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The Approach of Rabbi Dr Nachum Rabinovitch
In a fascinating and innovative article , Rabbi Nachum Rabinovitch develops a thesis as to the balance between Jewish values and normative halakhic rules in the Judaic system. R Rabinovitch argues that Torah literature presents values to which individuals and societies should aspire. The examples that R Rabinovitch provides in the paper include values derived from both narrative and halakhic texts. R Rabinovitch notes that the technical demands of halakha often fall short of the more lofty Judaic values. For example, Torah law allows for bigamy (though this was subject to later rabbinic prohibition) and accepts the institution of slavery. R Rabinovitch argues that the values derived and inferred from narrative, prophetic, aggadic and even halakhic texts present ideals that the Jewish People are to attain over the course of generations. In the generation of the giving of the Torah (and for centuries thereafter), the Children of Israel were not ready to reject the bigamist lifestyle and the institution of slavery. About the latter, R Rabinovitch writes: ‘In the ancient world, it was almost impossible to sustain a proper economy without vast amounts of human labour, and that human labour was usually recruited for the most part from slaves.’ For this reason, halakhic demands accommodated the weaknesses and limitations of those generations but must be understood within the context of transmitted values which eventually brought the Jewish People to a level of sensitivity at which they could appreciate the impropriety of such practices and change their lifestyles accordingly.
Rabbi Rabinovitch’s approach is broadly consistent with that of Rabbi Yitzchak Blau who notes in this article, that Jewish ethics generates duties which extend above and beyond technical halakhic obligations.
This thesis carries some instructive methodological implications. In deriving values from Jewish tradition, we must not be misled by the letter of the law which will often fall short of the exalted values which are also part of Jewish tradition. Rather than being seen as a perfect legalistic expression of Jewish values, the role of technical halakha is often to guide its adherents through a transitional process towards elevated Jewish values.
The Approach of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks
In his book, To Heal a Fractured World, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explains the distinction between halakhic rules and values derived from biblical narrative. Law, explains Rabbi Sacks, divides reality into simple categories – right and wrong, permitted or forbidden, etc. In contrast, narrative instructs us when there are no simple categories, such as when there are conflicts between right and right or when one has to choose the lesser of two evils. Through reading narrative, we see how people respond to crisis and challenge and develop a more nuanced ethical understanding than the dividing line between absolute right and absolute wrong that is provided in halakhic strictures and obligations.
Perhaps, one can qualify Rabbi Sacks’ distinction here. Halakhic texts often do instruct their adherents in choosing between lesser evils, sometimes explicitly and sometimes by implication. An example is the halakhic preference for peace over truth such that one can tell a white lie to promote peace (though, as noted in the previous post, this halakha is based on principles derived in a narrative text). Nevertheless, Rabbi Sacks’ distinction between definitive right and wrong on the one hand and actions and consequences of different degrees of positivity and negativity on the other, is instructive in our work to derive values from Jewish texts and teachings. Whilst very many systems subscribe broadly to many of the values endorsed by Judaism, much of the distinctive voice that Judaism can bring to the ethical conversation will lie in its more nuanced elements involving ascribing greater weight to some values over others. And, despite our qualifications, Rabbi Sacks may be correct in pointing us toward narrative as a first port of call in developing our understanding of this area of Jewish ethics.
The Approach of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch
Whilst Rabbis Rabinovitch and Sacks have highlighted the central role of aggadah and narrative in discerning Jewish values, other thinkers have emphasised the indispensibility of halakha in this endeavour. (Of course, I do not mean to claim that Rabbis Rabinovitch and Sacks would dispute this indispensibility. The distinction lies only in the points of emphasis in these particular writings.)
One of these thinkers is Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. In his commentary to Deuteronomy 6:18 (and you shall do what is upright and good in the eyes of God), Rabbi Hirsch emphasises, in line with traditional commentaries, that the meaning of this verse is that the Jew must not limit himself to formal halakhic observance but must abide by ‘the general idea of the right and the good, as derived from the Torah’s laws.’ But, at the end of his commentary, Rabbi Hirsch notes that Deuteronomy 12:28 reverses the order and calls for behaviour which is ‘good and upright’ (as opposed to the formulation ‘upright and good’ that is found in 6:18):
Accordingly, there the ‘upright’ modifies the performance of the ‘good’: do good only in the right way. The end shall not justify the means; do not attempt to do good by crooked means.
Rabbi Hirsch is teaching a fundamental principle of Jewish ethics which extends beyond the significance of this particular verse. A righteous end does not justify corrupt means. Even the intention to advance the Divine purpose does not provide a license for all activity aimed at achieving that goal.
This principle is explained clearly by Rabbi Dr David Shatz in his chapter: As Thyself: On the Limits of Altruism in Jewish Ethics. In that chapter, Rabbi Shatz analyses situations in which the person does the morally wrong thing as an expression of virtuous character traits. One example is that of four people risking their lives in a foolhardy attempt to rescue someone who has little chance of survival. According to Rabbi Shatz, most non-Jewish ethical theories praise such people because the expression of virtue overshadows the moral misconduct. Judaism, with its heavily legalistic stress, would resist such praise.
These teachings from Rabbis Hirsch and Shatz emphasise an important role that halakha plays in the derivation of Judaic values. No matter what level of consistency between a given course of activity and values that are derived from narrative etc, Judaism cannot countenance behaviour which violates the demands of formal halakha.
The Approach of Rabbi Dr Joseph B Soloveichik
One of the major modern exponents of halakha as the major source of Judaic values was Rabbi Joseph Soloveichik .
Rabbi Soloveichik’s book Worship of the Heart – (compiled and published posthumously) is one of many places in which he emphasises this approach:
‘[H]alakhic elements constitute the most appropriate and reliable material out of which a philosophical understanding might emerge.’
With regard to aggadic material, Rabbi Soloveichik warns:
‘Here I must, of course, emphasise the need for great caution in order not to fall prey to one’s own imagination and read into the texts alien ideas.’
Here, Rabbi Soloveichik identifies a danger that we discussed in an earlier post . Rather than deriving values from the sources, Jewish ethicists have often been prone to projecting their own (modern western) values on to the text.
Rabbi Soloveichik is not rejecting the use of aggadah and narrative as part of the basis for Jewish values. Indeed, in a recent article , Yoram Hazony – has noted that Rabbi Soloveichik often makes extensive use of such texts in his philosophical writings, notably in the book The Emergence of Ethical Man. However, Rabbi Soloveichik does develop a methodological recommendation in accordance with the greater weight that he grants to halakhic texts:
From time to time it is good to check aggadic interpretations against halakhic ideas in order to ascertain the adequacy of our approach.
The writings discussed in this post have provided for us much guidance and food for thought as we proceed in our research. Whilst Rabbi Rabinovitch and Rabbi Sacks have emphasised the capacity of narrative and aggadic texts to reveal dimensions of Jewish values found less often within the bounds of formal halakha, Rabbi Hirsch has emphasised the red lines imposed by the halakhic system and Rabbi Soloveichik has warned of the danger of projecting one’s own values on to the Judaic texts when one fails to check the halakhic texts for consistency. With these ideas in mind, we will now proceed to analyse the approach found within Jewish tradition towards specific values.
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