The Orthodox Jewish community in the United States for the last few decades has been experiencing a move toward higher ritual observance, as demonstrated by Samuel Heilman’s study, “Sliding to the Right,” and, in many communities, prioritizes ritual observance and religious conformity over spiritual leadership, natural morality, and common sense ethics. Instead of committing time and effort to addressing local poverty, many devote resources to the search for the perfectly-shaped etrog.
The most recent National Jewish Population Survey found that of the Orthodox Jews who volunteered at all, only 35% did so for non-Jewish organizations (compared to 70% of Conservative volunteers and 79% of Reform volunteers). A different study performed in the Orthodox community showed that the performance of mitzvot without internalization does not produce the ethical personality. Abandoning a sense of our basic humanity and human responsibilities is a tragedy and an outrage, and rabbis and educators who promote these priorities with the authority of the pulpit are consonant neither with the Jewish tradition nor with the good.
Yehuda haLevi, an influential medieval Jewish philosopher and poet, proposed that religious practices and virtues are distinct from natural or intellectual ones, and argued that intellectual law, which all humans can comprehend without revelation, precedes even divine law and cannot be neglected in religious life. For haLevi, following revelation but not natural morality is rebellious and failing to fulfill one’s core human responsibilities. He explains that G-d is upset with the people in this case:
“When Israel’s rebelliousness reached the point of disregarding even the indispensable intellectual and governmental laws…but held fast to the ritual acts pertaining to the sacrifices and the other divine and traditional laws, G-d became satisfied with less from them”
To be sure, human reasoning may pale in comparison to the moral understanding one can glean from revelation, but haLevi believed in the primacy of the intellectual law: “For the divine law can only be fulfilled completely after perfect adherence to the governmental and intellectual law has been achieved.” HaLevi ends with his highest religious imperative, “What does G-d require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d?” (Micah 6:8). A commitment to Jewish tradition and law demands, inherently, a sophisticated and sensitive moral compass.
HaLevi was not first to suggest the connection between Jewish religion and natural morality; the Talmud had him beat by hundreds of years; to quote Rabbi Yochanan, “Had the Torah not been given, we would have learned modesty from the cat, aversion to theft from the ant, chastity from the dove, and conjugal manners from fowl” (Eruvin 100b). Earlier the Torah tells us that G-d called the creation of humans good. Humans are good because of their capacity for moral intuition, conscience, reason, and empathy.
Perhaps the greatest modern proponent of natural morality was Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook, who wrote:
Morality, in its natural state, with all its profound splendor and might, must be fixed in the soul, so that it may serve as a substratum for the great effects emanating from the strength of Torah… Every element of Torah must be preceded by derekh eretz (natural ethical behavior) (Orot HaTorah 12:2-3).
More recently, Rav Yehuda Amital, of blessed memory, suggested that in a starvation predicament, if left with the choice between meat forbidden by the Torah or a human corpse (forbidden only by the rabbis), one must eat the former due to the natural law incumbent upon us.
The Hazon Ish explained that there is an important distinction between ratzon haTorah (the Torah’s will) and ratzon Hashem (G-d’s will). There are clear ethical mandates (ratzon Hashem) that cannot be found in Biblical verses: The medieval rabbis proposed eleven different Biblical verses to use as proof for the prohibition against tzaar baalei chaim (harming animals). They knew that it had to be ratzon Hashem even if it was not explicitly ratzon haTorah. Our natural morality helps us to discover the ratzon Hashem.
Religiosity has two crucial components: spiritual introspection and outward engagement with the world. First, we are to look into our texts, ritual, community, and social problems – this is the world of thinking and doing; but second, we must look into ourselves, cultivate spirituality, nurture our own reason and faith, and find our authentic Jewish calling. In the 21st century, the great need for the Jewish people is to learn how to intertwine more deeply the outer religious life with the inner religious life more deeply. We can only do the messy work of the world if we have done the messy work inside ourselves. This requires a respect for our natural morality; this is the potential that was placed in us at creation that we continue to nurture.
There are three levels of tikkun (repair) to engage in: tikkun atzmi (that of the self), tikkun kahal (that of the community), and tikkun olam, (that of the world). Religious life without all three of these levels of religious repair (or healing) is at best lacking in spiritual efficacy and at worst lacking in Jewish authenticity. Yehuda haLevi’s reminder of natural morality compels us to really engage in the internal spiritual and moral work in order that we can truly change ourselves, the Jewish community, and the world. This requires learning, reflection, meditation, prayer, and teamwork. We must then have the courage to listen to our inner conscience and allow ourselves to be guided by the internal moral compass that G-d has placed inside of us.
When, as observant Jews, we do not cultivate our internal moral compass and intertwine our universalistic nature with our particularistic nature, we risk becoming irrelevant as a people. Rabbis and educators encouraging a “slide to the right” that prioritizes ritual observance over social responsibility is not only a misrepresentation of the Torah, it is also placing the Jewish future into questionable moral relevance for the world. Our tradition and the tools G-d has given us teach and empower us to engage in the world as exemplary moral beings – towards ourselves and towards all of humanity. We can do great things. Let’s start today.
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Senior Jewish Educator at UCLA, a 6th year PhD candidate at Columbia University in Moral Psychology & Epistemology, and is on faculty at Shalhevet High School.