Friday, September 1, 2017

Deluge of Doubt Torah & "Natural" Ethics (Ki Teitzei),

Indecisive. Weak. Not good enough. Am I doing the right thing? Accusations and self doubt are part of the semi-conscious soundtrack of my mind and I am not alone. These thoughts can be distortions of reality and unreasonable. However, living with uncertainty is also a strength.

The verbal onslaught is not just internal. There is a constant stream of emotive arguments for one course of action or its opposite. For example, on Sunday night I listened to Michael Kirby. A dignified, and distinguished former judge of the High Court of Australia. He observed, how despite the fact that people praise him for his various accomplishments because he is gay he is treated like a second class citizen in his own country. In a telling reflection of the ferocity of the current public debate, he insisted that ‘he was not bullying anyone in putting forward his view’.     

Some people seek refuge from uncertainty in religious absolutes. However this depends on the question of whether the Torah claims to have all the answers and therefore ethical ideas from sources outside the Torah are not deemed valid? Or does Torah recognise ‘natural ethics’?

In the Torah reading this week we are confronted by the treatment of a captive “woman of beautiful appearance” (1) during a war in ancient times. In one interpretation (2) of this passage, it is about managing a man’s lust and seeking the lesser of two evils. The woman goes through a process that is designed to make her less attractive to this man in an effort to dissuade him from marrying her. It seems to be all about his needs, not hers.

The woman’s consent for having sexual relations with this man is required (3). However commentary tells us that as prerequisite for the marriage she was to be converted to Judaism and according to one view this could involve coercion (4). Even the marriage itself does not seem to depend on the full agreement of the captive woman/new wife (5).  

This law is only confronting if there is a standard of ethics that we measure the Torah against. If we assume that G-d’s law defines morality then it is not good by definition? Perhaps. However, I think that Torah does recognise the validity of natural ethics.

The Torah calls us to to do that which is good and proper in the eyes of God (6). However our tradition teaches that the word “proper” refers to faithful conduct in matters of trade and dealing with others in a way that is pleasing to people (7). Human concepts of ethics are clearly valid.  

Proper human conduct preceded the revelation of God’s law by twenty six generations (8). People conducted themselves “according to proper logic and faith without the Torah” (9). In fact if the Torah had not been revealed we could have learned modesty from a cat, to avoid theft from ants etc (10). The tradition that we could learn how to behave from observing the behaviour of animals and insects demonstrates that a) there are virtuous character traits that can be learned outside of religious law and b) that it would be proper to learn this from observing natural phenomena (11).

Judaism teaches that natural notions of ethics and religious revelation are interdependent, neither of these really works without the other (12). There are many nations of the world that have not followed the Torah yet, they are ethical (13). Torah, religious revelation and teachings,  can play a key role in setting a person on the right path, but there is also that which comes to a person from within himself and his natural conduct...And if a person does not have this natural preparation the commandments of the Torah will not be enough. Because commandments can straighten a person generally but it is impossible for them to address fine details that are constantly arising anew. [for this] one needs morals and natural ethics…(14).

Returning to the  law of the beautiful woman, there are alternative commentaries of some aspects of this that are somewhat less in conflict with natural justice. The required process of her crying for a month long is designed for her benefit, the mourning process being cathartic (15) and about honoring her parents. Shaving her hair, and cutting her nails are part of her spiritual transformation (16). Still challenging, but the woman is seen as person, not an object.

The question about the place of natural ethics, is also reflected in an astonishing teaching relating to the commandment to send away a mother bird before taking her chicks or eggs (17). If someone recites a prayer that attributes this commandment to God’s mercy that person is silenced (18). One explanation (19) for this is that the commandments are not to be understood as expressing mercy but as God’s decrees!”.This seems to be a dismissal of the merits of the natural ethical value of mercy as being unimportant, with the prefered emphasis placed on obedience.

Again, other commentary offers an alternative view. The restriction on attributing the commandments to mercy is technical not theological. It applies [only] to mitzvot whose reasons have not been specified, therefore in it is not for us to decide what the motivation is. Furthermore, the required “silencing” is only after the prayer was recited with a caution to avoid saying it another time rather than being so terribly heretical that it needs to be corrected immediately (20). Another commentary states that to take the mother bird along with her young is “a way of cruelty” (21), implying that this commandment is indeed motivated by mercy.  

A final example from our reading is the insistence of the Torah that we show compassion for someone who escaped an oppressive situation and seeks refuge with us (22). Commentary about this law equates human concepts of what is to be regarded as cruel or merciful with what is pleasing to God and imitates God’s ways (23).  

Once we accept the importance of a human element in discerning proper conduct we are in the messy ambiguous space of subjective value judgements about specific situations. Of course we can bring religious wisdom to decisions, but we will still often need to grapple with the questions of what is right or wrong. It is not easy but would we really want it any other way? I think not.


  1. Deuteronomy 21:10
  2. Rashi on Deuteronomy 21:10
  3. Yeraim, cited in Ritva,cited in Yalkut Meam Loez states “It has not been permitted, only by her consent, he is not allowed to have intercourse with her against her will. Ramban on 21:11, states “it is not proper to sleep with her, in a situation in which she being “forced” [into conversion] as she mourning her family and faith and screaming in her heart to her god to save her and return her to her people and her god/s.”
  4. Ramban on 21:11, states that her conversion is by compulsion, however Ramban sees a process in which she is comforted and encouraged to accept her new reality, that she will never see her people again and therefore she will adjust to the point that her idol worship will be removed a little from her heart and she will cleave to this man. To what extent such resignation and acquiescence should be  considered consent is a tough question.  According to Rabbi Yonason in Sifrei and Sifrei Dbei Rav cited in Yalkud Me’am Loez she is not to be converted against her will, also according to the Rambam,  cited in Yalkud Me’am Loez p. 795, the conversion is voluntary.
  5. we are told in the Torah that if the Jewish man does not want to marry her that she goes free (Deuteronomy 21:14). According to Ibn Ezra’s commentary on the words “she goes free”, the assumption is that the man “should do her will”, which implies that we assume that she did not want the marriage.
  6. Deuteronomy 12:25 & 12:28
  7. Mechilta
  8. Vayikra Rabba 9:3, Tana Dbei Eliyahu Rabba 1
  9. Etz Yosef commentary on Vayikra Rabba 9:3
  10. Talmud, Eruvin 100b
  11. Ethics of the Fathers 3:17
  12. Yachin, Tiferet Yisrael commentary on the Mishna.
  13. Meiri on Avot 3:20 in Beit Habechira p.56, Vagshal publication 1971, based on Mekitzei Nirdamim, 5696
  14. Maimonides in the Moreh Nevuchim, cited in Ramban on 21:11, also in Chizkuni
  15. Chizkuni, he argues that it is similar to rituals performed as part of the transformation of the Levites when they were appointed to their roles in the desert temple (Numbers 8:7).
  16. Deuteronomy 22:6–7
  17. Mishna in Talmud, Berachot 33b, translation from
  18. Rashi on Talmud, Berachot 33b
  19. Maharsha, on Talmud, Berachot 33b
  20. Chizkuni
  21. Deuteronomy 23:16-17
  22. Ramad Vali, Mishneh Torah, Devarim.
רמ"ד וואלי - משנה תורה - דברים (דף 242-243) מפרש המצוה לא תסגיר בקשר לחילול השם וקידוש השם. אלו דבריו: " כי כבר ידוע שהוא בורח מפני אכזריות אדוניו שרדהו בפרך ואינו יכול לסבול את רשעתו. ואם ישראל ימסרנו ביד אדוניו יהיה חילול השם גדול, כי יאמרו הגוים שבני ישראל אכזריים יותר מהם, מאחר דניחא להו להחזיר העבד העלוב מוכה ומעונה בידו של אכזר. ואדרבה ניחא ליה לקב"ה שיהיו ישראל בחזקת רחמנים בעיני האומות... עמך ישב בקרבך. דהיינו במקום המוצנע, שלא ימצאנו אדוניו ולא יחזירנו לשעבודם.
במקום אשר יבחר. הוא ולא אתה. כי בחירת אחרים מצערת את האדם כשהיא כנגד בחירתו.
באחד שעריך. דהיינו בעיר ולא בכפר, כדי שתהיה הצלתו בטוחה ולא מתרופפת.
וגם בעיר עצמו. בטוב לו. ולא בטוב לך, שאם ירצה ידור בבית זה ואם ירצה ידור בבית אחר ולא תכריחנו לדור בפי רצונך. שאם תעשה כך, זהו חסד שלם המשתוה אל הנהגת אדון הכל, ואתה עושה נחת רוח ליוצרך, וקידוש השם לעיני העמים."

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