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Dvar July 27 2019 Pinchas

Dvar July 27

Last night I offered my perspective on Torah and morality with an analysis of this week’s parsha, which presents very different responses to moral issues. 

Today I want to zoom out a bit and talk about the topic of Torah and morality, not necessarily specific to our parsha.

Thoughts and reflections?

Challenges of Torah study and morality are not new and our teachers have been writing about it for centuries. I would like to have a discussion about Torah and morality using some of our historical texts as jumping-off points.

Torah:
Leviticus 19:18
Thou shalt not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.

But in Parshat Pinchas, Pinchas, an Israelite man actually of the priestly line, kills in front of other Israelites an Israelite man?

Bavli Tractate Shabbat 31a
Another time a non-Jew came before Shammai and said, “I will convert if you can teach me the entire Torah while I stand on one foot.” Shammai pushed the non-Jews aside with the ruler that was in his hand. The non-Jew came before Hillel and Hillel converted him saying, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor, that is the entire Torah, the rest is just commentary, now go and study.”

Is this really the only morality we must take from Torah? Or is Shammai making a different point? Perhaps he is pointing to this lesson and making an argument that all other laws and statues in Torah all relate to this one lesson. I wonder if he would support my argument that morality is complex and Torah teaches us what to do and not to do in terms of morality?

Let’s skip ahead to more modern sages: Rabbi Elliot Dorff writes on three modern sages who give different perspectives on the morality we may acquire from Torah and its study, in his book Love Your Neighbor And Yourself: A Jewish Approach to Modern Personal Ethics.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888), founder of neo-orthodoxy/ modern orthodoxy

Hirsch believes that just the act of studying Torah (regardless of what you learn from Torah) teaches us to be moral human beings. “The entire intellectual schooling of our youth is a continuous exercise in moral education.” Because it is an exercise in free will.

Martin Buber (1878-1965), existentialist thinker

Buber argued that study of the Torah was not only to acquire good character by it’s teachings but to “use G-d as a model to the extent that the instructor can. For Buber, then, the text was only a vehicle for the instructor to reveal his or her own understanding of what it means to be in dialogue with G-d.

And Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan (1878-1965), founder of Reconstructionist Judaism

Kaplan argued that Torah study was not the way to achieve morality but that by making the Jewish heritage relevant to the present moral and spiritual needs of the Jews. In other words, morality comes through actions through the process of making Judaism relevant to today. But, he did advocate for more studying when compared to prayer: “the study of Torah can set in motion all of the moral influences that go into the molding of character and the shaping of society.”

I still stand by my initial argument but I hope these texts have helped us to understand how deeply complex the intersection between Torah and morality is, and while complex this may be the most relevant issue to Judaism today.