The Torah still provides the word on moral values

Do you believe that morality is complicated, that living a moral life requires dedicated years of in-depth study? Or is morality, in your opinion, something more intuitive, something any sensitive person can pick up by way of a mixture of genuine empathy and sympathy for one’s fellow man? Perhaps you may argue that a realized morality indeed requires a healthy mixture of the two.
As for myself, I find myself firmly ensconced in this third camp. I believe that intuition alone can only take us so far, and that we need help from a higher source to ultimately know that which is right and that which is wrong. And yet, I am equally mindful of the fact that all of the study in the world, all of the wisdom and guidance from on high cannot possibly establish the proper behavior and response for every given situation. That is when our sechel, our good sense, must kick in, informing us how to cater the wisdom of old to the unique situation that lies before us.
And yet, as confident as I am in this position, I am consistently reminded of how many of the people I meet feel that they can rely upon their sechel alone to ensure that they are living morally. It was a recent lunch I had with a local Sunday school teacher that showed me the broader implications of this position, upon his insistence that “you don’t need Torah anymore to teach morality.” His feeling seemed to echo this growing societal sentiment that between one’s own natural intuition and the lessons learned from living in a “good” society like our own, one indeed had everything that was needed at one’s disposal to learn to be moral.
How sad it is, by extension, that the Torah has now become, for a great many people, nothing more than a repository of ritual practices and ancestral stories. Our holy Torah is no longer appreciated as a primary source of morals and values.
To this I say, let us examine the necessary contribution of the Torah on the world of ethics.
First, there are the many ethical statutes that the Torah commands and mankind as a whole fails to recognize. Take lashon hara (“evil speech”), for example. Although most societies have some sort of law on the books against slander (as does the Torah), the Torah extends the limits of sanctioned speech to include a prohibition on sharing derogatory information that also happens to be wholly true. Add to this prohibitions such as not coveting, not straying after your heart and eyes and not hating your neighbor in your heart. All these prohibitions rest solely in the heart of man, and you enter into a whole new arena of moral refinement that societies cannot and will not demand of their people.
Second, the Torah codifies meaningful halachic details within the ethics that mankind naturally recognizes. Consider the virtue of charity, something almost all societies value. The Torah takes a giant step further by describing both a hierarchy of charitable giving (family first, then the poor of your city, then the poor of the land of Israel, etc.), a list of eight distinct levels of charitable giving (the highest form: providing meaningful employment; the second highest form: giving without knowledge to whom one is giving and without the poor person’s knowledge from whom he is receiving), and a prescription for determining how much of one’s income one is obligated to give (10 percent for the average person, with a sliding scale depending upon one’s utter wealth or dire poverty). And these three legalistic details are just the tip of this halachic iceberg.
Finally, and this point cannot be stressed enough, without the Torah’s guidance, how is one to rule correctly in scenarios in which one has two competing moral values at stake? How are we to determine which value has primacy and which value must be abandoned?
Unbeknownst to a great many people is the realization that many of the most hotly debated moral disputes of our times surround these very scenarios of competing value systems. The fight between the anti-abortion movement and the abortion-rights movement is, at its core, a fight over the primacy of either the value of the life of the unborn child or the value of a woman’s right to self- determination. The fight over the right of a doctor to assist in ending the life of a terminally ill patient is similarly, at its core, a fight over the primacy of the value of relieving human suffering or the value of not aiding in a suicide. We too, in our daily lives, encounter scenarios like this on a regular basis — things as common as whether or not to honor the wishes of one’s parents or the wishes of one’s spouse (or our own wishes, for that matter).
It is in these most thorny moral environments that we need come to the realization that morality is anything but simple, and that only with the proper training and study can one hope to come out of the end of this moral universe whole.
The Chazon Ish (Rabbi Avrohom Yeshaya Karelitz, 1878–1953), at the beginning of Chapter 3 in his ethical work Emunah U’Bitachon, sums things up as follows:
One of the obligations of morality is that a person should try to instill in his heart this great principle: In any case in which one finds oneself in opposition to a fellow Jew, one has to weigh the matter in accordance with halacha, in order to define the persecutor and the persecuted. The study of perfecting one’s character traits (mussar) instills in one love and pity for the persecuted, and severe condemnation of the persecutor; how terrible is, then, the danger of misidentifying the persecutor as the persecuted and vice versa. The only way to know the truth is to study the books of the halachic authorities — those books of rulings that we have received from the great Rabbis of the past.
It is only in a return to the classical recognition of the Torah as our guide to all things moral that we might find ourselves with the much-needed clarity and confidence to choose and act correctly in all our moral endeavors. Then, and only then, can we assure ourselves of our moral standing.
Rabbi Yogi Robkin is the director of outreach at DATA of Plano.

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