Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Modern Western Morality vs Orthodox Jewish Morality

In my first post, a commentator, Felix, posed a most interesting challenge, a challenge often heard in Kiruv and Orthodox circles: What is the origin and basis of mortality? Is it derived only from the literal commandment of G-d, or are there other sources? If one maintains that Torah based morality is false or immoral, is this akin to asserting “there is no absolute morality”, i.e. moral relativism? Lastly, is it reasonable to maintain that modern man made morality, in particular America’s western morality, is superior to Torah morality - - which ostensibly is based on the mandate of G,d?

In order to address the issue I will present several hypothetical examples and questions that illustrate the contrast between life under a Torah regime, where Halacha is the only source and basis of morality, and life under a Modern American Regime, where the source and basis of morality are enlightenment values. I ask my readers to think seriously and deeply about the examples I provide and apply their common sense as much as their faculty of reason. I also ask that the reader bear in mind that the perennial issue of the basis of morality is very complex and has a long historical context in the history of humankind outside of torah.

That said, I would like to ask Felix, and those of like mind, a few questions:

How do you feel about the Western concept of equality before the law? What do you think this concept is based on? Is it based on Jewish ideals? Or, is it based on enlightenment ideals?

Do you agree that it is moral that in our society, I, as a Jew am accorded the same dignity and rights as any other human being? If you agree, as I’m sure you do, I want to know why you think this is just or moral. I also want to know how you would feel if laws were different in America, if the laws were more like South Africa’s apartheid laws; or worse, like Germany’s Nuremberg Laws** with its many unconscionable and odious decrees, like, for example, the September 30, 1938 edict requiring "Aryan" doctors to only treat "Aryan" patients.

Imagine if in America the legal system required the execution of Jews for the negligent or accidental killing of a gentile, whereas a non --Jew would only pay damages. Does such a law seem moral or just?

What about a law that prohibited a Non---Jew from saving the life of a Jew? What if that same law also made it a crime, subject to the death penalty, for a person to save the life of a Jew, unless he could prove in court that not saving the Jew could result in a loss of American gentile life due to Jewish animosity. Would this be moral? Would this be just?

Let’s illustrate this moral dilemma with an example: Imagine, an old Jewish man on a cold sub zero night in the middle of what happens to be an almost all non------Jewish city. The old man slips on the ice, breaks his hip, and cracks his head. He lay there for hours, blood seeping from his cracked skull, shivering in the frigid cold, in pain, and deeply afraid. The suffering continues another 6 hours, until dawn, when the man finally dies. During this entire time, dozens of people walk by and ignore his desperate pleas for help. Could you do this? Would your heart bleed for the poor old man? If yes, where does this kind of feeling and sensitivity come from? Does it come from any set of laws external to yourself or does it come from something innate within you, something hardwired into your own humanity?

How do think, from a cross-cultural perspective, human beings throughout the world would view such cold, cruel and heartless laws. Myself, having lived in more then a dozen countries and having worked with people in every major continent in the world, would feel comfortable saying that universally most people would find that these laws shock the conscience. It would deeply offend their innate and hard-wired moral sense. What do you think?

Let’s discuss another scenario. Lets say that a murderous and truly evil non - - -Jew was about to kill a nice Jewish women for no reason other then for the thrill. Let us say a witness, in this case, another non - - - Jew, follows his conscious and kills the pursuer. Now, would it be just if American law would execute the good Samaritan non - - - Jew for murder. After all, the law says that one cannot kill a fellow gentile to save the life of a Jew, even when the gentile has no valid reason to engage in such an act (e.g. self-defense). Would this be just? Would this be moral?

Now let’s take this hypothetical one step further and pretend that this imaginary society considers the nature of the Jew to be of a completely different species - -one really akin to an animal, and that this attitude has its roots in an ancient and sacred tradition, a tradition with many venerated and holy sages. One such sage, Mr. Ra'avad, when discussing the nature of the Jew writes:
"for the Jews are like animals…and one who thinks of them as something [worthwhile] will gather the wind in his fist." Another sage writes, “'You (Non- - - Jews) are called men and the Jews are not called men.” A third sage, named Mr. Abe Issac Kook, writes: "The difference between the Non Jewish soul, in all its independence, inner desires, longings, character and standing, and the soul of all the Jews, on all of their levels, is greater and deeper than the difference between the soul of a man and the soul of an animal.”

What would you think of such a society? Does it sound sort of the Nazi literature that dehumanized Jews?**

It should be evident from the above hypotheticals that the basic notions of good and evil that we all have are, for the most part, common and universal. Anthropologist Solomon Asch makes this very point when he notes, “Anthropological evidence does not furnish proof of relativism. We do not know of societies in which bravery is despised and cowardice held up to honor, in which generosity is considered a vice and ingratitude a virtue."- Asch, Solomon, Social Psychology, (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1952), pp. 378-79.

It should also be evident that the modern history of America and other Westernized nations is a march of progress in eliminating hateful discrimination based on race, ethnicity, and gender. This, in contrast to Fundamental Torah Judaism’s unconscionable, demeaning and discriminatory laws against non (yehudim) Jews. If the shoe were on the other foot and Jews were subject in America to laws similar to those promulgated by Chazal, and to which, I might add, the Orthodox world pays homage, the Jewish population would be outraged. From a humanistic, universal and most importantly, from a common sense point of view, do you think it correct, as the commenter Felix asserts, that, it has not been substantiated that our “new, modern, clearly man made morality is superior” when Fundamental Judaism persists in believing that gentiles have souls that are inferior and have precepts that inhumanely discriminate against them?

Modern western civilization, with all its current faults (and I wont go into them in this forum), has developed and continues to develop a system or morality that is vastly superior to Orthodox Jewish Morality. Think about it.

**I am not equating Judaism with Nazism, G,d Forbid. I am only commenting on the similarity in the way the two depict the *OTHER.* As victims of such hate, we should all be at the forefront of condemning similar attitudes and laws, even when they come from within our own tradition. We expect no less from others