It hit me full force while attending a lecture on ethics and halacha. The rabbi informed his audience that Jewish law knew no kind of independent moral ethic, nor could it ever be influenced by ethical developments in human society.
Every answer was derivative and the system was not penetrable by outside influences. Further, there could never be recourse to new revelations of God’s will; and besides, “Heaven forefend, we would never want to be prophets!”
At that moment, I realized that something was dreadfully wrong. That week’s Torah reading, Beha’Alotekha, contained the very verse where Moses teaches, “Would that all the Lord’s people be prophets, that the Lord put His spirit upon them” (Numbers 11:29). The entrenched position and defensiveness of that rabbi was so tenacious that he was compelled to push aside any possibility of making independent and rational choices, and ultimately his thesis led him to negate the word of God! Since then I have often encountered similar positions, and all share the hallmarks of fear. But I am puzzled. Is fear a constructive tool to be used for the creation of a religious consciousness?
In the past, fear was an instrument that was effective in taming wild and primitive people. It was easy to get people to do things by scaring them about death, and threats of punishment were meant to deter potential evildoers. It is still a method used today by some governments and leaders to control their constituents. Fear generates the behavior that produces good results and ensures compliance with the law and other conventional practices. However, those who rely too heavily on this tool have a pessimistic view of humanity – one that I do not share. Although it is true that people are often impelled by impure motives, why can’t we tolerate an element of selfishness in the decision-making process? I believe that humans can freely choose to do what is right and that fear is not the best or most ennobling way to reach that goal.
Insofar as some ideologies seem to project a poor estimation of human beings and place very little trust in their ability to make good choices, the Torah’s way is to bring out the best in us – to foster and to cultivate the flowering of an independent mind. For scripture speaks of blessings and curses, and Moses believed that we could use reason to choose the path that is full of life, hope, and that which ultimately secures the Lord’s blessing. Why then would one want to live with fear in order to ensure that conventional practice be observed?
Many people look back to the way of life in Europe and idealize it because everyone conformed. For these people, what is valued above all is uniformity. Motivation is not terribly important, just the performance of the law. But they forget that life in the ghetto or the shtetl was so full of Jewish expression due to conformity. There were certainly many pressures, including that from the gentiles, which helped to create this environment; but it was the coercion and pressure from the Jewish community – especially the threat of excommunication that hung over their heads – that led to an observant, albeit involuntary, way of life. So we now live in a world where some would like to recreate that scenario – closed societies where toeing the line will be required of the individual as a price for membership in that community.
It is true that many social mores are a response to societal expectations, but which type of society do we want? Is conformity the most important gain, or the regeneration of the individuals who make up that society? In the realm of Jewish ritual, for example, many Orthodox ideologies teach that anything that separates us from the gentiles is very important; indeed, seclusion is maintained as a basic modality. Ritual is thus structured so that one is to be as different as possible. But this is surely a retreat from our great religious tradition, for where is the inherent moral and ethical value in a move toward seclusion? This ideal has nothing to do with the Torah. Indeed, if we are to be different from the rest of the nations, it is through acts of righteousness and justice – the content of the observances and not merely their form.
Ritual does, in fact, play an important part in our covenantal mission. Jewish rituals are figurative and do more than simply edify the daily life of an individual, for there is an important social or group aspect to them, and therefore rituals must match the communal expression. My personal belief is that the group and its demands are very important – especially in the realm of shared ritual – but not at the expense of private morality; neither should be embraced at the expense of the other.
Orthodoxy holds in trust some of the greatest treasures and most valuable parts of our heritage that perhaps have not been appreciated by various dissenting groups within Judaism in the past. They are the threads that tie us to our shared history, but more importantly they tie us to our covenantal past and will also carry us forward into the promise of the future. Essentially, I cannot break with all of that; as a member of the covenantal group I can’t cast it off. I choose to make it my responsibility to keep my trust to that tradition. At the same time, if Orthodoxy says that halacha crowds out all ethical considerations from the lives of the Jews – to just obey without making any moral judgments – I do not see this distinction possible in the Torah. Ultimately, one cannot surrender the individual’s responsibility to make choices. At every moment we must fearlessly ask ourselves: Does our way of life conform to the overarching demands that we believe God makes of us on every page of holy writ?
The title of this essay poses this question in poetic form, and is based on a comment of Rashi to Song of Songs 1:2 that describes the essence of the Torah covenant: “The Torah uses the kiss metaphor because God gave His Torah and communicated intimately with [Israel], and those expressions of His love are still sweeter to them than any other delight. Therefore, God’s promise to reappear and clarify the deeper secrets of Torah keeps His servants eagerly yearning for further revelation of His will.”