The APJ is currently holding a symposium on “A Moral Argument Against Absolute Authority of the Torah” (Sophia, 2019) by Dan Baras (15 – 20 December 2019).
Thanks to Springer for allowing free access to the article for the purposes of the symposium.
- For comments by an Anonymous commentator (“Sarah”), please click here
- For comments by R. Yitzchak Blau (Orayta), please click here
- For Dan’s responses to both commentators, please click here
Please join in the conversion by posting comments, questions, thoughts below.
Share This Event
Firstly, I want to thank the APJ for organising this symposium on this important topic. My thanks also go to Sarah and Rabbi Blau for their thoughtful contributions. I am especially grateful to the paper’s author, Dan Baras. I think Baras has presented an interesting and cogent argument. Part of the reason why I liked the paper, is because it grapples with a problem for many practicing Jews which often isn’t given voice, and draws our attention to it with precision and clarity.
What I say below is sketchy and provisional. I offer it only for the purpose of philosophic engagement. (And to hopefully ignite discussion since it hasn’t kicked off yet!) And I certainly don’t think I’m presenting any cut-down objections to the arguments. I do hope they might be a little food for thought though. A mini hors d’oeuvre if not a main course.
Absolute authority provides an agent with conclusive reason for action. That is, if a subject S is beholden to authority A in an absolute way, the orders of A provide S with conclusive reason to act in accordance with such orders. Moreover, possessing a conclusive reasons to do Φ which is an order from A precludes there being any defeaters of the reason to do Φ i.e. no other reason which might lead to the inaction of Φ or an action incompatible with Φ, can trump a reason to do Φ. However, having conclusive reason to Φ is different from always carrying out Φ. In other words, having conclusive reasons to obey even an absolute authority leaves ample room for failing to do the action that the order requires. Thus, we ought to distinguish between having no reason which can trump a reason to do Φ, and doing Φ. It is still possible for S not to do Φ. Only, it is impossible for her to have reasons to refrain from doing Φ which are as impeccable qua reason for action, as her reason for doing Φ is. (Prescinding special stories about the same absolute authority commanding not- Φ).
So, it is clear that having conclusive reasons for action, is different from acting in accordance with those conclusive reasons. Given this possibility then, it seems to follow that notions of absolute authority are compatible with my failing to abide by that absolute authority. The question now is, is it possible to exploit this compatibility for the end of preserving a commitment to the Torah’s absolute authority, without thereby committing us to the immoral injunctions of the Torah? (This amounts to challenging Premise 2). I’m not too sure how likely it is this strategy will work, and its success might hang on how we interpret the ambiguity of the phraseology in Premise 2 and Conclusion. Namely, the ‘it does not make sense’ bit.
Here is the conclusion: ‘Therefore, it does not make sense to treat the Torah as an absolute authority.’
I think there are at least a few ways to read this. Below, I will outline three ways (which might not be exhaustive).
Conceptual conclusion: there is something conceptual that blocks an understanding of the Torah being absolutely authoritative (given its immoral content).
This would mean that Baras is arguing that there is something unintelligible about twining notions of treating something as an absolute authority with that authority commanding immoral things. I don’t think this is what Baras means when he makes his argument. For one, it’s not the most charitable reading. We can obviously think of ways in which absolute authority and immorality are mixed. An anti-moralist may seek to be an absolute authority over someone, and only issue immoral orders. There doesn’t seem to be any conceptual difficulty which bars the notion of having an immoral absolute authority.
But maybe, this reading can be rendered in terms of whether it is coherent for us to treat the Torah as absolutely authoritative. In other words, it is pragmatically incoherent to treat the Torah as an absolute authority if it also yields conclusive reasons to do immoral things, because we shouldn’t orient ourselves in such a way that means we end up with conclusive reasons to do immoral things. In this way, it doesn’t make sense to treat the Torah as an absolute authority. But, I think when this kind of thought is invoked, I think it is nearer to the normative understandings of Baras’ conclusion.
There are at least two normative ways to read the conclusion. I have labelled one ‘weak’ because it concerns only action, and the other ‘strong’ because it concerns action plus our attitudes.
Normative (i)[weak]: we ought not to treat the Torah as absolutely authoritative given its immoral content (specifically because of its ramifications for action).
In virtue of Baras’ exhortations for us to repudiate items of the Torah he/we judge to be immoral, it seems like maybe he’s rooting for this one. To cash this out a little bit, what this means is that if Φ is a command of the Torah and if Φ is immoral, if we accept (2) we will no longer have conclusive reason to do Φ. And, because Φ is immoral, we have an excellent reason not to do Φ.
But recall, in pulling apart conclusive reasons and actual actions in the way I did above, even if I continue to treat the Torah as an absolute authority, it’s not the case that I still don’t have excellent reason not to do Φ. I still have that reason. Φ is still immoral. Granted, it means that my reason not to do Φ is of a lesser kind- it is an inferior reason than my reason to do Φ – but this concession is far less egregious than the other possible upshot of Baras’ argument if sound: that all those who treat the Torah as absolutely authoritative are committed in practice to Φ.
However, Baras might be concluding something stronger. Premise 1 and 2 together generates not only a deeply worrying consequence for how some people might act, but it also involves objectionable attitudes on the part of those who affirm the Torah’s absolute authority.
Normative (ii)[strong]: we ought not to treat the Torah as absolutely authoritative given its immoral content because of how it will impact our actions, and because it involves of the objectionable attitudes.
What might these objectionable attitudes be? I think Baras would plausibly say something about endorsement. That is, so long as we treat the Torah as absolutely authoritative, we also endorse every immoral instance of the Torah. (Endorsement is psychological not only in the conative sense, involving attitudes of approbation, but plausibly also involving a cognitive posture of propositional assent). And this endorsement per se is objectionable, so it doesn’t make sense to treat the Torah as absolutely authoritative.
How might one respond to that? Well, it actually looks like it might not be true that treating something as absolutely authoritative is a sufficient condition for endorsing every will/order/command (or whatever) of the authority. We can conceive of an evil daemon which exercises absolute authority over us qua supplying us conclusive reasons for action, without endorsing everything the demon orders- she’s evil after all. Or, closer to this actual world: we can think of political regimes which might exercise absolute authority over their subjects. But it doesn’t seem to follow that those subjects immediately endorse every law of such a regime. In fact, a subject’s endorsements might never be required for the effective operation of absolute authority over that subject. Having conclusive reasons to act doesn’t mean I like it.
But what about once the subject accepts the authority not only as absolute, but also as legitimate? Here, I mean the procedural sense of legitimacy. That the authority came about in the right way (whatever that right way might be). And this presumably, is the position of most Orthodox Jews (at least)- that God is a procedurally legitimate authority. Now it looks more likely that endorsement is pervasive to everything which is issued by the authority, be it tacit or explicit. This just seems to be the consequence of holding something to be a legitimate legislative authority.
What can I say here? I’m actually not too sure. Here’s one very rough sketch though. Maybe endorsement comes in different species. Perhaps there are two separate notions of endorsement at play in these sorts of cases: (a) endorsing an item in its capacity of being something ordered by a God who legitimately has absolute authority over us. That is, I endorse Φ because it has the right kind of procedural genealogy. Call this procedural endorsement. (b) endorsing something because it is the morally right thing to do. Call this moral endorsement.
So, maybe Baras is right that there is some sort of endorsement at play here, but maybe (big maybe!) he would be wrong to think that (a) is an objectionable attitude. For, we can characterise (a) as an attitude which is a mere recognition of the legislative source of a command. A purely and minimally procedural endorsement. I am tentatively contending (very tentatively), that the morally objectionable attitudes of endorsement only come with (b), not (a). Thus, maybe this is a way of responding to Baras’ thought-provoking paper.
Graduate Student in the Dept of Philosophy, UCL
Please excuse the typos and lack of formatting above!
Thanks to Dan and the commentators for an interesting symposium.
Dan, grateful for your help with the following clarificatory questions.
1) I’m struggling to follow the dialectical flow of the paper. You state that the target of your argument is the Doctrine of Absolute Authority (“DAA”), which you define as “Whenever there is a course of action φ such that the Torah prescribes that you φ, that is a conclusive reason to φ.”
You then state that your argument against DAA has two premises, the second of which is “If the Torah includes norms that we strongly judge to immoral, then it does not make sense to treat the Torah as an absolute authority”.
You provide arguments in support of this premise in the section “Why we should not accept the Torah as an absolute authority”. As I understand your arguments, they are all or largely epistemic in nature i.e. they rest on claims about certain of our beliefs, judgments or intuitions. But surely the epistemic status about some of our beliefs is irrelevant to the truth-value of DAA?
2) Might you have more to say about how you understand the meaning of “conclusive reason” in your formulation of DAA? For instance, does it mean “sufficient” or “indefeasible”? I suspect that it can’t mean either. Take for example Samuel’s attempt to dissuade the people from seeking the appointment of a king. If “conclusive” means sufficient or indefeasible, then Samuel’s conduct would amount to a violation of DAA.
3) Might you have more to say about how you understand “reasons”? There is a large literature on the epistemology of reasons and the absence of any nod to this literature in your formulation DAA leaves your main target somewhat elusive and your arguments against it untethered.
I would like to follow-up on Dan’s response asking us to focus on the crux of his philosophical argument, rather than on evaluating the Torah and its overall moral value.
Within this scope, I concede that Dan’s argument is valid. The responses were mostly directed to the overall value of the Torah, but as Dan says that seems to be irrelevant to the question if its authority being absolute, unless they intend to claim that we have absolutely no moral tension with what Torah tells us to do.
What does matter here, in my opinion (and perhaps in part by trying to reconstruct Yitzchak’s point that historically Jews did not commit moral atrocities based on supposedly immoral commandments), is the question of interpretation.
Dan sets three conditions for a successful response from interpretation:
(a) The interpretation needs to solve the moral problem.
(b) There need to be restrictions as for what is a valid interpretation and what is not.
(c) There should be an articulated and consistent method of interpretation.
Let me start offhand by saying I think (c), insofar as it is understood as adding additional restrictions over (b), is not justified. As long as there is a plausible interpretation, and restrictions are in place to make sure that not every interpretation can be plausible, it is entirely possible to argue that several different and incongruent interpretive methods can be used. Demanding a single, consistent method seems like an exaggerated, hyper-rationalistic requirement, and is incompatible with Torah learning as we know it, even in those cases which do not present us with moral challenges. We need only demonstrate that Torah really allows for an arbitrary or otherwise flexible selection of interpretive methods. The only objection I can see to this, is if alternating between methods ends up meaning that anything can be deduced or avoided, in which case (c) collapses into (b).
Let us now discuss points (a) and (b) in turn.
With regards to (a), we need to redefine what “solving” means. If by solving we mean to be able to show Torah never meant what we think it means, I agree that there are numerous instances in which that is not possible. However, if “solving” means finding a practical solution that avoids the moral difficulty, even as it leaves a certain letter of the law in place, one could argue this is a good enough argument that Torah does not command us to do something immoral. This does bring up other important questions, such as why would Torah command us to do something yet give us the interpretive authority to define it in such a way that it can never come to pass. But this is not a moral challenge, unless it is taken to undermine the validity of the interpretation itself.
Which brings us to point (b). What should be considered plausible or reasonable restrictions on valid interpretations? For example, when some sages determine that the laws of the rebellious son were never meant to be practiced, is that a plausible reading of the Torah? I can fully understand those who would have a negative answer. Yet, the fact is this is indeed a legitimate, even mainstream, Talmudic interpretation. Thus, while I think (b) is in principal a justified condition, it is nearly impossible to apply it to the tradition of the oral law. As long as we judge the sages to be genuine, i.e. that they really thought this is the right understanding of the Torah, it is very hard to claim that their methods are invalid. Theoretically the same is true for contemporary sages, but understandably it is an easier claim to make about the classical books. The alternative is to claim that in these and similar instances the sages were not genuine in the way they presented their works, but rather deliberately twisted the truth to adapt it to their moral sensibilities (or other interests, for that matter). If so, the argument already presumes that the Torah was not taken to be an absolute moral authority by the sages. This is not an unheard-of claim in various Jewish Studies departments.
Essentially my response is that the claim that Torah is self-explanatory or that it can be interpreted rigidly through a consistent interpretive method is false. It may be frustrating for some analytic philosophers, but it is true nevertheless. Therefor any argument against such understanding of the Torah will be equally false (or to be precise, irrelevant to the actual Torah). Torah itself includes from its very beginning mechanisms that allow the sages to reconcile it with any moral challenge, at least practically. That certain authorities choose not to use these methods, does not reflect on the absolute authority Torah has in principle.
A possible counterargument is that this violates (b) above, making it possible for Torah to mean anything and therefor nothing. I personally think this is not the case, but those who argue that it is, must extend their claim all the way back to the Talmudic tradition.
If I may, I think what Dan opposes here is not the absolute authority of the Torah per se, but rather its abuse by certain rabbinical authorities claiming their hands are tied, when indeed they have the tools to offer a solution. Whether they are right or wrong in refraining from using these tools in any particular case is of course open for debate, and depends among other things upon the degree to which we are certain in our own moral convictions (another important point which I will not get into here). But creating an alternative description of a dogmatic Torah with dogmatic premises and interpretive methods, in order to than attack it, is not a valuable move.
Ben, Dani and David,
I thank you very much for your comments and apologize for the delay in my response. I’ll respond to each in order.
I apologize but I’m having trouble understanding your suggestion. Perhaps a concrete example can help. Suppose the Torah says that if you come across a member of the seven nations of Cana’an in the street and you can kill him or her without incurring any danger on yourself, then you must do so (Sefer Hachinuch 425). Now you walk along the street and come across some a person. I thought from the beginning of your comment that you were suggesting the following approach: “All things considered, I have most reason to kill this person. But I won’t do so. And for no good reason”. This seems like an unreasonable approach, doesn’t it? Or were you suggesting something else?
1) First, if I can convince you that you shouldn’t endorse the DAA, that’s all I was hoping to achieve in this article.
Second, I disagree with your claim that “the epistemic status about some of our beliefs is irrelevant to the truth-value of DAA”. I generally think that any reason not to believe some claim p, must be a reason to believe that p is false. But the general claim is controversial and arguing about it here would be a distraction, I think. In this case, there is an additional reason to think that any reason to disbelieve DAA is also a reason to believe that DAA is false. Think of the following example: Suppose we are considering whether you have reason to keep the Shabbat. And suppose the only consideration in favor of keeping the Shabbat is that God commanded you to do so. Now suppose you have most reason to believe that no god exists. If this is your predicament, then I think you don’t have reason to observe the Shabbat. The epistemic reason regarding belief in God affects your practical reason regarding Shabbat. Something similar is the case for DAA. If you have no reason to believe the DAA, then arguably, the DAA isn’t true.
2) Sufficient and indefeasible. I’m not sure what you mean to claim about Samuel. If you think that it follows from the biblical description of Samuel that Samuel did not accept the DAA, that wouldn’t count against anything I say, but it would be a very interesting point. Perhaps you could explain what you were thinking.
3) Are you thinking that my argument is affected by some choice between theories of reasons or epistemology of reasons? If so, perhaps you could explain and I’ll try to respond. Otherwise, I don’t know what to say in the abstract. Same goes for “conclusive reason,” if my answer above wasn’t satisfactory.
I’ll start with three clarifications.
First, my third condition is not what you wrote. Rather, the further condition is that the method of interpretation be a plausible one. A method can be restrictive without being plausible and vice versa. If, for example, you think that the text of the Torah says homosexuals should be killed, but really what this means is that homosexuals should be included as equal members of our communities, then I think you should explain why this kind of interpretation makes sense.
Second, you say “I think what Dan opposes here is not the absolute authority of the Torah per se, but rather its abuse by certain rabbinical authorities claiming their hands are tied.” No, that’s not the topic of this article. I’m actually in some ways sympathetic to such claims by Rabbis.
Third, I’d like to stress that the topic of my article is not the historical question of what the Rabbis of the Mishna or Talmud thought when they interpreted the written Torah in ways that differ radically from the simple meaning. This historical question is a very interesting one, and I take it to be an unresolved mystery. However, even if we knew what the rabbis believed, it would be a further question whether their beliefs were reasonable. Rather than the ancient rabbis, the target of my article is you, the reader. Do you treat the Torah as an absolute authority? If so, why? My argument was that once you answer these questions, I can tell you why you shouldn’t treat the Torah as an absolute authority.
Now that I’ve made these clarifications, perhaps you can help me better understand your suggestion. It seems you object to the first premise of my argument and you think that the best interpretation of all or at least most of the examples of immoral norms in the Torah make them moral. Does your method include the principle: whenever a norm seems immoral, the Torah doesn’t mean that? If it does, do you think that still means treating the Torah as an absolute authority? And what justifies such interpretations? Just the fact that there’s a tradition of doing so? And what sorts of limits do you imagine to such interpretation? In the section I was responding to I suggested that satisfactory answers for these questions can’t be given. Now of course I don’t expect you to develop full answers in this symposium. But I would urge you to try to make some positive steps and not just claim that it can be done. Perhaps an example would help.
In response to your point point: “I generally think that any reason not to believe some claim p, must be a reason to believe that p is false.”
Counterexample: if someone I trust tells me that E=mc2 is false, that may well give me reason to think it false. But what counts is that E=mc2 is true.
Thank you for your comment Dan. I want to apologize in advance for a certain amount of frustration you must feel, stemming for the disparity between you having thought this topic through and dealt with many responses, whereas I have not.
I have indeed misunderstood your third condition. I was misled by your reasoning that since these methods will be applied “in many instances… such a practice needs to be explained”. Thank you for clarifying that you do not mean that the same methods will necessarily be used every single time. I will return the matter of plausibility later. Thank you also for correcting my attempt to redefine your topic. I hope my following explanations will make more sense out of that. I tried to restrain myself from laying my own thoughts and focus on a response to you. From your comment it seems you are asking me to elaborate more on my own view and I gladly do so – I apologize in advance if I’m barging to much into the discussion.
You define “Torah” as following: “[T]he set of norms that appear in a set of books, namely the Bible and the Talmud, as well as their developments in later halakhic literature”. I think your definition treats “the Torah” as an external and objective corpus we either accept or reject as an absolute authority (for there is no middle regarding absoluteness). This seems to me to be, exactly like you said, akin to perhaps some sort of Karaite understanding of the Torah but has little to do with our rabbinical Judaism whom you intend to criticize. My suggestion is that Torah as we know it does not match this description not just because it includes the Talmud on top of the bible, but because its living interpretation, acceptance and traditional practice are just as integral part of it as the bible and any subsequent compilation.
Therefore, I argue that the same moral intuitions that had led us to accepting the Torah in first place, are also the ones we use to learn and interpret it ever since. My reference to the history of Torah learning and interpretation was meant to refute the response that the view I present is inauthentic and does not describe the tradition of Torah learning as viewed by contemporary orthodoxy. It was also meant to argue that what the sages thought is just as important in my view to examining what Torah has to say, as any direct quotation from the bible. To ask whether their views were reasonable does not make sense for me in the context of this discussion, any more than asking if a biblical verse is reasonable. There is no objective Torah to which I can then compare their interpretations to determine their plausibility. Their views are the Torah, my goal as a student is to understand and embrace their ways of thinking, not to criticize them (I mean an overall criticism of the entire system, as opposed to a local criticism of a certain detail which is of course essential when properly executed). If in theory our conclusion will be that they decided by tossing a coin – this will be the meaning of learning Torah.
I accept the Torah as an absolute authority not because it is necessarily a sound philosophical system, but because I believe it originates in divine revelation. But since part of that revelation affirms my moral faculty, I am confident that no real contradiction between morality and divine command is possible.
You ask if I accept the following principal: “whenever a norm seems immoral, the Torah doesn’t mean that”. My answer is yes, but it requires certain clarifications, most of which you have already addressed in your original paper, so I will only refer to them briefly. “Seems immoral” does not mean it is currently out of fashion, and I imagine myself to be much less self-assured of my autonomous moral judgement than you are. Second, I think morality is about doing the right thing practically, so it is possible for a seemingly immoral law to lead to moral consequences when selectively applied. For example, “an eye for an eye” may be immoral taken literally, but having it in place as a statement may be morally beneficial. It is for this reason I am also a lot more sympathetic to historical-context defenses. I don’t accept your argument that the Torah’s norms were not the best they could have been at the time. I don’t know if either of us is properly equipped to decide this question, but it seems to me you place more importance on the letter of the law and I focus on it’s practical impact.
This is my view not only about the Torah but about our moral judgement of previous or remote societies in general. I think we should be a lot more careful and humbler when passing conclusive judgement over their norms and moral practices, because we do not fully understand the challenges they were facing and do not always understand what worst alternatives they have prevented. That is not to say progress is not possible, but that every deed or norm needs to be view in context. Take the example of institutional slavery – if the alternative is death either by sword or starvation, it is moral indeed. We can imagine better yet options, but we cannot be sure they were truly viable at the time. It is precisely the ability to decide our current reality does not need this extreme solution, that is the function of the living sages of every generation. I do not think Torah never meant for slavery to be practiced, but I do think it never meant for slavery to be practiced in a society like ours.
I think my view is not so different from one that you have already considered and deemed problematic: “it places the contemporary believer in a difficult position because it implies that the current halakha is very far from what it should be”. This is precisely what I think, and though it is not an easy situation I don’t think it reflects on the absolute authority of the Torah. Rather it is a challenge we still need to face. I agree with your claim that immoral actions should never be carried out in the name of Torah, but instead of allowing a certain definition of Torah and then rejecting it on moral grounds, I choose to be part of the chain of learning and practicing it, fully confident that over time the various interpretive challenges (most of which aren’t strictly immoral but have more to do with adapting to modern reality) will be resolved.
If you wish to claim this no longer counts as viewing Torah as an absolute moral authority, maybe there is no need to argue over terminology. I do want though to point out what I think is the important difference between your approach and mine: whether we keep practicing tradition as we know it to the extent it is not morally problematic, and are even willing to endure temporary problematic norms in anticipation of better future ones.
Dani – I’m not sure why your example is a counterexample to what I say in the quote. Perhaps you meant though it as an illustration of what you said in your previous comment. If so, I’m not sure what you mean by “what counts…” Counts for what?
David – thanks for sharing your views in such detail. No need to apologize! Here are some thoughts in response.
“My suggestion is that Torah as we know it does not match this description not just because it includes the Talmud on top of the bible, but because its living interpretation, acceptance and traditional practice are just as integral part of it as the bible and any subsequent compilation.”
Does this mean that in addition to the texts of the bible and the Talmud, you’re adding some other elements? Or do you not include these texts in what you understand to be Torah? If the former, then my arguments apply to what you call Torah no less. If the latter, then you should have no problem saying that all the examples that I mention are not part of the Torah, because the fact that they appear in the text doesn’t mean they are part of the Torah. Now I think you’d agree that this latter view is not standard rabbinic Judaism, but maybe nevertheless it’s a view you endorse.
The question here is related to something else you say: “I accept the Torah as an absolute authority … because I believe it originates in divine revelation.” I wonder precisely what you believe to originate in divine revelation and how reliable you think the representations of those revelations to be. If you think the text of the Torah or the prescriptions of the Talmud are among the contents of a divine revelation, then all of my examples apply. If you don’t think this, then you can just say that they are not part of the divine revelation. But if you said that, Maimonides at least would call you one who denies the Torah (Hilchot Teshuva 3:17).
You say in passing “the… moral intuitions that had led us to accepting the Torah in first place.” I think this is worth highlighting and elaborating. Is the main reason you accept the Torah as an absolute authority and as originating from divine revelation because you are morally impressed by the norms it prescribes? Then don’t the examples in my article make you pause and wonder, are you indeed morally impressed so much that justifies treating it as an absolute authority rather than just an imperfect source of inspiration?
I’m not familiar with the literature on practical reasons, but it seems to me that there is a very real possibility of having a conclusive and/or a sufficient reason to do something, whilst still having an excellent reason not to do that thing, or to do an action incompatible with that thing. So, to take your example, Reuven who subscribes to DAA, can have a conclusive reason to murder this person, whilst also having excellent reason not to murder this person. This much at least, seems coherent and reasonable.
Yet, you might be pressing me on what actually happens: does Reuven do it or not? And I think you’re pressing me on whether it is reasonable for Reuven to fail to do this deed, given that ceteris paribus, he has overall reason to do it. The first thing to deny is that it is not the case that Reuven has ‘no good reason’ not to murder- because murder is immoral, Reuven has excellent reason not to murder. Now, this sort of agent who fails to act in accordance with a conclusive reason for action in virtue of a different excellent reason he has, doesn’t seem to be someone who is being outright unreasonable.
My suggestion though, wasn’t to try and salvage the reasonableness credentials of these sorts of agents (although, if it turns out they’re not being unreasonable that will be a welcome bonus). I was trying to point to a way in which even if Premise 1 is true, we can sort of invest our hopes in the possibility that these sorts of agents will fail to act in accordance with an absolute authority when that authority commands immoral things. And this is different from rejecting DAA. It is a (salutary) failure to abide by an absolute authority.
I want to weigh in here, but am wary of reproducing part of the discussion that’s already emerged between Dan and David. But for what it’s worth, the following reflections constitute my own initial reaction to Dan’s paper.
Dan, you concede that “the term ‘Torah’ has multiple meanings.” You stipulate that you use it to refer to “the set of norms that appear in a set of books, namely the Bible and the Talmud, as well as their developments in later halakhic literature.” But, as I have argued – here – I think Rabbinic Judaism is very firmly committed to the existence of some sort of eternal Torah that transcends space and time. And thus, as I try to argue in my forthcoming book, there’s a great deal of room in the tradition for the belief that even the texts of the Bible and the Talmud are somehow incomplete; that they somehow only approximate to the content of the real Torah (this view is very widespread in mainstream Hassidic thought, for example).
So, already, if one is able to distinguish between a heavenly Torah and an earthly Torah (such that the latter approximates somehow to the former), and if that really is a view that’s found in mainstream sources, then the Orthodox Jew has the resources to respond to Dan’s argument as follows. Yes, I think that the Torah is an absolute authority – not the earthly Torah, but the heavenly one.
Now I’m wary of falling into the trap that Dan sets for me. Perhaps I’m saying that “for any course of action that I might want to take, I can interpret the Torah [or, at least its heavenly edition] in such a way that will result with the Torah allowing me to take that course of action, then the claim that I treat the Torah as an absolute authority would lack any substantive content.”
But I don’t think that I have to fall into that trap. What Dan’s paper challenges the Orthodox Jew to provide, I think, is a robust theory of revelation. But I don’t believe that we can’t rise to that task. I think of the Sinai event as God’s giving an unfolding tradition his stamp of approval such that, at any given time, the tradition that the community of faithful Jews have in their hands is the best provisional approximation available to them of God’s will for their behaviour. Pulling some of these threads together, I end up with the following conclusion, in the relevant section of my book:
“At any given time, the committed Jew is faced with the task of finding a reflective equilibrium between the demands of Jewish law as it is in their day and age, and their own ethical intuitions. From amidst the tension between (1) the evolving ethical sensibilities of the community of the faithful, (2) what Rabbinic ingenuity can discover in the latent possibilities of the tradition as it finds it, in order to accommodate those evolving sensibilities, and (3) what social development and history throw into the mix, that Torah emerges. The equilibrium pulls in multiple directions. Sometimes, a religious person has to have the humility to say, ‘my ethical intuitions tell me x, but my tradition tells me y. Perhaps my intuitions on this matter are simply incorrect.’ But, sometimes the ethical intuitions will inform new readings of old texts, and help the tradition to find innovative ways forward.”
The earthy Torah isn’t finished. Accordingly, we can’t readily describe it in terms of being an absolute authority. But, on the other hand, it doesn’t follow that anything goes, or that our theory of revelation has been emptied of any content. And, we can continue to believe that the heavenly Torah is perfect.
The next trap that Dan would have in store for my approach, I imagine, is the following question – given the fact that God’s stamp of approval means that, at certain times, he was giving (at least provisional) approval to some seemingly horrific things:
“[W]e must ask, are these norms — institutionalized slavery, genocide of the Canaanite nations, and the death penalty for those who don’t observe the Sabbath and for women who lose their virginity prior to their marriage — really the best norms that an omniscient and omnibenevolent God could have devised during the biblical period?”
But, actually, I don’t think that’s the question that we have to ask. I think that what we really have to ask is whether we can imagine that such a God was willing to be viewed, if only temporarily, as endorsing and legislating those things. That’s a different question. It’s not much more comfortable for the believer than Dan’s question – but it is a little bit more comfortable. Given the background commitment to a God that wants humanity to develop through its own moral education, and a God that values human freedom, I can imagine reasons why such a God – addressing an immoral age – would be willing to be seen, temporarily, as endorsing (and even legislating) things that he didn’t really endorse (and things that he wouldn’t want to legislate) – even things that are, in an objective sense, immoral.
I want to end with a quote and a confession.
The quote comes for the Izbizer Rebbe on Parshat Bekhukotai:
“If you walk in the path of my statutes (Leviticus 26:3): “If ” indicates uncertainty. That is to say that even one who walks in the path of the Torah must also be in a state of uncertainty, since perhaps he is not fulfilling the will of God completely. The will of God is exceedingly profound.”
His point is that the Jewish law we have in our hands, at any given time, is only an approximation of God’s infinite will. It might well be the best we have. We have no authority unilaterally to jettison any of its details. But, it is, perforce, an approximation.
My confession: if I was in the situation that you describe, Dan, in which the life of a gentile had to be saved on Shabbat, and that there would be no ill consequences for me if I decided to observe Shabbat rather than to save the gentile… I would, without hesitation, save the gentile and break Shabbat.
I would be proud of myself for doing so. I would think that I had done the right thing. But, because there is an earthly Torah, which is evolving over time, but which has – to my mind – God’s delegated legislative authority – I would also perform rituals of atonement for breaking that law. I don’t see this as being all that different to a citizen of a generally liberal state engaging in civil disobedience for a deeply felt cause, whilst also – out of respect to the fact that the state is generally pretty just – being willing to pay whatever consequences the law of the land would hand out to me for that act of disobedience. Thankfully, I don’t think the sort of circumstance I’m imagining here would ever likely come up in practice. Indeed, I have never found in my own life that my halakhic obligations have forced me to act in ways that conflict with my conscience (this last point might dovetail with Ben’s line of thought, above).
Ben – I would not press you on what actually happens. My article is about the normative question, what Reuven ought to do or what would make sense for him to do. The situation of someone who accepts the DAA seems to me akin to the following: Bilha is riding her ox and suddenly it goes wild and starts running in the direction of five innocent people. If she doesn’t intervene, those five are certain to die. However, if she does intervene, she can steer the ox in a different direction which would result in badly injuring an innocent bystander, killing nobody. Now, of course Bilha should intervene because killing five is a lot worse than injuring one. However, you might ask, does she have any reason not to intervene? Well, as you point out, in a sense she does. The reason is to save the one from the bad injuries. However, that’s only a pro tanto reason, an initial consideration that must be weighed against others. All things considered, it would make no sense at all for her not to intervene. She must save the five by injuring the one.
Similarly, if one accepts the DAA, then there may be some pro tanto reason not to kill the member of the seven nations, namely that it would seem immoral. But all things considered, it would make no sense not to kill. That’s how I think things would look for someone who accepts the DAA. Of course, I’m trying to convince you that you should not accept the DAA.
Thanks Sam for sharing your views so openly. First, an unimportant terminological comment. I don’t like calling my arguments traps. I’m not out to get anybody. I believe these are serious arguments about real beliefs that motivate people’s thinking and decisions.
I think, like I wrote to David, that you too are blurring the distinction between two possibilities. One possibility is that the Bible and the Talmud only approximate the true heavenly Torah. A different possibility is that the Bible and the Talmud are only a part of a larger heavenly Torah. If you go for the former, then it is possible for you to say that not every norm you find in the earthly Torah is absolutely binding. Only those norms that reliably represent the heavenly Torah. However, if you mean the latter, then this possibility is not open to you. The first possibility is a view that escapes my arguments, but is not quite mainstream Orthodoxy, the other has no affect on my arguments.
From your confession and most of what you say it seems to me like your view is that the earthly Torah is an approximation, not a reliable representation of a part of the heavenly Torah. And it is only the heavenly Torah that has absolute authority. You do think the earthly Torah has some authority, and should be respected even when implying an immoral action, but that authority is not absolute. If this is indeed your view, then it is consistent with the conclusion of my article. I would just urge you to say explicitly, if you haven’t already, that the approximation unfortunately seems to include some mistakes. Like the examples I give in my article. I think this can be said with the humility that is important to you.
Thanks for your response, Dan.
‘Similarly, if one accepts the DAA, then there may be some pro tanto reason not to kill the member of the seven nations, namely that it would seem immoral… it would make no sense not to kill.’
No, this view is what I’m trying to put pressure on. Having an excellent reason not to do something in virtue of that thing’s moral status (I want to say) does not figure as a merely pro tanto reason, and it certainly doesn’t leave the agent in a space where it would make no sense not to kill. If you asked Reuven after the even why he did not phi, his reason that phi is immoral serves to be an excellent and intelligible justification of his omission.
Ben – I don’t see any reason to endorse your view. But I thought I’d attempt to help clarify it anyhow. Here’s my proposal for developing your view. The view is that there’s a distinction between what one ought to do all-things-considered-morally and what one ought to do all-things-considered simpliciter. And this explains the difference between Reuven and Bilha. Both Reuven and Bilha have all things considered reason to take a course of action A, and a moral pro tanto reason to take a course of action B. This is why I suggested the two cases were alike. However, you think there is a distinction because you think that Reuven has all-things-considered-morally reason to do B, whereas Bilha has all-things-considered-morally reason to do A. And further you think that when one has all-things-considered-morally reason to do something, then even if one has all-things considered reason not to do it, one is not completely irrational in not doing it.
I’ve got objections to this view. But it’s getting late and our symposium is nearing its end. So I’ll leave it at that.
Dan, just for the sake of clarity – I was only using the idiom of “trapping” in the figurative sense that good arguments can catch a person making a mistake; I didn’t intend to undermine the seriousness either of your arguments or of the topic.
Secondly, I dispute your claim that my view is fringe. In my article and book I try to argue, at length, that it isn’t fringe.
Also, I don’t think I blur what you say that I blur. One way that text x could be said to approximate text y is for text x to be an incomplete part of text y. Perhaps in the larger context of y, the text of x would no longer carry any immoral implications.
I think that part of the reason I can’t speak in the way that you would like me to speak about the texts you mention (other than my sometimes giving them different interpretations) is that I see every layer of the revelation as part of a unfolding process; and that process is holy. It has, so to speak, been touched by God. That holiness requires that I speak reverently about each layer of that tradition. To call isolated verses immoral would be, to my mind, a violation of that reverence.
So, perhaps to be a little clearer – I can, of course, say that executing shabbat violators is immoral. I’m only too happy to join you in saying that. But I can’t call any given verse of the Torah immoral, because each verse is part of something larger; that larger thing hasn’t yet finished coming to be, and when that larger thing is complete, it will no longer be an approximation of an absolute authority, but it will be an absolutely absolute authority; what’s more, the Torah, even as it is today, doesn’t – as I understand it – call for the execution of shabbat violators.
So, for all of these reasons, and out of what I take to be a justified humility and reverance, it would be inappropriate to point to any “part” of the Torah in isolation, and call it immoral.
As, I unerstand it, the only way that the Torah – as it is today – would call for the execution of shabbat violators, is in an eschaton, in which God’s existence and attributes will be readily epistemically available to everyone with certainty, and in which a Sanhedrin sits and witnesses warn the violator, who understands that God exists, and what God is, and what he commands, and they warn the violator of the consequences of his actions, and he makes it clear that he understands this warning. In those situations, execution would be terribly unfortunate, but not immoral. And, in this world of uncertainty, the Torah doesn’t endorse execution of shabbat violators; nor does it endorse religious coercion at all.
Again, shabbat shalom.
Thanks Sam. I’ll just point out that I anticipated your explanation regarding Shabbat violators. That’s why I argued that the commandment does not look like it was meant to be applied during the desert period alone.
Now that the symposium has come to an end, I’d like to thank you all for participating and engaging with my article. Dan
Dan, regarding your point – given the sort of theory of revelation that I adopt, what the commandment might have looked like in its original context isn’t as relevant as it might seem. On other theories of revelation, I think that your arguments would present more of a problem.
And, regarding your last comment, I’m so very glad that we were able to have this discussion. So thank you.