Is the Torah Moral? Parshat Chukat and Ta’amey Hamitzvot (Reasons for the Commandments) and an Answer to Rick -by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

In this week’s Torah portion, Chukat-Balak, the Torah presents the chok (mitzvah who’s reason we can not know) par excellence, the Parah Adumah, the ashes of the red heifer as a procedure for removing the ritual impurity caused by being in contact with a dead body.  Is this classic chok, (or for that matter all chukim, or according to some, all mitzvoth), one whose reason (1) we do not know; (2) a mitzvah whose reason can not be known except by the Divine; or (3)a mitzvah with no reason at all?

I will explore this classic question of Taamey Hamitzvot (whether there are reasons for mitzvoth) and I then hope to link the answer to Rick’s comment on my post from last week regarding gay Jews.  His question was, once we see people in homosexual relationships with more love and less rejection don’t we run the risk of accepting other forbidden relationships such as incest?

Summary: This is a long post so let me summarize first.  Having a Kiddush to celebrate the commitment of two homosexuals to raising a family together (which is not forbidden)  would not lead us to having a Kiddush for a brother and sister raising a family together as partners because homosexuality is not immoral in our society and incest is.  The torah forbids both but that says nothing about morality, only about halacha.  Both sexual acts are forbidden, neither Kiddush is, but we should not celebrate an incestual union since it is morally depraved and will affect other’s moral compass, whereas a homosexual union, while forbidden, does not effect our moral compass and our ability to imitate God which is only based on mitzvoth which have as their reasons mercy, compassion and morality.

Post: Rick’s is a classic argument against tolerating homosexuality.  From a secular point of view people can make distinctions between one kind of relationship and another (many states permit homosexual weddings but not the other kinds Rick mentioned) but from a religious point of view it is more difficult.  If the Torah is our measure of what is moral and what is forbidden then aren’t all forbidden relationships equally immoral?  If we see in a less harsh light something the Torah forbids then why not permit everything the Torah forbids?   What will stop us from having a Kiddush for an incestual couple if we have one for a homosexual one?  It’s a good question that deserves a serious answer.

The Mishnah (Megilah 25a) states: “One who is leading the prayer service and prays, “Even unto a mother bird does your mercy extend”…we quiet him.””  The Talmud records two opinions as to why this is so (each is an opinion of a different Rabbi named Yosi); either, (1) because we will create jealousy among the creatures (since God is singling out the bird for special treatment), or (2) because this prayer leader is depicting the Torah’s commandments as motivated by mercy and they are nothing more than decrees of the King (with no moral motivation such as mercy behind them).  This Gemara is presenting both sides of the argument -the opinion that mitzvot have no reasons (even those miztvot which seem to reflect moral intentions) and the opinion which holds that the purpose of all Mitzvot are to teach us to be just, merciful and moral.

With regard to this question of the meaning or lack thereof behind the mitzvoth, Maimonides in his book of Jewish law (Mishnah Torah), seems to contradict his opinion in his book of Philosophy (Guide for the Perplexed).  In the Mishna Torah he writes (Laws of Prayer 9:7) that the mitzvoth in general and the mitzvah of sending away the mother bird before takimg her eggs in particular, are decrees and not motivated by mercy, yet in the Guide (III:48)  he writes that this mitzvah and all mitzvoth have rational reasons.  Indeed Maimonides writes that the reasons for all mitzvoth are either to cultivate greater character in us or to correct our ways of thinking.

On this Shabbat, the Shabbat of chukim (laws that do not have reasons) how are we to reconcile this contradiction in Maimonides and indeed this divergence of thought throughout Jewish history?  Do we perform Mitzvot because they are moral and will cultivate greater character and rachamim, mercy, or because they are, plan and simple, just the decree of the King and nothing more?

It is important to note that according to the Talmud we are commanded to imitate certain characteristics and certain acts of the Divine.  The Gemara takes the verse in Deuteronomy which commands us to “walk in God’s ways,” as a commandment to imitate God’s characteristics of mercy and graciousness, “mah hu rachum, af ata rachum.”  This is done, the Talmud says in another place, by imitating four things that God does in the torah: clothing the naked (Adam and Eve), visiting the sick (Abraham), comforting the mourner (Isaac) and burying the dead (Moses).

The Talmud does not pick other things God does for us to imitate and thus be like God.  For instance, making war or wearing tifilin (the midrash).  Why not?   Why don’t all mitzvoth help us to follow God’s midot (characteristics), namely mercy and graciousness?  Why only these 4 mitzvot?

I think the answer to the above contradiction in the Rambam (Maimonides) and to understanding this age old argument as to whether mitzvoth are an expression of morality or not lies in the 6th chapter of Maimonides’s introduction to Pirkey Avot (the Shmoneh Pirakim, The Eight Chapters).  There the Rambam is bothered by a conflict between the secular (Greek) philosophers and the Talmud.  According to the Talmud if one passes by a restaurant and smells milk and meat cooking together one should not say, “I hate milk and meat cooked together,” but rather should say, “I would like to eat it , yet what can I do my Father in heaven has forbidden it from me.”  This seems opposed to what  Aristotle writes that one should cultivate their moral sensitivities to reach a level where one is repulsed by evil and drawn to the good; it seems the Talmud would be in disagreement with Aristotle feeling one should desire that which is forbidden and then resist it.  (I guess the Rambam was Morethodox since he takes secular philosophy so seriously, but that is for another post).

The Rambam’s answer is a profound one, and I think important for understanding mitzvoth in general and especially those mitzvoth which conflict with our moral sensibilities.  The Rambam says that the Talmud and Aristotle are actually in agreement.   If one finds killing and stealing repugnant, as well as other mitzvoth that come from our moral sense, then both Aristotle and the Talmud would agree that person has cultivated a more refined moral self.  In this realm it is better to say “I do not want to,” than to say “I want but God has forbidden it.”  When it comes to not eating non-kosher food however there is no such moral sensibility to be cultivated.  Eating kosher as well as all other ritual mitzvot have nothing to do with morality.  They are, in the words of the Talmud, only a decree of the king, nothing more, certainly not a violation of a moral principal or for purposes of cultivating character sensibilities.   It is meaningless to say one has reached a level of greater moral refinement, or for that matter according to the Rambam greater spiritual sensitivity, when one is repulsed by meat and milk cooked together.  There is no greater meaning in mitzvoth than being solely the decree of the King unless those mitzvoth are clearly in the realm of morality, rationally understood mitzvoth which have mercy or compassion as their basis.   Hence the Gemara’s statement is not in conflict with Aristotle.

In answer to Rick’s question on my post from last week about welcoming gay Jews, I would argue that many of the Torah’s sexual commandments are in the Rambam’s category of milk and meat, having nothing to do with morality, but rather the “decree of the King.”   Therefore just because the Torah forbids both homosexual sexual acts and incestual sexual acts does not mean that they are morally equivalent   (though the acts may be halachically equivalent). The Torah forbids intercourse with one’s aunt and permits it with one’s uncle.  We must conduct ourselves in accordance with this because it is commanded by our holy torah, but this does not mean that one is moral and one immoral.  We do not need to conclude that one who marries their uncle is a moral person and one who marries their aunt an immoral person.  We can only say that one act is sinful, and the other not.  The same is true of homosexuality.  We can say it is forbidden but I don’t think we can say it is in same moral realm as incest.  When presented with a person who commits crimes that are morally based, such as killing, stealing or oppressing others, we can conclude that they are lacking moral refinement and we should beware of the effect they may have upon others.

We need not worry that welcoming homosexual Jews into our community means we have no moral compass and tomorrow we will welcome adults who commit sexual acts with children (which is not actually one of the sexual sins in the torah) or brothers and sisters who want to marry.  Those are morally repugnant to us if we are morally refined people.  The torah wants us to have a moral compass, this is the function of being merciful and gracious, the two midot we are supposed to imitate about god.   Is it moral to welcome people into shul who are gay?  That is a moral question, outside the purview of halacha.   Should we welcome people who are mean?   Who steal?  Who cheat on their taxes?  Who would like to murder?  No.  Those are people with less refined moral sensitivities and we should be wary of it rubbing off on us.   People who don’t keep kosher?   People who eat milk and meat together?  They are not immoral; sinful yes, but not immoral.

So Rick fear not, there is no danger that in welcoming gays into our shuls, which is not halachically forbidden, (and I think is an act of rachum and chanun and therefore indeed a moral act) that we should fear a Kiddush on behalf of an incestual couple (which would not be moral).  Is gay male sex an issur diorite (forbidden by the torah?), yes.  Is it immoral in our society?  Not today.   Is sex between a 30 year old man and a 10 year old girl asur (forbidden)?  No.  Is it immoral?  Of course.   I’m not saying who we should give aliot to, I am just saying that homosexuality (and marying your aunt for that matter)  is not morally equivalent to other forbidden relationships.

14 Responses to Is the Torah Moral? Parshat Chukat and Ta’amey Hamitzvot (Reasons for the Commandments) and an Answer to Rick -by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

  1. Greene says:

    While I appreciate your distinction between Halacha and morality, I believe that there is another layer. Morality is based upon the norms of society and can change. Thirty years ago there would be little disagreement that homosexual behavior was immoral. Today that is not the case. It is possible that in the future certain relationships (step brother and step sister, Uncle and niece, or even brother and sister) may lose the tag immoral but the Halachic system still applies.

  2. I think you’ve identified the problems MO has right off the top:

    > Having a Kiddush to celebrate the commitment of two homosexuals to raising a family together (which is not forbidden)

    Really? It would be okay from a Jewish perspective to put a child into such an environment? Would you knowingly put a child you wanted to be observant into a home where Shabbos was maligned week after week? Or one in which the only choice for breakfast would be some form of pig? You have two adults committed to a lifestyle that the Torah does not approve of (and please don’t start with the whole ‘oh no, it’s just the intercourse that’s forbidden’ excuse) and you don’t have a problem celebrating that?

    > homosexuality is not immoral in our society and incest is.

    Yes, but here’s what you’re missing: in OUR society, that is the Torah observant society, both are immoral. In fact, the brother/sister example might be an easier one to take as the odds are they won’t be sexually active with one another while two gay males likely will be.

    > Do we perform Mitzvot because they are moral and will cultivate greater character and rachamim, mercy, or because they are, plan and simple, just the decree of the King and nothing more?

    The answer from the sources is the latter. And that’s important when MO folks start injecting Western concepts of morality into their Judaism.

    > Therefore just because the Torah forbids both homosexual sexual acts and incestual sexual acts does not mean that they are morally equivalent

    While the non-equivalence argument can be supported by the wording of the Torah, sometimes it’s an abomination, sometimes it’s lewd, etc. suggesting different levels of wickedness to different types of forbidden relationships, it’s interesting to note that the vast majority are punished either by kares or judicial death penalty. Saying they’re not morally equivalent is like saying Jeffrey Dahmer and Charles Mansons aren’t morally equivalent. True, but I wouldn’t want to have dinner with either of them.

    You know, years ago the Conservative figured out that homosexual intercourse was permitted. They saw that the prohibition against bestiality was right next to it and said “just as in bestiality the sex is without consent (presumable the animal’s) so the only homosexual intercourse that is forbidden is a situation of anal rape.” Of course, they had to ignore a few sections of the Gemara to do this but who cares?

    In modern America society it is moral to murder unborn babies. In Holland euthanasia is moral. Are you honestly suggesting we should derive our moral compass from secular society as opposed to Torah society?

  3. Holy Hyrax says:

    I want to say first, I enjoy your blog.

    >Therefore just because the Torah forbids both homosexual sexual acts and incestual sexual acts does not mean that they are morally equivalent (though the acts may be halachically equivalent).

    Do you know why they are not morally equivalent? It’s because you live in 21st century America. Homosexual activity is accepted in our society and incest is not. Hence, you now have to kvetch a bit that though they are both prohibited (and actually, homosexual sex is considered an abomination and I don’t remember that said about incest, though I have to check) they are not really the same morally. The reason is your outside society doesn’t consider them the same.

    Fast forward 50 years and incest is readily accepted by secular society. Some rabbi would be writing the same exact post, only now, he would be comparing it to bestiality. Saying that sure, they are BOTH deeply prohibited by Torah standards, you don’t REALLY have to consider incest immoral, and that we probably SHOULD at the very least make a l’chaim for a brother and sister raising a family together, since it’s not “technically” prohibited.

    Being merciful and gracious and like God, does not mean you always have to say “yes.” It can be a “no” as well, even though it may hurt some feelings.

    Now this is not to say orthodox communities should not include gays. After all, they are still Jews. But accepting a union like that, may just be pushing the envelope a bit. I would not say kick someone out of a community if they do, but that does not mean it should be actively encouraged.

  4. Hyim Shafner says:

    homosexuality may seem unseemly to us but that is an emotional response not a religious one. the halacha forbids it is all we can say. I am not out to say homosexual practices are ok, just to answer rick’s question. which was dosen’t it open the flood gates for all sexual relationships that the torah forbids to beseen in a less harsh light. the answer is no, they are not the same. both asur yes, but we can not say by welcoming a person suspected of one we lower our sensitivity to others. there is no such sensitivity according to the ramabam i quoted.

  5. Eli Duker says:

    You fail to address the issue of the Noachide Laws and how that affects this issue. The fact that certain are prohibited to humanity as a whole, reflects the moral character of the prohibition. Moreover the fact that the Torah teaches of that the Cannanites deserved to be removed from the Land of Israel due to these prohibitions doesn’t leave much room to doubt that the issue here is a moral one.

  6. Aaron Leibowitz says:

    In Vayikra 18:22 where the prohibition for male homosexuality appears the verse continues and says “Toeva Hu”. This is usually translated as “it is an abomination” or something along those lines. I would be interested in your understanding of what those words mean, and what you believe the Torah is telling us by adding them.

    • Hyim Shafner says:

      Sorry I did not respond earlier. You of course know the Gemara’s answer. Toavah=toeh ata bah (Nidarim 51a). “You will make a mistake through it.” Since the word is so strange even the gemara is bothered by its meaning I think the only way to figgure out its meaning is by looking at all the places the Torah uses it and seeing the commonality. The torah uses toevah in 4 places as far as I can tell. Sex between men, machzir gerushato (divorcing and remarrying one’s wife after she has been married to another man), avodah zara (idol worship), and eating non-kosher foods.

      I imagine the translation would be something like the English colloquialism-“ooh gross”.

  7. Marc Schramm says:

    While I very much want shuls to be welcoming to homosexuals (as to those who don’t keep kosher or are not shomrei Shabbos), I am not at all sure about the propriety of having a Kiddush to celebrate the commitment of two homosexuals to raising a family together. Yet I am also finding some of the response to this and other Morethodoxy essays from those to the right a mix of cogent criticisms and straw men.

    The gist of much of the criticism is the expectation of a domino effect, such that Modern Orthodoxy will perhaps inevitably lose any moorings and eventually follow the path of Conservatism. Why? Because Torah values are, it is claimed, being subsumed to non-Torah values based on whatever the current mores of society are. I do see a genuine risk here, but I think it is being overstated.

    After all, what is being advocated on Moreothodoxy is not throwing over of halacha. Rabbi Shafner explicitly says that homosexuality is a violation of halacha. Moreover, Modern Orthodoxy is far from showing a desire to fit in with all aspects of secular morality. There is no esteem given to the culture of violence. The consumer culture is not a Modern Orthodox value either, although it could be challenged more than it is (we do see some use of sumptuary laws among all shades of Orthodoxy). I have never seen any Modern Orthodox Rabbi suggest that we should be more liberated in non- or extra-marital sexual behavior (although halachically there is some room for men who have unbearable urges, but it is only among right wing frum men I have personally seen this used to fall back on when a member of their community is caught in a compromising situation). Related to this, women’s dress among those committed to Modern Orthodoxy is closer in sniyus to that of Haredim than to the culture at large (unless, perhaps, one counts conspicuous consumption as a violation of sniyus, in which case it is wealthy Haredi women who I have seen the overdoing it on average more than their Modern Orthodox peers).

    The key question then becomes: what is the basis for the distinctions in Modern Orthodoxy with regards to which aspects of current cultural standards are and are not influential? I can’t think of a pithy way of summarizing this (clarifying this should be a Modern Orthodox priority), but it involves taking cognizance of human dignity (I find the term discomfortingly high falutin’, however). That means giving more consideration to inclusiveness when dealing with issues of gender equality (I think too many on the left of Modern Orthodoxy are stretching too far on this, effectively putting this matter as a higher priority than maintaining as much achdus as possible). It also means taking cognizance of the reality that the existence of free-will does not mean that the challenge of containing a forbidden desire it the same for all. In some cases it is a matter of “oness”, compulsion, and even where such a compulsion is resistible, we must have compassion for those struggling with these desires. In fact, it is easy to make a case that they deserve more compassion and acceptance than those dealing with far less strong desires. Keeping kosher and keeping Shabbos are easier than containing one’s basic sexual nature.

    Having said all this, I return to my feeling that having a Kiddush to celebrate the commitment of two homosexuals to raising a family together is not a good idea. I would compare it to having a kiddush for someone who has had business success in newly opening his store on Shabbos. Rabbi Shafner, you would still be able to note that the businessman (or woman) did nothing immoral, while clearly maintaining that he still violated halacha. Sure, it is technically okay to join him in celebrating merely his business success, but it is not very seemly to do so under those circumstances.

  8. Richard says:


    I don’t know where you got that quote about the Conservative movement, but I think you made that up. The responsa passed a few years ago did not allow anal intercourse.

  9. Sarah says:

    Certainly homosexuals should not be turned away from shuls, but that doesn’t mean we need to celebrate their lifestyle with a cake, either. You wouldn’t have a cake saying, “Mazal tov on driving to shul in a car.”

  10. Chaim says:


    There are many non observant individuals who are honored at othodox institutions’ annual dinners. Isn’t this “celebrating” their lifestyles or life choices. If you say that they are only being honored for their financial support, then in this case we are celebrating the couple’s committment to supporting and caring for children (whether adopted or through surragacy). One could even say that we are celebrating their going against the prevailing culture of not committing to monogomous relationships and not rearing children.

  11. […] Read Rabbi Shafner’s article here: Is the Torah Moral? […]

  12. michael says:

    The fact that we are trying to please the gay community and be all inclusive specifically at a time that this is a major issue in America should show how corrupt we have all become, and how influenced we are by the secular society. It is a crying shame. And if you are gay and just want to be accepted to ease your conscious, i would say to you “man-up(no pun intended)..if you are doing something wrong just admit it, because what you are doing will never be okay and will never be accepted even in secular society.

  13. mike says:

    I do not understand your presumption that society does not believe that gay relationships are no longer considered to be immoral. American society as a whole does not accept same sex relationships as wittnessed by the (only) few states who accept same sex marriages.

    Leaving out words such as “morality” and “religion”, If asked: Is it all right to lead a gay lifestyle?

    If you would answer :yes, then I do not understand why leading an incestual lifestyle would be different. You are simply creating a “chiluk she’ano mechalek”. If there is something immoral about an incestual relationship (and why should there be something immoral about it if it is b/w two consenting adults? who are you, or anyone for that matter to dictate standards of morality when there is no harm being done?) then likewise there should be something immoral about an homosexual relationship.

    And, if there is no immorality in homosexuality, then it must be ascertained as to why one type of consensual relationship is not immoral, while another type of consensual relationship is immoral. Saying that it is societally driven is not enough, as I am sure that just as there are those in our modern society who condone homosexuality, so too there are plenty of those in our modern society who are liberal or libertarian who would likewise condone incest b/w consenting adults.

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