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Some remarks regarding comparative morality

By Alexander Eterman

Posted April 20, 2004

What we are about to discuss is a thesis popular in liberal Orthodox (primarily made up of progressive Anglo-Saxons) Jewish circles:

In our time, the ethic behavior of the Orthodox Jew does not differ in any way from that of the average European. Why? Because today's Halachah permits the type of conduct that is prescribed by European ethics.

1) To begin with, the thesis creates certain linguistic and semantic problems that must be resolved before our discussion can have any meaning. What is this about? What is ethical behavior -- a nebulous and hardly precise term? Since both Jews and Europeans display vastly different modes of conduct in practical life, the term apparently refers to theoretical ethic standards or norms of behavior. According to the thesis, these norms are shared by both Jews and Europeans. That is to say, a European merchant should not cheat in weighing goods -- the same as a Jew. Any Jew or European who acts otherwise is aware of committing a sin. Moreover, he knows that he would be censured by society were he to be caught in his wrongdoing. What the thesis asserts is actually two claims: that present ethic standards are identical for Jews and Europeans and that the modern Halachah sanctions this. Neither of these claims is self-evident. Thus, the Halachah of the past rejected the anti-discriminatory, egalitarian ethic norms of the type adopted in contemporary Europe. What the thesis asserts is that this objection, in part at least, has been removed.

2) There is no doubt that the thesis reflects a real phenomenon: the softening of the anti-gentile laws, already introduced in the Talmud and considered an inseparable part of Judaism, that has taken place in some Israeli and Western Jewish communities. Today these communities are permitted to save the lives of sick gentiles, to return the objects lost by gentiles, and to conduct honest business dealings with gentiles. As we know, classical Jewish sources beginning with the Talmud categorically rejected the very idea of equality between Jews and gentiles. For example, these sources impose an automatic death sentence on anyone they define as an idolater; in most cases they prohibit Jews from saving the lives of endangered gentiles, oblige the Jews to maltreat gentiles in commercial transactions, make it permissible and even obligatory to deceive gentiles in certain cases, and so on. Among other things, these sources (hereinafter referred to as "Halachah" for the sake of brevity) permit Jews to appropriate the money and property borrowed from a gentile in the case of the latter's death, and even to lie to his heirs regarding their financial relations with the deceased; forbid Jews to return objects lost by a gentile, and permit Jews to exploit a miscalculation made by a gentile, provided the mistake benefits the Jew. Hereafter, we will refer to the aforementioned and similar property injunctions as "the license to maltreat the gentile"; we have selected them more or less at random as typological examples of the moral injunctions of old Halachah.

3) Essentially, Halachah in the aforementioned liberal communities followed in the footsteps of European ethics. What this means is that local Jews, accustomed to the ethical standards of the liberal society in which they lived, modified their religious laws in a way that would sanction their adherence to European standards. If we are to tentatively label European ethics as Pascalean, [1] we will have to admit that Halachah, to some extent, has conceded defeat to Pascal.

4) Interestingly enough, it was only a few particular communities that capitulated to Pascal. Many, in fact the majority of them, displayed a remarkable immunity to European ethics. Following Pascal, halachic reforms were taken up only by that portion of the Jewish world which in any case had long been thinking and acting according to Pascal, [2] people whose sole reason for feeling uneasy in Europe is that they identify themselves as Orthodox Jews; were they to discard their Jewishness and Orthodoxy, they would feel as natural in Pascal's ethics as fish in water. Moreover, this world surrendered to Pascal in no other form than by giving rise to rabbis nurtured on European ethics, i.e. on a perpetual contradiction -- on other words, people who, while apparently adhering to Halachah, felt and often acted in defiance of it. Ultimately, these rabbis simply caved in to themselves, surrendering to their own habits. [3] However, all the other Jewish collective bodies, totally ignorant of Pascal, the product of an environment whose thoughts and feelings are unaffected by Pascal and which rejects the universal human rights, do not share European weaknesses, and thus have not surrendered to Pascal. Ovadia Yosef has not become infused with love for the Arabs by any means, and the Satmar Rebbe continues to view non-Jewish blood as water.

5) Europeanized Halachah, as we already know from the thesis, means the sanction (not even the duty) to live according to Pascal. Therefore it is derivative, like any sanction added at a later date, and a forced sanction at that. In fact, it does not lay any claim to originality. Originality was the province of the Talmud, whose system of thought had nothing to do with Pascal, and of Talmudic offshoots in the form of classical rabbinical literature. In this literature too, Pascal has no place. The direction taken by theoretical Jewish thought was far from humanistic -- rather the opposite: traditionally, it has been the embodiment of conservative reaction. In our instance, practice has overtaken theory. Pascal was first adopted by the custodians of Halachah, and only then legitimized by Halachah itself -- and not by the entire body of Halachah either!

6) Naturally, this inevitably raises two questions: Why do we need this Halachah, derivative and splintered as it is? Furthermore, does it not owe its origins to the earthly and the pragmatic? In any case, its moral aspirations immediately come under suspicion. Had it been unified, divine, and original, it would never have changed, splintered, and most importantly, openly capitulated before an alien culture. Not to mention that, had that been the case, this Halachah would never have split into clans whose views, by sheer accident of course, happen to resemble those of the people among whom these clans exist. This is rather reminiscent of the way the Jews, while strictly observing the laws of racial purity and never intermixing with the surrounding peoples, somehow come to bear an uncanny resemblance -- once again, purely accidental -- to their immediate neighbors.

7) More important yet, Halachah does not even have the courage to prescribe European-style ethic conduct to its adherents; it is incapable of conferring unambiguous legitimacy on Pascal's views. The absolute maximum it can do is acquiesce in such conduct -- if and when it does so. This forces us to ask an even more demanding question: what, then, is the use of such an Halachah? After all, forced acquiescence in moral behavior does not constitute an act of moral leadership, nor even moral instruction; morality is not created and perfected through acquiescence. The resulting impression is that Halachah retreats toward morality in the face of circumstances instead of advancing in that direction -- a rather lamentable sight.

8) All of the above presents convincing and even elegant proof of the earthly nature of Jewish Halachah (assuming, of course, that we still need such proof today). However, the mere fact that Halachah as a whole is a man-made product does not necessarily negate its originality or, for that matter, its ability to compete with other religious concepts -- which, apparently, did not tumble down from the sky either. At the same time, Jewish ethics is not only a human invention, but one that is devoid of all allure, derivative, plagiarized, alien to the Halachic flesh, and made up of numerous layers to boot. It obviously tags along after the social norms courageously generated by other peoples and religions; moreover, it does so in a listless and reluctant manner, only when forced by circumstances to reconcile itself to the absence of any alternatives.

9) The Jews would not have even conceived of adopting the concept of egalitarianism immediately upon its birth, at the time it had to be fought for, say, during the Age of Enlightenment. However, after it had become a social fait accompli, when -- within a certain limited space far smaller than Europe -- both the rabbis and the congregants of certain communities had been nurtured, reeducated, and absorbed by the egalitarian social system -- only then did the essentially egalitarian Jewish body suddenly managed to recall the halachic prohibition against egalitarianism. By a prodigious mental effort, those rabbis formulated new laws (naturally, they presented them as ancient and primary, just like in Carroll's book), sanctioning the already commonly accepted egalitarian conduct. In the process, they forgot that what makes the primary rules primary is the very fact of their prescribing rather than sanctioning, instructing rather than acquiescing to people's wishes, bravely creating prohibitions along with dispensations rather than covering up transparent plagiarism with belated acceptance of it. Moreover, having pronounced these laws to be immutable, they overlooked the fact that they should be universal rather than clannish. Indeed, they overlooked everything except their own convenience -- hence their present inability to justify their actions.

10) What is truly amazing is the blatantly derivative nature of this Halachah, forcing even a friendly observer to wonder whether it can be of any possible use -- at least where norms of social behavior are concerned. Why do we need Halachah when we have access to its original source -- Pascal? Come to think of it, we have been told that God created the world by following the Torah like an architectural blueprint. The actual impression is that (nowadays at least) this is not exactly the case: divinely inspired rabbis are creating Halachah with their noses in Pascal's little volume, heaving heavy sighs all the while -- as if instead of teaching goodness, they are discharging humiliating debts.

11) Significantly, since Jews nurtured on Pascal view the halachic permission not to maltreat the gentile as nothing but the religious way of honoring an already withdrawn moral check -- in other words, a way of removing an obstacle to their social advance (simultaneously European and late- if not post-Christian), they do not much care about the technique and the pretext used to modify the ancient halachic rule that for centuries commanded the Jew to maltreat the gentile. However, the overwhelming majority of genuine Orthodox Jews (i.e. those who treat Halachah as no laughing matter) were educated in the spirit of old Halachah rather than Pascal. They view the European norms as alien, even hostile. This is not to say that all other Jews deliberately maltreat people of other faiths -- far from it; yet, fully in keeping with classical Jewish sources, they regard this practice as morally permissible, and base their decision on practical as opposed to ethical considerations. For such people -- and, as we have already said, they form a fairly large majority in the Orthodox world -- the halachic reforms carried out by the Jewish adherents of Pascal do not at all constitute moral arguments. What is more, these reforms do not at all teach them the Pascalean norms. Frequently, they cause considerable social damage, reinforcing the Orthodox communities' compliance with the problematic principles of old Halachah, and driving them away from Pascal -- all this, naturally, provided that these communities are inclined to take the said reforms into account at all.

12) Indeed, as we have stressed above, the aforementioned reforms, aimed solely at like-minded people interested in those reforms -- reforms of a seemingly ethical nature -- were carried out in a rather peculiar manner -- ad hoc, under strange pretexts, without condemning or abolishing the old norms, without defining the new norms as binding and dismissing the old ones as unfeasible, and most importantly, without formulating the reform, regardless of its technical aspect, so as to express a clear rejection of the former practice as amoral. A pronouncement that timidly permits a Jew to not to maltreat the gentile may be quite satisfactory to admirers of Pascal, but it has no binding effect on those who -- in strict adherence to the Talmud -- believe that the earth is flat, and that idolaters, regardless of their conduct, are doomed to eternal suffering. Moreover, any disinterested (that is non-Pascalean) observer, after evaluating the nature of these reforms, will only become more entrenched in his pre-reform views. When all is said and done, if the good old Talmud damns those who fail to maltreat the gentile, while Maimonides maintains that such a philanthropist fosters the devilish and evil forces in the world, what can one expect from a pronouncement such as the following: since in our day and age information travels rapidly and far, maltreatment may lead to a pogrom; in order to avoid a pogrom, it is permissible not to maltreat the gentile. Such a pronouncement, while making life easier for the conscientious proponent of Pascal, one who conducts his affairs in an honest manner in any case, does nothing to reeducate the opponent. The moral aspect of old Halachah has not been discredited. The very norm of misappropriating another's property to another has not been censured. Moreover, someone who decides to pose as a hero ready to stand up for his interests, or who simply believes that his action would pass unnoticed, will obviously ignore the injunction and remain of the same opinion. What is even worse, in the countless situations that are not directly covered by the reform, the opponent will assume the unchallenged monopoly of the old and quite consistent theory. In other words, this reform has not even challenged the moral principles of old Halachah, which enjoin all those named in the Talmud to continue their discriminatory practices.

13) Thus the halachic reforms of the New Age do not contain any moral condemnation of the norms they set out to rectify; that is to say, they pass no moral judgment on the old morality. This fact not only renders them empty of meaning, it clearly demonstrates that these reforms have either come too late or before their time. In either case, they are incapable of breathing new life into Jewish mores (since their intended beneficiaries have already consented to these reforms); in fact, the opposite seems to be the case: they strengthen the archaic discriminatory principles rooted in Judaism. Reforms and innovations of this kind are no match for the old and tried Talmudic Halachah. If these reforms are all our modernity has to offer, we would be better off hiding out in the kitchen until the advent of the Ice Age of postmodernism. When faced with Maimonides' somewhat obscurantist suggestions, we can at least find solace in the fact that they have long become antiquated, along with his cosmological theory, to take one example. However, in the case of social dicta accepted in the mid-20th century by Einstein's contemporaries, all we can do is bury our heads in the sand from the shame of it all.


[1] To be sure, there are other suitable names of prominent moral thinkers, so that our choice is fairly random.

[2] This is one of the more interesting tautologies to the best of our recollection.

[3] In approximately the same fashion, Jewish homosexuals and the rabbis of their communities sanction their non-traditional sexual practices today.

Discussion