Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Parsha Re'eh: Rejecting Moral Relativism While Navigating the Shades of Gray

Moral relativism is one of those charged phrases that get a lot of people going. "How can we talk about absolute morality when there are so many religions and philosophies out there? Is there an ethos we can all abide by?" And so forth. Yes, there are some disagreements about ethical situations or whether G-d even exists. Nevertheless, there are some basic moral truths that have developed throughout history, most notably surrounding the idea of the Golden Rule. Even if certain differences exist between groups of people, the Golden Rule exists in some form in every major world religion and the vast majority of philosophies out there. Do not murder. Do not steal. Rape and genocide are morally wrong. Without this minimalist sense of morality, it would not take long for society to descend into chaos. In this week's Torah portion, we see a condemnation of moral relativism:

לא תעשון ככל אשר אנחנו עשים פה היום איש כל הישר הי אלהיך נתן לך.
You shall not do after all that we do here this day, every man whatsoever is right in his eyes. -Deuteronomy 12:8

If we didn't have a general sense of ethos or "right and wrong," it would ultimately be based on "might is right" because the subjective morality that would dictate policy would be those in power. Even if perceived and emphasized differently, societies across much of history have developed concepts of love, justice, peace, honor, and compassion. The values have existed; it simply has been a matter of emphasis and composition, which brings me to my next point. 

Even with these values that exist, how do we discern which values are right and when? The fact that a non-relativist sense of morality exists does not mean that morality or ethics exist within a black-or-white context. Far from it. Yes, Judaism has a set of values that are well-defined. At the same time, reality gets in the way, which could explain some of the nuance behind Jewish law and practice.

Our starting point has to come from a couple of Torah portions ago when it said that "you shall do what is right and good in the sight of G-d (Deuteronomy 6:18)." There are so many ethical situations that transpire in life that the Torah does not list them all. It's even for difficult for the corpus of Jewish law to capture every possible scenario, which is why having a guide such as a rabbi, friend, or other person of influence to help you (also known as mashpia) is important. That way, you don't succumb to personal tastes or subjectivity being your ultimate guide in life. Why is it nice to have someone more objective help you out? Because we find ourselves in situations in which our values can collide.

Here are but a few examples. Truth and peace are both important in Jewish morality. However, what do you do when they conflict? And if you don't think this can happen, it happened in the Torah. If you take a look at Genesis 18, G-d shows us that if one had to decide between the two, peace wins. If one has to choose between observing the Sabbath and saving an individual's life, one opts for the latter. Abraham had to choose between receiving the Divine presence and showing hospitality to three strangers. Which did he choose? Hospitality. Moses disobeyed a divine directive to show gratitude because G-d realized gratitude supersedes even obeying Him.

You don't even have to look at it through a Jewish lens to realize that there is no such thing as a character trait or value that is 100 percent desirable. Generosity is normally considered a good trait in Judaism. A Jew is supposed to give ten percent of income to help the poor. Generosity also comes in many other forms in Judaism. However, if your generosity impoverishes you or enables the recipient to continue with bad behavior, then generosity has been turned into a negative characteristic. I am a man who loves truth. Truth is important because reality helps us navigate life. If you use truth to knock down an individual, then it has become a deleterious weapon. Even commitment is normally a good thing. It helps individuals stick to a task or promise when times get tough. If it keeps you in a loveless or abusive marriage, or if the commitment is making you absolutely miserable, then commitment is counterproductive.

Just because there can be a conflict in values or just because a single value is not good in all cases does not mean that we should not have well-defined morals. It just means that life is complicated, much like Abraham discovered when he was about to sacrifice his son but realized that he literally had to choose between two opposing divine directives. We are meant to struggle with our conscience and act on our free will. This paradox, also known as the human experience, is what can make life simultaneously frustrating, joyous, confusing, and meaningful. It's why we should embrace our ability to deal with moral ambiguity while sticking by our morals and values. 

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