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The Relationship Between Religion and Ethics in Jewish Thought

The Relationship Between Religion and Ethics in Jewish Thought

By Rabbi Louis Jacobs
in Contemporary Jewish Ethics, ed. Menachem Kellner, Sanhedrin Press, 1978.
Reprinted by permission of Doubleday & Company, Inc. from Religion and Morality, Gene Outka and John P. Reeder (Eds.), 1973

This essay seeks to explore the relationship between religion and ethics as conceived of in the Jewish tradition. As in every other investigation of a great Jewish theme it must begin with the Bible, the source book of the Jewish faith, but the biblical writers were not systematic philosophers, so that it would be futile to examine the Bible in order to discover any kind of direct treatment of the relationship between religion and ethics. There are, in fact, no words for these concepts in classical Hebrew. What Zangwill said of the Rabbis of the Talmud is true of the biblical authors-they were the most religious of men but had no word for religion. Nor had they a word for ethics. The ethical injunctions in the Bible are numerous but nowhere in this book, or, better, collection of books produced over a long period, is there any consideration in abstract of the nature of ethics. Just and righteous conduct is urged with passion but Socratic-like discussions as to how justice is to be defined are totally absent. Yet, indirectly, the biblical viewpoint of the relationship between religion and ethics is stated clearly enough and can be detected without any attempt at reading into the texts ideas they do not contain.

It is as well to begin with the Decalogue. In six of the ten commandments ethical conduct is enjoined as a divine imperative: 'Honour thy father and thy mother;' 'Thou shalt not murder;' 'Thou shalt not commit adultery;' 'Thou shalt not steal;' 'Thou shalt not bear false witness;' 'Thou shalt not covet.' (In the Bible and in the Jewish tradition generally the Decalogue is called the 'ten words' not the 'ten commandments' but this is irrelevant for our purpose since they are obviously put forward as divine commands.) Although God commands them it is not implied that the command is the reason for their observance, so that if God had commanded man to steal or to murder this would have been the right thing to do. On the contrary, the commands are announced in such a way as to suggest that they are already fully comprehensible to man as the basis for living the ethical life. It is implied that man by his nature knows that it is wrong to steal and right to honor his parents, so that what God is ordering him to do is to be true to himself, to be a man, to be fully human. God, being God, so it is implied, could not have commanded him to do wrong. Once God has commanded, however, the command itself is, of course, an additional reason for its observance.

The Covenant Code is introduced with the words: 'These are the rules that you shall set before them' (Ex. 21:1). The famous modern biblical exegete Ehrlich understands the words 'that you shall set before them' to mean 'for their approval,' i.e., that God wishes the people to see that the laws He gives are fully in accord with human nature and humans are bound to say 'Amen' to them. But even if Ehrlich's comment is too fanciful it remains true that nowhere in the whole of the biblical record is there the faintest suggestion that God imposes upon man arbitrary rules which must be obeyed purely on the grounds that God so desires.

The Deuteronomist states it explicitly: 'Behold, I have taught you statutes and ordinances, even as the Lord my God commanded me, that ye should do so in the midst of the land whither ye go in to posses it. Observe therefore and do them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, that when they hear all these statutes, shall say: 'Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people' (Deut. 4:5-6). The 'peoples', without the benefit of revelation, are quite capable of acknowledging the 'wisdom' and 'understanding' inherent in the precepts. 'And what great nation is there, that both hath statutes and ordinances so righteous as all this law, which I set before you this day?' (Deut. 4:8). The statutes and ordinances are not recommended because they are in the law but, so it is suggested: they are in the law because they are 'righteous.' (This is not to say, of course, that the Deuteronomic authors held that the sole purpose of the observance of the laws was for the 'nations' to acknowledge Israel's wisdom.)

An Abraham can even plead with God Himself to practice justice: 'That be far from Thee to do after this manner, to slay the righteous with the wicked, that so the righteous should be as the wicked; that be far from Thee; shall not the Judge of all the earth do justly?' (Gen. 18:25). The similar plea is put into the mouth of Moses: 'O God, Source of the breath of all flesh! When one man sins, will you be wrathful with the whole community?' (Num. 16:22).

Writing at the end of the twelfth century, Moses Maimonides was close to the meaning of the above passages when he remarks:
'There is a group of human beings who consider it a grievous thing that causes should be given for any law; what would please them most is that the intellect would not find a meaning for the commandments and prohibitions. What compels them to feel thus is a sickness that they find in their souls, a sickness to which they are unable to give utterance and of which they cannot furnish a satisfactory account. For they think that if those laws were useful in this existence and had been given to us for this or that reason, it would be as if they derived from the reflection and the understanding of some intelligent being. If, however, there is a thing for which the intellect could not find any meaning at all and that does not lead to something useful, it indubitably derives from God; for the reflection of man would lead to no such thing.' (1)

For the group Maimonides attacks it is an offense to suggest that the laws of God are 'reasonable,' for if they are then they are all too human. Only a law which humans would never arrive at by their own understanding has a right to be called divine. Maimonides attacks this as folly, as a sickness of the soul. 'It is as if, according to these people of weak intellects, man were more perfect than his Maker; for man speaks and acts in a manner that leads to some intended end, whereas the deity does not act thus, but commands us to do things that are not useful to us and forbids us to do things that are not harmful to us.' Maimonides relies on the verse in Deuteronomy we have quoted. Moreover, he applies the idea to all the precepts including the ritualistic taboos for which there is no evident reason. For Maimonides there is reason behind all these and it is man's task to discover what the reason might be, because the notion of God ordering man to carry out purposeless acts is abhorrent to Maimonides' religious sensibilities.

According to the critical view, the Pentateuchal laws which 'God spoke to Moses, saying', are the fruit of the people's sustained reflection on ethical conduct and of their ripe ethical experience. Thus, to give one example among many, when the older laws regarding inheritance were seen to be unfair to women, the 'test case' of the daughters of Zelofhad (Num 27:1-11) was constructed and read back into the times of the great lawgiver since this development of just legislation was seen as God's command: 'Why should the name of our father be done away from among his family, because he had no son? Give unto us a possession among the brethren of our father.' And Moses brought their cause before the Lord. And the Lord spoke unto Moses, saying: 'The daughters of Zelofhad speak right: thou shalt surely give them a possession of an inheritance among their father's brethren; and thou shalt cause the inheritance of their father to pass unto them. And thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel, saying: If a man die, and have no son, then ye shall cause his inheritance to pass unto his daughter' (vs. 48). In these instances the right course for man came to be seen as God's will for him and hence 'given' to Moses by God.

In many of the Pentateuchal laws the reason for their observance is stated, a reason which appeals to man's innate ethical sensibility. 'And a stranger thou shalt not oppress; for ye know the heart of a stranger, seeing ye were strangers in the land of Egypt' (Ex. 23:9). 'If thou at all take they neighbour's garment to pledge, thou shalt restore it unto him by the time that the sun goes down; for that is his only covering, it is the garment for his skin, wherein shall he sleep? And it shall come to pass, when he crieth unto Me, that I will hear; for I am gracious' (Ex. 22:2526).

'Thou shalt not have in thy bag diverse weights, a great and a small. Thou shalt not have in thy house diverse measures, a great and a small. A perfect and just weight shalt thou have; a perfect and just measure shalt thou have; that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee. For all that do such things, even all that do unrighteously, are an abomination unto the Lord thy God' (Deut. 25:1316). 'Thou shalt not abhor an Edomite, for he is thy brother; thou shalt not abhor an Egyptian, because thou wast a stranger in his land'(Deut. 23:7).

The same theme is found constantly in the prophetic writings. If the good were simply identified with the will of God it would be tautologous to say, as the prophets do, that man should obey God's will and do good. 'Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with tens of thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my first-born for my transgressions, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? It hath been told thee, o man, what is good, and what the Lord doth require of thee: only to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God' (Mic. 6:7-8). 'Wash you, make you clean, Put away the evil of your doings from before Mine eyes, Cease to do evil; Learn to do well; seek justice, relieve the oppressed, Judge the fatherless, plead for the widow' (Isa. 1:16-17).

The prophet Amos castigates Damascus, Gaza, Tyre, Edom, Ammon, and Moab for atrocities they have perpetrated, even though these peoples had received no divine law, the implication being that man is capable of discerning right from wrong by the natural light within him (see Amos, chaps. 1 and 2). Indeed, nowhere in the prophetic writings are the 'nations' condemned for worshiping their gods, only for the ethical abominations such as child sacrifice associated with the worship. The very detailing of separate ethical offenses in prophetic admonition is itself proof of the contention that for the prophets each of these offenses is wrong in itself and they are consequently not covered by the blanket condemnation of disobedience of God's will.

'Oh that I were in the wilderness, In a lodging-place of wayfaring men, that I might leave my people, and go from them! For they are all adulterers, An assembly of treacherous men. And they bend their tongue, their bow of falsehood; And they are grown mighty in the land, but not for truth; for they proceed from evil to evil, And Me they know not, saith the Lord. Take ye heed every one of his neighbour, And trust ye not in any brothers; For every brother acteth subtly, And every neighbour goeth about with slanders. And they deceive every one his neighbour. And truth they speak not: They have taught their tongue to speak lies, They weary themselves to commit iniquity.' [Jer. 9:1-4]

The autonomy of ethics is similarly adumbrated in the Rabbinic literature. It is implicit in the very classification by the Rabbis of the precepts into the two groups, 'between man and God' (e.g., prayer, study of the Torah, wearing phylacteries) and 'between man and his neighbor.'
For transgressions that are between man and God the Day of Atonement effects atonement, but for transgressions that are between a man and his fellow the Day of Atonement effects atonement only if he has appeased his fellow. This did Rabbi Eleazar ben Azaria expound: From all your sins shall ye be clean before the Lord (Leviticus 16:30)-for transgressions that are between man and God the Day of Atonement effects atonement; but for transgressions that are between a man and his fellow the Day of Atonement effects atonement only if he has appeased his fellow. [Mishnah, Yoma 8:9]

The idea is found in the Rabbinic literature that God Himself keeps His laws. The Greek saying that the law is not written for the king is quoted and it is said that a human king decrees laws for others but need not keep them himself, whereas God orders man to rise in respect before the aged and He did this Himself, as it were, out of respect for Abraham (Jerusalem Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 1:3). The Rabbis give as examples of commandments 'which if they had been written in Scripture should by right have been written': the laws concerning idolatry, immorality, bloodshed, robbery, and blasphemy (Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 67b).

The third-century Palestinian teacher Rabbi Johanan said: 'If the Torah [the law] had not been given we could have learnt modesty from the cat, honesty from the ant, chastity from the dove, and good manners from the cock who first coaxes and then mates' (Babylonian Talmud, Eruvin 100b). Gentiles, to whom the Torah was not given, could still be righteous and the righteous of all nations have a share in the World to Come (Tosefta, Sanhedrin 13:2). Stories are told of Gentiles who observe such obligations as honoring parents in a manner superior to that of the Jews (Babylonian Talmud, Kiddushin 31a). In this Talmudic passage the late second-century teacher Rabbi Hanina observes that if Gentiles who are not commanded to honor parents are so heavily rewarded for honoring them, Jews who are commanded to do so will be rewarded all the more since one who does that which he is commanded to do is greater than one who does it without being commanded.

The idea here seems to be that by a natural human propensity that which is commanded awakens rebellion. There is a need to kick against the traces. The verboten has its subtle allure. Man finds it easy to do the most difficult things except when these are in response to the call of duty. In any event it is clearly acknowledged that the moral life needs no religious spur to be effective. When God, it is further said in the same passage, began the ten commandments with 'I am the Lord thy God' and 'Thou shalt have no other gods,' the nations of the world declared that He was 'expounding for His own glory.' But when they heard Him say: 'Honor thy father and thy mother,' they acknowledged the earlier commandments, i.e., they saw that even the first two were not for God's sake but for the benefit of man.

The nearest a strongly ethically orientated religion like Judaism comes to a complete separation between religion and ethics is in the following remarkable Talmudic comment (Babylonian Talmud, Kiddushin 40a):

'Say ye of the righteous, when he is good, that they shall eat the fruit of their doings' (Isaiah 3:10). Is there then a righteous man who is good and a righteous man who is not good? But he who is good to Heaven and good to man, he is a righteous man who is good: good to Heaven but not good to man, that is a righteous man who is not good. Similarly, you read: 'Woe unto the wicked man that is evil; for the reward of his hands shall be given unto him' (Isaiah 3:11). Is there then a wicked man that is evil and one that is not evil? But he that is evil to Heaven and evil to men, he is a wicked man that is evil: he who is evil to Heaven but not evil to man, he is a wicked man that is not evil.

Somewhat misleadingly, this is rendered by Montefiore and Loewe as: 'One who is good towards God and good towards men is a good righteous man: and one who is good towards God but bad towards men is not a good righteous man. Similarly: one who is bad towards God and bad towards man is a bad bad man; one who is bad towards God but not bad towards man is not a bad bad man.' (2) Montefiore remarks:

In these strange words, the Talmud seeks to distinguish between the commands in the Law which are ordered by God, but which do not relate to our fellow-men, and those commands which do relate to our fellow-men. The former set of commands are less weighty than the latter. Thus one might say, from this point of view, the Jew who violates the Sabbath, does not observe the Day of Atonement, etc. but who honours his parents, and is charitable, just and kind towards his fellows is 'not a bad bad man', whereas he who does just the reverse, is 'a not good righteous man.' (3)

Loewe admits that the difficulty is a real one but suggests that the cause of it might be the deficiency in Hebrew of abstract terms. Actually, the Rabbis here use the terms 'wicked' (rasha) and 'righteous' (tzaddik) in the technical sense of what we would today call a man with religious feeling. They are, in fact, calling attention to the phenomenon that it is quite possible for a man to have a strongly developed religious or 'numinous' sense but to be at the same time a thorough scoundrel so far as his ethical conduct is concerned. The passage contains no ethical judgment as Montefiore suggests it does. The meaning is brought out more clearly if, instead of 'bad bad man,' 'good bad man,' etc., we paraphrase: 'bad irreligious man'; 'good irreligious man'; 'good religious man'; 'bad religious man.' At all events it is suggested here that one can speak of a man as having a strong moral character without him having any use for religion and the Rabbis are saying that such an assessment of human character need not be wrong since religion is one thing and ethics another, though, of course, for the Rabbis, Judaism demands both.

Before leaving the Rabbis it is perhaps worthwhile referring to Moritz Lazarus' rejection, in the name of the Rabbinic attitude, of von Hartmann's reproach that 'theism may not suffer a moral principle above or beside the Divine Being.' Lazarus quotes the Targum (the Old Aramaic translation of the Bible), which renders Genesis 3:22 as: 'See, man is unique, knowing of himself good and evil' and he concludes:

The moral principle is, indeed, not above and not beside the Divine Being; it is in itself. Precisely for that reason it is at the same time in God-in God in as much as He is the prototype of morality. To repeat: not because the principle is in God is it the moral principle, but because it is the moral principle, in itself and absolutely, therefore it is necessarily in God. (4)

The medieval Jewish thinkers, influenced by Greek philosophy in its Arabic garb, began to think systematically about their religion. In the year 933 the great Babylonian teacher Saadia Gaon compiled his Beliefs and Opinions, in which he has a classification of the precepts of the Torah into the rational and the revealed, a classification much utilized by subsequent thinkers. (5) The rational precepts, which include the ethical, would be recognized as binding even without revelation. Revealed precepts (such as the Jewish dietary laws) are not irrational, there is a reason for them (a view which Maimonides followed, as above) but here obedience to God's will is more prominent. Obviously man would not know the revealed precepts without revelation. He would not wear phylacteries or refrain from eating pork if he were not commanded to do so, for how would he otherwise know that this is what God would have him do?

But what need is there, asks Saadia, for revelation in connection with the rational precepts? If man can know them without revelation, if, in the terminology we use nowadays, they are autonomous and are to be kept because it is right to do so, not because they are enjoined in Scripture, why are they, in fact, revealed through the prophets? His basic answer is that revelation is required to avoid all uncertainty and for the precise details of how the rational precepts are to be carried out. Thus, for example, it is true that man would know by his own reason that it is wrong to steal but revelation is required in order to inform man how property is to be acquired. Saadia seems to be saying that without religion's precise teachings man's moral sense would still function but it would be confused in application. In Saadia's own words:

'A further example is that, although reason considers stealing objectionable, there is nothing in it to inform us how a person comes to acquire property so that it becomes his possession. It does not state, for instance, whether this comes about as a result of labor, or is effected by means of barter, or by way of inheritance, or is derived from what is free to all, like what is hunted on land or sea. Nor is one informed by it as to whether a sale becomes valid upon the payment of the price or by taking hold of the article or by means of a statement alone. Besides these, there are many other uncertainties pertaining to this subject which would take too long and would be too difficult to enumerate. The prophets, therefore, came along with a clear-cut decision for each instance.

Another example is the question of the expiation of crime. Reason considers it proper, to be sure, that whoever commits a crime should expiate it, but does not define what form this expiation ought to take: whether a reprimand alone is sufficient, or a malediction should go with it, or flogging too should be added. In the event that the punishment take the form of flogging, again, the question is how much, and the same applies to the malediction and the reprimand. Or it is possible that no satisfaction will be obtained except by the death of the criminal. And again it might be asked whether the punishment should be the same for whoever commits a certain crime, or whether it should vary from person to person. Then the prophets came and fixed for each crime its own penalty, and grouped some of them with others under certain conditions, and imposed monetary fines for some. For these considerations, then, that we have enumerated and other such reasons, it is necessary for us to have recourse to the mission of God's messengers. For if we were to defer in these matters to our own opinions, our views would differ and we would not agree on anything. Besides that, we are, of course, in need of their guidance on account of the precepts prescribed by revelation, as we have explained. (6)

Strictly relevant to our theme is the acute analysis of Moses Maimonides (1135-1204) of Greek and Hebraic ethical ideals where these seem to be in conflict. (7) Who is the better man, asks Maimonides, the one who has no desire to do wrong or the one who wishes to do wrong or the one who wishes to do wrong but refrains by exercising constant self-control? The Greek thinkers appear to be saying that the better man is the one who has no desire to do wrong, no murder in his heart, no urge to take that which does not belong to him, no hateful or harmful thoughts. The Talmudic Rabbis, on the other hand, seem to be saying the exact opposite. The Rabbis seem to maintain that man should have a desire to sin and a man should not say that he would not do this thing even if it were not forbidden. For instance, the Rabbis maintain that a man should not say that it is impossible for him to eat forbidden food but he should rather say that he would like to eat it and wants to eat it, only his Father in heaven had commanded him not to do so.

Maimonides resolves the conflict by a neat (some have felt an over-neat) distinction between religious and ethical laws. The Rabbis are thinking of purely religious laws and here the element of obedience is paramount. The man who has no desire to eat forbidden food because, for example, he dislikes its taste does not abstain out of religious conviction and since the act itself is ethically neutral his abstention has no religious value. But the Greeks are thinking of ethical demands and the Rabbis would agree that to refrain from murder by exercising self-control is to fall short of the purpose of the ethical laws, which is to produce the good character the possessor of which has no wish to harm others.

Also relevant to our theme is the medieval discussion of the purpose of divine worship. Moses Nahmanides (1194-1270), for instance, in his Commentary to the Pentateuch, considers whether divine worship is for God's sake or for man's. (8) Nahmanides first quotes the Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 44:1) on the verse: 'The word of the Lord is tried' (Ps. 18:31). The third-century Babylonian teacher Rab is quoted in the Midrash as taking the Hebrew word (tzerufah) translated as 'tried' to mean 'refining.' Hence Rab understands the psalmist to be saying that the word of God refines, it has a purifying effect, and he concludes: 'The precepts were given for no other purpose than to refine people. For what difference does it make to God whether the act of slaughtering animals for food is done at the neck or from the back of the neck? But the precepts were given only for the purpose of refining people.'

The meaning of Rab's teaching would seem to be that it is absurd to imagine that the deed in itself can have any significance for God but that it is the effect of the deed on the human character that God wants. The command to kill animals for food in this way rather than that, at the neck rather than from the back of the neck, has as its aim the inculcation of kindliness and compassion. By slaughtering the animal in the most painless way rather than by cruel methods, man's character becomes refined. Nahmanides quotes this passage because he sees in it the key to the Rabbinic understanding of the purpose of worship. By worshiping God, by obeying His laws, which all have the effect of benefiting man and encouraging virtue, man becomes more perfect, more God-like. God does want us to worship Him, as it were, but it is not the act of worship in itself that He requires but the effect it has on the human character. In Nahmanides' words:

'The benefit which comes from the observance of the precepts is not to God Himself, may He be exalted, but the benefit is for man himself, to keep him far from injury or from evil beliefs or from ugly traits of character or to remind him of the miracles and wonders of the Creator, blessed be He, so that man might come to know God. This is the meaning of 'to refine people', that they should be as refined silver. For the silver-refiner does not carry out his task without purpose but does it in order to remove all the dross from the silver. So it is with regard to the precepts. Their aim is to remove every evil from our hearts, to make the truth known to us, and to remind us of it at all times. (9)

It goes without saying, continues Nahmanides, that God does not need for Himself the light provided by the lampstand in the Temple or the meat of sacrifices or the fragrance of incense, but even when He commands us to remember the wonders He wrought in Egypt and that He created the world it is not for His benefit or advantage only that we should know the truth, for our words and our recalling these things mean nothing to Him.

Thus both Maimonides and Nahmanides from different angles, and they are typical of medieval Jewish philosophical thought in general, refuse to identify the good with the will of God. If God's will can be spoken of at all in this connection, it is, according to these thinkers, that man should strive to improve his character to be a good man in the ethical sense.

Maimonides' discussion on the negative side found an echo centuries later on the positive side among the followers of the nineteenth-century Lithuanian Musar movement, a movement whose aim was to promote greater inwardness in the religious life but with profound ethical concern. The Musar teachers encouraged severe self-scrutiny; every one of man's deeds should be carefully weighed to see if it accorded with the highest ideals of Judaism. The opponents of the movement, and they were many, view this emphasis on introspection with suspicion, arguing that it cannot be wholesome for a man always to be taking his spiritual temperature. Be that as it may, the leaders of the movement considered the following question. The devout Jew prefaces the performance of a religious obligation with the declaration that he does it for the sake of God.

(The actual formula for this is very late and is mystical in content but for the Musar teachers its mystical aspect was not primary. The important thing for them was that attention was being called to the performance of the obligation as an act of divine worship. The mystical formula is: 'I am about to do this for the sake of the unification of the Holy One, blessed be He, and His Shekhinah' [Divine Presence]. It is recited, for example, before donning the prayer shawl or the phylacteries.)

Would this apply to the performance of acts of benevolence, to the precept: 'Love thy neighbor'? The Musar teachers were divided on this point. Rabbi Zalman Dolinsky used to recite the declaration before he carried out any act of mercy. But Rabbi Simhah Zussel of Kelm argued that 'one should fulfill precepts of this order out of natural feelings; they should stem from the natural benevolence of a kind heart,' i.e., to invoke the concept of a religious duty here is to frustrate the purpose of the command of love. Rabbi Simhah Zussel gives an interesting turn to the verse: 'Love thy neighbour as thyself': 'Just as self-love is natural to man, requiring no calculations or special intentions, so should be his love for his fellows.' (10)

The man who has to have the intention of performing a religious duty before he can love others will never progress beyond the I-It relationship, to use Martin Buber's terminology, when what is called for is the I-Thou. The religious command to love others should be seen as a ladder to be kicked away once it has served as the means by which man attains to the heights to which it is directed.

One of the most powerful protests in modern times against the identification of religion with 'human morality' in which the question of God and His commands have no place, is that of Soren Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling is a commentary on the story of the binding of Isaac (the Akedah, 'binding,' as it is known in Jewish thought) told in the twenty-second chapter of the book of Genesis. Abraham is bidden by God to sacrifice to Him his only beloved son Isaac. Abraham, in Kierkegaard's interpretation of the story, cannot be sure that God really wants this dread thing from him but, if He does, Abraham is prepared to carry it out. If it is really God's will then there must be a 'teleological suspension of the ethical' and the deed must be done, but of this Abraham cannot be sure. And so he goes in 'fear and trembling', ready to obey if need be but haunted all the time by the fear that he may be embarked on an act of sheer murder.

The chutzpa of a Gentile, Jews might protest, to write a midrash on 'our' biblical narrative, but what a midrash it is! Only so gifted a writer as Kierkegaard could call attention so effectively to the heart of the ancient tale missed by both the philistine and the pious.

'We read in those holy books: "And God tempted Abraham, and said unto him, Abraham, Abraham, where art thou? And he said, Here am I." Thou to whom my speech is addressed, was such the case with thee? When afar off thou didst see the heavy dispensation of providence approaching thee, didst thou not say to the mountains, Fall on me, and to the hills, Cover me? Or if thou wast stronger, did not thy foot move slowly along the way, longing as it were for the old path? When a call was issued to thee, didst thou answer, or didst thou not answer perhaps in a low voice, whisperingly? Not so Abraham: joyfully, buoyantly, confidently, with a loud voice, he answered, 'Here am I.' We read further: 'And Abraham rose early in the morning'-as though it were to a festival, so he hastened, and early in the morning he had come to the place spoken of, to Mount Moriah. He said nothing to Sarah, nothing to Eleazar. Indeed who could understand him? Had not the temptation by its very nature exacted of him an oath of silence? He cleft the wood, he bound Isaac, he lit the pyre, he drew the knife. My hearer, there was many a father who believed that with his son he lost everything that was dearest to him in the world, that he was deprived of every hope for the future, but yet there was none that was the child of promise in the sense that Isaac was for Abraham. There was many a father who lost his child; but then it was God, it was the unalterable, the unsearchable will of the Almighty, it was His hand took the child. Not so with Abraham. For him was reserved a harder trial, and Isaac's fate was laid along with the knife in Abraham's hand. And there he stood, the old man, with his only hope! But he did not doubt, he did not look anxiously to the right or to the left, he did not challenge heaven with his prayers. He knew that it was God the Almighty who was trying him, he knew that it was the hardest sacrifice that could be required of him; but he knew also that no sacrifice was too hard when God required it-and he drew the knife.' (11)

A distinguished Jewish theologian, the late Milton Steinberg, writes in fierce opposition to Kierkegaard's interpretation:

'From the Jewish viewpoint-and this is one of its highest dignities-the ethical is never suspended, not under any circumstance, and not for anyone, not even for God. Especially not for God. Are not supreme Reality and supreme Goodness one and co-essential to the Divine nature? If so, every act wherein the Good is put aside is more than a breach of His will; it is in effect a denial of His existence. Wherefore the Rabbis define sin as constituting not merely rebellion but atheism as well. What Kierkegaard asserts to be the glory of God is Jewishly regarded as unmitigated sacrilege. Which indeed is the true point of the Akedah, missed so perversely by Kierkegaard. While it was a merit in Abraham to be willing to sacrifice his only son to God, it was God's nature and merit that He would not accept an immoral tribute. And it was His purpose, among other things, to establish that truth. (12)

Steinberg has misunderstood Kierkegaard. To be sure, the story has a 'happy ending'; the angel bids Abraham stay his hand. And Steinberg is right that God, being God, could not have commanded a man really to murder his son. Kierkegaard is fully aware of the 'dread' in the whole episode. His point is rather that if Abraham had been convinced that it was God's will he would have done it because as 'knight of faith' his ultimate aim, unlike that of 'ethical man', is not subservience to the universal ethical norm but his individual relationship with God. Abraham is 'ethical man' as well as 'knight of faith'. That is why he goes in 'fear and trembling'. In terms of our analysis we might put it that God wants man to be 'ethical man' but this is because to be 'ethical man' is part of that which is involved in the relationship the 'knight of faith' has with his God.

This leads to a possible solution to the question which now must loom very large. We have tried to examine how the tension between religion and ethics manifests itself in a particular religious tradition-the Jewish. If, as we have seen, it is a dominant theme in Judaism that religious motivation is not essential for leading the good life in the ethical sense, and if ethics is really independent of religion, what, then, is the connection between religion and ethics? The fundamentalist thinker might follow up the hint thrown out by Saadia that in revealed Scripture we have the precise details of how ethical norms are to be applied in concrete situations. But such a solution is not open to anyone who, under the influence of biblical criticism, cannot see the biblical laws as direct divine guidance of this kind. It might still be argued, as it should be, that there is sufficient wisdom in the religious classics of Judaism to provide help in the inquiry, but even so a subjective element enters into the picture to make Saadia's suggestion less convincing.

What then are the religious associations of ethics? The answer is surely that for the believer religion provides life with an extra dimension, as it were. The religious man sees his ethical concern as part of his total relationship with his God. This should not be taken to mean that there is a conflict between love of God and love of man as George Orwell did, for instance, when he pronounced that you cannot love both God and man. On the contrary, the love of man is part of what is meant by the love of God. In theological language, it is the will of the Father of mankind that all His children should love one another. But this in itself imparts a different quality to man's ethical strivings. Man has no need for the God hypothesis in order to appreciate the claims of the ethical side of human life. If he has to invoke his religion here he is remote from the good as religion sees it. But the religious man believed that God is and that His nature is such that every act of love and compassion makes for the fulfillment of His purpose, every act of cruelty and oppression for its frustration. Man is to live both horizontally and vertically, open to earthly needs and responding to them as any other ethical man would do, but with his religious beliefs to add to the scene the infinite glories of heaven.

This idea was emphasized especially by the Jewish mystics. There is, for example, a detailed treatment of our theme in the gigantic compendium of Jewish piety known as Shenei Luhot haberit (The Two Tablets of the Covenant) by the German Kabbalist Isaiah Horowitz (c.1555-c.1630) At the beginning of the book under the heading 'Creatures,' Horowitz discusses the obligation to love all God's creatures and its connection with the other great command to love God. (13) The Babylonian Talmud (Sabat 31a) tells a well-known tale of the master Hillel. A prospective convert to Judaism approached Hillel requesting the sage to teach him the Torah while he stood on one leg. Hillel replied: 'That which is hateful unto thee do not do unto thy neighbor. This is the whole of the Torah. All the rest is commentary, go and learn!' The medieval commentators were puzzled by the tale. What of Judaism's purely religious obligations? The eleventh-century French commentator Rashi, whose commentary is printed in most editions of the Talmud, remarks that Hillel was either referring solely to the ethical precepts or that by 'thy neighbor' he meant God. Horowitz uses this as a basis for his contention that in fact both loves-of the neighbor and of God-are really one since God is One and all is from Him. The love of the neighbor is part of the love of the God who created the neighbor. By loving one's neighbor one fulfills God's purpose. Horowitz adds a more mystical note. Since there is a divine spark in the soul of man, who is created in God's image, the love of one's fellow is quite literally the love of God. Horowitz sums it up as follows:

'In the truth if you examine the matter carefully, you will find that the majority of the precepts depend for their fulfillment on the command to love one's neighbour. First there are all the precepts regarding alms-giving, leaving the forgotten sheaf and the corners of the field to the poor, tithing, honesty in business, the prohibition of usury and many others of a like nature. Then there are all the virtuous traits of character: compassion, kindliness, patience, love, judging others charitably, running to help them when they are in danger, not slandering them or bearing tales, not scorning them or hating them or feeling envious of them, not flying into a rage, not being overambitious, these and thousands of other virtues depend on loving one's neighbor and only thus can one become perfect by keeping both the positive and negative precepts. And even with regard to those precepts which have no connection with one's neighbour-the prohibition, for example of forbidden food and of eating leaven on Passover-a man will keep them a fortiori. For if he loves his neighbour as himself how much more will he love God Who loves him with an unqualified and true love, Who is Lord of the universe and to Whom all belongs, blessed be He. So you see that the command "and thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself" is the leg upon which the whole world stands. [There is possibly a hint at the Hillel story here in which there is a reference to 'standing on one leg'.] So you see that "and thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself" brings about "thou shalt love the Lord thy God."' (14)

Something of the kind would seem to be implied in the normative Jewish approach to this question. The love of other human beings and the ethical life in general are autonomous in that they justify themselves, requiring no support from religion. But there is a religious dimension to life and it has its effect on the whole of life. On the religious view it is God's concern, as it were, how man behaves towards his fellow and the love of the neighbor is the love of God.

  1. Moses Maimonides, Guide of the Perplexed, trans. S. Pines (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1963), pp. 523-24.
  2. Claude Montefiore and H. Loewe, A Rabbinic Anthology (London: Macmillan, 1938), pp. 285-86.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Moritz Lazarus, The Ethics of Judaism (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1900), pp.130-31.
  5. Saadia Gaon, Beliefs and Opinions, trans. S. Rosenblatt (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1948), Pt. III, chaps. 1-3.
  6. Ibid., p.146.
  7. Moses Maimonides, Eight Chapters (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1912), chap. 6.
  8. Moses Nahmanides, Commentary to the Pentateuch, II (Jerusalem: Mosad Harav Kook, 1960), pp. 448-51.
  9. Ibid., p. 451.
  10. On the views of these teachers see Dov Katz, 'The Musar Movement,' Tenuat Hamusar, V (Tel Aviv: Tzioni, 1963), pp. 138-39.
  11. Soren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, trans. Walter Lowrie (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1969), pp. 35-36.
  12. Milton Steinberg, Anatomy of Faith (New York: Harcourt, 1960), p. 147.
  13. Isaiah Horowitz, The Two Tablets of the Covenant (Jerusalem edition, 1963), pp. 44b-45b.
  14. Ibid.
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