… The rest is commentary

(More material added on May 30th.)

There is a famous story in the gemara (Shabbos 31a) about three prospective converts who each came to Shammai saying that they want to convert but only if he meets some absurd condition. In all three cases, Shammai turns them away, they go to Hillel, who accepts them, they convert and they drop their requirement. The gemara describes the second one as follows:

Again it happened that a non-Jew came before Shammai and said to him, “Make me a proselyte, on condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot.” Thereupon he pushed him away with the builder’s ammah-stick which was in his hand. When he went before Hillel, he said to him, “What you hate, do not do to your peer: that is the whole Torah, the rest is the commentary. Go and learn it.”

There is much to be said about the story. For example, the prospective convert uses the idiom “while I stand on one leg”, rather than saying “summarize”. And Hillel’s reply is to establish the whole Torah on one leg, on one principle. Perhaps Shammai’s response is that Torah is about the measures and sizes, and can’t be explained without all the details of the halakhah. That the Torah is about the legal structure that Hashem and the Jewish people build in a redemptive partnership (to describe it in terminology from Ish haHalakhah).

But the point that hit me this morning that motivated this post was something else.

Is there a natural morality, an innate sense of right and wrong? Somehow all of humanity labels theft and murder as evil. Everyone has a yeitzer hatov calling him to good and yeitzer hara pulling the other way. And yet, a tinoq shenishba, a child raised in a home devoid of Torah values, is judged more leniently because of that experience. We do not assume it’s innate in him as well.

Rav Soloveitchik notes on a number of occasions that every mitzvah in the Torah has an element of choq, of incomprehensible law followed purely because G-d said so — the opposite of a natural morality. For example, without the revelation of halakhah, would we know whether the concept of murder should or shouldn’t include abortion? What about euthanasia? At what point is a person already dead? Do you endanger many to save one life? Halakhah gives us the tools to make determinations that innate morality is not equipped to answer.

However, in other cases the halakhah is simply to do what’s right. “Be holy, for I Am holy”, which the Ramban famously explains as a prohibition against being “disgusting with [what would otherwise be] the permission of the Torah”. How does one define menuval, someone who is disgusting? “veAsisa hatov vehayashar — And you shall do the good and the straight.” It is presumed we have an innate definition of holiness, good, and rectitude that the Torah is commanding us to follow that extends beyond the other, more legally styled, mitzvos.

So, we are outright commanded to be moral in ways beyond those spelled out in legal terms. We must be holy, we must be tov veyashar. How are we to know what these mean? The case for a Natural Morality seems impeccable.

Natural morality is based on empathy. “What you hate, do not do to your peer.” In a somewhat flawed way, it drives the Notzri Golden Rule, as well as the Hindu concept of Karma. (The Golden Rule, by the way, would require my giving away all I own to the next person I meet, wait hand on foot on others, etc… Taken at its word, the creed is un-livable.) I know something is wrong because I wouldn’t like it — and I am aware of another’s pain when I do it to them.

Morality from empathy is limited, as we pointed out above. Even though there exists a simple underlying morality, it is being applied to a complex world. Results are often surprising and counterintuitive. And so, Hashem gave us a book and a process to help explicate the problem. Rather than trying to deduce behavior through that complex mapping of effects and side-effects, on impacts of things we can’t fully understand like our minds and souls, Hashem gives us a law, a set of applications. The relationship between halakhah and natural morality is that between quantum mechanics and endocrinology. It is theoretically possible to deduce endocrinology by studying the problem in terms of subatomic particles and the four basic forces. In practice, no one is up to the task, and an attempt to do is bound to occasionally lead to mistakes that are the direct opposite of reality. It is easier and more reliable to treat a diabetic by studying endocrinology directly.

However, even though it is limited, such natural morality is indispensible. In cases where the letter of all the specifically phrased halakhos permit, we may find that it allows disgusting, unholy, evil or perverted behaviors as we naturally understand the terms. These too are prohibited.

Particularly in the realm of interpersonal mitzvos, these must arise often. When exploring man’s relationship with Hashem, it is extremely difficult if possible to picture “what would we hateful to me” if I were (so to speak) in His Situation. However, when deciding whether or not someone should get paid, such analysis are actually tractable.
The Sho’eil uMeishiv 1:44 prohibits copyright violations on these grounds. Beyond simply “the law of the land is [Torah] law”, the obligation to observe local civil law (when not designed for persecuting Jews), he argues that any moral right defined by general society must be observed halachically. Once society recognizes intellectual property, it has halachic significance. I would argue that this too resides in the obligation to “do the good and the upright”.

I think the same must be kept in mind when looking at cases in the many English popularizations of the laws of finance and business. They give cases, often for the purpose of showing the non-intuitive result. However, I am not sure lenient non-intuitive results are real. How is getting away with not having to pay something you would expect on the gut level to pay qualify as “tov veyashar“?
Empathy gives general guidelines, but no tools for navigating the gray areas and the questions that involve conflicting values and priorities. Therefore one needs commentary to explain further. And that commentary one must “go and learn”. It goes beyond the innate. But it also doesn’t neglect the innate.

A Broad Life

A recurring concept in Rav Hutner’s writings on Shavu’os (Pachad Yitzchaq, no.s 5, 13, 40) is the idea that talmud Torah isn’t limited to sitting in front of a book.

Why do we only make birkhas haTorah once a day? Tosafos explain (Berakhos 11b) “she’eino miya’eish mida’ato, shekol sha’ah chayav lilmod — because it is never lost from his thought, because at all times he is obligated to learn.” Rav Hutner adds that Tosafos don’t just mean that because the obligation is constant. Rather, part of learning Torah is “lilmod al menas la’asos — learning in order to do”. Thus, a life lived according to the Torah is not a break in talmud Torah, but part of the fulfillment of the obligation.

He uses the same idea to explain what would seem like two extra words in the Rambam (Talmud Torah 13). If someone is in the middle of learning, and a mitzvah arises. If the mitzvah can be done by someone else, the person should not stop his learning. However, if it can not, either because no one around is capable, or because the mitzvah is incombent on this particular individual, then he should stop — “veyachazor lelimudo — and he should return to his study.” Why does the Rambam need to tell us that he should return to studying?

How the person acts when the mitzvah is complete tells us something about how he did the mitzvah. Stopping one’s learning is only permitted because it is lilmod al menas la’asos. If the mitzvah is being done as part of a life-long commitment to Torah, then of course the person would return to his study as soon as he is able.

The halakhah is that if someone forgot to say birkhas haTorah and said Ahavah Rabbah before Shema, he needn’t say birkhas haTorah. Ahavah Rabbah qualifies as a birkhas haTorah. How? The berakhah refers not only to learning Torah, but also to fulfilling mitzvos?

Again Rav Hutner explains that other mitzvos are not a break from talmud Torah, but rather are a fulfillment of lilmod al menas la’asos.

Last, he invokes the same idea to explain the words of Reish Laqish (Menachos 99). Commenting on the verse “asher shibarta — which you have broken”, Reish Laqish says that Hashem is praising Moshe for breaking them. And this is used to demonstrate the idea that “pe’amim shebitulo zu hi qiyumo — there are times that [Torah's] nullification is its fulfillment”. Fulfilling the Torah’s ways is part of talmud Torah, even when that meant destroying the very Torah itself.

So far we discussed the concept of mitzvos, but Rav Hutner’s tendency toward breadth goes much further than that.

In Rav Hutner’s Igeros (pg. 84), he answers a student who felt like he was split, living a double life — a life of Torah and a secular life centered a career. Rav Hutner answered with a metaphor: If a person has a home, and in addition he takes a room in a hotel, he is living a double life. But if the person has a home that has two rooms, he is not living a double life, he is living a broad life.

By placing it all only one roof, there is a broad unity, not a split.

(This sentiment is strongly aligned with that of Rav Hirsch’s Torah im Derekh Eretz. But an analysis of the different ways different acharonim modeled this relationship is for another time.)

In Pachad Yitzchaq, Pesach (#69), Rav Hutner comments on the opening verse of “Shir haShirim asher liShlomo — A song of songs, which is Solomon’s”. Why is Shir haShirim called “of Shelomo’s” in a way that his other works, Mishlei and Qoheles, are not?

Rav Hutner describes the greatness of Shelomo’s generation was that it went beyond the usual celebratory event, the victory of good over evil that we find David praising in song. Rather, in Shelomo’s day there was also a victory of the secular by the holy. There was no truely secular, because everything served the holy.

This is a recurring thought in Rav Hutner’s thought — the role of “reshus” (the permissable, as opposed to the prohibited or the mandatory) and how does one sanctify it.

There are two ways to do so. The first is by using reshus to accomplish things that allow you to accomplish more qedushah. (This thought is also found in the introduction to Alei Shur, as a way to live a fully sacred life.)

The other is to see the secular world as a metaphor for the deeper truth. “Bekhol derakhakha da’eihu — know Him in all your ways.” Sleep could be simply a creature comfort, it could be a way to rest for a day of holy activities, and it could also be a metaphor through which we can understand the concept of techiyas hameisim (resurrection of the dead). This connection is made by E-lokai, neshamah shanasata bi. Upon waking up, we remember that Hashem will restore that soul after death.
Shir haShirim uses romantic love in this way, giving it as a way to understand the love between Hashem and His creation. Thus, it is more fully representative of the accomplishments of Shelomo’s time than his other works.

A life of Torah must include reshus, placing one’s second room under the same roof. Without which even the mitzvah of talmud Torah is itself incomplete. And that is why that student’s pursuit of a career did not necessitate his making a second birkhas haTorah.

Returning back to his letter to the student who felt like he lived a double life, Rav Hutner explains this using a powerful statement from Chazal. “Whoever lengthens the ‘echad‘ [of Shema], they lengthen for him his days.” This statement isn’t only true of how one says Shema, but is therefore also true of living the meaning of those words. Rav Hutner tells this student who is now a professional not to consider his career a distraction. Quite the contrary! Someone who lives a Torah life, and does so as broadly as possible, has the berakhah of earning a long life.
A very powerful message to take from Shavu’os.

Ethics and Morality

Everyone else in the frum blogosphere is dealing with the questions Richard Dawkins raises in his book “The God Delusion”, and whether morality is possible without religion. So why shouldn’t I?

I want to introduce a few distinctions that in my humble opinion are necessary for having a clear conversation of the subject.

Morality vs. Ethics

Morality is defined in term of conduct. It’s from the Latin “moralis”, meaning custom or manner. It is therefore possible to be moral just because one is doing the right thing.

Ethics is from the Greek “ethos”, which describes a person’s character. A person can only be ethical if he believes he was created for a higher purpose, and aspires to live for that higher calling.

(An interesting tangent is what this says about Greek culture vs. Roman.)

The contemporary atheist, like Dawkins, believes their “higher calling” is merely that a particular kind of self-replicating molecule replicates well with all the baggage of producing a Dawkins to provide the right “soup”.

What then is the purpose of one’s life? To do anything possible to make your genes, those molecules, propagate. But if one tries to turn that purpose into a calling, the result is paradoxical: The higher calling, man’s attempt to do more than merely live is itself life, the thing it is supposed to be higher than!

Is vs. Ought

Hume introduced something called the “is-ought fallacy” which I think is unavoidable without the concept of a purposive creation of man. People tend to confuse the “is” with the “ought”. They are different in kind. How does one define what ought to be from observations of evidence of what is?

I suggested in an earlier blog entry that it takes the notion of our existence to have a purpose and a goal in order to avoid Euthyphro’s Paradox. (To convert the paradox to Jewish terms: Is being good an arbitrary choice of Hashem, and therefore of no inherent meaning? Or are we saying that Hashem is subject to an externally imposed morality?)

My resolution (which I recommend reading in full, rather than relying on this excerpt) was:

I would argue that HQBH created the world with a tachlis, a purpose, He placed each of us in it with a tachlis, and what is righteous is righteous because it is in accordance with furthering that tachlis. This fits Rav Hirsch’s etymology for “ra“, being related to /רעע/, to shatter. It also explains why the word “tov” means both good in the moral sense (not evil) as well as in the functional sense (not ineffective, as in “a good toothpaste prevents cavities”). … Moral tov derives from the functional tov. Hashem chose “Do not steal” over “Take whatever makes you happy” because that’s what makes us better receptacles.

So yes, HQBH did choose good vs evil without being subject to external constraint, and yet still the choice was not arbitrary. Socrates gave Euthyphro a false dichotomy — there was a third choice. Hashem has a reason, but that reason wasn’t conforming to a preexisting morality.

Here the same issue holds. Without asserting that man’s existence is for a purpose, one can not define an ethic.

Being Ethical vs. Having a Reason for Being EthicalAnd yet… There have been atheists who died to defend their nation or their civilization. That requires a motivation for such extreme moral behavior; someone wouldn’t sacrifice so much without a noble motivation. Where would it come from?

Perhaps this question is only because everything above presumed that everything man does is reasoned. In other words, all I have argued is that man can not define an ethic, he can not explain why he would be moral. But many people do things they can not justify intellectually, or for which they have an imperfect line of reasoning. Someone could value freedom or democracy because they enjoy having them, not because they have a logical reason why their DNA should be provided one environment rather than the other, or even why replication of a particular variant of DNA has any value over any other chemical reaction (to refer back to the “is-ought fallacy”.

Where does this moral drive come from? Freud saw choice as being between the Id, the desires with which we are born, and the Super-Ego, recordings of all the rules our parents and society have placed upon us. But in Jewish thought, there is a soul. It’s not only repression of natural desire to conform to a higher calling, it’s also the satisfaction of an equally innate human need, the desires of the soul. Not believing in it doesn’t mean one can’t hear its call.

Map vs. Terrain – Personal Ethical Guidelines vs. Hashem’s Objective Absolute Values

Perhaps this ties in to the answer Hillel gave one of the people who approached him to convert. In the post “… the Rest is Commentary” I discuss his answer to the impatient convert (which again I recommend reading in full):

“What you hate, do not do to your peer: that is the whole Torah, the rest is the commentary. Go and learn it.”

Is there a natural morality, an innate sense of right and wrong? Somehow all of humanity labels theft and murder as evil. Everyone has a yeitzer hatov calling him to good and yeitzer hara pulling the other way….

Natural morality is based on empathy. “What you hate, do not do to your peer.” In a somewhat flawed way, it drives the Notzri Golden Rule, as well as the Hindu concept of Karma…. I know something is wrong because I wouldn’t like it — and I am aware of another’s pain when I do it to them.

But that morality from empathy is limited…. It gives general guidelines, but no tools for navigating the grey areas and the questions that involve conflicting values and priorities. Therefore one needs commentary to explain further. And that commentary one must “go and learn”. It goes beyond the innate.

The Torah is therefore in agreement with the general thrust of innate morality, even to those who deny the former and have no explanation for the existence of the latter. But the steps between the first principles innately known and the dictates of the Torah often make it impossible to deduce the terrain of morality without following the map Hashem gave us.

We therefore have two notions of morality: In this entry I am suggesting it means doing what we were made for. However, in that earlier entry (which was also expanded moments before this one) I wrote that being moral is all an elaboration of “what is hateful to you, do not do to your peer” and that even halakhah is only necessary because of the complexity that arises from applying a simple rule to a complex universe.

As to why the two would refer to the same notion of morality, see the first paragraph of the introduction to Sha’arei Yosher:

BLESSED SHALL BE the Creator, and exalted shall be the Maker, Who created us in His “Image” and in the likeness of His “Structure”, and planted eternal life within us, so that our greatest desire should be to do good to others, to individuals and to the masses, now and in the future, in imitation of the Creator (as it were). For everything He created and formed was according to His Will (may it be blessed), [that is] only to be good to the creations. So too His Will is that we walk in His ways. As it says “and you shall walk in His Ways” – that we, the select of what He made – should constantly hold as our purpose to sanctify our physical and spiritual powers for the good of the many, according to our abilities.

Hashem created us only for our needs, not for His; He lacks nothing. We, being in His image, are therefore also designed to give to others. Thus we were designed to be able to share in His task, to give to others just as He provides for me.

Hashem and Morality

In his essay “Euthyphro”, Plato has Socrates ask a young student named Euthyphro, “Is what is righteous righteous because the gods love it, or do the gods love it because it is righteous?” The Jewish spin would be to ask: Is an act good because HQBH chose to make it a mitzvah, or did Hashem command us to do it because it is good? What is the Source of morality?

The problem is that if you say that an act is good solely because Hashem commanded it, then He had no moral reason to tell us to do one set of things and not another. Can mitzvos be the product of Divine whim, the decision between “Thou shalt murder” and “Thou shalt not” entirely without any reason on His part? On the other hand, if there is an overarching definition of good and evil that Hashem conformed to, then we placed something “over” Him, something that even He is subject to.

I would argue that HQBH created the world with a tachlis, a purpose, He placed each of us in it with a tachlis, and what is righteous is righteous because it is in accordance with furthering that tachlis. This fits Rav Hirsch’s etymology for “ra“, being related to /רעע/, to shatter. It also explains why the word “tov” means both good in the moral sense (not evil) as well as in the functional sense (not ineffective, as in “a good toothpaste prevents cavities”). To prepare the menorah’s lamps is called “hatavas haneiros — causing the functional usability of the lamps.” Moral tov derives from the functional tov. Hashem chose “Do not steal” over “Take whatever makes you happy” because that’s what makes us better receptacles. We might have remained with two definitions of tov (and of “good”) — functional and moral. According to this line of reasoning, “good at its job” is the underlying meaning of tov in the moral sense of the word as well.

So yes, HQBH did choose good vs evil without being subject to external constraint, and yet still the choice was not arbitrary. Socrates gave Euthyphro a false dichotomy — there was a third choice. Hashem has a reason, but that reason wasn’t conforming to a preexisting morality.G-d created us because He could only bestow good if there is someone to receive that good. That is our individual purpose, to make ourselves into utensils, receptacles for emanations of Divine Good. (I once suggested to Avodah that “Qabbalah” isn’t to be translated as “that which was received”, but rather “the art of reception”.) Given that personal purpose, the definition of “tov” feeds directly into a “spiritual health” model of reward and punishment. Oneshim are the product of not being proper keilim for shefa, and therefore one is incapable of receiving the sechar. It’s not that the sechar is being withheld — the problem is with the reception.This makes following the tzavah (command) of the Melech a derivative — learning to be a good subject is part of what it takes to be a good keli. Perhaps this is why they are called mitzvos (that which were commanded) rather than tzavos (commands).

This means that of the Rambam’s ikkarei emunah, perhaps the last three are the most critical. Without an eschatology, without a final state, we have no way of defining which acts advance us to that goal, and which are ra, shattering that which was already built.

One last issue: Why should I follow the purpose for which I was created? What changes G-d’s motivation into my moral imperative?
We can prove the two are identical logically. In order for my moral choice to have any meaning, I must assume my actions have value. Otherwise, what difference does it make which actions I choose to perform? If I believe my actions have value, I am assuming my existence has value, since it makes those actions possible. And thus, presumed in the very quest for morality is the notion that the purpose for which I was created imparts value.

See also Bemachashavah Techilah for Ki Seitzei for an essay on Euthyphro’s dilemma and the concept of “to’eivah”.


R. Yitzchak Blau has an article in the Torah U-Madda Journal titled “Ivan Karamazov Revisited: The Moral Argument for Religious Belief”.Much of his argument is phrased pragmatically, IOW, R’ Blau is more likely to speak of the problems the Moral Argument (MA) leads to more than whether it’s inherently valid. The moral argument is most often used in educating youth and kiruv projects, and RYB assesses them in that light.Rabbi Blau initially argues that MA is likely to lead to one of two opposite errors:1- It makes religion a handmaiden to ethics, as religion then become about being the Divinely given morality. Or
2- By identifying religion with ethics, one makes the ethical merely an expression of religion, which which respect to Judaism means saying there is no ethic beyond the G-d-given din. Do we want to teach a Judaism that has no barrier to geneivas aku”m and the like?After proving that ge’onim and rishonim assert the existence of a natural ethic (citing R’ Nissim Gaon, Ramban, Chizquni and Rav Saadia) he ends up revamping MA to be about supplementing natural ethics with
the more refined Divine ethic. For example, one can argue the need for a Divine ethic not on the grounds of “Thou shalt not murder” but on the impossibility of natural ethic dealing with abortion, euthanasia, and the other borderline cases in any deterministic way. (This ties back to an entry written earlier this week.)I think the paper is fundamentally flawed by a lack of a basic distinction.

There are two distinct issues:
– The source of morality. Can all human beings agree that there is a concept of morality (even if we disagree about much of what morality includes) if G-d didn’t create humans with the concept of morality?
– The source of information about what morality consists of.

I would assert that MA is about the first, not the latter. Therefore, we could rely on the Torah to know what morality consists of, while still using the existence of morality as a concept to imply the existence of a religious world.

I find it interesting that RYB has a discussion of why we should obey G-d in the context of “If all ethic is from G-d, isn’t ethic arbitrary?” and using John Stuart Mill, Hobbes, Geach (the latter two saying “follow G-d or he’ll beat you up!” — far from moral imperative!), but not Plato’s Euthyphro which is this very dilemma!

Introduction to Shaarei Yosher

I recently had the honor of translating the introduction to Rav Shimon Shkop‘s Shaarei Yosher. My love of this piece is only partly because Rav Shimon was the rebbe of my rebbe, Rav Dovid Lifshitz.

In a few short pages, Rav Shimon defines holiness, gives the key to happiness and contentment, explains the path to chessed (lovingkindness), and the relationship between mussar and the rest of Torah. His answers to these questions are based on ideas we as products of today’s culture, can very well relate to; for example, chessed is defined in terms of a healthy notion of one’s own value, not an abnegation of self.

In case you missed the earlier links, the document is here (starting in English at one end, and a scan of the Hebrew starting from the other), and the Wikipedia page on Rav Shimon, here.

Birkhas Avos

This chart combines the ideas contained two earlier divrei Torah.

The first is the idea of the Vilna Gaon that the first berakhah of the Amidah, Birkhas Avos, consists of iterations of variations on Moshe’s praise for Hashem – “HaKeil, HaGadol, HaGibbor VeHanorah.” See Mesukim MiDevash – Tetzaveh pp. 3-4.

The second is the concept that the berakhah follows a structure first used by David haMelekh and appears a number of times in Na”kh. (Mesukim MiDevash – Behar pp. 3-4)

My combining the two, we not only identify the five iterations of the same basic idea, we can explain how and why they differ.

I recommend printing it on the other side of the same piece of paper as this chart on the structure of Shema, to produce a page one can keep in their siddur.

The Five Hardest Words

At Mussar Kallah V, R’ Ephraim Becker said something that really resonated with me.

Of all the phrases in English that one could say — and mean what one says — which five words are hardest?

R’ Becker offered the sentences: “I’m fine. How are you?”

To say “I’m fine” and really mean it, one must have bitachon, belief that the A-lmighty is in control, and therefore that everything that happens in one’s life happens for a good purpose.

Whenever things are going well, R’ Becker said, a strange bird called a “Yeahbut” flies into the room. My wife made me a special dinner? The Yeahbut flies in, “Yeahbut usually I get home well after dinner time, and need to reheat a cold meal.” There is always some reason why the good isn’t perfect. Even the perfect vacation must end. The yacht one always dreamed of is great until someone you know comes by with a bigger yacht.

The only way to be truly content, to be “happy with what one’s lot”, is if one has bitachon. This imbues what we have with purpose, and what we don’t have — we also know that too is for a good reason. See this thought for Shabbas Nachamu for more on the connection between spirituality and happiness.

To really ask “How are you?” you have to care about the answer, and really want to know how the other person is.

Therefore, “I’m fine. How are you?” can only really be said by someone with a strong and healthy relationship with his Creator and with other people.

Five words that contain the core of the entire Torah…