Lecture #23: Ethics
in the Thought of R. Meir
Challenges to the
idea of natural morality come from divergent sources. On the one hand, contemporary skeptics
deny our ability to form reasoned moral judgments. On the other hand, some religious
thinkers feel that ascribing validity to natural morality detracts from the idea
that all values stem from God.
Despite these concerns, R. Meir Simcha endorses the idea of
natural morality. God created humanity with an innate
ability to perceive basic moral judgments, such as, What is hateful to you, do
not do unto your neighbor. Desire
sometimes clouds this natural perception, but even then, after the enjoyment
ends, the sinner often regrets the immoral act. In this sense, the gemara
(Taanit 11a) says in reference to someone indifferent to communal
distress: A persons soul testifies against him.
Simcha utilizes this idea in his reading of a Talmudic
source. R. Akiva and Ben Azzai
debate which verse constitutes the kelal gadol ba-Torah (the major
precept of the Torah). R. Akiva
endorses Love your neighbor as yourself (Vayikra 19:18). Ben Azzai counters with This is the
book of the generations of man (Bereishit 5:1). Commentators wonder why Ben Azzai prizes
this particular verse.
Simcha explains that the verse emphasizes the basis of good
behavior in the very creation of humanity.
God fashioned mankind with the ability to distinguish wrong from right.
This idea also inspires a creative reading of a biblical verse. After the first sin, God says that
humanity will be like one of us, knowing good and evil (Bereishit
3:22). Though it does not reflect
the simple meaning of the phrase, R. Meir Simcha translates
tov va-ra as conveying the notion that basic wisdom regarding
good and evil comes from within.
Jews do not have a monopoly on this innate wisdom; non-Jews also share in
it. In fact, Halakha assumes that
non-Jews are obligated not to violate the natural moral code even when the
specific violation fails to appear among the Noachide laws. The seven Noachide laws make no mention
of iniquities such as taking a false oath or an oath in vain. Nevertheless, R. Meir Simcha posits that a Gentile
who violates these norms would be subject to divine punishment. Human reason demands adhering to ones
oath and a person should do so irrespective of whether or not a given legal code
Aspects of Torah
Those who deny
natural morality have little trouble with morally challenging aspects of Jewish
law, such as slavery and the eshet yefat toar (the beautiful
captive). Conversely, those who
believe in natural morality may feel the need to explain why the Torah sanctions
these institutions. R. Meir Simchas Torah
commentary relates to both slavery and the eshet yefat toar.
Those troubled by
slavery may object to the narrative in which Yosef arranges to subjugate all of
Egypt to the Pharaoh. R. Meir Simcha minimizes the scope
of Yosefs activities. Yosef says
to the people: Hen kaniti etkhem ha-yom ve-et admatkhem le-Pharaoh, I
have purchased you today and your land for Pharaoh (Bereishit
47:23). The placement of the word
ha-yom between the acquisition of the people and the acquisition of the
land seems odd. R. Meir Simcha explains
that Pharaoh acquired the land forever, but he acquired the people only on a
temporary basis. The word
ha-yom modifies only the acquisition of the people. R. Meir Simcha explicitly states
that Yosef hated the idea of slavery, namely, that one person should control
another. Here, his moral stand clearly
When you go out to
war against your enemies and God gives them over to your hand and you take
Simcha infers from this introductory verse that the law of the
captive woman applies specifically to a scenario of total victory, in which the
enemy is given over to your hand.
In a normal war, both sides take captives and eshet yefat
toar does not apply, because we assume that the two sides will ultimately
exchange captives. How could we
keep a woman from the opposing nation if it entails our own people remaining
trapped in captivity? Although we could argue that close
reading and pragmatic considerations motivate R. Meir Simchas comment, a moral
intuition to limit the scope of eshet yefat toar may also have
Joy at the Enemys
Our reaction to the
death of the enemy also presents a morally complex situation. On the one hand, we obviously feel joy
when we win a war and do not suffer casualties. On the other hand, rapturous dancing at
the deaths of fellow human beings appears inappropriate. R. Meir Simcha was quite sensitive
to this point. The last verse in
the section describing the ir ha-nidachat (the city that goes astray
after idolatry) uses the phrase laasot ha-yashar (Devarim
13:19). Chumash often
connects the word tov (good) with the word yashar (right) (see
Devarim 6:18, 12:28).
Simcha argues that the Torah purposely leaves out the word
tov in the verse above, since wiping out a city of idolaters may be
necessary but it is not good.
This theme runs through many of our festivals. The historical basis for the festivals
of Pesach, Chanuka, and Purim all include the deaths of enemies. However, we do not celebrate that per
se. Rather, we celebrate the
purification of the Temple or the salvation of the Jewish
people. Our religious authorities
took concrete steps to clarify this message. They fixed the Purim celebration on the
day that we rested from our enemies, rather than on the day of the military
triumph itself or on the day of Hamans hanging. Megillat Esther emphasizes that
we rejoice on the day that the Jews rested from their enemies (Esther
R. Meir Simcha eloquently explains the source of our Chanuka
celebrations. The day marks
nothing but the lighting of olive oil, the dedication and purification of the
house of God, and the divine providence that watches over His nation
Israel at a time when prophecy had
ceased. The Maccabean military
victory enabled all of the above, but we commemorate positive religious values
rather than rejoicing in the suffering of others.
We can now explain an oddity regarding
Pesach. Gods command regarding the
paschal lamb in Egypt incorporates the idea of a
seven-day festival (Shemot 12:15-16). Yet the mishna states that Pesach
Mitzrayim (the Pesach holiday as observed at the time of the Exodus) only
lasted for one day.
(Pesachim 96a). Why
does God mention a detail not immediately relevant? R. Meir Simcha explains that the
Egyptians drowned on the seventh day. If the command to celebrate day seven
followed this episode, people might conclude that we celebrate their
deaths. Since the command precedes
the Egyptians demise, there must be a different source of joy. Not surprisingly,
Simcha cites the famous midrashic explanation for why we
shorten Hallel on the seventh day of Pesach: human suffering and death
reduce our joy.
Those who endorse natural morality are
more likely to emphasize decent treatment of non-Jews. After all, our ethical intuitions
instruct us that every human being deserves dignified interaction. On the other hand, someone who denies
natural morality might infer from particular halakhot that we need not
care much about how we treat Gentiles.
Simcha indicates concern for the welfare of non-Jews in his
The Halakha states that the murderer of
a Jew receives the death penalty, but the murderer of a Gentile does not
(instead, he is punished by death at the hands of Heaven). Even though both acts are forbidden, the
legal discrepancy could engender the argument that we remain indifferent to the
fate of Gentiles. R. Meir Simcha suggests a
remarkable rebuttal of this inference.
We do not give the death penalty to a Jew who murders a non-Jew because
that punishment fails to atone for the magnitude of the crime. Halakha treats every murder as a
heinous crime, but a Jew murdering a Gentile also constitutes a desecration of
Gods name. These twin
transgressions need more than a death penalty to achieve
In fairness, R. Meir Simcha does put forth an
additional explanation. A Jewish
life is exceedingly precious to God, and God will only demand the taking of such
a life for the act of murdering a fellow Jew. This interpretation drives a sharp
divide between Jews and Gentiles.
At the same time, R.
Meir Simcha focuses his discussion on the criminals worth and
not on the relative value of the respective victims. In other words, this second
interpretation agrees that murdering a Gentile is horrendous. However, it values each Jewish life too
much to call for the death penalty.
R. Meir Simcha also makes the novel suggestion that Shabbat
applies to non-Jews on some albeit minor level. The gemara permits Gentiles to bury our
Jewish dead on Yom Tov but not on Shabbat. Tosafot (Bava Kama 81a) point out
that the same leniency logically applies to Shabbat as well. They explain that it would be
embarrassing and degrading for the deceased to be buried on a Shabbat,
even if Gentiles perform the burial.
Why does the identical shame not apply to a festival burial? R. Meir Simcha argues that the
festivals recall great deeds that divine providence performed for Am
Yisrael, and these days bear no connection to Gentiles. Shabbat, on the other hand,
commemorates the universal theme of Gods creation. As a special gift, this day was reserved
for Jews, but in its essence, it could apply to non-Jews. Therefore, the shame of Gentile burial
exists only on Shabbat. I contend that willingness to apply some
form of Shabbat to non-Jews indicates a relatively positive orientation
towards the Gentiles.
Despite the above, R. Meir Simcha conceives
of a significant gap between Jew and Gentile, even comparing it to the divide
between humanity and the animal kingdom. I find the analogy
troubling. Nonetheless, this
conception clearly did not lead R. Meir Simcha to indifference to
Gentile suffering. R. Kook proves
an instructive parallel. He
endorses an ontological divide between Jew and non-Jew, yet still writes
forcefully about our concern for Gentiles.
R. Meir Simchas commentary includes some profound insights into
ethics and character. He notes the
difference between the genuinely humble person and one who makes a show of
humility. The latter finds it easy
to profess inadequacy in comparison to those beneath him. As the others are not significant
rivals, a few words of modesty prove easy.
The real challenge happens regarding those of equal or superior
rank. In such contexts, the phony
cannot squelch the spirit of jealousy and competition. Not so the truly
Moshe Rabbeinu was the paragon
of humility. I did not do evil to
one of them (Bemidbar 16:15). The word echad can refer to the
distinguished among the community.
Moshe not only did not harm those beneath him; he also showed great
respect for those who might be construed as his rivals. For example, when Yehoshua gets upset
that others prophesy, Moshe states, Would it be that all of Gods people were
prophets (Bemidbar 11:29).
This reveals authentic humility.
Another penetrating insight relates to
the perennial conflict between solitude in the search for spiritual growth and
the responsibility of communal involvement. One approach is to portray this as an
irreconcilable clash, with the need to make a choice that sacrifices one
ideal. In the introduction to
Chatam Sofers responsa, he writes that Avraham chose to give up some spiritual
achievement in order to live a life of communal responsibility.
R. Meir Simcha, to some degree, denies the dichotomy. He argues that the hermit ends up
regressing, while communal involvement inspires spiritual greatness. One midrash
says that Moshe begins as an ish Mitzri and becomes an ish
ha-Elokim. In contrast, Noach
start as an ish ha-Elokim and becomes an ish ha-adama. For R. Meir Simcha, these diverging
fortunes stem directly from religious choices relating to communal
involvement. Noach chooses the
isolationist route and eventually flounders. Moshe returns from seclusion in Midyan
to his people in Egypt and he flourishes. True growth of character and development
of wisdom depend upon the difficulties involved in interacting with others.
The mitzvot to help another
person load and unload his donkey use greatly different terms to describe the
person being helped. The
verse in Shemot (23:40) refers to your enemy, whereas the verse in
Devarim (22:4) mentions your brother. R. Meir Simcha explains that Halakha
allows hatred of the sinner.
However, such a posture assumes that the one hating stands on a high
religious level. Those with
significant shortcomings themselves should not be so quick to look so negatively
at another. The verse in
Shemot precedes the sin of the golden calf, but the latter verse follows
it. Following the transgression of
the golden calf, hatred for the sinner became unjustified.
One final insight relates to running a
moral society. R. Meir Simcha notes that
individuals find the rational commandments easier than the chukim. Our intellect and intuitions identify
more easily with the former.
However, on a national plane, the chukim are easier. The messy complications of balancing
various ethical pulls on a grand communal scale make it easier simply to
encourage the observance of shaatnez. His insight is reminiscent of Reinhold
Niebuhrs Moral Man and Immoral Society.