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Is religious law sole authority in Judaism?

Exploring the inner struggle within Jewish tradition of whether moral sentiments that contradict religious life have authority for a person committed to living according to God`s will


Is that which is holy loved by the gods because it is holy, or is it holy because it is loved by the Gods? (Plato, Eutheyphro) 

The question Socrates poses in the Platonic dialogue Euthyphro constitutes one of the central questions in religious life: is God the source of that which is ethical, or do ethical obligations exist independently of God’s will? Although Plato presents the question in theological terms, its significance for religious life does not lie primarily in the way the question impacts people’s understanding of God, but rather in its implications for the way religious people conduct their lives.

The central issue for the faithful is whether moral sentiments and considerations that contradict religious life have any standing and authority for a person committed to living according to the will of God. Is religious law the sole source of morality and moral obligation, or are there moral voices and duties that obligate one independent of what is written or perceived as the word of God?

Love of neighbor

The aim of this article is to explore the inner struggle within the Jewish tradition surrounding this question. Were religious law truly capable of being encapsulated in the statement of Hillel "What is hateful unto you, do not do to your neighbor, this is the whole Torah and the rest is commentary, go study," (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat 31a), the need to preserve the independence of morality from religious law would be superfluous. However, the history of religion in general and monotheism in particular has shown how difficult it has been to maintain love of neighbor as the primary defining message. 

Far from theoretical, the answer to this issue in many ways will determine the role religion in general and Judaism in particular will play in civilized society. Modernity has redefined and reprioritized much of our core moral values. The degree of receptivity to moral criticism not exclusively anchored in religious legal traditions and narrative, will determine whether and how these moral values will be assimilated within modern religion. When some continue to define murder in the name of God as an expression of religious piety, religion’s relation to morality is central not only to religious life, but to the nature and future of the civilized world. 

Where religion is the sole determining factor in discerning the good and obligating moral behavior, not only is contemporary morality irrelevant, but ignoring its claims is viewed as a religious duty and a sign of piety. However, if religion itself is judged by its affinity with a-religious moral standards, then the moral obligations of the modern conscience and ethic are significant factors that people of faith must both address and accommodate.

Morality as divine decree

The theological motivation for maintaining the independence of both God and religious life from subjection to "external" moral standards and judgment is clear. To assume a moral source and authority other than, and over, God contradicts the transcendent essence and oneness of God, and in a certain sense, is akin to idolatry. The divine command needn’t necessarily be intelligible, because its scope and authority are not a function of its perceived affinity to human rationality. 

The consequence of this position for religious practice is that heeding God’s command does not require any measure of personal identification, but only blind obedience. God’s decree is a kind of closure, a call to cease all ethical discussion and to demand of believers that they overcome their moral insights.

Shalom Hartman Institute, Jerusalem - Akedah - Binding of Isaac

In Jewish tradition, the most prominent exemplar of this view is the story of the binding of Isaac, the akedah.  This act, viewed by tradition as the pinnacle of Abraham’s faith, is patently irrational, immoral and inexplicable:  

"Sometime afterward, God put Abraham to the test. He said to him, ‘Abraham,’ and he answered, ‘Here I am.’ And God said, ‘Take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the heights which I will point out to you.’ So early next morning, Abraham saddled his ass and took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. He split the wood for the burnt offering, and he set out for the place of which God had told him." (Genesis 22:1-3)  

Regardless of God’s prior promises to Abraham that Isaac will inherit him, and the obvious immorality of the command to perform the akedah, Abraham piously and possibly even zealously, obeys. Not only is he willing to kill his son but the biblical text states: "So early next morning." Abraham neither questions nor tarries. He runs to fulfill the will of God. In addition, precisely because of his faith, blind loyalty and obedience to this command, God rewards Abraham and recommits to their covenant.  

"By myself I swear, the Lord declares: because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your favored one, I will bestow My blessing upon you and make your descendents as numerous as the stars of heaven and sands of the seashore, and your descendants shall seize the gates of their foes. All the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by your descendants, because you have obeyed My command." (Ibid. 22:16-18)

Signs of this religious approach permeate the Jewish tradition. From the scripted and predetermined enslavement of Abraham’s descendents in Egypt, and the manipulation of Pharaoh culminating in the Exodus drama, to the story of Job, humankind are often portrayed as the unwilling participants and even victims in a divine script which we can neither understand nor question.

Absolute divine authority

As God admonishes Job: "Who is this who darkens counsel, speaking without knowledge?" (Job 38:2) or, "Shall one who should be disciplined complain against Shaddai?" (Ibid., 40:2). And Job, finally understanding the duty of the person of faith, responds: "See I am of small worth: what can I answer You? I clap my hand to my mouth. I have spoken once, and will not reply; Twice, and will do so no more." (Ibid., 40:4-5)

A powerful depiction of this view of the absolute divine authority over the moral universe is found in the book of Deuteronomy. In the drama between Moses and God regarding the divine decree that Israel wage war against Sihon the Amorite, king of Heshbon, God commands: " Begin the occupation: engage him in battle. This day I begin to put the dread and fear of you upon the people everywhere under heaven, so that they shall tremble and quake because of you whenever they hear you mentioned." (Deuteronomy, 2:24-25).

Despite the fact that Heshbon was not part of the Promised Land, God wants Israel to fight this people, seemingly for public relations reasons so that the fear of Israel will begin to spread. Moses, however, does not accept this rationale and ignores God’s command:

"Then I sent messengers with an offer of peace, as follows, ‘Let me pass through your country. I will keep strictly to the highway, turning off neither to the right nor to the left. What food I eat you will supply for money, and what water I drink you will furnish for money: just let me pass through…That I may cross the Jordan into the land that the Lord our God is giving to us.’" (Ibid., 26-29).

However, Moses’ rebellion does not even merit a response in the biblical narrative, and instead the story continues: " But King Sihon of Heshbon refused to let us pass through, because the Lord stiffened his will and hardened his heart in order to deliver him into your power." (Ibid., 30)

The question of what wars Israel will and ought to fight lies solely within the domain of God’s will. Humankind may attempt to intervene, but such intervention is destined to be both morally and functionally irrelevant. 

Paradigms of religious piety

The behavior of Abraham and God’s responses to Moses are not posited as extreme and exceptional, but rather serve for some as a paradigm for normative religious piety and everyday acts of worship. Each performance of a commandment, in this view, is a miniature test, an akedah, in which the faithful are challenged to overcome their inclinations, desires and principles in the service of God.

Religious piety is judged by a person’s ability to dissociate from their moral and intellectual commitments and make the leap of faith to serve God. Shimshon Rafael Hirsch, the leader of German Orthodoxy in the middle and latter part of the 19th century, articulates the adoption of this religious position as the central decision facing a person of faith. Explaining the reason for naming the tree of knowledge of good and evil, Hirsch says:

There is only one condition for the earth to be able to form a paradise for us, and the condition is this, that we call that good, which God stamps as being good, and bad, which He declares as such.  But not that we leave the decision between good and bad to our senses.  If we place ourselves under the dictate of our sense, the gates of Paradise are closed to us and only by the long way round can Man regain admittance thereto … The teaching that Man is to recognize what is good and bad, not by the judgment of his senses or his own mind, but by accepting the will of God when it has been revealed to him, and that he must take such judgment of God as the one guide he is to follow, if he wishes to fulfill his mission on earth and remain worthy for the world to be Paradise for him. (S. R. Hirsch, Commentary on the Torah, Genesis 2:9) 

Redemption for humanity is only attainable to the extent that humans are willing to accept the expressed will of God as the sole determining factor in ascertaining the good.  Even when humanly discernable evidence points in the opposite direction, the duty of the person of faith is to follow what God determines to be the good.

Moral critique of God

While the position outlined above has a significant place in Jewish thought, it is but one voice. In the remainder of this article, I will outline a different religious sensibility within Judaism, which views religious individuals as members of a moral community that counts God among its members, and as people who are obligated to examine, and if necessary, criticize God’s command. On this view, only a religious system that allows for the corrective mechanism of external moral review can serve as a constructive partner in the civilized moral universe. 

The paradigmatic text for this position in the Jewish tradition is Genesis 18, depicting the dialogue between God and Abraham regarding the justice of God’s destroying the whole city of Sodom. When God informs Abraham of his decision and asks for his comments, Abraham does not pause or even questions. He stands in defiant criticism of God’s decision and states:

Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty? What if there should be fifty innocent within the city; will you wipe out the place and not forgive it for the sale of the innocent fifty who are in it? Far be it from You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent as well the guilty, so that innocent and guilty fare alike. Far be it from You. Shall not the Judge of the whole earth deal justly? (Genesis 18:23-25)

In this dialogue between God and Abraham both of them view divine will as morally transparent and subject to moral standards discerned by Abraham. In contrast to the position put forth in the story of the akedah or by S.R. Hirsch, God’s command does not determine the good and does not necessitate blind obedience.

Abraham’s challenge of the divine notion of good is something that God must also comply with: "Shall not the Judge of the whole earth deal justly?" The content of "justly" exists independent of the explicit will of God, and is both accessible and obligating to humankind.

Abraham’s challenge

This challenging by Abraham is not tantamount to moving outside of the religious system. When Abraham argues, "Far be it from you, shall not the Judge of the whole earth deal justly," he is arguing that when God contradicts the good, He operates in an ungodly manner. When religious law violates moral principles, the problem is not one of mere authority, but rather an internal religious dilemma, whereby the religion articulates and obligates that which is not worthy. The impetus for external moral criticism is a religious one, whereby through this critique it will exemplify successfully what it ought to yearn for. 

Following a similar belief, the Rabbis rewrite the conclusion of God’s response to Moses regarding the war with Heshbon mentioned above. Instead of God ignoring Moses and manipulating the free will of King Sihon of Heshbon, thus forcing upon both sides a war that neither wanted, the Rabbis give a new ending to the biblical narrative. According to their new reading, God changed his mind and admitted that Moses was right.

God replied: "By your life. I will cancel my opinion (lit. words) and follow yours," as it states (later on in Deuteronomy 20:10) "when you approach a town to attack it, you shall offer it terms of peace." (Midrash Rabbah, Bamidbar Parshah 19:13)

Not only is Moses’ offering of peace before engaging in battle not sidestepped by God, it leads God to change His ruling and becomes the new legal paradigm for morality of war: ‘By your life. I will cancel my opinion.’

Two Abrahamic models

Is that which is holy loved by the gods because it is holy, or is it holy because it is loved by the gods? Judaism has no definitive answer. Two different schools of thought and religious sensibilities have been debating this question from biblical to modern times. 

Regardless of how vital one believes it is for religion to have an external moral critic – an Abraham who is ever watching and demanding that the judge of the whole earth deal justly – there is a conflicting voice that religious systems and people have difficulty ignoring. That voice, growing from the deepest core of faith in one God, sees a measure of incongruity, if not arrogance, in assuming to know something better than God.

The decision to believe in and be involved with the One God to many seems to demand a measure of relinquishing one’s own sense of self and to choose to live under the guidance of One who knows, the One who is true, the One who is just.  Either assuming to know better or to assume moral instruction is to perceive oneself as superior to this God, an assumption that is tantamount to idolatry.

The diversity of opinions present in the Jewish tradition on this issue reflects two distinct and often incompatible religious instincts. One treads on superficial waters when one attempts to discount the validity or religious sensitivity of either opinion.  In many ways, this may be the Bible’s deepest intent when it has Abraham embodying both. There is the Abraham of Genesis 18 and the Abraham of Genesis 22. They are both present, both equally representative of the will of God. 

The cohabitation of both positions, however, has profound practical implications. As stated above, this is not merely a theoretical theological debate about the nature of divinity, but an issue that determines the direction and meaning of religious life.

Moral challenge of modernity

Each approach not only reflects a different religious sensibility, but also generates different moral responses. How religion will respond to the moral challenges of modernity will be determined in no small measure on the Abraham one chooses to personify one’s religious ideal.

Whether monotheism in general and Judaism in particular will be a force for good is thus not a question easily and definitively answered. It will depend on which vision of religious piety prevails. Ultimately, the question is less about the nature of Judaism, because both voices are present in the tradition, but rather a question of education.

Here we face a seminal challenge. Unfortunately, while the tradition is ambiguous, religious education or education about religion is, more often than not, monolithic. It advocates intellectual and moral submissiveness as the sole legitimate expression of serious faith. The Abraham of Genesis 22 is extolled as the model for emulation, while the Abraham of Genesis 18 is ignored or reinterpreted into religious insignificance.

Genesis 22 is a permanent feature of religious life. A life of faith will and must always entail some measure of silence, a measure of submission to the will of God. It cannot, however, be allowed to be the exclusive voice. There is a profound need to educate toward the religious vitality and legitimacy of Genesis 18 as well.

Individuals must know that a moral conscience is not the enemy of faith but its greatest ally. They must be taught that religious piety is also expressed in the willingness to stand up and morally criticize one’s own tradition. They must be taught that a commitment to tradition can also lead to endeavor that one’s tradition represent the best and noblest of moral principles, and consequently employ legal and interpretative measures to ensure the assimilation of these principles into Judaism.

There is no simple and patent answer as to how one is to reconcile Genesis 18 and 22. There is no doubt that in certain instances such a balance is impossible. It is then that the religious person must make his or her most critical of choices. Our responsibility is to ensure that the decision is not portrayed as a choice between faith and secularism, but rather as a choice between two Jewish approaches to religious piety and faith in God.

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