Essays on Judaism

...and thoughts on Torah life

Boruch Clinton

Talmud and Modern Morality

I had been asked about Talmudic opinions and issues of morality, how the rabbis of the Talmud "do not seem to have any moral opinion of their subject matter." My correspondent referred specifically to the "Sotah ritual" (see Numbers, chapter 5), claiming that "the sages seem however to be caught up in the minutiae of the process of the ritual, rather than the larger issue of the gross cruelty of the practice or the moral significance thereof." This made it difficult for him "to believe that the sages had developed an adequate sensitivity and awareness of the larger issues they were studying."

Talmud Study and its Context

You wonder about the value of Talmud study and I fully agree with you. If the laws of the Talmud are neither authoritative nor an accurate account of the essence of God's Torah, but instead simply reflect its authors' personal opinions, then the work indeed has no real value at all (beyond that of a historical curiosity). So as not to deceive you, I will tell you exactly where I stand: I believe (and can demonstrate) that the Talmud, while its nature is complex, is the full and accurate expression of the Divine will and is equal to and inseparable from the Written Torah. Therefore, I would contend that the Talmud's morality is that of God Himself.

And in a sense, your case really revolves around defining morality. If I'm reading you correctly, you are portraying the rabbis of the Talmud as men either unconscious of, or indifferent to morality. But that is predicated on the assumption that the products of their system are indeed immoral. By which standard have you made that judgment?

Allow me to advance a two-pronged argument: First, that we may lack the tools to make absolute moral judgments and, second, that, even according to our own intuitive sense of morality, the laws you question, if properly understood, might actually meet our highest expectations.

Ok. You maintain a priori that certain Talmudic laws are immoral. But are you really in a position to know? If you're measuring everything against the social standards of our contemporary communities, then your yardstick may be seriously skewed. After all, ours is a society that countenances perverse forms of slavery (introduce yourself to an illegal live-in housekeeper from the Third-World) and celebrates the gross exploitation of women (pervasive sex-based marketing). Is this a system whose instinct for morality can be trusted? Are we really any better off than the brutish, self-serving and hedonistic Romans or the human-sacrificing Druids of Stonehenge?

My first question, then: Who or what is the arbiter of morality that validates your challenge to the Talmud? A further and related point: if these laws indeed come from an all-powerful creator-of-the-universe (God - as is the clear claim of the Talmud), then all questions of morality are moot: He sets the rules and His opinion is final.


Now, what about Sotah? Here, you claim, is a clear and obvious case of cruelty and bias. Please correct me if I'm wrong, but I'll guess that you find the execution of the adulterous woman cruel. Perhaps you would be correct if it was done by human hands (refer to our above discussion), but, as you well know, the woman only died through supernatural intervention (unless the toxicity of spring water mixed with soluble ink is higher than I thought). If God chooses to end a woman's life through a direct miracle, then the process is clearly validated and, once again, we have no business judging. If, on the other hand, the process does not invoke Divine intervention, then it's no process at all and there's nothing to protest (i.e., no woman ends up dead).

Perhaps, however, you're bothered by the woman's public humiliation. Is that, however, qualitatively different than the public trials of SUSPECTED criminals in our legal system (or, better, is it any worse than the summary convictions in the eyes and pens of the media and their consumers)? If this woman indeed committed adultery, should she be treated any differently from a child-molester (think of the families she's destroyed and the trusts she's betrayed)?

And bias?

As you're no doubt aware, the Talmud explicitly states that the male half of the act of adultery would be supernaturally killed wherever he happened to be at the same moment as his paramour met her fate. The punishment is equal. You can only judge the Talmud's system from a vantage point that includes the whole context.

How about the fact that a married man consorting with a single woman isn't considered adulterous? Two responses: You could ask the God who created this disparity in the law (it's explicit in the Bible - see Levit. 18 and 20). Or you could understand this disparity in light of the Biblical allowance for polygamy which, of course, worked only one way (this isn't the time or place for it, but about a year ago, I gave a class defending Biblical polygamy - though I did not, God forbid, suggest that it should be practiced in our world!!).

Forgive me the digression, but this reminds me of the student I once had who questioned one particular aspect of Jewish divorce laws. "Look: a man may re-marry immediately upon his divorce, but a woman must wait three months!" It took only a moment to remind her of some points of anatomy that she seemed to have forgotten; particularly that incidence of pregnancy is significantly higher among women than among men. The three month wait is, of course, only to ensure that there isn't an early-term pregnancy whose full parentage (and all its legal and moral consequences) would come into question if the mother immediately re-married. Sometimes bias is unavoidable and even virtuous.

So I'm not sure I see in the Sotah laws any gratuitous cruelty or unwarranted bias. Please let me know if I've missed your point.

The Problem of Morality in Modern Society

Absolutely axiomatic to the approach of the rabbis of the Talmud is the idea that the Torah is Divine and that God, its author, is perfect. It is not unreasonable to say (at least from my world-view) that the sages invented nothing at all that was their own, but rather, they took the 200 (for argument's sake) interconnected themes of the Torah (received from Sinai) and applied to them the hermeneutic rules (similarly a product of revelation) and through that process brought the details of our halacha to light.

God, the Author of it all, is infinite, complete, perfect and permeated with all of the highest traits imaginable (see Ex. 34; 7-8 for an example). From a perfect source, logic tells us, nothing can come that isn't true and moral.

So you're correct: the rabbis didn't judge the morality of the laws and philosophies of the Torah...what standards of morality could any human being possibly have applied to them?

And upon further consideration, does any other form of morality even exist? If I ignore the religious context of my world-view, I can see both sides of, say, the abortion debate: Some say that personal autonomy is a prime value while others assign greater weight to the rights of the unborn child. There is really no mechanism to solve the debate because one side, from a secular point of view, is no more authoritative than the other. A hundred years hence, our society will probably still be arguing the point. Medical ethics commissioners can't solve it because all they're really doing is translating their own social and professional baggage into resolutions that are really no more resolute than ours.

And ultimately, it's not a moral issue at all, but a conflict between two equally valid value judgments.

I'll suggest another example. The ACLU's opposition to Internet filters on publicly funded computers has no moral element to it at all - and nor does the stand taken by many of their opponents. Again, it's a question of personal value judgments: The "left" really and sincerely feels that allowing a 7-year-old access to Internet pornography isn't all that bad and certainly not bad enough to risk restricting the more general rights of free speech while the "right" feels that pornography is such a corrupting force in society that our very stability (and not just our right to speak) is at stake.

If the "left" really felt that free speech was a moral truth, they would spend their time defending people who shout "Fire!" in a crowded theater or who seek to freely distribute jars of HIV-infected material to public school children in case one should wish to express his thoughts through that medium. Rather, free speech to them is a relative virtue whose merit depends of the importance of a particular issue to which it's applied.

I argue, therefore, that absent an absolute Divinely revealed morality - a morality beyond the meddling reach of human beings - right and wrong are unattainable dreams.