Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Source of Values and Virtues

A common critique of more liberal ideas of Judaism is that people make up their own definitions of goodness and other values, "pick and choose" freely, and essentially do what they want without any constraint or boundaries. If values are not directly derived from God, this argument goes, then maybe Nazis or racists or murderers are right. The only proper source of values, this argument continues, is God's commands.

In the previous thread, Moshe asked in a comment: More fundamentally, I would ask you and Jason how do you know, and from where do you derive, your ideas as to what is "good or sensible"? Why, for example, should I be in favor of, say, equal rights for woman, if I am male. I assume he was starting down this path.

There is much to be said in response, and my co-bloggers Steve and Diane have written about this topic more extensively in earlier posts, but I want to focus on one problem with this claim: its incompatibility with the Torah itself.

When Cain and Abel came along, God has issued only one command: don't eat from the Tree of Life. And presumably, this command was rendered moot by the expulsion from the Garden of Eden. After Cain kills Abel, God asks him where Abel is. Cain then disingenuously asks, "Am I my brother's keeper?" God responds, "What have you done? Your brother's blood cries out to me from the ground."

God's response presupposes that Cain has some knowledge of right and wrong. God did not say, "I commanded you not to murder." Instead, God vividly appeals to Cains sense of empathy, shame, and horror. And this response presupposes that Cain has -- or should have -- a sense of empathy, shame, and horror, and that this sense is part of the foundation for his belief in right and wrong.

Similarly, Noah is described as "righteous in his generation". But what on earth could "righteousness" mean here, in the absence of any detailed instructions from God as to how to behave (other than the now moot instruction regarding the Tree of Life)? The answer is that righteousness means righteousness, and it exists independently of any divine command.

But perhaps the clearest example comes from the story of Abraham arguing with God over Sodom and Gemorrah. After God announces that he will destroy the city, Abraham asks if he will really destroy the city if there are 50 righteous people in the city. Abraham then says to God "חָלִלָה לְּךָ" / "chalilah l'cha" / "shame on you" to do this thing. Abraham then asks "Shall not the judge of all the earth do justly?"

Now if justice or righteousness were derived solely from divine commands, then Abraham's question would be completely foolish. God would of course be acting justly because anything that God does is definitionally just. Abraham's impudence -- saying "shame on you" to God -- would not only be foolish and disrespectful, but completely incoherent. But it is not. Justice exists independently of divine commands or actions, and Abraham holds God responsible for apparently acting unjustly.

The Torah (as well as common sense) presupposes that we all have an idea of goodness, regardless of whether God has issues specific commands.

So the answer to Moshe's question is that I get my ideas of what is good and sensible from the same place that he and everyone else does. I have certain ideas of what is good, including ideas regarding human dignity, happiness, empathy, concern for others, and avoidance of harm, pain, and misery. Of course, we can argue about where the edges are, which concern takes precedence in difficult cases, and what the ultimate source of these values are. But there should be no dispute that goodness exists and is a coherent concept, even in the absence of a direct divine command.

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