From NISHMA UPDATE June 1992

Dvar Torah

The Immorality of Morality

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht, North York, Ontario


Recently, on the television news, I watched a "pro-life" protester, in a taunting voice, calling to some "pro-choice" demonstrators: "You are evil! You are evil!" I was repulsed by the behaviour. From this modern protester to Torquemada, a stand defended by a morality has led many to act improperly, even cruelly, with their fellow man. Why? How are we to protect ourselves from this trap - the immorality that seems to flow from moral positions?

When an individual takes a moral stand, s/he believes that s/he is acting correctly. S/he takes pride in being moral, in doing what is right. There is some justification in this response. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik in "Shechorah Ani V'navah", Shiurei HaRav, argues that only a person who has faith in him/herself - who believes in his/her abilities - can accomplish teshuva, can reach the heights of Judaism. We are called upon to acknowledge our accomplishments, to praise our moral victories, as statements that tell us that we can reach the Torah ideals. Personal pride is to serve us, providing confidence and inspiration; we can achieve the goal of Torah. It is not to become perverted through self-righteousness and feelings of superiority.

There are two concepts, introduced in Pirkei Avot, that can protect us from allowing the immorality of haughtiness to arise from our observance of Torah. We are not to judge our fellow man until we are in his/her position (Avot 2:4). The commentators seem to approach this idea from two perspectives. One concerns the situation; we should not judge for we do not know how we would respond given the circumstances. A close reading of the Meiri, Maharal and Sefat Emet, however, introduces the concept of individuality. We are all distinct with different battles to fight; we should not judge for we do not know the other's motivations, drives and feelings. In a later mishna, Avot 5:23, we are told "according to the effort is the reward". At the conclusion of the famous story of the death of Rabbi Chanina ben Teradyon, Rebbi wept and stated that there are those that acquire the Future World in a moment while others must work for it for many years (T.B. Avoda Zara 18a). Our achievements are to be measured against ourselves not against others. There is no room for superiority for there is no method to compare ourselves to the other. This does not mean that we do not take moral stands. All moral positions are not equal or even tenable. Applying the famous lesson of Beruria - detest evil, not the evil-doer (T.B. Berachot 10a).

This leads to the second lesson. "Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai...used to say: 'if you have learned much Torah, do not establish good (pride) for yourself for this is for what you were created'" (Avot 2:8). We have already established that some pride is positive. The commentators (Maharam Shick, Baruch She'amar), therefore, applying different sources and arguments, are bothered by this mishna. The common thread to the answers presented lies in the recognition that our observance of Torah is G-d centred, not man centred. Rabeinu Yonah equates our commitment to Torah to the paying of a debt - it is our obligation. Maharal compares intense involvement in Torah study to the drive to eat and drink - it is part of our created nature. Maharam Shick reminds us that no matter what level of knowledge we have attained, it is insufficient - the task is always before us for it is never completed. Ruach Chaim points out that the greater the person, the more that is demanded - the responsibility is ever increasing. The conceit of morality arises in a morality that is man-centred. While a deity may be invoked to justify the behaviour or perception, a morality of this nature simply is the product of the individual's drives and emotions. Ethical behaviour or attitudes satisfy the person's desire; the "I" feels correct. A morality that is G-d-centred, however, focuses on responsibility. I am ethical because I must act this way; I am being pulled to act this way. The focus is not on feeling perfect about oneself because one is moral but rather on meeting the commitment, achieving what is being demanded by G-d. One's view of the knowledge of morality is also different. Moral knowledge is not the result of my own innate understanding of the world. It is taught by G-d and, if I have so benefitted, I am most fortunate and thankful for this gift of Torah. A feeling of superiority arises from a morality that is "I" based -I am good, "you are evil". Torah morality is G-d based - G-d is good.

Of course, there are times that no matter how we behave, simply because of our active moral stand, there will always be those that declare us arrogant. This cannot make us deny our responsibility to accomplish our goals of Torah. Nor can it be allowed to make us ignore our similar duty not to treat our fellow man with conceit and haughtiness. Rabbi Shubert Spero in his work, Morality, Halakha and the Jewish Tradition, refers to morality as the noblest expression of man. Yet, the noblest of men, Moshe Rabeinu, was referred to as the humblest of people; to be prophet of G-d, yet, to not let these accomplishments create any sense of superiority. This is also, in a way, our challenge. We must never allow our chance for greatness and nobility - G-d's gift of Torah - to result in the most ignoble of the human species: the ego-inflated individual whose morality serves only him/herself.

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