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Moses appointed twelve emissaries to scout out the Holy Land and return with a report. The representative for the tribe of Ephraim was Moses’ primary disciple, Joshua. Until this time, the lad’s name was Oshua. But Moses added a letter to his name and called him Joshua.
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Home » Free Choice, The Jewish Faith, Vayera

Vayera: The Moral Sense

Submitted by on November 9, 2019 – 9:24 pmNo Comment | 1,565 views

The moral sense is the innate human conviction that kindness and fairness are good, and cruelty is bad. We can’t explain why this is so, but if anyone would claim that cruelty is good and challenge us to explain why it is bad, we would throw up our hands in horror and question his or her humanity.

In a powerful article called, “What Is Morality?” my dear father in law, Dr. Yitzchok Block of blessed memory, argued this very point. His pointed out that the moral sense is part and parcel of being human. By moral sense, he meant our notion that morality is categorically good. By categorically good we mean that it is good because it cannot be otherwise, and no reason is needed to explain why it is so.

Most things are good or bad because of their consequences. It is good to have a warm coat in the winter because it will keep you warm. It is bad for your furnace to break down in the winter because you might freeze to death. But kindness isn’t good because it makes other people feel good, though it does. Kindness is categorically good. Cruelty is not wrong because it hurts other people, though it does. Cruelty is categorically wrong. To be sure, kindness helps people and cruelty hurts people, but that doesn’t make it good or bad. Those are mere consequences.

Dr. Block argued that there is something innate to these feelings. It is quite natural to have them, and we feel it is unnatural to not have them. Just as it is silly to ask why one laughs at a joke, so is it silly to ask why we feel indignation when we hear of cruel behavior.

Many argue that theft is immoral because G-d commanded us not to steal. Dr. Block argued that it cuts much deeper. We don’t need G-d to tell us that theft is immoral. We know that well enough on our own. We believe that our moral sense was implanted in us by G-d (in fact it can only be categorical if G-d implanted it, without G-d our moral sense is merely a non-binding opinion), but G-d implanted it so successfully, that we are hardly aware of it as an implant. We sense it as innate to our very fiber of being.

This explains why Abraham challenged G-d when he heard that G-d intended to destroy the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham argued that it is inconceivable that the judge of the world would not do justice. Abraham was not arrogant. In fact, he begged G-d’s forgiveness for speaking up this way and proclaimed that he was but dust and ashes, but stand up he did because he could not conceive of the possibility that G-d would act unfairly. How could G-d destroy the righteous along with the wicked?

G-d didn’t get angry. Instead, He patiently explained that no one in Sodom and Gomorrah was innocent. G-d never claimed that if He chooses to kill innocent people, it is per force moral to do so. G-d would never say that because this could never be true. The moral sense that Abraham possessed, the moral sense that we all possess, is the same moral sense that G-d possesses.[2]

Had G-d challenged Abraham to explain why it is wrong to kill the innocent, Abraham would have had no possible response. Suppose G-d would have said, “I changed my mind. From now on it is okay to kill innocent people,” what could Abraham say? He couldn’t reply, “but G-d, the innocent don’t deserve to suffer,” because G-d would reply, prove to me that people who don’t deserve to suffer shouldn’t suffer. How could Abraham prove that?

All Abraham could say is what he did, in fact, say. How can the judge of the entire world be unfair? Why is fairness good? Why is fairness a moral imperative? Because it is. And if it isn’t, G-d have mercy on us all. What is the point of living if the very fabric of what it means to be human is stripped away?

This is really what Abraham meant when he said, will the judge of the world not do justice? It is impossible to conceive of life without justice. It is possible to conceive of people behaving cruelly, but it is impossible to conceive of an existence from which justice and morality have been excised. This can’t possibly be happening so please G-d explain what is going on here.

G-d replied that Abraham was right. The judge of the world would indeed do justice and there is no way it could be different.

This is what makes it so startling that at the end of this very same Torah portion, we read that Abraham was prepared to slaughter his own son at G-d’s behest. Here we don’t read about Abraham protesting. In fact, had Abraham protested here, he would have failed the test. The entire test was simply to see whether Abraham would protest.

This boggles the mind. How could it have been so right for Abraham to protest G-d’s punishment of Sodom and so wrong for him to protest G-d’s instruction to slaughter Isaac? Was he being asked to check his morality at the door and do G-d’s bidding though it was immoral?

We have already established that G-d cannot and would not render killing moral, and kindness immoral. This means that it was immoral to slaughter Isaac. Yet, the test of Abraham was to see whether he would agree to do something immoral on G-d’s behalf! How is that a fair test?

Plato famously asked whether something is holy because G-d desires it or if G-d desires it because it is holy. Dr. Block suggested that we can supplant the word holy with the word good and the question would remain the same. If G-d desired that Abraham slaughter Isaac, did that make it good? The answer is a resounding no. It is not a good thing to do. So why was Abraham asked to do something immoral?

And yet, that is precisely what it means to have faith. Faith doesn’t come wrapped in a neat package that fits nicely into our logical minds. Faith is the calling that we hear when the mind fills with doubt and the brain is overwhelmed. Faith means to admit that if it came down to it, I would accept G-d’s direct instruction even if every fiber of my being protested because ultimately, He is G-d, and G-d knows best.

Abraham could not justify this slaughter as moral because nothing can render such slaughter moral. But Abraham would do it anyway because that is what it means to be fully and absolutely submissive to G-d. To be G-d’s instrument no matter what G-d wants. Ultimately, G-d did not want Abraham to do something immoral (which is why there is no equivalence between this test and terrorists killing innocent people in the name of religion), but He wanted to know whether Abraham would have done it had G-d asked.

Now you know why this test was the greatest of them all. This was more than being asked to lay down his life. This was more than being asked to lay down his son’s life. Abraham was being asked to lay down his moral sense—his very humanity. When it comes right down to it, the question of faith is this: What is more intrinsically me, my humanity or my faith. When I bore down into my very core, what will I find, my moral sense or my G-d?

In fact, they are one and the same—G-d doesn’t command us to do immoral things—but the test of faith is to ask, which comes first, my morality or my G-d? Another way of putting it: do I embrace G-d because He is moral or do I embrace morality because I am G-dly? [3]

[2] And by creating a world that is governed by this moral sense, and by implanting His moral sense in us, He appointed us gate keepers of morality—charged with maintaining and preserving the world’s morality.

[3] This is why this test corroborated all of Abraham’s previous tests. Had he failed this one, we would assume that he had passed all the other test because of his own ideas and values and that those were more important to him than G-d. By passing this test he demonstrated that he passed all his tests because of his faith in G-d.