Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Re’eh 5766/ August 19, 2006

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,



Hatov Vehayashar : On Religion and Morality


 Meir Roth



Interdisciplinary Studies in Hermeneutics


In this week’s reading we are commanded by way of summation:

Be careful to heed all these commandments that I enjoin upon you; thus it will go well with you and with your descendants after you forever, for you will be doing what is good and right in the sight of the Lord your G-d. (Deut. 12:28)

The Midrash (Sifre, par. 79, s.v. shemor ve-shama’ta) breaks up the phrase “good and right,” so that these two values are placed in two different spheres:

For you will be doing what is good and right – good in the eyes of Heaven, and right in the eyes of man – thus said Rabbi Akiva, and thus it is written (Prov. 3:4):  “And you will find favor and approbation in the eyes of G-d and man.”  Rabbi Ishmael says: right, in the eyes of Heaven.

A short article entitled, “Tzimtzum ve-Harhavah be-Ethica ha-Yehudit,” published by Prof. Hugo Bergman in Mahanayim, [1] presents two contradictory trends that emerge from sacred Jewish sources:   one, universal, ethical, and human, and the other, particular and ethnocentric, with commandments and sayings that contradict accepted human morality.  Bergman has great difficulty accepting the second trend as part of the Jewish outlook, and shouts the cry of the Jewish humanist, “In the final analysis we must know which of the two trends revealed here can be viewed as Jewish!  What is the Jewish theory of ethics?”  Discussing Saul’s battle against the Amalekites, which in his eyes was one of the climaxes of the religious-ethical conflict, Bergman asks:  “Is there an autonomous human morality, and accordingly, a philosophical theory of ethics which is independent of religion?!”   His question is posed with rhetorical emphasis, as if to say, there can be no justification for those “important contemporary thinkers who are opposed to this [moral autonomy], and maintain that only the Halakhah creates ethics.”

Bergman was a devout traditional Jew and, notwithstanding his broad philosophical education, came out in favor of the G-d of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and against the god of Aristotle. [2]   In his writings about the tension between religion and morality, he expressed the contradiction that arises for a Jew who, alongside his faith in the divine origins of the Torah, also stands for the humanist values of justice and equality for all; how can one ascribe to a humanist Judaism that is in line with autonomous morality, on the one hand, and the Judaism of heteronomic commands that do not fit with natural human morality, on the other?  If the tension between religion and morality in Judaism is phrased in these terms, and if apologetic responses do not satisfy the questioner, he indeed has a serious problem on his hands, not to speak of religious-moral disappointment.

In this limited context we have no pretensions of suggesting a resolution of this tension, about which reams of material have been written, and perhaps there is no answer that does away with all the discomfort caused by it; rather, we shall attempt to pose the question of religion and morality somewhat differently, in a manner more suitable to the context of the relationship between Man and G-d that does not conflict with the human sense of morality and conscience.

It was a mathematician of Jewish origin, Georg Kantor by name, [3] who in 1867 submitted a doctoral dissertation to the University of Berlin with the peculiar title, “In mathematics, phrasing the questions is more important than providing the solutions.”  Perhaps this concise insight is even more apt to the case at hand, where attempting to arrive at a comprehensive solution of the problem may be pretentious and perhaps even to no avail.

Rabbi Barukh Epstein, author of Torah Temimah, has interpreted Rabbi Akiva’s above-cited remark as follows:

Nothing whose end point and purpose cannot be foreseen can be said to be good...  Accordingly, that which is seen as good in human eyes could be called right – that which appears to the eyes to be right in its time – but not good, since the teleology of the word good requires knowing the future consequences of things, which human beings, since they are shortsighted, cannot see; and therefore, according to R. Akiva,  one cannot speak of something which is good in the eyes of man, rather only of good in the eyes of Heaven, who sees the ultimate purpose and end of things.

Following the Torah Temimah, let us suggest the following way of phrasing the tension between religion and morality:

Since the good that is derived from an act depends on its consequences, and not only on the motives of the actor, only G-d, whose knowledge is unlimited in time, knows what is truly good.   Whereas a human being can judge an act only at the given moment it is done, according to the data at hand at that time, applying the best of his or her judgment and conscience to examine the rightness of the act – that is the best a human being can do.

This explanation does not solve the dilemma or remove its edge, rather it points to the importance of placing the problem in a religious-Jewish context that fits in with the relationship between human beings and G-d.  By what has been said above, the dilemma between religion and morality arises because we judge a given act only from a specific point in time, but to asses it correctly we need a perspective that also covers past and future, and that we cannot always attain.

Another theme that comes up in this week’s reading, also having a moral dimension, is the permission given to eat meat to satisfy the appetite (as opposed to meat eaten as  a sacrifice).  The theme of eating meat goes through several stages in the Torah.   Initially, it was forbidden to humans as food, then after the Flood it was permitted to Noah and his sons, with the warning not to eat flesh torn from a live animal.   In the wilderness, however, the Israelites were permitted to eat only sacrificial meat.   It was only when they entered the land that they were permitted to eat meat that was not consecrated as a sacrifice.  Rabbi Kook explains the significance of the developments regarding this command, changes that were related to time and place:

In this lies the virtue of a morality anchored to its Divine source, in that it knows the correct timing for every design. Sometimes it withholds its impetus in order to husband its strength for a later period. But this the impatience of a morality divorced from its source cannot abide. [4]

 Nehamah Leibowitz, who cited the above passage of Rabbi Kook, goes on to summarize the argument: [5]

An autonomous ethic (divorced from religion) cannot feel its way gradually and cautiously and even sometimes make concessions. It knows only the categorical imperative, whereas the Torah knows gradualness. In R. Kook’s opinion, a categorical prohibition of meat would never have been   observed, would not have cultivated compassion to animals but would have driven man, uncontrolled in his appetite for bloodshed, to satisfy it not only by the slaughter of animals.

Paradoxically, it is the word of the Lord that can undergo mutations that are dependant on cultural, social and moral conditions; whereas a humanistic morality, whose authors are capable only of seeking the “right”, cannot be as flexible, since any change could open the door to moral corruption and cynical exploitation of the laws of morality.

[1] Mahanayim, Issue 100, IDF – Chief Military Rabbinate, Tishre-Heshvan 5726 (1966). See also Samuel H. Bergman, Faith and Reason : An Introduction to Modern Jewish Thought; trans. and edited by Alfred Jospe, Washington : B'nai B'rith Hillel Foundations,  1961.

[2] See Ani Ma’amin, Divrei S. H. Bergman be-Yom Holadeto ha-80, in Mish’ol, Am Oved 1976.

[3] Georg Kantor (1918-1945), German mathematician and father of modern set theory, of Jewish descent on his father’s side.  He lent expression to his Jewish origins in his monumental work in set theory by leaving the world the letter aleph from the Hebrew alphabet as the mathematical symbol denoting the cardinality of a set.

[4] Rabbi Kook, Talelei Orot, ch. 8.


[5]  Studies in Devarim, trans. Aryeh Newman, Jerusalem 1980. p. 139.