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.