By Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried
Dear Rabbi Fried,
In a previous letter you cited the presence of absolute morals in the world as a proof of God’s existence. How else could we all know and agree that Hitler’s murder of millions of innocents was absolutely wrong, when he believed he was doing something for the betterment of mankind?
Initially, I found this to be a phenomenal proof. However, what bothers me is, why can’t morals simply be the self-understood laws of the land? For civilization to exist, basic understandings need to be in place. We know that if we allowed rampant murder, we would essentially be inviting death to all of the human race; therefore, we know that what Hitler did was wrong, because it was a form of self-destruction to society. (Hitler himself rationalized it due to an affliction of madness in his own brain, but society as a whole abhors such behavior.)
Here’s a question: If someone broke into your home, could he argue that he was morally correct? What if he told you that he was hungry and he knew you had money, so he took some to keep from starving? Would you press charges? And how is he different from Hitler, who also felt he was doing the ultimate good? On the other hand, if anyone and everyone can invent their own morals, those morals can no longer hold anyone down and will lose their whole purpose! Morals, by their very definition, must be logical (“what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours”), with no exception. So where do morals come from?
Additionally, from a Torah perspective, if morals are logical, then how can we explain a chok (i.e., a mitzvah we do without understanding its rationale)?
Moshe G., New Jersey
Maimonides, in his “Commentary to the Mishnah,” expounds on a concept which will shed light upon your question (Shemonah Perakim, chapter 6). The Talmudic sages have stated that one should not say, “I’m disgusted by non-kosher food,” or any other prohibition in the Torah. Rather one should say, “I would love to eat that. It looks delicious, but what can I do? My Father in Heaven has decreed upon me to refrain from it.” If we refrain only because we have developed a disgust for such a food or other prohibition, then we are not refraining because of God’s command and we will receive no reward for not consuming it.
This concept, explains Maimonides, applies only to those mitzvot which are under the category of chok: those mitzvot that people in the world at large do not fulfill because they do not understand the rationale. There are, however, a number of mitzvot under the category of mitzvot sichlis, rational mitzvot that are widely accepted and understood in all of society — such as refraining from theft, from murder, from dishonoring parents and the like. One should not say, “I wish I could murder, but what can I do? My Father in Heaven decreed not to!” A person should abhor the violation of any mitzvah sichlis because that would clearly run against the grain of normalcy and society.
My understanding of Maimonides is that God, in His desire that a functioning society should be the normal state of mankind, programmed certain mitzvot into the psyche of man as part of his creation. Just as He programmed the heart to beat and the mind to think and understand basic rules for living, He hard-wired mankind to abhor murder and theft. This does not pre-empt the possibility for a person to intentionally warp their mind and justify those very things, just as there are people who willingly inflict harm upon themselves or perform acts which will clearly jeopardize their health, safety and well-being. All of this is in the realm of free choice. But the healthy, uncluttered and functioning mind refrains from foods or activities that can endanger the person, and likewise such a mind adheres to mitzvot sichlis. That is the source of underlying morals of society which span the generations and are considered common sense, despite religion or the lack thereof.
This does not mean the morals are illogical. God created man’s logic around these common-sense mitzvot. What remains in the category of chok are all the mitzvot that society’s common sense is not molded around, such as kosher and the like. Hitler and all those of his kind, despite their warped sense of what is good for humanity, are obviously and clearly in violation of the common sense that is hard-wired into our minds for all time.
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.