An Orthodox Educator's Response to the Question of a Moral Crisis in the Orthodox World – Part 1 by Rabbi Mark Smilowitz


The following article was delivered before Congregation Ahavas Achim B'nai Jacob and David in West Orange, NJ, during Sukkot 5770/2009. Due to the importance of the topics discussed, we asked Rabbi Smilowitz to publish his remarks in Kol Torah, to which he graciously extended his permission.

We all know how embarrassing it felt, not long ago, to see, on the front page of major newspapers, men dressed as Orthodox rabbis being taken away by the police for money laundering and other offenses. At that time, a question was raised on a Jewish educator's internet group: is there a crisis of ethics in Orthodox Jewish education? Since that time, some ideas have been brewing in my mind, and I'd like to share them with you tonight.

Torah Ethics and Popular Ethics

My first reaction to the possibility of there being a problem with morality and ethics in the Orthodox world was one of surprise. It would seem to me that the Orthodox Jewish world should excel above all others in the area of ethics, because we believe that ethical behavior is commanded by God. This is a much firmer basis for ethics than other popular theories, and I understand that secular ethicists today often have a difficult time differentiating between ethics and aesthetics. You like chocolate, I like vanilla; you like murder, I don't. It's all the same. Our version of ethics stands on much more solid ground. God created us all in His image and commanded us to treat one another well. So I would expect that people believing in the “Divine Command” theory of ethics would be far more likely to behave ethically than the secular world.

Still, I am aware of the fact that because Judaism puts such a strong emphasis on ritual acts, it can happen that people focus too much on the ritual and neglect the ethical. This, of course, happened historically – the books of the Prophets are filled with castigation against people who, after spending the day oppressing the poor and the unfortunate, show up at the Temple to offer a sacrifice because they think that the ritual sacrifice would be enough to satisfy God’s commands.

 Of course, the way to avoid that pitfall is to remember that the ethical commandments of the Torah are also rituals. The same God and the same Torah commanded us both the rituals and the ethical laws, and the ethical and ritual together constitute the shared category of Mitzvot. The same God who commanded us to bring ritual sacrifices also commanded us not to steal. 

Ethics in Our Rituals

Furthermore, even the ritual commandments tend to contain ethical components, although they are not always apparent at first blush. Since we are currently celebrating the holiday of Sukkot, allow me to illustrate with a few examples of Sukkot-related laws that seem to be ritualistic and have nothing to do with ethics, but, upon further investigation, are actually infused with ethical meaning.

 For example, the Mitzvah of Sukkah itself seems to be a purely ritual, not a moral or ethical, law. But if one thinks about it, especially according to the opinion that the booths we sit in are a reminder of the clouds of glory through which God protected us in the wilderness, the Sukkah is an expression of the basic moral principle of gratitude. Sitting in the Sukkah is our display of gratitude to God for protecting us from suffering and hardship during our forty years of wandering in the desert. If we use the Sukkah as a model from which to extrapolate principles of living, we conclude that the Torah wants us to express gratitude to one who saves our people from suffering and pain, and this principle should surely have impact on how we treat, for example, righteous gentiles who saved Jews during the Holocaust. They, like God, protected our people from death and destruction, and they are deserving of gestures of gratitude, which I understand the State of Israel has a good track record of offering (Editor’s note: the same could be said of the United States government, which over the years has sent more than one hundred billion dollars in aid to help defend the State of Israel).

Another example of a Mitzvah of Sukkot that seems to have no ethical component is the Mitzvah of Simchah, rejoicing on the holiday. What could be further away from a moral call than engaging in personal joy and pleasure? Yet if we read Rambam's formulation of this Mitzvah (Hilchot Shevitat Yom Tov 6:17-18), we see that it does, in fact, carry a strong ethical component. He describes the Mitzvah to rejoice on our festivals as an obligation to distribute treats to one’s children and buy jewelry and new clothing for one’s wife, besides the personal obligation for men to eat meat and drink wine. Note the emphasis on making others happy and not merely engaging in one's own joy. But Rambam continues with even more emphasis on the ethical when he writes that the mitzvah of Simchah requires us to feed the poor and needy – the stranger, the orphan, and the widow – and that one who locks his door to keep his festivities to his own family, neglecting to feed the poor and destitute, does not fulfill the mitzvah of Simchah; rather, he merely satisfies the demands of his own stomach.

There is a third Mitzvah of Sukkot, besides Sukkah and Simchah, that seems like pure ritual and offers little to teach us in the world of ethics, and that is Mitzvah of Arba Minim (the four species). Yet one of the central discussions in the Gemara about this Mitzvah is that a stolen Lulav is disqualified from the Mitzvah. Note that this law does not emphasize only that stealing is wrong; it decrees that stealing impacts the ritual Mitzvah by disqualifying the Lulav. If we apply the logic of this rule beyond the case of Lulav, then it should apply to questions about building a Shul or a Yeshivah with money donated from questionable sources. Clearly, our ritual world is integrally connected with our ethical world, as illustrated by these three examples.

Therefore, it seems to me that Orthodoxy should be protected from ethical decline, both because of the central role of ethical commands in our religious system and because of the ethical component present even in our ritual commands.

Nevertheless, I recognize that a breakdown of morals is possible within the Orthodox world, and I've already mentioned that this did happen historically during the times of the Prophets. As for today, I am really in no position to assess to what degree there is an ethical crisis in Orthodox Judaism. I'm not a sociologist and I don't know to what degree these rabbis who were arrested represent mainstream thinking. I'm not convinced there is a crisis, and I'm not going to argue that there is. I'm an educator, so what I can do is suggest some foundational ideas that, if taught rigorously, could help curb or prevent a moral crisis in our world.

Three Foundational Ideas that Impact Orthodox Ethics

In particular, I've noticed three specific ideas that have seeped into the Orthodox world that, in my opinion, might contribute to a decline in moral and ethical behavior. (I’m talking now about treatment of the non-Jew in particular; I’m going to leave alone the question of how Jews treat Jews.) Although these three ideas all have their basis in classical Jewish sources, I’d like to demonstrate that they are not necessarily correct, and there are well-founded alternatives. If these three ideas are allowed to take root in our communities unchecked, I fear that they could cause a relaxation of ethical standards in how we treat non-Jews. 

1. How Jews View Non-Jews

The first idea that I've noticed has found its way into the thinking of the Orthodox world is that Jews are inherently superior to non-Jews. I’d like to talk a bit about the source of this idea, as it does have a basis in Jewish sources, and I’m going to offer suggestions as to what I would teach students regarding this idea.

To give you a sense of how pervasive this idea is, I'll tell you a story of my son’s experience in an Israeli kindergarten. Every Friday, he would come home with a “Daf Kesher,” a letter to the parents written by the teacher explaining what the kids learned and did during the week. One Friday, we read in the “Daf Kesher” that the kids had learned the different levels of existence. On the bottom was the level of Domeim, inanimate objects, such as rocks and dirt. One level above that was Tzomei’ach, growing things, like plants and trees. The next level up was Chai, animals, and above animals was Medabeir, people, who uniquely had the power of speech. The fifth and final level was Yehudi, Jews. My mouth dropped when I read that. I tried to explain to my son that not all Jews see things that way. But I am aware of the fact that this five-level ladder comes from one of the great works of Jewish thought, the Kuzari, written by the highly influential medieval Jewish leader Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi. This view was developed even further hundreds of years later by the Maharal, another powerful and influential Jewish thinker. These are mainstream figures who must be taken seriously and can’t be blithely dismissed. The same idea is echoed in the writings of Chassidut, such as the Tanya which claims that Jews have a different soul from non-Jews.

Since that story of my son's newsletter, I've learned a little bit more about where this idea comes from. But before I counter it, I want to say that I think I do understand why this is an important idea to many and why they wouldn’t want to abandon it or even temper it. In times when Jews were viciously persecuted, they needed to teach their children that they were fundamentally better than their persecutors as a way to cope with their trouble. Even in times and places when and where there is no persecution, such as in America today, the biggest concern is assimilation, and one way to prevent assimilation is to teach that we are superior to those around us.



Thus, I understand why this idea has been important historically, but I think a cost-benefit analysis must be made. Is what is gained better than what is lost? On one hand, teaching that Jews are superior to non-Jews may produce some protection from assimilation. On the other hand, the cost of such a teaching might be Jews’ scorning non-Jews and feeling that non-Jews don’t deserve to be treated in moral and ethical ways. I would not be surprised if rabbis involved in tax fraud are at least partially influenced by negative views toward non-Jews. I prefer to teach my students that non-Jews deserve equal treatment to Jews, because we are all equally created in the image of God. Yes, perhaps there is a danger of assimilation, but there are other ways to develop pride in one's religion than by teaching that its adherents are inherently superior people. Furthermore, I personally am more concerned about mistreatment of non-Jews by religious Jews because of beliefs of inherent superiority than I am about the likelihood of assimilation due to a lack of such an ideology, especially because there are other ways to teach pride in the religion.


 Let me be clear that while I do not teach the notion that Jews are inherently superior (as people) to non-Jews, I have no problem with the idea that Judaism is a superior way of life. I remember that years ago, when I was interning as a rabbi in a prestigious East Coast university’s Jewish community, there was one student who always made fun of the line in Aleinu that derides all those idolaters who “bow down to nothingness and pray to a god that cannot save.” The student would call out mockingly, “Look at us, we’re better than you!” He was clearly uncomfortable with the claim that Judaism is superior to other religions. But I don't have such a problem, as long as I can demonstrate reasons that Judaism might be ideal, such as my argument earlier as to why Judaism has a superior approach to ethics than the secular approach. Superior ideology, however, is a far cry from superior beings.

The idea of inherent superiority in the person, however, does seem to be based on several valid Jewish sources. Besides the five-level ladder of the Kuzari, a well-known concept posits that the Jews are the Chosen People. Also, many Halachot apparently discriminate against non-Jews; these include leniencies in obligations toward them or exemptions from responsibilities toward them. For example, the Halachah seems to be lenient regarding a Jew’s obligation to return lost property to non-Jews and a Jew’s obligation of charity to non-Jewish poor, and there are cases of damages which a Jew would owe another Jew but not a non-Jew. Given all these sources, how do I teach this issue to my students honestly yet avoid their reaching the conclusion that Jews are to be viewed as inherently superior beings?

 There are two approaches that I take. One is to make sure to teach the sources that counter this idea. For example, Rambam, in his Sefer Moreh Nevuchim, avoids any romanticizing of the Jewish person, arguing that it is the observance of Torah that elevates the Jew. The greatness of the Jew is acquired, not inherent, and it is acquired only by meticulous keeping of the Torah. Also, whenever I teach the book of Shemot, I make sure to teach the comment of Seforno (Shemot 19:5 s.v. ViHeyitem Li Segulah MiKol HaAmim and s.v. Ki Li Kol HaAretz) about the preamble to the giving of the Torah in Parashat Yitro. Hashem tells Moshe that the Jewish people, among all other nations, are to Him a special treasure – “Segulah” – and then He says, “For all the world is Mine.” What is the connection between the special closeness of Hashem to the Jewish people and the fact that the entire world is God’s? Seforno explains that God wants it to be clear that the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people is not a rejection of non-Jewish people. On the contrary, God continues to love non-Jewish people as His special creations. In Seforno's words (paraphrasing God), “Even though all of Mankind is more precious to Me than any other lowly creation, for he alone among them was the goal (of creation), as the Sages said, ‘Beloved is Man who was created in God's image,’ nonetheless you (the Jews) will be a treasure for Me from all the others – ‘for all the world is mine’ – but the difference between you (and non-Jews) is one of less to more, for truly the whole world is mine, and the righteous of the non-Jewish nations are precious to me without doubt.”

Seforno, like Rambam, characterizes the difference between Jews and non-Jews as quantitative, not qualitative – “less to more” – meaning that we are all equal, and the only difference is that God gave us more, that is, the Torah. But without the Torah and without keeping it, Jews are no better than non-Jews.

This is the first thing I do in light of the sources indicating inherent superiority: I teach the sources that counter this idea to demonstrate that the Kuzari and the others I mentioned are not the only legitimate Jewish view.

The second thing I try to do is to revisit the sources that seem to teach inherent superiority to see if that is really what they meant. I recently had the chance to re-examine the five levels of existence found in the Kuzari when I read a fascinating article by the contemporary Jewish thinker Lipmann Bodoff. He wrote an article entitled, “Was Yehudah HaLevi Racist?” (Judaism vol. 38, Spring 1989). It’s too long an article for me to summarize completely here, but I will present some of the main points. He points out that if one reads the book of the Kuzari carefully, one sees that Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi’s belief in the superiority of the Jew is regarding only one character trait, and that is the ability to receive prophecy. In only that way, Jews are on a higher level than non-Jews, and even within Jews, only a handful have succeeded in actualizing that potential and becoming prophets. For most Jews, it is only a latent but unrealized ability for prophecy that elevates them above the rest of humanity. Bodoff shows that Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi had to develop this approach in order to combat the ideology of the philosophers, who were very popular in his day and were attracting Jews away from Judaism. Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi had to deal with a problem: if Judaism makes so much more sense than the philosophers’ approach, why didn’t the greatest thinkers of the world, such as Plato and Aristotle, think of it? Rather than fight the philosophers head-to-head on their home turf, Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi suggested that the fundamentals of Judaism aren’t based on reason alone but on something much higher – prophecy. Plato and Aristotle cannot be blamed for not embracing these ideas because they were incapable of prophecy. But the system of Judaism is actually on a higher level than the philosophers’ way of life because it comes from a higher place. That is all Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi meant to say by his suggestion that the Jew is on a higher level than the rest of mankind. He never meant to suggest an analogy that Jew is to non-Jew what human is to animal. If Bodoff's reading of the Kuzari is correct, then this extremely limited ability that is not even realized in most Jews is no reason to feel particularly superior to those who lack the ability.

As for the concept of the Chosen People, the most important question to ask is, “Chosen for what?” Many have written that the idea of the Chosen People is not a rejection of all other peoples but a special mission that has been assigned to the Jewish people. When children choose players for baseball teams, players are “chosen” not to exclude others but to fill a specific role or position. God chose the Jewish people to represent Him by keeping His Torah, and if we reject that mission, we suffer for it. This isn’t “Mission Impossible,” which presents the choice, “Your mission, if you choose to accept it.” We must accept it (or, in any case, we’ve long ago accepted it), and if we do not carry it out, we are promised by the prophet Amos (3:2), “You alone I have known among all the nations of the world, therefore I will visit (punishment) upon you for all your iniquities.” Therefore, the Chosen People idea is not a declaration of superiority but rather a declaration of responsibility.

 As for the fact that there are laws that seem to discriminate against non-Jews, this is a large issue that deserves more treatment, but for now it will suffice to say that I think it is important to teach students about the position of the Me’iri, the 14th century Provencal scholar who argued that the non-Jews mentioned in many of those laws referred only to the idolaters from the days of the Gemara, who were uncivilized and corrupt in many ways. The Me’iri noted, however, that by his day, religious men were generally civilized and upright. We don’t have time to discuss whether Christianity is considered to be idolatry, but according to the Me’iri, Christians are not the idolaters that the Gemara was talking about. To this day, there are rabbinic leaders who teach the Me’iri’s position as the accepted Halachah. Rav Hayim David HaLevi (who served as the chief rabbi of Tel Aviv until his death in 1998 and whose works are very popular among Israeli Orthodox Jews) has written that the Me’iri’s view is the accepted view, and, therefore, those laws of the Gemara that discriminate against the idolater are not applicable to today’s non-Jews.

Thus, if we go back to these sources that seem to indicate inherent superiority and read them carefully, we may discover that they are more nuanced than we thought and that they cannot be used to justify a general attitude of superiority. I think that doing that, along with teaching those sources that stress equality based on the concept of all men being created equally in God’s image, can have a positive impact on how Orthodox Jews relate to non-Jews.

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