachings, because if one does not follow them, one commits a great sin and transgression…


The Patriarchs of the world were accompanied by the Blessed One wherever they went, so that one might have imagined that the normal way of the world, i.e., the way of man as man, did not apply to them whatsoever – but this is certainly not true, for they lived according to the normal way of the world.  If the Blessed One performed miracles on their behalf superseding the way of the world, this was only done temporarily and when necessary.  Otherwise, they lived according to the way of the world, for derekh eretz is the way of this world. 


One who does not conduct himself in accordance with the ways of the world is not considered part of the world at all.  Hence, a person should not make light of things that are the way of the world, for derekh eretz preceded the world…


The world cannot exist without derekh eretz, as [the Sages] said: “If there is no derekh eretz, there is no Torah.”  From this we learn that derekh eretz is a fundamental part of the Torah, which is the “way of the Tree of Life.”


If It Exists, Where Does It Come from?


The question now arises: where does this internal logic come from?  Why exactly is it “the way of the world,” the moral code that keeps us from living as barbarians? 


One might claim that all mundane morality is merely an outgrowth of the ethical teachings of the Judeo-Christian ethic.  The universal acceptance of ethical doctrine is, therefore, more a testament to the success of the religious teachings of devout ethical individuals, who spread their doctrine beyond their coreligionists.  To assert this argument is, in essence, to claim that natural morality is not “natural” at all.  Its apparently universal acceptance is merely based on the successful transmission of these ideals.


However, this argument is difficult to accept.  Firstly, it is highly unlikely that any individual or society could successfully impart the guidelines of certain ethical behaviors in a way that could achieve such worldwide acceptance.  The fact that there seems to be some natural morality is even viewed by some as ample evidence of a Divine Creator.[3]


Secondly, the Torah’s record of the destruction of immoral societies in the eras prior to the birth of the Jewish nation, let alone a Judeo-Christian ethic, seems to bolster the evidence of various sources that Judaism does recognize a natural basis of morality.  Even prior to the first divine command, the foundations of morality and dignified behavior were apparent in the world.


The Talmud in Eruvin (100b) seems to indicate that morality is not only observable in nature, but inherent in it as well.  Witnessing an animal behaving in a dignified manner suffices to teach a person to act with dignity as well:


Rabbi Yochanan said: “Had the Torah not been given, we would have learned modesty from the cat, [aversion to] theft from the ant, [aversion to] sexual immorality from the dove, and [conjugal] derekh eretz from the fowl.”


Tzelem Elokim and Its Obligations


What is the source of this natural morality, and what makes it obligatory?


The “natural” aspect of morality does not come about by accident, but rather is an outgrowth of the innate divinity of each human being formed in the divine image, the nature God endows in man.  While man could have learned certain things from nature and animals, the dignity of man is of a special essence.  God chooses to create man with natural tendencies of morality.  God’s creation of man “in His image” (Bereishit 1:27) endows man with moral sensitivity and a conscience, expressed as natural morality.


God’s creation of man is described in the Torah in two stages.  First, God makes known his intention to create man: “God said ‘Let us make man in our image (be-tzalmeinu) and according to our likeness (ki-dmuteinu)’” (ibid. v. 26).  Many commentators attribute this announcement to man’s significance on the stage of history and humanity’s preeminent role in the creation of the universe.


Following this introduction, the Torah (ibid. v. 27) describes the actual creation of man.


So God created man in His own image; in the image of God (be-tzelem Elokim) He created him; male and female He created them. 


What is this tzelem Elokim?  The various commentators point out that the divine image or likeness (demut) is not to be interpreted as a physical form of an incorporeal God — He Who has no body!  Rather, it refers to the godly nature of man’s being.


As we saw in the previous lesson, God is kind and desires kindness, and it would be only natural that this likeness expresses itself in His creation of man.  Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch, in his commentary (ibid. v. 26; see also his commentary on the next verse), expresses this notion clearly:


We have shown elsewhere (Collected Writings, Vol. VIII, p. 54) that tzelem — related to salma (garment) and to semel (shape) denotes only the outer garment, the bodily form.  Be-tzalmeinu” thus means “in our garment.”  In other words, all the love and compassion, all the truth and justice and holiness of God’s rule are embodied and encased in an external garment; they are encased in the garment that the Creator gives to man.  Man’s bodily form already identifies him as a deputy of God; he is divinity on earth.  Man’s tzelem is “ki-dmuteinu” — it is befitting of man, whose purpose is to be Godlike.  Another meaning of dema is silent…


This is because man’s task to resemble God must be accomplished in a negative manner: in man’s whole being, there should be nothing that contradicts the Divine attributes — nothing that contradicts truth and love, justice and holiness.  Man cannot become equal to God, but it is man’s duty to bear a resemblance to Him.  There should be nothing within himself which contradicts God’s attributes.  Man’s destiny is to sanctify himself, to move ever upward in the levels of divine holiness.


Our verse, then, means as follows: “Let us make a deputy in a form worthy of us, as befitting one who is destined to bear a resemblance to God.”  Man has been created to resemble the kind God who created the world — and him — for that purpose.  Not only man’s spirit, but also his body, with its inclinations and impulses, has been created in the image of God.  The sanctity of man’s body and preservation of his divine tzelem are firm foundations for his ethical purification and a condition for every spiritual virtue.


This is “the way of the world,” for this is how God created man in this world.  In fact, an understanding of the basis for dignified, human, ethical behavior, also explains menschlichkeit: this is the behavior that is endowed in man from the time of creation, that which separates man from the animals.


The Baal Shem Tov says a major part of man is his tzelem, and expounds on the Zohar’s statement (Parashat Vayeshev, 191a), that no animal dares to molest a human unless the person abandons God’s ways.  A man (adam) who loses his tzelem loses his being, and that person becomes no more than the animal.  The numerical value (gematria) of the word “adam” is 45, as it the gematria of the word “ma” (that).  The Sages say (Chagiga 4a) “Who is a simpleton?  One who loses all ma which he is given.”  A person who loses the humanity within himself, the image of God, is left with only a bestial nature.


By accepting the idea of being created in the image of God, one assumes an additional obligation.  If a given person is created in the image of God, so is one’s fellow man; just as the one is endowed with specialness, so is the other, and the other must be treated accordingly.  Knowing that all of mankind has been created in God’s image carries with it the responsibility of treating every individual as godly.  Indeed, the creation of man as an individual expresses the significance of every member of the human race:


Therefore man was created on his own: to teach you that whoever destroys one soul is regarded by the Torah as if he has destroyed a whole world, and whoever saves one soul is regarded as if he has saved a whole world.  (Mishna, Sanhedrin 4:5)


We are told that we are created in God’s image; tasked with subduing the world, man stands at the pinnacle, the culmination of creation, charged with acting with divine dignity, representing the upper spheres contained in his earthly body.


As Rav Moshe Cordovero writes (Tomer Devora, Introduction):


God’s tzelem and demut refer to His deeds, not to any bodily form.  In order, therefore, for man to validate the image of God in which he was made, he should strive to imitate his Creator in His deeds.  If he does so, he penetrates the mystery of God’s form; otherwise, he debases it.


This may explain the fascinating statement of Rav Nissim Gaon (in his introduction to the Talmud) regarding the universal obligations of natural morality.  Rav Nissim Gaon relates to the question discussed earlier: 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 for something that has never been given to them, nor imposed upon them as an obligation.  Certainly, they may argue that had they been commanded, they would have performed [the mitzvot]; had they been warned, they would have been heedful and accepted [the prohibitions] just as [the Jews] accepted them. 

Surely we can refute 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 Rambam (Hilkhot Yesodei Ha-Torah 4:8, see also Moreh Nevukhim I, 1-2) offers the following explanation of the concept of tzelem Elokim:


The soul of all flesh is its God-given form, and the superior intellect found within the soul of man is the form of man…  It is of this form that the Torah states, “Let us make man in our image (be-tzalmeinu) and according to our likeness,” i.e., that he will have a form which knows and understands disembodied concepts…


The image of God is reflected in a person’s conceptual capacity.  Human beings are distinguished from other species because their intellect is categorically superior.  They have a notion of truth and goodness; man’s tzelem Elokim allows him to distinguish between that which is ethical and moral and that which is not.


Understandably, the Rambam in his Moreh Nevukhim (III, 17) applies reward and punishment to obligations stemming from natural morality, “even if he was not forbidden by a prophet to do them, as it is forbidden by the inborn disposition — that is, the prohibition against wrongdoing and injustice.”


Universal Elements of Morality


We have thus far shown that there is a universal moral code, though its natural state is not a reflection of a haphazard fluke of nature, but rather a purposeful endowment of humans with a divine mission.  As Rav Soloveitchik notes,[4] “The mere fact that man carries God’s image suggests that morality is characteristic of human nature, and that doing good is an indispensable necessity.”


God implanted within man an inner moral need when He created him in His image.  With this in mind, we can understand how even after the giving of the Torah, the nations of the world can be taken to task for their failure to uphold the basic values inherent in humanity.


Rav Yehuda Amital, in the second chapter of his Jewish Values in a Changing World (pp. 19-44), brings numerous sources indicating the existence of natural morality and the severity of the punishment for one who violates it.  One of the classic expressions of this idea is found in the Torah's attitude towards Ammon and Moab (Devarim 23:4-5):


An Ammonite or a Moabite shall not enter into the congregation of God; even to their tenth generation they shall not enter into the congregation of God forever, for they did not meet you with bread and with water on the way, when you came out of Egypt.


The Talmud (Sanhedrin 56a-b) teaches that all humanity is explicitly commanded to observe the seven Noahide laws, but these mitzvot do not include the obligation to meet wayfarers with provisions.  The claim against Ammon and Moab is that natural morality requires a certain type of behavior — helping people in times of trouble.  The Torah's severe attitude toward the nations stems from the total absence of this moral sense in their makeup.


We are not allowed to marry male converts from Moab or Ammon because they did not give us food and drink when we needed it.  This is not included in the Noahide commandments, but it seems to represent a breach of the most basic morality, preventing such a person from being fully accepted into the Jewish nation.


A violation which involves moral failure is a serious offense, as it testifies to an absence of natural feelings, a sin against one’s own essence and humanity alike.


For Next Week


We have shown how natural morality is in fact part of man’s supernatural personality, his tzelem Elokim; this obligates all nations of the world to engage in moral behavior.  If so, what is unique about the Jewish people?  How is the halakhic system of ethics singular, and what does it say about man’s innate morality?  We will address these issues in the next shiur.


[1]   “Does Jewish Tradition Recognize an Ethic Independent of Halakha,” in Modern Jewish Ethics, ed. M. Fox (Columbus, 1975), p. 64.

[2]   See Jewish Values in a Changing World (Jersey City, 2005), pp. 131-138;

[3]   See “The Moral Approach to God’s Existence” in Rabbi Lawrence Kelemen’s Permission to Believe (Targum/Feldheim, 1990), pp. 21-30.

[4]   Derashot HaRav: Selected Lectures of Joseph B. Soloveitchik (Edison, N.J.: Ohr Publishing, 2003) p. 237.