JEWISH VALUES IN A CHANGING WORLD
By Harav Yehuda Amital zt"l
Lecture #2c: Natural Morality
Part 3 of 3
General Considerations that Contradict Natural Morality
complicated, and in any given circumstance we must determine which con
sideration outweighs the others in guiding our decisions. Serious moral dilemmas
often arise during times of war; for example, the question of striking at the
enemy while knowing that collateral damage will be inflicted upon innocent
civilians. In hospitals, serious moral conflicts arise on a daily basis; for
example, when a decision must be made in a life-threatening situation about who
should be treated first a family man whose death would cause suffering to all
of his loved ones, or a loner living all by himself. Sometimes a person must act
on the basis of general considerations that are not necessarily relevant to the
specific case, for example, social considerations or the like. The question may
be raised: is it possible to demand that a person act counter to his natural
morality for the sake of other considerations?
Tannaim appear to have disagreed about this question, as did the Rishonim
in their rulings about the Tannaitic dispute. We find in Tosefta (Sanhedrin
11:2) that the Tannaim disagree about the law applying to minors
found in an ir ha-nidichat, a city the majority of whose inhabitants
children of residents of an ir ha-nidachat who were found guilty of
idolatry are not put to death.
Eliezer says: They are put to death.
Akiva said to him: To what do I apply the verse, "[That the Lord] may show you
mercy, and have compassion upon you, and multiply you" (Devarim 13:18)?
If to have compassion upon the adults, surely it says: "You shall surely smite"
(verse 16). If to have compassion upon their cattle, surely it says: "Utterly
destroy it, and all that is in it, and its cattle" (verse 16). To what then do I
apply the verse: "[That the Lord] shall show you mercy"? This refers to the
minors in [the city].
The Rishonim disagree about the law. Rambam writes in Hilkhot
Avoda Zara (4:6):
If it is
found that all the inhabitants had worshipped idols, all human beings in the
city, including women and children, are put to the sword.
raises an objection: "The matter needs study: from where do we know that
the women and children are put to the sword?" He cites the objection raised by
Rabbi Meir ha-Levi Abulafia (Iggerot ha-Rama, no. 12):
Furthermore, it astonishes me that he said that the women and children are put
to the sword. How do we envision the case of the women? If they worshipped idols
they themselves are included among the inhabitants of the idolatrous city. And
if they did not worship idols, why are they put to death? Can it be that Toviya
sins and Zigud is flogged (Pesachim 113b)?
Rama continues and
asks about the children:
Far be it
for God to commit evil. Where do we find that a child is liable, that this one
should be liable?
Rama's objection is reminiscent of the argument put forward by Avraham:
"Far be it from you to do after this manner, to slay the righteous with the
wicked" (Bereshit 18:25). Ramban, as well, writes in his commentary to
the Torah (Devarim 13:16): "The women follow after the men. But the
children who are minors, among males and females, are not killed." He bases his
argument on the words of Sifrei (piska 94), which parallel Rabbi Akiva's
position in the Tosefta.
Rambam appears to have ruled in accordance with the opinion of Rabbi
Eliezer. Many have grappled with the question why children are put to death.
Kesef Mishneh adduces support for Rambam from other instances in which
children were put to death (e.g., Korach and his followers, and the killing of
the inhabitants of Yavesh Gil'ad [Shofetim 21:10]). He concludes: "Some
of what I am saying here does not appear right to me." Rabbi Menachem Krakovski,
author of Avodat ha-Melekh, cites Rabbi Chayyim Soloveitchik's
explanation that Rambam is discussing children who worshipped idols. The novelty
of the situation is that we relate to them as adults, even though they are not
yet thirteen years of age.
In truth, however, we seem to be dealing here with a fundamental attitude
that is clarified by Rambam himself in his Guide of the Perplexed (I,
His speech "visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children" (Shemot
34:7) only applies to the sin of idolatry in particular, and not to any other
sin. A proof of this is His saying in the Ten Commandments: "Unto the third and
forth generation of them that hate Me" (Shemot 20:5). For only an
idolater is called "hater"
Accordingly, when the people of an idolatrous city
are killed, this means that an idolatrous old man and the offspring of the
offspring of his offspring that is, the child of the fourth generation are
even if they are little children, together with the multitude of their
fathers and grandfathers. We find this commandment continuously in the Torah in
all passages. Thus, He commands with regard to the city that has been led astray
to idolatry: "Destroy it utterly and all that is therein" (Devarim 13:16)
all this being done with a view to blotting out traces that bring about
necessarily great corruption, as we have made clear.
Rambam accepts that for the sake of a general consideration of great
significance, like the prohibition of idolatry which is one of the principles of
the Jewish faith, even children are put to death. It stands to reason that
Ramban and Rama disagree with this position. It should be emphasized, however,
that even according to Rambam, the readiness to set aside moral considerations
in favor of general considerations applies only in extreme cases, like the
idolatry of the inhabitants of an idolatrous city, and it is impossible to draw
conclusions and apply them to other cases.
Fundamental Prohibitions That Are Not Explicitly Mentioned In The Torah
The question regarding the role of natural morality in the framework of
Halakha also comes up in a different context. The Gemara in tractate Yoma
(83a) cites a Baraita that states that a person who has become overcome with
ravenous hunger may be fed forbidden foods in order to save his life. If
possible, however, he should be fed that food item whose prohibition is the
who has become overcome with ravenous hunger is fed forbidden foods in the order
of their severity. [If there is a choice between] untithed produce and an
improperly slaughtered animal he is fed the improperly slaughtered animal; [if
there is a choice between] untithed produce and produce that grew in the
sabbatical year he is fed produce that grew in the sabbatical year.
But what is the law in a case where a person is faced with a choice
between a food forbidden by the Torah and human flesh? According to most
opinions, the Torah does not forbid human flesh by a negative precept; at most,
there is an issur aseh
a prohibition that is not stated in the
Torah in the form of a negative commandment, but merely inferred from a positive
commandment. Others believe it is
forbidden only by way of a rabbinic decree. This
being the case, human flesh should be considered the less severe prohibition!
But is it really true that the sick person should partake of human flesh and not
from foods proscribed by Torah law, like untithed produce or the flesh of an
improperly slaughtered animal?
It seems obvious to me that God does not want man to eat human flesh. The
Torah fails to mention that the eating of human flesh is forbidden, not because
it is permitted, but because certain things are so obvious that it is
unnecessary for the Torah to state them. As for the requirement that the
forbidden foods be eaten in the order of their severity, this law is merely of
rabbinic origin, and I
have no doubt whatsoever that the Sages never meant that it is preferable to eat
human flesh rather than other forbidden foods. Moreover, the entire discussion
is about forbidden "foods," and human flesh does not fall into the category of
This idea is supported by another source as well. The Gemara in
Sanhedrin (71a) cites the words of Rabbi Shimon regarding a rebellious son:
Shimon said: Because one eats a tartemar of meat and drinks half a log
of Italian wine, shall his father and mother have him stoned? It never happened
and never will happen. Why, then, was this law written? That you may study it
and receive reward.
Due to a moral
consideration, Rabbi Shimon was not ready to entertain the possibility that the
law pertaining to a rebellious son was ever actually implemented. Regarding a
Torah law, all that we have is what the Torah commanded, but in the case of
rabbinic laws, there is certainly room for moral considerations when deciding
We find also regarding the laws of levirate marriage that the a moral
consideration overpowers a halakhic argument. The Gemara in Yevamot (87b)
states that if a woman's husband died and left a son, so that she is permitted
to remarry, and then the son died, she is not required to undergo either
levirate marriage or chalitza. This is notwithstanding the fact that from
a purely halakhic perspective, there may have been room to require one of them.
In the parallel situation regarding the eating of teruma, a priest's
widow is forbidden to eat teruma (a priestly gift) after her son dies,
because the dead son is not viewed as if he were still alive. The Gemara
explains that we don't apply a kal va-chomer argument, deriving the law
of levirate marriage from teruma, because the verse states: "Her ways are
ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace" (Mishlei 3:17).
This idea is stated explicitly in Dor Revi'i on Chullin,
written by Rabbi Moshe Shemuel Glasner, great-grandson of the Chatam Sofer, who
was a great Torah scholar and grandfather of my revered teacher, Rabbi Chayyim
Yehuda Halevi, Hy"d. This is what he writes regarding the matter under
discussion (General Introduction, 2):
should know that as to all the loathsome things that man finds despicable, even
if the Torah had not forbidden them, anyone eating such things would be regarded
as being far more abhorrent than one who violates an explicit Torah prohibition
me now, a dangerously ill patient having to choose between meat from an
improperly slaughtered or congenitally defective animal and human flesh which
should he eat? Do we say that he should eat the human flesh, which is not
forbidden by a Torah prohibition even though it is forbidden by the moral code
accepted by civilized man, so that anyone eating or feeding another person human
flesh is cast out from the community of men rather than eat meat which the
Torah forbids with a negative commandment? Would it enter your mind that we, the
chosen people, a wise and understanding people, should violate this moral code
in order to save ourselves from violating a Torah prohibition?
Glasner brings additional instances of this dilemma, for example, the case of a
person who is lying naked in bed, when suddenly a fire breaks out in his house,
and he has only two choices: running outside naked or putting on a woman's
clothing. Rabbi Glasner assumes that it is certainly preferable to put on the
woman's clothing, even though this involves violating a biblical prohibition,
rather than run out naked, even though this is not explicitly forbidden by Torah
law. He invokes the same argument: "It is obvious to me that running out naked
is a greater sin
because it is a sin accepted by all intelligent people, and
one who violates it excludes himself from the category of man who was created in
the image of God."
Similarly, he argues that when the aforementioned Gemara says: "[If the choice
is between] untithed produce and an improperly slaughtered animal he is to be
fed the improperly slaughtered animal," it is talking about a case where the
animal was slaughtered, but in an improper manner. If, however, the animal died
without having been slaughtered, he should certainly not eat it, for even
non-Jews refrain from eating such animals "because of the rules of proper
behavior and general morality." Proof for this position may be brought from the
Gemara in Chullin (92b):
["thirty pieces of silver"] are [an allusion] to the thirty commandments that
the Noachides accepted upon themselves. However, they kept only three of them:
One is that they do not write a marriage contract for males; one is that they do
not weigh [and sell] the flesh of a corpse in the meat markets; and one is that
they honor the Torah.
"'The flesh of a corpse' a human corpse. 'In the meat markets' for they do
not eat it in public. And I heard [another explanation]: 'The flesh of a corpse'
the flesh of an animal that had died on its own." This proves that that the
meat of an animal that died on its own is loathed even by non-Jews.
In any event, even if Rabbi Glasner goes too far when he argues that
running into the street naked or eating the meat of an animal that died on its
own is worse than its alternative, one thing is certain: Just because the Torah
failed to forbid something does not mean that it is permitted. Rabbi Glasner
proves this also from what Rashi says in his commentary to the Mishna in
Makkot (23b): "The Holy One, blessed be He, desired to credit Israel; hence,
He gave them a Torah that is rich in commandments." Rashi explains:
credit Israel" so that they should receive reward for refraining from [the
commission of] sin. Therefore he gave them many [mitzvot]. It would have
been unnecessary to give the various prohibitions against eating creeping
creatures and non-slaughtered meat, for there is nobody who does not loathe
them. Rather, [the prohibitions were given] so that [Israel] should receive
reward for abstaining from them.
learned, then, that the duties stemming from natural morality are part of the
obligations that were cast upon man in order to complete the will of the Giver
of the Torah, whose ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace.
(Translated by David Strauss)