Symposium on Aharon Lichtenstein’s paper “Does Jewish Tradition Recognize an Ethic Independent of Halakha?”


This symposium explores the relationship between Jewish law and morality. The symposium will be led by Alan Mittleman (JTS) and Daniel Statman (Haifa).

  • A copy of Lichtenstein’s paper can be found here

  • A Hebrew translation of the paper can be found here.

  • Click here for Alan Mittleman’s opening comments.

  • Click here for Daniel Statman’s opening comments.

click here for James Diamond’s article on lifnim meshurat hadin
click here for Asher Meir’s paper on Lichtenstein’s piece.
Event Details
  1. ezrahanistar

    The first thing that stands out to me is that Lichtenstein, neither here nor to the best of my knowledge in any of his writings elsewhere, attempts to translate Judaism into the language of other philosophies. He may make comparisons, or bring quotations from a wide source, but it will always be a comparison (“Judaism is like…”) and never an equivalence (“Judaism is…”). Other Orthodox thinkers have tried this: Maimonides once did it for the sake of Aristotelian thinking is well known and, more recently, Joseph Soloveitchik and Jonathan Sacks have taken the mantle by large scale conceptual translations to existentialist thought and contemporary political-ethical theory respectively.

    Lichtenstein, with his towering rabbinic and academic credentials, is assumedly capable of adding to this tradition. Why hasn’t he? Is it for personal reasons? For example, the aforemention thinkers all had background in contemporaneous philosophies where, admittedly, Lichtenstein’s western thought is centered in literature? Or the fact that, however much Lichtenstein is upheld as the leader of modern orthodoxy, the fundamental tenets of his thinking are shared with hareidi ideology, partly owing to some of his early ideological influences such as such as Yitzhak Hutner (whereas other understandings of modern orthodoxy see a fundamental gap between themselves and hareidi thought)? Is it just for practical reasons: a decision to spend his time and energy on first-hand education and rabbinic training?

    Or is there a principled reason? ‘Halakhah constitutes or at least contains an ethical system’ (37). This ethical system is entirely commanded, albeit constituting both the double-tiered din and lifnim m’shurat ha-din. Yet what is the source of this ethical system, which tells us what that supra-din actually is? Can we detect in this paper, or through Lichtenstein’s writings in general, a skepticism to the attempt to system-build, in favor of simply being imbibed with the halakhic system, its modus operandi and ethical norms, and letting a form of halakhic intuitionism decide what the appropriate lifnim m’shurat ha-din action should be?

    This observation leads me to ask: is the attempt to translate Judaism into large scale philosophical categories alien to Judaism (albeit deeply close to the adherents of Judaism at any particular time) a worthwhile endeavor? Both this and the alternative seem to be confronted with major problems. Halakhic intuitionism means that, ultimately, halakha is not trying to make one coherent ethical whole, but rather a piecemeal hodge-podge of ethical tidbits. More significantly, doesn’t intuitionism lead to excessive subjectivity and a lack of a way to judge various halakhic stances? Two people who are steeped in halakha but think differently or come from different backgrounds will intuit different things about what ethics the halakha would imply for its lifnim m’shurat ha-din.

    Where halakhic intuitionism seems philosophically problematic, a systematic translation seems theologically questionable. If we can articulate a system of thought that halakha points to and tries to get its adherents (be it philosophical truth, personal existential subjective depth or politico-ethical perfection), then is there any fundamental, pirincipled need for halakha any more? If I can reach the ends without the means, what ties me to the means? What if those means (ie. Halakha) are actually not

  2. ezrahanistar

    What if those means (ie. Halakha) are actually not the best way to reach the ends in the end – should we change them?

  3. Dani Rabinowitz

    Apart from a few comments about natural morality and divine command theory, thus far little has been said about the nature of morality. I’m left wondering whether different positions on the nature of morality might add a nuance to the current debate. For instance, if morality is relative to a culture/time/society etc., then would those like Lichtenstein who opt for an incorporation of ethics into halakha still be so willing to do so? Intuitively, at least, there doesn’t seem to be as much pressure in this case to keep halakha “in line with” morality. On the other hand, if there are objective moral truths above and beyond natural morality, then it seems rather awkward that such moral imperatives would be absent from halakha, in which case the imperative of going beyond the letter of the law seems ill-placed i.e. those moral truths shouldn’t be absent from explicit halakhic principles from the get go. (Perhaps I am wrongfully assuming natural morality to be a rather minimalist system.) Of relevance are Lichtenstein’s quotes from Hullin 33a and Sanhedrin 59a: “Is there anything permitted to the Jew but prohibited to the Gentile?” (pg. 65).

    Alan, in light of your comments about anthropology etc., I was wondering what you might say about the impact on our current topic in light of recent arguments in moral philosophy to the effect that Darwinian considerations undermine moral realism? (e.g. Sharon Street’s paper “A Darwinian Dilemma for Realist Theories of Value,” Philosophical Studies 127, no. 1 (January 2006): 109-166.). Darwinian considerations might, for instance, problematize Lichtenstein’s apparent eagerness to incorporate natural morality into halakha.

    Daniel, I find your second comment very interesting. If I have understood you correctly, you are claiming that there is some sort of inconsistency present in the manner in which “going beyond the letter of the law” is executed. In some cases, e.g. those Lichtenstein brings, this principle seems to push halakha towards “secular” moral intuitions, yet in other cases, such as those you mention, the principle seems to be superseded by other legal considerations or just plainly ignored. Perhaps Ezra’s point becomes relevant at this stage: is there some principled manner in which “going beyond the letter of the law” functions? If not, why not? And what might this say about our topic?

    Ezra, your comments concerning the relationship between Judaism and philosophy are interesting and perhaps you might find the symposium on this site in June a good forum in which to voice these questions. For instance, you seem to assume that there isn’t already a philosophy present in halakha. A Jewish philosophical theology might merely be an attempt to express (in the terms of the day) those latent philosophical principles that function as the cogs and levers of the Jewish faith. (You may wish to look at Jed Lewinsohn’s paper, which was a topic of a previous symposium on this site, for more on this way of thinking about the relationship between Judaism and philosophy.) As for your question regarding Lichtenstein’s absence from the project of Jewish philosophical theology, my suspicion is that his absence is most likely accounted for by his training in literature and not philosophy. That said, he may nevertheless harbor suspicions of any attempt to generate a philosophical reading of Judaism or to “system build,” as you put it. Perhaps one of his students could ask him for his views on the subject and revert to us.

    1. Sam Lebens

      Why should it seem ‘awkward’ that certain moral truths are left out of the Torah? Rav Lichtenstein quotes the Ramban’s response to this point: It simply wouldn’t be possible to contain every true ethical maxim into the Torah, some of them simply had to be included under general laws such as ‘be holy’ and ‘do the right and the just’.

  4. Dani Rabinowitz

    Thanks to James Diamond for bringing to our attention an article he wrote on lifnim meshurat hadin (attached above).

    1. Lenny Levin

      For Alan Mittleman, the missing elephant in Rabbi Lichtenstein’s room is “moral normativity, independent of halakha.” For Daniel Statman, it comprises those cases where din demands action that runs counter to our ethical sensitivities.

      For me, the missing elephant is aggada—a messy category which includes (among other things) the repository of those values recognized in the Jewish tradition but not fully expressed in halakhic norms. (Rabbi Lichtenstein makes oblique reference to “commitment to an ethical moment that though different from Halakha is nevertheless of a piece with it and in its own way fully imperative.”)

      I suggest a coherent model of halakhic-aggadic symbiosis can be pieced together from Bialik’s essay “Halakha and Aggada” (translated in Revealment and Concealment) and Abraham Joshua Heschel’s variations on Bialik’s theme in two places—Chapter 33 of God In Search of Man and Chapter 1 of Heavenly Torah. We can formalize this model through the following assertions:

      (1) Though the “general principles” of the law are of divine origin (GSM 302), the system in its totality is “the word of God and man.” (GSM 260)

      (2) The halakha can be compared to a cathedral—the work of generations of anonymous workers, built as a monument in the service of God and consecrated by that collective human effort, but not strictly speaking the work of God. (Bialik 49–51. Similarly Heschel titles Part 3 of GSM “Response”—implying a major component of human initiative.)

      (3) Both Bialik and Heschel stress the complementarity (or “polarity”) of halakha and aggada in countless ways. Bialik uses the metaphor of water and ice (46), implying a balance of fixity and fluidity.

      Both Bialik’s and Heschel’s assertions are compatible with Rosenzweig’s distinction between “command” and “law” in his debate with Buber (On Jewish Learning 85 and 116), where the protean “command” is from God and the fixed detailed “law” is its human codification.

      They also are compatible with an anthropology that sees telos-oriented action as the essential feature of humanity’s participation in the divine nature. God’s creation of the world is teleological action. Human teleological action can either further God’s purpose (and thus be good) or run against the grain of God’s purpose (and thus be evil). Either way, the connected flow of human actions in the course of time comprise the narrative of history (aggada on the grand scale), while the systematized pattern of human actions in God’s service comprise halakha. Thus aggada and halakha are each composed of the basic ingredients of individual human actions, structured in different ways, and are therefore mutually relevant to each other, while they each derive their ultimate relevance from the full frame of God’s larger purpose.

      Seen in this light, the aggada (broadly construed to include the non-legal portions of the Biblical corpus in all its genres, as well as the non-legal portions of the rabbinic literature) should be mined as the primary source of native Jewish values, providing both the authentic complement to halakha and the Jewish counterpart to non-Jewish (especially Greek and modern philosophical) ethical philosophical wisdom.

  5. Daniel Statman

    Dani, X comments:
    1. In the way I conceptualize the field, “objective moral truths” are the same as “natural morality,” hence are, and should be, expressed in halakha.
    2. You are right that one cannot discuss the relation morality and religion (or, more particularly, halakha) without first making one’s mind about what one means by ‘morality.’ Re. relativism and other forms of moral skepticism, it is no wonder that R. Lichtenstein does not pay too much attention to them. Anybody who takes the tradition seriously would resist them, because the Torah and the Rabbis clearly believed in non-relativist moral principles. They thought that punishing the innocent, for example, is unjust, period, not unjust because it is believed to be so in some specific society.
    3. For similar reasons, I believe that R. Lichtenstein would resist the sort of skepticism based on a certain interpretation of Darwinism. The point is that moral skepticism robs believers from the possibility of a meaningful praise of God and of His commandments.
    4. In my view, there is a pretty low probability that we’ll be able to find “some principled manner” in which poskim treated moral considerations. In this respect halakha is no different from other legal systems. At any rate, as I suggested in my comments, only after a detailed examination of thousands of response from different rabbis living in different times in different places can we try to make some careful generalizations about the actual role of moral considerations in the making of halakha. More on this can be found in my “Halakha and Morality: A Few Methodological Considerations” at

  6. Nechama Hadari

    Thank you for some interesting discussion. It seems to me that so far we have many definitions of “Halakha” which are becoming mixed: the one which it may be claimed is “omni-sufficient” is the “capacious” definition – according to which “Halakha” is basically synonymous with “Torah” and denotes an ethical system comprising quasi-legal rulings and non-legal ethical considerations. According to this model, two things (at least) are unclear (or are at issue): first, the relationship between the quasi-legal and the non-legal/ethical aspects of the Halakha; second, how an observant Jew might arrive at the moral norms (s)he holds which are not the subject of specific halakhic (lower case “h”) rulings. What is perceived as threatening (to the idea of the sufficiency of Halakha) is the notion that non-legal ethics is somehow extra-halakhic; this threat is exacerbated when we entertain the possibility that such “ethics” may conflict with halakhic rulings. I think that these problems emanate at least in part from an overly positivist undestanding of how the legal part of the Halakha operates. Yes, there are “rulings” but few that are undisputed and we might (without stepping outside the bounds of the tradition, I would claim) stress the extent to which the Halakha is “interpreted”, not “deduced”. “Halakhic discourse” is, surely, in great part halakhic discussion – we learn Talmud not in order to know what to do in our Jewish lives (otherwise, we would just learn the proliferation of halakhic textbooks) but to learn how to think – and how to think ethically. I would argue that the study of aggadata (or, for that matter, hassidic stories) is also a way of getting us to reflect ethically. In this model, the great division between the legal and ethical aspects of Halakha isn’t quite so great or absolute. The Jewish moral agent learns Halakha (including aggada) in order to shape his moral sensibility; that moral sensibility allows him to judge the world around him even when that world is not explicitly described or ruled by the traditional sources; this expands his knowledge, capacity to judge and moral sense and with this expanded (but firmly grounded in the tradition) sense (s)he returns to make sense of (interpret) specific halakhot. Insofar as such a person believes that the halakhic system is the best moral system we have, it will, I suggest, be inconceivable to him to interpret the Halakha (when faced with a concrete, actual situation requiring a halakhic decision; not when thinking in the abstract) in such a way that it runs counter to what he holds to be a strong moral truth. Which is why, despite the din being not, for example, to save the life of a goy on Shabbat, we have such considerations as “mipnei darkhei shalom” or the avoidance of enmity. For at least a start on a close analysis of those “thousands” of responsa and rulings which would allow us to see how actual poskim balanced ethical considerations in their interpretations of Halakha, I susggest the work of Elisha Ancselovits – I am not quite sure what or how much is pubished, but his PhD thesis was about precisely this. Kenneth Seeskin in his work on autonomy in Jewish thought writes about the the Rambam’s conception of revelation in a way which I think also minimises some of the problems in that “revelation” becomes an ongoing process and does not exclude the development of what might in this forum be classified under “natural morality” – thus subsuming that under “Halakha”.

  7. Dani Rabinowitz

    Thanks to Asher Meir for bringing to our attention a piece he wrote on the current topic (attached above)

  8. Dani Rabinowitz

    The relationship between reason and action is one central to several areas of philosophical inquiry. We find such a debate in the realm of moral philosophy too. Kant, for one, was considered the intention behind an action the relevant moral property, whilst those like Bentham and the Mills were more concerned with the consequences of actions. If Lichtenstein is correct, the Jewish tradition recognizes that we are to regulate our actions according to natural/objective morality. The question then becomes one of intent: if I am bound by principles in halakha like lifnim meshurat hadin, to do action x, is the REASON for doing x because I am bound by God/halakha OR because of the reasons motivating the moral status of action x? (This question may bear some resemblance to the debate over the origin of the divine status of rabbinic laws.) Mittleman addresses this point briefly in his introduction when he says Lichtenstein is closer to Leibowitz than he realizes. But what would be so bad if halakha did recognize an ethic independent of itself and concede that we are bound to that ethic for the REASONS underlying that ethic? Would it be so terrible if halakha were to be viewed as an additional set of obligations incumbent upon God’s covenantal partners? I just don’t see the intuition driving the omni-sufficiency view.

    Secondly, if Statman is correct in his claim that different poskim/rabbinic authorities responded to extra-moral considerations is a variety of inconsistent ways, and if we assume further that one of the leading factors underlying this inconsistency is the nebulous character of lifnim mishurat hadin, I’m left wondering whether that principle has the kind of bite Lichtenstein thinks it does. Perhaps it is perfectly reasonable that certain halakhic principles are of such a nature that the precise conditions for their application are vague. But calling on a vague or nebulous principle to ground an entire theological approach to a central moral question seems concerning.

  9. Alan Mittleman

    Just a quick reply to Dani’s query above. Not having read the article by Street that he references, I can’t address it directly. Speaking to the general issue, however, I would tend to agree that Darwinian explanations could undermine moral realism. Moral realism assumes that moral statements are statements about the world; that moral judgments are constrained or guided by or respond to real features of the world. It may appear that an evolutionary view would be compatible, even supportive of realism, insofar as it sees ethics as emerging from the social realities of our hominid ancestors. Survival required social cooperation; cooperation required punishing non-cooperating members of the group and rewarding cooperating ones. Cooperating group members had a better chance of passing on their genes, etc., etc. This sort of explanation of the normative is certainly “real world” oriented. So why wouldn’t it authorize realism? I think that it would not because it is a debunking argument. It deflates ethics by robbing it of its conceptual integrity and reducing it to an allegedly more primary level.

    The basic problem here is that there is a difference between explaining the normative (as evolutionary psychologists, Freudians, Marxians, et alia want to do) and making a normative judgment, argument, claim, or decision. The latter stance–the moral stance–is properly irreducible to an explanatory schema such as evolution. That kinship altruism helped our ancestors to reproduce and survive doesn’t tell us whether we should be altruistic. Ethics, even on a realist account, must take thought about what is good and right to be irreducible to matters prior to thought, such as a survival imperative. Thought is the “last word,” as Thomas Nagel puts it. If moral realism is correct, then ethics is a matter of thought being guided by features of the real world. You need both–thought and an at least somewhat independent world. Insofar as an evolutionary explanation does away with the thinking moral subject, turning her perhaps into a vehicle for the replication of “selfish genes” e.g. and gives an impersonal, objective world pride of place, I don’t think it would be friendly to moral realism. Or perhaps to morals as such.

  10. Dani Rabinowitz

    Question 1: what would the relationship between natural morality and the seven noahide laws be in the context of Lichtenstein’s approach to natural morality?

    Question 2: if it is indeed the case, as Lichtenstein argues, that halakha both recognizes and incorporates natural/objective morality, then in what sense does halakha “supersede” that morality? In other words, if there is a robust objective morality, then in what sense can we consider the difference between that morality and the halakha moral? i.e. doesn’t Lichtenstein’s position commit him to recognizing a good deal of halakha non-moral?

  11. Aaron Segal

    Thank you very much to our two symposiasts, Professors Mittleman and Statman, for your thoughtful and thought-provoking opening comments. I am, however, a bit confused by some of the suggestions you make, and in particular by a claim about which you both seem to agree, viz., that R. Lichtenstein’s view – either all by itself, or at least supplemented with certain claims about the evolutionary history of our species – ends up implying the “quasi-fideistic voluntarism” that he rejects. If that implication really holds, I think that would be a very important thing to point out, but I am having difficulty seeing why we should think it holds.

    The first order of business, I suppose, in determining whether there is any such implication is to say a bit more about what “quasi-fideistic voluntarism” is. I take it that the idea is this (to a first approximation): the Halachik system as a whole has no telos; or, put another way, that the Giver of Halacha has no particular end “in mind” in demanding that Jews observe Halacha, or at least no end that is good independently of God’s willing it (although Leibowitz would take the stronger view, I think). And R. Lichtenstein’s rejection of that voluntarism involves (1) a denial of that idea, i.e. the claim that there is some independent good, or goods, at which the Giver aims in demanding that Jews observe Halacha, together with the further epistemological claim that (2) we have some (possibly tenuous) access to what those goods are.

    Now, Prof. Mittleman seems to argue as follows: (A) since R. Lichtenstein endorses the omni-sufficiency of Halacha, he is committed to the idea that Jews are to rely exclusively on revelation for their halachik and moral knowledge more broadly. But, argues Mittleman, (B) according to our best current scientific theory about the origin of our moral beliefs and sentiments, we can be justified in our moral beliefs (if it even makes sense to talk of justification in this context) only if they derive from a certain natural, evolved history. But (C) no belief that has its source in revelation can also derive from a certain natural evolved history. So, it turns out, Jews are meant to proceed in such a way that all their moral beliefs, including their beliefs about what goods there are, are not justified. But then that’s enough to show that at least (2) isn’t right – we don’t have (epistemic) access to what those goods are (or at least we’d have to be lucky to do so). Now, even that doesn’t get us to quasi-fideistic voluntarism since that would require showing that (1) isn’t right either, but it would still be enough to show that R. Lichtenstein’s view suffers from an inconsistency with regard to something in the vicinity of such voluntarism.

    I’m not sure that if I’ve construed the argument correctly, but if I have, I would say that (A) and (B) both seem dubious to me. First, (A): I take it that “the omni-sufficiency of Halacha” captures roughly the idea that the way of life that God expects of the Jewish people (as he explains “Halacha” on pg. 82, contrasting it with other usages) includes moral behavior that extends beyond “din”, and moreover, that He expects this (from the Jewish people) at least partly in virtue of the covenant He has made with the Jewish people or the relationship He has entered into more broadly (this might be putting it more “theologically” than he’d like, but I take it that a similar point could be made without speaking of God’s expectations). But how does that even suggest that Jews are to rely exclusively on revelation for their moral knowledge? As far as I can see, it is entirely silent on how Jews are supposed to arrive at their moral (and even much of their Halachik) knowledge: maybe it’s through revelation, but maybe it’s through moral intuition, or moral reasoning, or something else. I suppose R. Lichtenstein would agree that a posek (or even non-posek) ought to be guided by a whole variety of things in arriving at the contours of the lifnim mishurat hadin, including values he extrapolates from the halachik system, but that’s a far cry from what (A) says he is committed to. And (B): suppose our best current scientific theory is in fact true, and the way we (speaking collectively) in fact arrived at our moral beliefs is via some natural evolutionary process. But why suppose that’s the ONLY way to be justified in having such a belief? Better yet, why suppose that’s a way of being JUSTIFIED at all, rather than just the way we happened to arrive at them? So I just don’t see why we should think (B) is true.

    Professor Statman provides a different argument (which doesn’t rely on any claims about our best current scientific theory). It seems to go like this: if there were a conflict between what the halachik system clearly requires and what our strong ethical intuitions are, R. Lichtenstein would say that we should follow what the halachik system requires (let’s assume this follows from the omni-sufficiency of Halacha). But then we have to deny that halacha constitutes an ethical system, a conclusion which, even if not amounting to Leibowitz’s “quasi-fideistic voluntarism,” is closer to it than R. Lichtenstein would admit.

    Now, in one sense of “not constituting an ethical system”, it’s trivially true that R. Lichtenstein’s verdict in a case of conflict shows that on his view, halacha does not constitute an ethical system, namely the sense that not everything in the system SEEMS ethical. But that seems very far from Leibowitz’s “quasi-fideistic voluntarism” (as I understand it). If instead we mean by “not constituting an ethical system” that not everything in the system IS ethical (i.e., not everything is ethically permitted), then it’s not at all obvious that R. Lichtenstein’s verdict commits him to the claim that halacha does not constitute an ethical system. He might very well say (and I’m pretty sure he does say) that in such cases, we are to sacrifice our intuitions all right, but nothing required of us by God can in fact be unethical , not because the good or the right is constituted by God’s will/command, but because we happen to know that they always accord with one another (“Hatsur Tamim Paolo, kol derachav mishpat…”), even if we can’t always see how. This is of course a huge topic in the relation between ethics and religion, but I don’t see how R. Lichtenstein’s verdict commits him to the stronger claim about Halacha failing to constitute an ethical system. Finally, even if he did endorse the stronger version of the claim that Halacha does not constitute an ethical system, that’s still quite a ways from the voluntarism R. Lichtenstein explicitly eschews – there could be an ethical telos to Halacha as a whole, even if some of its “parts” do not contribute to that telos (as R. Lichtenstein acknowledges) or somehow run counter to it (as your argument seeks to show). But now I suppose we’d be debating how close to Leibowitz is “close enough”.

    Any help you could offer would be appreciated, and thank you again for this very interesting symposium. (And sorry for the length of the comment.)

    1. Daniel Statman

      Aaron, thx very much for these excellent comments. Here are some thoughts in response:
      1. If the belief in God’s moral perfection (“Hatsur Tamim Paolo”) can justify the acceptance of morally problematic injunctions, I can’t see why it can’t similarly justify passivity in the face of morally bothering halakhic permissions –– those very permissions which Ramban tried to block via his interpretations of ve-asita ha-yashar ve-haov and (from today’s sedra) Qdoshim tihyu. If God allows X, then His perfection assures us that doing X is ultimately OK, even though it might seem to us wrong. But this is not the line taken by halakha.
      2. There seems to be a fundamental dilemma regarding the implication of God’s moral perfection. On the one hand one could say: His perfection guarantees the moral perfection of halakha, hence nothing in halakha should be ever be revised, certainly not on the basis of moral considerations. On the other hand one could say: Precisely because God is perfectly good, it’s impossible that He meant us to kill, e.g., the righteous together with the wicked, hence, if some verses seem to have such an implication, they must mean something different.
      3. The main difference between R. Lichtenstein and Leibowitz seems to be theological rather than ethical. R. Lichtenstein is less committed (or not committed at all?) to Leibowitz’s radical negative theology. The question is how significant this difference is in terms of the tension between halakha and ethics, and it is here where I think that the two thinkers might be closer than often thought. Leibowitz says: To accept God’s yoke is to accept an unconditional commitment to obey His commandments regardless of whether they fit (or: seem to fit) our ethical beliefs. Hence, in case of a perceived conflict, believers give and, at any rate, *ought* to give precedence to halakha. I think R. Lichtenstein would say the same in spite of his description of halakha as an ethical system.

      1. Sam Lebens

        Thanks to all above for a wonderful discussion (and to those below, in the hope that I don’t kill this thing off!).

        First, I want to wade in, on Aaron’s side, in the debate between him and our two learned contributors (Prof Mittleman and Dr. Statman). I might come in later, with my own independent comment.

        It seems to me wrong to think that belief in the omni-sufficiency of Jewish law places revelation exclusively in the epistemic driving seat. If we give due weight to the role that the Rabbis play in shaping halakha, as it were, in partnership with God; if we give due weight to the creative power of the sages, that was so compellingly described by Rav Soloveitchik in a number of places in his cannon, most notably, perhaps, in Halakhic Man; if we give due weight to the fact that Rabbinic interpretation is authoritative even over a Divinely emanating voice; then we must, surely, see that revelation in the classical sense of the word is not the only epistemic authority on the halakhic scene, even if it is, in the last analysis, the biggest epistemic authority. Once this premise of Alan’s argument has been abandoned, the conclusion, that Rav Lichtenstein’s position collapses into quasi-fideistic voluntarism, seems to be unfounded.

        I accept Statman’s point that, if faith in God’s moral perfection allows us to perform commandments that seem to us to be less than moral, then such faith could also justify passivity in the face of morally troubling permissions, on the basis that if it wasn’t actually okay, God wouldn’t permit it.

        Indeed, that inference would seem to have been valid, were it not for the fact that God, on the interpretations of the law that motivate Rabbi Lichtenstein’s article, commands us otherwise. He commands us to go beyond the letter of the law. This doesn’t licence us to trust our ethical intuitions when they *contradict* the letter of the law; but it does encourage us to go *further* than the letter of the law when our ethical intuitions indicate that this would be proper (especially when those very intuitions have been nurtured by the body of the halakha itself (i.e., anti-slavery intuitions may have been encouraged by the law itself before encouraging one to go beyond the letter of those laws)).

        And now, the salient difference between Rav Lichtenstein and Leibovitch arises: they both want us to accept the yoke of heaven, and allow its legislative authority a veto over our moral intuitions, but, Rav Lichtenstein still thinks that our moral intuitions have a worth and a place – namely in fufilling the commandment to go beyond the letter of the law; Leibowitz doesn’t seem to think that ethical intuitions have a place or a worth; and, he wouldn’t accept that the halakha can play a role in informing our intuitions, because he wouldn’t accept that they have the ethical content to do so. I don’t see a collapsing of positions here.

      2. Aaron Segal

        Your question about the difference between morally problematic permissions and morally problematic injunctions is a really interesting one. But I think the difference might be this: in cases of morally problematic injunctions, there’s a genuine inconsistency between that which God said (that we ought to do X) and that which we think (let us suppose), based on our moral intuitions, is in fact true (that we ought not do X). So, given God’s moral perfection (or some extension thereof), we are forced to conclude that although we can’t see how, our moral intuitions must be wrong here.

        But when it comes to morally problematic permissions, I think, contrary to appearances, there is no inconsistency (at least no *logical* inconsistency) between that which God said and that which we think, based, on our moral intuitions, is in fact true. The reason is two-fold: first, many of the cases that are under consideration – particularly those that fall into the kedoshim tihiyu etc. category – are ones in which what we believe to be true is that it’s supereragatory to refrain from something that God permitted or engage in something that God did not require. But there’s no inconsistency between something’s being permitted and it being supererogatory not to engage in it- the three-fold classification into prohibited, permitted, and obligatory is too coarse-grained to capture the distinctions among the permitted actions. As R. Lichtenstein emphasizes here and elsewhere, just because something is classified as reshut does not mean it has no ethical valence.

        But, I realize that you will point to other cases in which this point does not suffice. For example, slavery. It seems that God permits slavery and yet we would think not only that it is supererogatory to refrain, but that one is obligated to refrain. Isn’t that a genuine inconsistency which should call for us to resign ourselves to ignorance of God’s ways and sacrifice our moral intuitions? I don’t think so, and here’s the second fold of the two-fold reason: we often speak as though God permitted things such as slavery, but it’s not obvious to me that that’s the right way to think about it. It’s not as though the Torah came out and said “slavery is permitted” – of course, it didn’t forbid it, but it obviously doesn’t follow from the fact that the Torah (or anyone for that matter) didn’t forbid something that it thinks it’s permitted; and yes, the Torah even REGULATED it, but it doesn’t follow from that fact either that the Torah thinks it’s permitted. Perhaps the Torah was saying that IF you do X, do it in the following way (which is certainly one way to understand Yefat Toar and the like). I think we are misled in these cases by Hazal’s use of the term “Reshut” – that might easily be interpreted to mean that the Torah/God permitted it, i.e., said it was permitted; but it might more accurately mean that the Torah simply failed to legislate with respect to that matter one way or the other. So then there is, even in those cases, no inconsistency between what God said or willed and what appears to us to be true; but then God’s moral perfection does not require us – and it doesn’t even *allow* us – to give up our moral intuitions.

      3. Menachem

        I just wanted to offer a potential way of thinking about the comparisson you raise between injunctions and permissions. I think it could be useful to think in terms of the Hohfeldian distinction between rights and liberites. As I understand it, Halacha, narrowly defined, does not confer a right to sell your field without offering it to you neighbor (at least not vis a vis ethics). Instead it confers a liberty, whose correlative is only there is no counter-right preventing you from doing so. When halacha, narrowly defined, confers only a liberty, I don’t see why ethics would be in conflict with halacha by attempting to limit that liberty from its own point of view.

        In the case of amelek, halacha, narrowly defined, imposes a duty, so ethics is not at liberty to restrict such behavior.

    2. Menachem


      I just have one question regarding the use of God’s moral perfection as a way of defending halacha as an ethical system.

      I assume (without any certainty) that rabbis debate matters of ethics and that, due to the omni-sfficiency of halacha there interpretations are binding pursuant to klalei horaah. Can we assume that these rules also ensure moral perfection. I am thinking for example about a debate regarding bar-metzra (assuming bar metzra is a continuing application of “veasit hayashar vehatov” and not a new positivisitc law simply motivated by it). I assume that in this case too Rav Lichtenstien would insist that halacha be followed even if it seemingly contradicts ethics. (The issue seems similar to the discussion regarding halacha and metaphyisics discussed on this blog on other occaisions, except that solutions that effectivly suggest alternative ways of perceiving the universe seem less helpful here.)

      I guess I am wondering that even if at one point in the history of halacha there was a perfect or near-perfect coralation between halacha and morality, they are subject to diverge over time.

      1. Sam Lebens

        Having found Aaron’s words very convincing until now, I too would like to hear your response to Menachem’s point over here. My preferred solution to the analogous question regarding the relationship between halakha and metaphysics certainly won’t work over here, neither will yours, Aaron – as I understand it.

        Are we going to have to appeal to emunat hachamim, as some sort of correlate of believing in God’s moral perfection? That seems like an ugly move to me. I can believe that they were moral giants, the sages of the Talmud, but not that they were ethically infallible; we also believe that our moral senses have evolved – Rav Lichtenstein himself writes in “The Human and Social Factor in Halakha,” that it might be appropriate to view our evolution from polygamy to monogamy as an ethical evolution.

        Menachem raises a thorny issue.

      2. Aaron Segal

        This is indeed a thorny issue, as Sam says. I’m not quite sure what to say, other than this:

        1) As you (Menachem) intimate, it’s not obvious that Hazal really did, in their halakhic discussions, debate matters of general ethics and morality. I think their debates in areas such as Dina Debar Metzra (or much of Hoshen Mishpat more generally) could be construed as surrounding what we might call “covenantal ethics” (to borrow a phrase from others): the question on the table is what sort of behavior, otherwise strictly supererogatory (by all accounts, let’s suppose), is expected of a Jew as part of the comprehensive normative system in place because of God’s covenant with the Jewish people. (Whether that’s right depends in part, I think, on whether Hazal held that gentiles are bound to keep/apply our Choshen Mishpat – the Ramban al Hatorah, the tshuva of the Rama, etc. I don’t remember, though, if the Rama addresses Dina Debar Metzra and the like.) Of course, in some cases, their dispute *might* stem from differing evaluations of the behavior – from a strictly ethical point of view – but it could also stem from a different sense of the scope or nature of “v’asita hayashar v’hatov”. So it would be helpful to have a case to discuss in which they were clearly, or very plausibly, debating a matter of ethics more generally.

        2) There is a tradition that sees klale ha-psak as the tools to *uncover the truth*, and perhaps even as Divine guarantees to arrive at that truth. This is by no means the only way of seeing things (and as you’re aware, in the discussions of metaphysics and Halacha, I tried to give an account that accomodates other ways of thinking about those rules), but it is a prominent one.

        3) Even if klale hapsak are not thought of as tools for uncovering the truth, they might be able to *make* the psak correct/true in cases of ethics disputes (and in this regard, ethics is unlike metaphysics). One approach – which I am not suggesting we espouse, especially since you were reacting to a comment of mine which eschewed this approach – is to rely on Divine voluntarism about the ethical. But that’s not the only way: duties are highly contextual, and it could be that the very fact that one arrived at whatever conclusion one came to via a set of rules that are long-standing and have deep roots within one’s religious tradition, and that ostensibly reflect the will of God, *make it the case* that the conclusion one came to is what one (in that situation) OUGHT to do. Now, this obviously has limits; a psak to murder innocents isn’t automatically right just because it was arrived at through the appropriate Halakhic mechanism (at least not in virtue of having been so arrived at); and it may not even allow for much wiggle room. But I think it does allow for some, and so the problem that was discussed about halakhic disputes in metaphysics doesn’t have as clear an application to halakhic disputes about ethics (even if there are such things). But, granting your last point, this explanation (as opposed to the previous one) gives no *guarantee* that Halacha won’t go “off the rails” from an ethical perspective.

  12. Sam Lebens

    Now, for the first of two comments of my own.

    It seems to me that there are two different questions that one may ask in the vicinity of Rav Lichtenstein’s topic:

    Q1) When/to what extent/how do ethical considerations affect halakhic rulings (i.e. psak halakha)?
    Q2) Once we’ve reached our legal decision, does/can halakha then make any more demands of the Jew? That is to say, once the legal-part of the halakha has ruled that your obligations are x, y, and z, can there still be a sense in which the halakha would encourage or even require you (in some less than actionable sense) to do *more*?

    As I understand Rav Lichtenstein’s article, he is dedicating his attention to Q2. Indeed he has written at least one other paper that seems to me more interested in Q1, in the first volume of his Leaves of Faith.

    Some of the criticisms of, or questions raised for, Rav Lichtenstein in this symposium, such as the demand that he give us a history of the role that ethics has played in the formation of Jewish legal rulings and a mechanical algorhythm for the application of ethics to psak, seem to be taking Rav Lichtenstein’s article as if he had been addressing Q1 when his actually interest was Q2.

    I am entirely open to the possibility that I have misunderstood something along the way. I’ve been following this symposium through a haze of tonsillitis which has made it a little difficult to concentrate!

    1. Menachem


      I generally agree with your distinction, if we were to take a snapshot of halacha at any given moment. What I mean is that at a given moment in the evolution of halacha (assuming it evolves and not that we are uncovering pre-oradined conclusions using very precise intruments) then there would be matters which were already within the scope of halacha narrowly defined and subject to Q1 and matters within halacha only broadly defined and then subject to Q2.

      I think that the questions start to overlap though when you consider the effects of an affirmative answer to Q2 over time. Assuming halacha does not just “refer” to natural morality (in the way that a domestic law often refers to foreign ) law, but actually adopts it, then catagory of matters which are part of halacha only when it is broadly defined shrinks. This could very well create some pressure when addressing Q1.

  13. Sam Lebens

    If I dare to raise a criticism of my own of Rav Lichtenstein’s paper (which I’m wary of doing, not least because in a paper like this one, he demonstrates that the best philosophy of Judaism needs to be coupled with an encyclopedic grasp of the traditional sources; a grasp that I’m no where near to attaining), I would raise a concern with his treatment of the notion of ‘Aveira Lishma’ (a sin for the sake of heaven).

    When dismissing the possibility that a traditional Jewish approach would ever favour ethical intutions over halakhic law-breaking, on page 67-8, Rav Lichtenstein hopes to brush the problematic notion of aveira lishma away. He simply asserts that the notion has ‘no halakhic standing whatsoever’.

    This turn of phrase seems to be unfortunate. It is no matter whether the notion of ‘a sin for the sake of heaven’ has no halakhic standing. It isn’t meant to have any halakhic standing. Unlike the times when the law prescribes its own breach (the breaking of the sabbath for the saving of a life), the notion of aveira lishma isn’t supposed to be an internally authorised legal loop-hole. It’s supposed to be a radical breach from the halakhic norm, authorised, not by the law itself, but by some allegedly higher calling. It doesn’t need or have halakhic standing. That’s the point.

    Reinterpreting Rav Lichtenstein somewhat, we could re-read his retort to say: ‘the notion of aveira lishma has no traditional Jewish standing whatsoever.’ This claim would, however, be harder to justify, what with the notion appearing in the Talmud, which is why he dedicates a footnote (footnote 25) to the matter.

    How convincing is the footnote? The stronger part of the footnote argues that the examples that the Talmud brings of aveirot lishma (sins for the sake of heaven) weren’t really *sins*, and thus the notion doesn’t really exist as we previously understood. This would be a great way of avoiding the whole problem, but doesn’t work equally smoothly for all of the Talmudic examples. And, Rav Lichtenstein seems to concede, if only by the tone of his writing, that Raba’s remark in BT:Brachot 63a, that one is supposed to know and trust in God even when one sins, may well be read as a reference to sinning for the sake of heaven; sinning for a greater cause. It may well be too ambitious to airbrush the notion of averia lishma out of existence.

    In the less ambitious part of the footnote, Rav Lichtenstein concedes that the Talmudic treatment of aveira lishma might entail that a violation of a law may, in some circumstances, turn out, retrospectively, to have been better than the performance of a required act. He is quick to qualify: we can never know beforehand if the gamble would have been worth it; and we’re never given the licence to make the jump. But, of course the law doesn’t licence us to make the necessary leap; and, of course, we could turn out to be wrong; but with a bit of moral luck on our side, it seems that the tradition (rather than the law) allows for a circumstance in which breaking the law, for the right reason, can pay off. This much, it seems from footnote 25, Rav Lichtenstein has to concede. Well, if it can pay off, then it seems like the halakha doesn’t completely encompass the ethical in the way that Rav Lichtenstein wants to argue: better ethical outcomes are possible via halakhic breaches.

    [A relevant aside: In the world of much Polish Hassidut, halakha is something like the best formal approximation of the will of God, but there may be moments, totally unlicensed by the halakha, in which one is totally clear as to what the actual will of God is. In those moments, though one isn’t halakhically authorised to break the law, one is religiously compelled. This, for the Polish Hassid, on my cursory understanding, is averia lishma. Interestingly, their communities were among the most halakhically fastidious of the hassidim. They generally seemed to think that if you had such certainty about God’s will, you were more likely arrogant than truly prophetic!]

    1. Daniel Statman

      I’d like to respond to Sam and to press further the relation between going beyond the letter of the law in restricting permissions and going beyond the letter of the law in restricting obligations. We all agree that according to R. Lichtenstein halakha accepts some form of natural law. This means that in his view some actions, such as intentionally killing the innocent, are morally wrong independently of divine revelation. How then can we explain the laws regulating the war against Amalek or against the Seven Nations? Answer: We trust God’s justice. If God said we should follow these rules, then even though we are talking of actions which the paradigm of immorality, we can trust God and obey Him rather than re-interpret these laws in a way that would take out the immoral sting out of them. But if we can trust God in *these* cases, why can’t we trust Him in much softer cases from a moral point of view, like the law of bar-metsra (I mean the law *before* hazal stepped in)? In other words, from a moral-theological perspective, why is “going further” okay in the case of restricting permissions but out of question in the case of restricting duties? Finally, it seems that as a matter of fact the Rabbis *did* “go further” in cases of the last kind too, e.g. in the way they shaped the laws of ben sorer u-more. Should contemporary rabbis follow their footsteps and do the same with other seemingly problematic laws? R. Lichtenstein’s reply would surely be NO – which is where the suspicion of “quasi-fideistic voluntarism” comes in.

      1. Sam Lebens

        I like to be pressed Daniel(!), and I’m thoroughly enjoying this symposium.

        I recognise the tension you’re pointing to, and I only have two somewhat half-hearted responses:

        1. The simple answer to why we should go further than the letter of the law rather than trust in God’s justice, is that God told us to when he told us to do the right and the good, and to be holy. The traditional interpretation of those commandments is God telling us to follow our own ethical intuitions in those spaces where the Torah gives us room to go further.
        2. Should contemporary Rabbis ‘go further’ in what you call cases of latter kind, actually hedging in ‘problematic’ duties? That wasn’t really the focus of this particular paper. This paper deals with going further in terms of Biblical permissions. This paper *didn’t* speak about the role that ethics should play in rabbinic rulings and interpretations. That topic is covered by R. Lichtenstein in “The Human and Social Factor in Halakha.” His position on that issue is nuanced and deserves its own symposium! And, of course, Eliezer Berkowitz was willing to go much further, in his Not in Heaven, in allowing that sort of re-visionary/evolutionary zest back into the rabbinate.

  14. Debra Berkowitz

    There are four relevant articles by Harav Aharon that you should be read, the first is especially relevant and is available online.

    “Being Frum and Being Good: On the Relationship Between Religion and Morality”
    “The Human and Social Factor in Halakha,” in Tradition 36:1 (Spring, 2002), pp. 1-25. Reprinted in Leaves of Faith, volume 1, pp. 159-188.
    “הלכה והלכים כאושיות מוסר: הרהורים מחשבתיים וחינוכיים”, ערכים במבחן מלחמה – מוסר ומלחמה בראי הדורות (קובץ מאמרים לזכרו של רם מזרחי הי”ד, ירושלים תשמ”ה), עמ’ 13-24.
    “עבירה לשמה – הרהורים בהלכה ובמחשבה”, האחר – בין האדם לעצמו ולזולתו: אסופת מאמרים לזכרו של דודי דויטש, עורכים: חיים דויטש, מנחם בן-ששון (תל-אביב, תשס”א), עמ’ 99-125

  15. Sam Lebens

    Indeed, those articles are all of great importance; and are relevant. Thank you for the links.

    I even alluded to one of them [the second that you list] in a comment above, and yet, it’s important not to confuse Q1 and Q2 as I defined them above. R. Lichtenstein doesn’t confuse them, and dedicates different papers to these different questions, and to other related questions (such as Q3, what is the relationship between ‘being moral’ and ‘being religious/frum’?). So, when reading these different papers, it is worthwhile paying attention to the nuance of the question at hand. It seems fair to say that R. Lichtenstein is one of, if not the most, nuanced of modern thinkers to have systematically explored the various multi-layered relationships between ethics and halakha.

    I’m particularly happy to pointed towards his treatment of averia lishma, given what I had already written above. Many thanks.

  16. K

    The articles mentioned by Debra are crucial, especially the first Hebrew one in which he is clear about with whom he is conversing. I have the feeling that the responders until now either did not read the article carefully (the Heberw translation is often inexact) , or have expectations which are incompatible with the author’s commitment to halacha. I am not able to analyze the issue fully here ( I hope that a paper that I wrote on this topic will eventually get published) but a number of points should be made clear: Rav Lichtenstein (disclosure: my teacher in both torah and in derech eretz) clearly asserts the existance of natural morality . He sees its role within the world of a commited Jew especially in the category of dvar hareshut, actions regarding which there is no specific halachic directive but which is not outside the realm of moral relevance. Here, following Ramban (who he often quotes and reveres — see the recent books of his conversations with R. Chayim Sabato – entitled M’vakshei Panecha) a Torah Jew should follow the dictates of natural morality which call on the person to follow “the upright and the good”. The practical implications of this position are far reaching, especially in contrast with the prevalent theory and practice of the haredi world , which reflect some version of the Divine Command Theory. Therefore, they have no need for the cultivation of moral sensitivity outside of halachic norms. The outstanding example of this position is that of the hazon ish (see the recent book of Binyamin Brown — pp. 138-170) . [Ironically, R. Lichtenstein does not recognize the stark contrast between the position of Hazon Ish and his own, but he is clearly critical of the haredi position.] I any case, the fact that he does not countenace moral considerations as grounds to override halacha (after halacha has been determined by its own categories,) does not mean that there is no import to his affirmation of natural morality. R. Lichtenstein’s principled moral positions on various questions of public policy in Israel are the manifest proof of the significance of his position

  17. Mark A. Kaplowitz

    Thank you Debra Berkowitz for the link to the lecture on VBM Torah.
    Looking back at the “Does Jewish Tradition …” article, I am thinking that it is engaging in a bit of question begging (and I think that this observation is also implicit in 3a and 4 of Statman’s opening statement.) RAL asks if Jewish Tradition recognizes an ethic independent of Halakha, but he only answers whether Halakhic Decision-making recognizes an ethic independent of Halakha. As Statman points out, that the answer to the question is “no” is a trivial finding, and it is question begging because the unstated definition of the term Jewish tradition determined the conclusion from the outset.

    This problem is less acute in the “Developing a Torah Personality” essay on VBM because the question there is a modified version of the more classically formulated question Socrates puts to Euthyphro, “whether the gods love piety because it is pious, or is it pious because they love it? We can reframe the question with God, le-havdil, in the singular.”

    Admittedly, both essays reach a fairly similar conclusion that the Halakhic way of life needs to incorporate both the positive law of the Din and some type of undefined moral sensibility. However, by moving the locus of the debate from one of legal decision making to the struggle of the individual conscience it, to my mind at least, opens up a more interesting discussion of the proper source, the scope, and content of this Jewish, but not legalistic, moral sense that RAL leaves undefined.

  18. טכנאי מחשבים בקרית ביאליק

    טכנאי מחשבים בקריות, טכנאי מחשבים בחיפה , טכנאי
    מחשבים באיזור חיפה והקריות, טכנאי מחשבים בקרית ים, טכנאי
    מחשבים בקרית חיים, טכנאי מחשבים בקרית ביאליק,
    טכנאי מחשבים בקרית מוצקין ,
    טכנאי מחשבים בקרית אתא , תיקון מחשבים בחיפה , תיקון מחשבים בקריות , תיקון מחשבים בקרית ים , תיקון מחשבים
    בחיפה והקריות , תיקון מחשבים
    בקרית ביאליק, תיקון מחשבים
    בקרית מוצקין, מעבדת מחשבים בקריות , מעבדת
    מחשבים בחיפה , תיקון מסך מחשב בקריות ,
    תיקון לפטופים בקריות , תיקון מחשבים ,
    טכנאי מחשבים , רן מחשבים , רן מחשבים –
    אלופים בשירות , רן מחשבים בקריות , טכנאי מחשבים באיזור
    הצפון , טכנאי מחשבים עד הבית , טכניי מחשבים בקריות , תיקון מחשב
    בבית הלקוח , תיקון מסך מחשב , בניית אתרי אינטרנט , בניית אתרי תדמית , בניית אתרי אינטרנט
    לבעלי עסקים , בניית אתרים ,
    עיצוב אתרי אינטרנט , מעצב גרפי , מעצבים גרפיים ,
    בניית אתר לעסק

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