Posted by Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky
As soon as the calendar turns to Tammuz, my mind turns to the 17th of Tammuz, and the period of national mourning and introspection that it inaugurates. While the Talmudic passage that instinctively comes to mind is the one which ascribes the destruction of Jerusalem to the prevalence of “baseless hatred” among Jews, there’s an alternative passage that is equally important and, on the face of it, even more intriguing. Rav Yochanan provocatively attributes the destruction of Jerusalem to the fact that the law of the Torah was practiced therein. Anticipating the bewilderment that this statement would provoke (“Should they rather have followed the law of the Magians?!”), Rav Yochanan responds with his punch line, that the Jews of Jerusalem practiced only the letter of the law, and never went beyond it. They never explored the world of lifnim m’shurat hadin, the possibilities for human behavior that are not found in a book of law, rather transcend the books of law. (Bava Metzia 30b)
While the Talmud provides several examples of how one acts beyond the letter of the law, (for example, by returning a lost object that according to the halacha one may actually keep for oneself), it makes no attempt to provide a sweeping characterization of what the category entails. Perhaps the closest we can come to one can be found in the Ramban’s commentary to the Torah’s general imperative that we should practice the “straight and the good” in God’s eyes. Ramban explains that since the Torah can’t possibly provide specific instruction for every sort of commercial, communal and political interaction that a human being will ever have, the Torah must suffice by providing numerous specific laws which demonstrate how God wants us to behave, and then implore us to view these laws as examples of the “straight and the good”, from which we are to extrapolate how God wants us to behave in situations that the Torah says nothing specifically about. It is through these words that God states His expectation that we will behave rightly also in realms that are beyond the law’s explicit purview.
And this is why we’d be religiously lost today without the moral categories of contemporary Western thought. For it is these categories which enable us to do “the straight and the good” as we encounter modern social and political circumstances, and which sketch out the realms that are beyond the explicit Torah law, yet are charged with Divine expectation for right behavior. Here are two examples of such moral categories:
Equality: There are of course numerous legal indications in the Torah as to the desirability of equality for all before the Law. The Western moral/political value of Equality illuminates for us how we are to move beyond the Torah letter today, and how we are to do the “straight and the good” in previously uncharted waters. It demands that we align ourselves with civil rights movements, and oppose discrimination of any kind on the grounds of race, ethnicity, or gender. It also means that the holiest and most serious religious questions we must face have to do with the real or perceived tensions between the value of equality and the requirements of halacha. We face these tensions as we consider the role of woman in synagogue and ritual life, and as we think about today’s most pressing civil rights arena, that of Gay and Lesbian civil rights. The integrity of Jewish community can be measured by whether it seriously and meaningfully grapples with these tensions, or chooses to ignore them. Nothing less than doing the “straight and the good in the eyes of God” is at stake.
Universalism: Here too, we have sufficient Biblical and rabbinic evidence as to the basic premise of this Western moral category, namely that God considers all of humanity to be His creation, and that all of humanity is the subject of God’s compassion and concern. What is new is the way in which Jews can actively involve themselves in alleviating the suffering of, and bettering the lives of God’s beloved creatures, wherever on the globe they may be. There is no question that the Western value of Universalism points us toward the “straight and the good”, the pious behavior that lies beyond the letter of the law. This too of course, generates vitally important religious questions that must be addressed and not ignored. There are questions concerning how we are to balance our responsibilities to our own community, with our responsibilities to humanity at large. And for our Israeli brothers and sisters, there are questions as to how to balance the responsibility to secure Jewish life and a Jewish State, with the imperative to not turn a blind eye to anybody’s suffering. Holiness can only emerge from the grappling with the tension.
Numerous other Western moral categories enter this discussion. These include, for example, Tolerance of Difference, and the Consent of the Governed. When Jewish communities dismiss Western moral categories as alien or threatening to Judaism, they are making the same error that our ancestors in Jerusalem made 2000 years ago. It is certainly easier to stick only to the letter of the law. But it turns Judaism into a shadow of itself. The Judaism through which we will, with God’s help, be redeemed, is the one that understands the importance of moral insights and categories, no matter their place of origin.