Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Do you get your values just from the Torah?

What is morality? And what are ethics? Or values?

In my discussions with Charedim, (and some Centrist Orthodox and even Modern Orthodox) both online & offline, we often come to an impasse when I realize that one of the basic assumptions they’ve made is that I, as a kipa wearing Jew, take all my cues for morality, ethics, and values from the Torah, and that there can be no other standard.

Even if one accepts that premise, there are far reaching disagreements on what the Torah has to say when it comes to value judgments. But leaving that aside, in any case I reject the basic premise. I see no reason that the Torah should be the only arbiter of my moral being. I may be a Jew, but that’s not the only thing I am. I’m also a human being.

When the Charedi I’m talking to realizes that I’m not on the same wavelength when it comes to this issue, he will often engage in circular arguments:

“How can you not see the Torah as the final word on every issue? The Torah says you’re supposed to see it that way, and therefore, as a Jew, that’s what you must do!”

Aha – that’s one of the very (supposed) “Torah values” that I reject, that the Torah is my only moral guide. So that argument holds no water with me.

I am a committed Jew. I keep kashrut & shabbat, daven, study Torah, wear a kipa, etc. But that’s not all I am. I’m also a human being who attended college, reads voraciously, has friends who have all sorts of beliefs and lifestyles, and is affected by contemporary western moral values.

An example: recently I was talking to a relative, and she referred to a cousin who “nebach”, married a non-Jew. As is her wont, she said this in a low voice as if mourning a tragedy. I used to think the same way. Anyone who intermarried was destroying the Jewish people, and voluntarily doing Hitler’s work.

But as an adult, I got to know people who were intermarried. And you know what? Most of them are happy, raising well adjusted kids, and leading a meaningful lifestyle in their own way. Many of them even raise their kids with a strong Jewish identity, with the non-Jewish spouse attending synagogue along with the rest of the family.

And so I realized, why is it my place to judge these people and say that they’ve taken the wrong path in life? Am I so arrogant that I know the one and only true path and that they’ve abandoned their only route to some heavenly salvation? Why not just be happy for them that they’ve found happiness, something that’s hard to find in this world for so many people?

So what do I do with the halachic opposition to intermarriage?

One possible solution is to dig down deep into the mists of early Judaism and argue that the Torah doesn’t really prohibit intermarriage and that it’s all a Rabbinic innovation. And there may be some truth to that. But I’m a firm believer in Judaism as an evolving religion. And as such, it would be disingenuous to claim that traditional Judaism hasn’t had a major problem with intermarriage for at least 1 ½ millennia. And in any case, if I use that sort of argument, I’m boxing myself in and making it a requirement to find some sort of historical-religious justification for any personal moral value I hold that on the surface disagrees with tradition.

Instead, I prefer to concede that, yes,Rabbinic Judaism prohibits marriage to a non-Jew who hasn’t sincerely converted. But that’s irrelevant. I’m not intermarried and so it’s not a personal issue. And the Torah’s opposition? It is what it is. But I, as a human being with values that are a result of my almost 40 years of life experience, see nothing wrong with it for other people who’ve chosen that path. I don’t uphold it as an ideal, but once they’ve chosen such a romantic partnership, let them be happy! So I’ve gone to weddings and danced for Jewish brides and non-Jewish grooms and vice versa, and celebrated their unions. The Torah may say it’s wrong, but so what? Not every one of my values has to be from the Torah.

I have a similar attitude towards homosexuality. Admittedly, I’m not gay, so I can’t really understand the struggle that a gay Jew who was raised Orthodox must go through. Still, I can’t deny that the Torah calls homosexuality “toevah”, often translated as “abomination.” But when it comes to my gay friends? As long as they’re happy, I’m happy for them.

A few years ago, a co-worker to who I was close died young. Her funeral was held in a catholic church. I felt no need to ask a Rav whether I was allowed to enter for the funeral, because the answer would have been irrelevant. It was far more important to attend her funeral and be there to say goodbye in the manner her family chose.

It seems to me that giving over all of one’s decisions to what the Torah says (or some Rav’s interpretation of what it says) makes one a poorer human being. Struggling with ethical dilemmas and thinking for oneself, based on the richness of one’s own experience is part of life. And I think even most Charedim absorb ethical ideals from contemporary notions even as they deny it. For example, the Torah talks about slavery (yes, yes, I know the apologetics, it’s indentured servitude, not much better), but do any Charedim believe in slavery? Wouldn’t most recoil at the idea? We all get our morals, values, and ethics from various sources, often unconsciously.

So where does your value system come from?

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