In this week’s Parashah, we read about Avraham’s most difficult task—Akeidat Yitzchak. Although the traditional belief is that Avraham was righteous his will to follow Hashem and give up his only son, there is an opinion that Avraham should have protested killing his son, just as he protested the destruction of the city of Sedom (18:15-32). Although Avraham had deeply ingrained morals which told him to argue for what was just, he did not protest the killing of his son.
Despite the controversial nature of this opinion, this approach seems to confirm the notion of mandatory ethics outside the realm of Halachah. However, is it necessarily true that that there exists a moral code outside Halachah?
A very early source on the topic of an independent morality is found in the Euthyphro, a dialogue written by Plato, which records a conversation between Socrates the philosopher and Euthyphro, the ancient Athenian prophet. In this ancient conversation, Socrates and Euthyphro struggle to define whether something is holy because it is inherently so, or only because God loves it. This discussion can be confined to a more limited question as to whether Judaism recognizes an independent ethic, and if so, how it interacts with Halachah.
In an article by Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, he formulates the idea that there is an independent ethic outside of Halachah based on a number of opinions. The Torah concepts of Lifnim MiShurat HaDin, going above and beyond the letter of the law, and Naval BeReshut HaTorah, one who technically follows the law while simultaneously being a scoundrel, are integral to this conclusion. The concept that an individual could follow all the practical rulings of the Torah while simultaneously violating ethical concepts leads to the idea of an ethic independent of Halachah.
Of course the concept of an ethic independent of Halachah can run away into the sea of narcissistic definitions of morality that are so prevalent today. One needs to look only at the current relaxed moral codes of promiscuity as an example of this. Rav Lichtenstein finds a more moderate road that recognizes an independent morality but also reigns in a runaway ethic. He concludes that Din is not the end of our moral obligations and that Halachah has a much wider breadth of meaning than that which we usually subscribe to it. We are Halachically called upon to act beyond what is required by Din according to some type of independent morality. However, this independent morality in no way supersedes that which Din might require. Rav Lichtenstein views Halachah as urging us, and even requiring us, to maintain a higher level of ethical conduct not delineated within the limited confines of Din. This independent ethic is something that we search for using axioms, principles of belief, our own sense of right and wrong, and our ancestral tradition.
The interpretation laid out by Rav Lichtenstein that there exists an independent moral code can help us understand the story where the Jews ask for quail, are given it, and then punished by God soon after, seemingly for no explicit reason (Numbers 11:30-35). Using the concept of an independent ethic mandated by Halachah, we can understand that the Jews were punished for ethical conduct violations that did not fall within the realm of Din, yet are part of independent morality.
Rav Lichtenstein’s understanding of an independent ethic can account for how Avraham, on a level of Din, may have been following God’s word, yet he could have attained an even higher level of independent ethical guidelines so integral to revealing God. It could be that Avraham should have argued with God according to his own moral principles, similar to the way Moshe did when defending Israel after the sin of the Golden Calf (Shemot 32:11).
The idea of an independent ethic, urged and required by Halachah, is something we should take the time to explore in some fashion. Too often, this concept is brushed aside too quickly, either out of fear or rejection. The reality is that in a time where moral struggles have become powerful and overwhelming, this exploration could be the development that takes Orthodox Judaism a step in the right direction.
Editor’s Note: Ethical intuition has a vote but not a veto in regard to Halachic matters. For example, Rav Moshe Feinstein used highly creative approaches to spare individuals from being considered Mamzeirim, children from forbidden relationships. However, he was not able to solve every case, as there are a few cases in Teshuvot Igrot Moshe were Rav Moshe was unable to avoid concluding that a certain individual was a Mamzeir. The ethical intuition should motivate a Poseik to make every effort to avoid concluding that someone is a Mamzeir; however, there are times that such efforts do not bear fruit and we must yield to the divine directive despite its contradicting our sense of ethics.