Natural Morality and Halakhah

What’s the relationship between a human’s intuitive sense of what’s moral and halachic mandate? There is a tendency in some circles to describe the Torah as though halakhah was the sum total of the guidelines Hashem gave us for behavior.

This is belied by a number of the mitzvos that require we follow some sense of “right” or “holy” that isn’t spelled out in behavioral terms. That we must know what “good” means beyond doing what is detailed through halachic methodology  in order to obey them. For example “be holy, for I am Holy” which the Ramban famously tells us is an obligation not to be “disgusting with [what would otherwise be] the permission of the Torah”. By definition, the Ramban assumes there is a definition of “disgusting” that isn’t defined by halachic process. Or “and you shall do hayashar vehatov — the upright and the good” . Qedushah, yosher and tov are treated as givens, that a person is expected to know what they are before one can even begin to explore the halachic mandate.

One can accordingly translate HIllel’s famous words to the prospective ger, “That which you would loathe [if in their shoes] don’t do to others. Now go and learn” into “All of the Torah is an elaboration of natural morality. However, you would never figure out how to reach the right conclusions from those principles unless you go study Torah.”

It’s like saying that all of biology is inherent in Physics. Even that said, you would never be able to derive biology on your own. If we were to rely on our ability to build the system ourselves from the first principles we would quickly exceed human capacity; errors would necessarily be made That’s the role of halakhah, to allow us to work with notions closer to our question than the basic moral principle from which they derive.

Along similar lines is the mitzvah of “vehalakhta bidrakhav — and you shall go in My Ways”, which our sages elaborate (this version is from the Rambam, Hilkhos Dei’os 1:6) “Just as He is called ‘goodwilled’ (חנון), so too you must be goodwilled; just as He is called Merciful, so too you must be Merciful…” Hilkhos Dei’os, Chovos haLvavos — entire texts based on the notion that one must be a moral being.

The Rambam writes:

Moses prayed to God to grant him knowledge of His attributes, and also pardon for His people; when the latter had been granted, he continued to pray for the knowledge of God’s essence in the words, “Show me thy glory” ([Exod. xxxiii.] 18), and then received, respecting his first request, “Show me thy way,” the following favourable reply, “I will make all my goodness to pass before thee” (ib. 19); as regards the second request, however, he was told, “Thou canst not see my face” (ib. 20). The words “all my goodness” imply that God promised to show him the whole creation, concerning which it has been stated, “And God saw everything that he had made, and, behold, it was very good” (Gen. i. 31); when I say “to show him the whole creation,” I mean to imply that God promised to make him comprehend the nature of all things, their relation to each other, and the way they are governed by God both in reference to the universe as a whole and to each creature in particular. This knowledge is referred to when we are told of Moses,” he is firmly established in all mine house” (Num. xii. 7); that is, “his knowledge of all the creatures in My universe is correct and firmly established”; for false opinions are not firmly established. Consequently the knowledge of the works of God is the knowledge of His attributes, by which He can be known. The fact that God promised Moses to give him a knowledge of His works, may be inferred from the circumstance that God taught him such attributes as refer exclusively to His works, viz., “merciful and gracious, longsuffering and abundant in goodness,” etc., (Exod. xxxiv.  6). It is therefore clear that the ways which Moses wished to know, and which God taught him, are the actions emanating from God. Our Sages call them middoth (qualities), and speak of the thirteen middoth of God (Talm. B. Rosh ha-shanah, p. 17b)…Moshe’s ability to be the conduit for the Torah and the fountainhead for the halachic process was his being shown the morality inherent in how G-d made and runs the world.

- Guide to the Perplexed I:54 (Freidlander translation)

The revalation of Hashem’s attributes was fulfilled in showing Moshe how He runs the universe. That revalation gave Moshe the ability to “walk in His ways”. But more than that, the Rambam writes later in that chapter:

By the mention of this attribute we are, as it were, told that His commandments, undoubtedly in harmony with His acts, include the death even of the little children of idolaters because of the sin of their fathers and grandfathers. This principle we find frequently applied in the Law, as, e.g., we read concerning the city that has been led astray to idolatry, “destroy it utterly, and all that is therein” (Deut. xiii. 15). All this has been ordained in order that every vestige of that which would lead to great injury should he blotted out, as we have explained.

As the Torah states

וַיֹּ֣אמֶר ה֔’ הִנֵּ֥ה מָק֖וֹם אִתִּ֑י וְנִצַּבְתָּ֖ עַל־הַצּֽוּר׃ וְהָיָה֙ בַּֽעֲבֹ֣ר כְּבֹדִ֔י וְשַׂמְתִּ֖יךָ בְּנִקְרַ֣ת הַצּ֑וּר וְשַׂכֹּתִ֥י כַפִּ֛י עָלֶ֖יךָ עַד־עָבְרִֽי׃ וַהֲסִֽרֹתִי֙ אֶת־כַּפִּ֔י וְרָאִ֖יתָ אֶת־אֲחֹרָ֑י וּפָנַ֖י לֹ֥א יֵֽרָאֽוּ׃
וַיֹּ֤אמֶר ה֙’ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה פְּסָל־לְךָ֛ שְׁנֵֽי־לֻחֹ֥ת אֲבָנִ֖ים כָּרִֽאשֹׁנִ֑ים וְכָֽתַבְתִּי֙ עַל־הַלֻּחֹ֔ת אֶ֨ת־הַדְּבָרִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר הָי֛וּ עַל־הַלֻּחֹ֥ת הָרִֽאשֹׁנִ֖ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר שִׁבַּֽרְתָּ׃

Hashem said: Here, there is a place with Me, and you shall stand on the boulder. When I pass my Glory by, I will place you in a cleft in the boulder and I will remove My “Palm” and you will see My “Back”, but My “Face” will not be seen.

Hashem said to Moshe: Carve for yourself two stone tablets like the first ones, and I will write on the tables the ideas which were on the first tablets which you shattered.

– Shemos 33:21-34:1

Natuaral moral law is expressed in halakhah. The connection is not self-evident, and in fact requires Divine Intellect to accurately get from “that which you loathe…” to the laws of making tea on Shabbos. But Hillel, the Ramban and the Rambam all tell us that our intuitive notion of right is in line with the principles of halakhah. It is from seeing Hashem’s creation that Moshe was prepared to carve the second luchos. And thus, where not contradicted by those non-obvious cases, we are required to follow natural morality. That’s qedushah, tov and yosher.

1984, NewSpeak and the Holy Language

A long while back I wrote some thoughts on the dispute between the Ramban and the Rambam about what makes Hebrew the holy language, in the context of a general dispute over the context of qedushah. The Rambam says that Hebrew’s holiness comes from it having no native expletives, even sexual organs are identified by euphemisms or loan words. The Ramban, just as he defines “and you shall be holy” as going beyond the letter of the law, defines the sanctity of the Hebrew language in terms of its relationship to G-dliness — not “merely” that it toes the halachic line.

Along the lines of the Ramban, I want to explore the relationship between language and thought. Your mind is less capable of managing those ideas if you’re thinking in a different lexicon and grammar. Knowing the assumptions behind the language is actually a precondition for correctly understanding the worldview! This is my justification for spending time looking at verb tenses and parts of speech in the Hebrew of the Tanakh,  or the implication of the hononimity of “tov meaning both “functionally good” (it does its job well) and “morally good” (such as a good person), or the numerous times I start the discussion of a topic with the etymology of the root of the Hebrew term.

To quote 1984 (George Orwell, 1948) the story’s Ingsoc (English Socialist] leaders invented the language of NewsSpeak for this reason:

The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible. It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought–that is, a thought diverging from the principles of Ingsoc — should be literally unthinkable, at least as far as thought is dependent on words. Its vocabulary was so constructed as to give exact and often very subtle expression to every meaning that a Party member could properly wish to express, while excluding all other meanings and also the possibility of arriving at them by indirect method. This was done partly by the invention of new words and by stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings, and so far as possible of all secondary meanings whatever…A person growing up with Newspeak as his sole language would no more know that ‘equal’ had once had the secondary meaning of “politically equal,” or that ‘free’ had once meant “intellectually free,” than, for instance, a person who had never heard of chess would be aware of the secondary meanings attaching to ‘queen’ or ‘rook.’ There would be many crimes and errors which it would be beyond his power to commit, simply because they were nameless and therefore unimaginable.

This is an informal form of a notion in linguistics called the “Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis”, formulated by Edward Sapir and further developed by his student, Benjamin Lee Whorf. Here is  Sapir’s formulation (The Status of Linguistics as a Science, 1929):

Human beings do not live in the objective world alone, nor alone in the world of social activity as ordinarily understood, but are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the
medium of expression in their society. It is quite an illusion to imagine that one adjusts to reality essentially without the use of language and that language is merely an incidental means of solving specific problems of communication or reflection: The fact of the matter is that the ‘real world’ is to a large extent unconsciously built up on the language habits of the group. No two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality. The worlds in which different societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the same world with different labels attached… Even comparatively simple acts of perception are very much more at the mercy of the social patterns called words than we might suppose…We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation.

And Whorf writes in “Science and Linguistics” (1956 edition):

We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages. The categories and types that we isolate from the world of phenomena we do not find there because they stare every observer in the face; on the contrary, the world is presented in a kaleidoscopic flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds — and this means largely by the linguistic systems in our minds. We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, and ascribe significances as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this way — an agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of our language. The agreement is, of course, an implicit and unstated one, but its terms are absolutely obligatory; we cannot talk at all except by subscribing to the organization and classification of data which the agreement decrees.

Similarly (but lehavdil!), the language the Torah was given in and which was shaped by a community that followed it will make it easier to think along the same lines.

Emergency Doors

My current employer is meticulous about hanging mezuzos. He hired a rav who is an expert in this particular mitzvah, and he went around identifying every doorway. (Some of which are non-obvious, like where the metal between the tiles in the ceiling makes the top of the “door-frame”.)

On the way down the hall, I did a double-take. There was the alarmed emergency door, with the mezuzah on the left and angled the wrong way. It was as though the rabbi decided that unlike every other doorway from the hall, this one ran in the other direction — into the hall rather than outward from it. It actually took me over a day before I realized why — from the outside, this door is the entrance to the hall. You enter through the lobby, up the stairs and through the emergency door and into the hall. Whereas the other doors are from the hall to a particular destination.

And it took me another day to realize the basic mussar point, why the mezuzah‘s placement was non-obvious to me.

When I think of an emergency, I’m thinking of how I would escape. How the door would get me out of the hall in case of a fire. However, if there were a fire on one of the higher floors, the door would be used to let them escape to a lower level. There is a self-centerdness, at least when thinking of survival, that kept me from thinking of the doorway objectively, as being a way in in addition to being a way out.