A. The Universal Character of Ethical Wisdom
The wisdom of morality involves the definition of good and evil, and it therefore involves human education. This activity is universal and is not confined to the nation of Israel. In every human society, general rules are developed for appropriate behavior, based primarily on human nature, which is basically decent. Even though ethical norms differ from one society to another, the general goal of every moral code is to keep mankind honest and on a straight path.
In every era, there are discussions among human beings on the subject of appropriate behavior. Some questions, such as whether people should honor their parents, have been decided and are accepted by a broad range of people. But other questions, such as whether mankind should refrain from eating the flesh of animals, do not yet have widespread agreement. In our era, eating meat is not generally considered to be offensive behavior even though it requires taking a life in order to give pleasure to a human being.
The rules of morality of various human societies are a result of accumulated historical experience by a method of trial and error. Baldad, one of the friends of Job, says, "Just ask the first generations and investigate their ancestors, for we only came yesterday and our days are nothing more than a shadow" (Job 8, 8-9). That is, with respect to basic questions, a man must depend on the experience of earlier generations. It cannot be assumed that everything the ancients said is absolute truth, but even based on their errors it is possible in the end to generate a valid ethical approach. In addition, the moral tendency of the human race has been continued to develop during our entire history, and the result is that ethical rules have improved and have reached higher levels than before.
B. What is the Source of Morality?
The root of the moral tendency that exists within the human soul is the attempt to get closer to G-d. Every human society has a direct relationship with the source of all life, and this leads to a yearning for good and for honesty. At times, the character of the open relationship to the source of life is so idolatrous and coarse that the only way for the human race to advance ethically is by denying this relationship. But it should be noted in reality this progress stems from an even more sensitive search for G-d.
Moral rules are an expression of the will of G-d, but this is revealed in mankind through human nature and not as a command. The Holy One, Blessed be He, created man with the ability to understand that certain types of behavior are appropriate and others are not. For example, the human soul should naturally demand that murder be avoided, and this is not merely a social or religious commandment. In addition, it is possible that such trends started out as laws written by human beings which were then transformed into a social norm, since the human soul became adapted to them.
C. The Torah is not a Substitute for Human Morality
The Torah was not given to the nation of Israel in order to be a substitute for human morality. Human morality should exist within a person of Israel just as it can be found in the heart of each and every person, and the unique spiritual level of the Torah lies on top of this. A person with weak moral strength who encounters the commands of the Torah is liable to reach a status of even greater moral depravity, because within every command he will search for the permitted ways to fulfill his own lowly aspirations (and the powerful emotions of holiness will provide an even stronger "motivation" for his actions). For example, if a person does not have a natural understanding of the moral depravity involved in spreading slander about another person and all of his social interactions will be based merely on the limits of halacha, he will be able to spend all of his days spreading slander in permitted ways – without any feeling of how his soul is harmed by his own actions. This is what the Rambam ruled: "Torah should only be taught to a student who is decent in his actions or to a simple person. But if a person is on an evil path he must be returned to a proper path and tested. Only afterwards should he be brought into the House of Study and taught." (Laws of Torah Study, 4,1).
The Torah did not require a person to observe the commandments for the first thirteen years of his life in order to allow him to first build up his moral character.
D. Why is it Wrong to be Hasty about Morality?
In human history too, proper behavior preceded the Torah, as is written: "For twenty-six generations, Derech Eretz – appropriate behavior – preceded the Torah." (Vayikra Rabba 9,3). The Torah was not given during the earliest years of humanity because it was first necessary to have proper preparation in terms of values. This fact leads directly to the conclusion that advances in Torah knowledge must never weaken natural morality. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (the first Chief Rabbi of the Land of Israel, who was one of the spiritual giants of modern day Judaism, 1865-1935) warned about this danger. He wrote: "It is wrong for the fear of G-d to push aside the natural morality of a man, because if it does so it is no longer a pure example of the fear of G-d." (Orot Hakodesh Volume 2, page 27).
An example of a very problematic suppression of natural morality can be seen in the process of the expansion of Christianity in Europe. This religion forced the nations of Europe to observe parts of the Torah of Israel (many of them had developed a high cultural level but remained moral barbarians). This coercion was accomplished without the natural preparation that was necessary to develop the morality of the soul, and the result was therefore not suitable for the internal nature of these nations. One of the consequences of this process was the atrocious events of the Second World War, which acted as a release for barbaric tendencies of the soul that were not rooted out by moral teachings matched to the character of the people. Here is what was written by Heinrich Heine (a Jew, one of the greatest authors and poets of modern Germany, 1797-1856): "In Germany there will take place a drama which will give the French Revolution the appearance of a harmless idyll. Christianity has suppressed the militaristic enthusiasm of the Germans for the time being but did not destroy it. As soon as the restraining talisman breaks, violence will break out again..."
There is a religious temptation to decide that by observing the commandments a person fulfills his moral obligations. This is very dangerous because it might cause a religious person to ignore some of the most basic factors of his personality. Rabeinu Saadia Gaon (one of the "geniuses" of Babylonia, the head of the yeshiva of Sura, 882-942) writes in his book "Faith and Knowledge" (Chapter 3, 8) that a man once said to him: If a prophet would command us to do something that contradicts the intellect or ethics we would be required to listen to him, since the moment that G-d gave a command, the act became true and moral. Rabeinu Saadia disagreed, and he claimed that a man who commanded others to perform acts that are illogical could never be considered a prophet, and therefore we would not listen to what he said. The man replied that truth and morality are established only according to the commands of G-d and that no human being can interfere, and he concluded that we would be required to listen to the prophet. Rabeinu Saadia wrote that at that moment he stopped talking to this man.
There are periods of time when those who observe the Torah might be lacking in specific traits of proper behavior, such as love for fellow men or the desire to mend society. This leads to moral criticism of the people, and this can quickly be transformed into criticism of the Torah itself.
The truth is that the word of G-d will never be revealed to mankind without a prior moral introduction, because an immoral person is neither worthy of nor ready for the holy words. It is therefore wrong to view the word of G-d that comes through revelation as "true morality" and to ignore everything else on which it depends.
E. The Objective of the Torah
In view of the above, the Torah was given with a background of the moral development that preceded it, with the goal of lifting mankind up to a higher moral level. The Torah is the word of G-d, who turns toward mankind, and mankind must listen to this word after having perfected Derech Eretz – proper behavior – which lifts man up towards G-d. A lack to reach the level for which the Torah is aiming is not a moral lack – the nations of the world are required to be ethical, even though they are not required according to Jewish tradition to observe the mitzvot.
But this then leaves us with a dilemma: Why did the Torah give us commands about things which human morality had already achieved, such as murder and robbery? There are various answers to this question. For example, Rabeinu Saadia Gaon wrote that even the moral commandments have many details that mankind would not have discovered on their own, and for this reason revelation is needed. In ancient times, the Romans wrote that the Jews are strange people because they claim that killing a young baby is the same as murder. Human morality accepts that it is wrong to take a life, but there are delicate questions that are very difficult to answer. For instance, is mercy killing murder or not? Is it murder to kill a fetus or not? Is there any difference between a fetus and a newly born infant? The Torah has provided detailed halachic answers to these questions or has given methods to arrive at an answer. The Maharal of Prague (a master of Kabbalah and a prominent Jewish philosopher, 1520-1612) explains this concept in another way: From the moment that the nation of Israel was given the command, "Thou shall not murder," the prohibition – which until then was nothing more than a moral imperative which helped people to achieve perfection – was transformed into a Divine command which allows mankind to cling to the infinite. This is a new way of looking at this prohibition, a perception which removes the prohibition from the realm of human morality.
F. In the End – Morality Remains
An important note should be added, something that is most relevant for the nation of Israel. In addition to the above considerations, there is an intrinsic moral value in observing the mitzvot that stems from the very fact that they are the words of G-d as transmitted to the children of Israel. Any person who rebels against the source of life – against the holy One who turned to him – is acting in a way that shows a lack of gratitude for what G-d has given him.
The moral value of observing the mitzvot can also be described in another way: As a Jew becomes aware of the moral value of the appearance of Israel on the stage of history and of the Jewish contribution to the progress of human morality, and as he begins to understand the importance of belonging to the nation of Israel as expressed by performance of the mitzvot – this becomes a moral imperative for him. Based on reasoning in the Kabbalah, this approach can be expanded to a statement that the performance of a mitzva is moral in itself, since the act of performing or ignoring a mitzva either mends or harms the part of the world to which the mitzva is linked. This is a way of emphasizing the moral demands on a person: a human act can mend the situation or cause harm. (The moral character of a person will still depend on his ability to recognize the morality of the act itself, and therefore anybody who does not recognize the moral significance of an act or does not view it as an obligation will not be considered an immoral person.)
Note also that the sages declared, "If there is no Derech Eretz there is no Torah, and if there is no Torah there is no Derech Eretz" (Pirkei Avot 3,17). That is, proper moral behavior must precede the Torah, but after the Torah has been revealed based on the a priori existence of Derech Eretz, a new and higher-level moral code is derived from the Torah.