Moral Independence and Morality

Being a Jew demands learning, developing and integrating into our lives the intellectual and moral courage to stand against the odds. If there is as absolute standard of morality as we who call ourselves true believers proclaim, then there must be a G-d. No? Let us consider the alternative.

The authenticities with which we assign to the existence of G-d and His regulations on our behavior direct how we view morality. For without G-d, anything goes. But if everything is permitted, does that mean there can be no morality if there is no G-d? Some of the problem we have with defining morality we owe to the concept of moral relativism. This paradigm maintains that there is no objective standard of right and wrong existing separate and independent from humanity. Christians are moral relativists. They say the Word of G-d is infallible, yet they eat pork. They say they believe in the Ten Commandments, yet they do not observe the Sabbath as G-d commands it. The creation of moral principles in this mindset stems from within a person, and not as a separate and distinct reality. Each person is the source and definer of his or her subjective ethical code, and each has equal power and authority to define morality the way he or she sees fit.

As the philosopher Charles Taylor argues, this morality of the inner self, what he calls the “ethic of authenticity”, emerged in resistance to a rival view, which held that morality is a matter of calculating costs and benefits. In other words, rebellion was and is against G-d’s moral standard for our lives. Until the late 1950s most Americans believed that there is a moral order in the universe that is external to us, and makes claims on us. In other words, G-d. The general edicts of –be faithful to your spouse (one who is the opposite sex), assume responsibility for your family, be honest in your business dealings, exercise the rights and responsibilities of citizenship- were widely accepted. Not everyone lived up to this code, but it was nevertheless a code that supplied a common standard against which personal conduct could be measured, both by the individual and by society. This basic system of moral conduct came of course from the Torah. For G-d tells us very plainly in several Scriptures; Lev. 20:22 “ You are to observe all my regulations and rulings and act on them, so that the land to which I am bringing you will not vomit you out.” Lev. 26:3, “ If you live by my regulations, observe my mitzvoth and obey them, then I will provide the rain you need in its season, the land will yield its produce, and the trees in the field will yield their fruit.” In Verse 6 He goes on to say, “ I will give shalom in the land- you will lie down to sleep unafraid of anyone…” But later in verse 14 He warns,” But if you will not listen to me and obey all these mitzvoth, if you loathe my regulations and reject my rulings, in order not to obey all my mitzvoth but cancel my covenant, then I, for my part, will do this to you: I will bring terror upon you- wasting disease and chronic fever to dim your sight and sap your strength. You will sow your seed for nothing, because your enemies will eat your crops. I will set my face against you- your enemies will defeat you, those who hate you will hound you, and you will flee when no one is pursuing you. If these things don’t make you listen to me, then I will discipline you seven times over for your sins.” He goes on another 20 verses with the things He will do to those who think they do not have to obey His regulations and rulings.

In Deut.4:2 Moshe is again telling the people what G-d has commanded: “ In order to obey the mitzvot of Adonai your G-d which I am giving you, do not add to what I am saying, and do not subtract from it. In Deut. 6:! Moshe admonishes the people as G-d orders; “ Now this is the mitzvah, the laws and rulings which Adonai your G-d ordered me to teach you for you to obey in the land you are crossing over to possess, so that you will fear Adonai your G-d and observe all His regulations and mitzvoth that I am giving you- you, your child and your grandchild- as long as you live so that you will have a long life. Verse 24 we read, “ Adonai ordered us to observe all these laws, to fear Adonai our G-d, always for our own good, so that he might keep us alive, as we are today. It will be righteousness for us if we are careful to obey all these mitzvoth before Adonai our G-d, just as he ordered us to do.” These are just a few places where G-d’s moral code for our lives is commanded. This theme is repeated throughout not only the book of Deuteronomy, but throughout the entire Bible.

During the sexual revolution of the 1960s the shared belief in an external moral code eroded. No longer is there a societal belief in a moral code applicable to all. One can no longer make an appeal to and external moral code. The Clinton sex scandals were clear proof of this: some Americans considered his actions morally scandalous, but the majority thought it no big deal.

The decline of belief in G-d’s universal external code of moral order has been replaced by a belief in a new moral code. This is termed the morality of the inner self. People no longer seek G-d’s Torah for the answers to the challenges of life, but resort to their inner compass to guide them in a given situation. This is called value clarification in our schools. This is what ever “feels right: to an individual. The “ethic of authenticity” defines morality as listening to the voice of nature within us. We gain access to this knowledge not primarily by thinking, but FEELING. Make no mistake; this is a massive shift in the source of morality- away from G-d’s external direction toward the inner self. It insists that the inner voice is morally authoritative and should be followed without question. We see here that this has gone beyond moral relativism whereby an individual picks at least some of what G-d has commanded in the moral code designed for us.

The moral danger of conceding final moral authority to ones inner self is that we are flawed humans. The voice within us can be driven by hasatan and not G-d at all. This voice can be the result of soulish influence and can therefore drive very wrong decisions. This new paradigm insists that this is how we can achieve the goal of being true to ourselves. This belief in an inerrant self-righteousness directly contradicts Torah. For it is the “fear of Adonai that is the beginning of knowledge. Fools despise wisdom and discipline (Proverbs 1:7). Proverbs16: 25 clearly warns us that, “There can be a way which seems right to a person, but at its end are the ways of death.” In I John 4:1 we read,” Dear friends, don’t trust every spirit. On the contrary, test the sprits to see whether they are from G-d; because many false prophets have gone out into the world,” Indeed those who have taught, encouraged and advocated such an idea that every individual can make a different choice in an identical situation and be morally correct is inconsistent with G-d’s universal instructions for humanity. Finally we read in Rev.22: 18, “I warn everyone hearing the words of the prophecy in this book that if anyone adds to them, G-d will add to him the plagues written in this book. And if anyone takes anything away from the words in this book of this prophecy, G-d will take away his share in the Tree of Life and the holy city, as described in this book”.

Michael Kinsley who is a cultural commentator for the L.A. times said, “ My values are my own business… When I want values, I go to WalMart.” There is no such thing as value-free governance. Welfare, our tax code, and the universal education of children all reflect shared social values. That is why we are having such problems today. The shared value system has been undermined by the narcissistic Attitude that we are gods in and of ourselves.

This decaying sense of morality can not be stated any better than in the song by Frank Sinatra which says,” For what is a man, what has he got?
If not himself, then he has not.
To say the things he truly feels;
And not the words of one who kneels.
The record shows I took the blows-
And did it my way!”
The consequences of this system of belief in non-belief as I call it, is that since moral issues are all subjective, right and wrong are reduced to matters of opinion and personal taste. Without a binding, objective standard of morality that sticks whether one likes it or not, a person can do whatever he feels like by choosing to label any behavior he personally enjoys as “good”. Adultery, stealing, random acts of cruelty may not be morally correct in your eyes- but why should that stop someone from taking pleasure in them if that is what they enjoy.

Although many people may profess to subscribe to moral relativism, it is very rare to find one who is consistent. Just about everyone believes in some absolute truth, even if it is that there are no absolute truths.
But an absolute standard of morality can only stem from an infinite source. Why is that?

When we describe murder as being immoral, we do not mean it is wrong just for now, with the possibility of it becoming “right” at some point in the future. Absolute means unchangeable, not unchanging. What’s the difference? My distaste for mayonnaise is unchanging. I have never liked it, I still don’t like it and I will never start liking it. That does not mean however, that it is impossible for my taste to change, even though it’s unlikely. Since it could change, it is not absolute. It is changeable. The term “absolute” means without the ability to change. It is utterly permanent, unchangeable. The nature of absolute is a bit tricky to understand because we find ourselves running into the same problem of our finite selves attempting to perceive the infinite. Everything that exists in time undergoes change. That’s what time is- a measurement of change. If everything in the finite universe is undergoing change –since it exists within time- where can we find the quality of absolute?

Its source cannot be in time, which is constantly changing. It must be beyond time, in the infinite dimension. Only G-d, the infinite being that exists beyond time, is absolute and unchangeable. In Malachi 3:6 we read, “ I am G-d, I do not change.” Therefore an absolute standard of morality can exist only if it stems from an infinite dimension- a realm that is beyond time, eternal, with no beginning and no end.
Unfortunately, we are seeing the extension of this decay in our country’s moral codes in our educational system. I talked about that a little during the Shakarit service last week. We are not learning from history in my opinion because we are too self-focused on satisfying our own desires, and our children are not being taught the lessons learned and forgotten throughout the history of humankind. Moral relativism leads to the death of education and genuine open-mindedness. The drive to learn comes from the recognition that the truth is out there somewhere waiting to be discovered. If everything is relative, then it makes no difference what anyone thinks. Ideas no longer matter. With no absolute standard of right and wrong or truth and falsehood, the pursuit of wisdom becomes nonsensical. What are we looking for? If no idea is more valid than another, there is no reason for someone to re-evaluate his or her own belief system or explore new concepts- if there is no possibility of being wrong. Without the strength or the motivation to question authority and to resist the prevalent norms, perpetrating evil is just a function of time and place. The culmination of the degradation of our moral value system is just what the anti-Messiah is waiting for. For if we don’t stand for something, we fall for anything. That is what’s going on out there in our cities and neighborhoods. Let’s look at an example. Why should a 17-year-old German youth be held morally responsible for choosing to join the Hitler Youth party? After all, he has been socially conditioned right from the start to dislike Jews. He has never been exposed to any other belief system. All his friends are joining Hitler Youth!

As we saw in a previous parasha, Abraham was told by G-d to leave everything familiar to him, including his family. G-d wanted Abraham’s full attention and devotion with no distracters. Abraham’s challenge was to leave behind the influences, practices and emotional support of his family, and society. This fierce independence that Abraham achieved with G-d’s guidance labels him as the first Hebrew, a term derived from the word ‘side”. Abraham stood alone on the other side.

So, the key to independence is breaking out of the confines of our society and re-examining the foundations of our convictions. This may include the comfort of Christmas in your youth and the desire to allow the cute stories, the lights and decorations infiltrate your homes and lives. It may be overeating comfort foods of your youth when you are stressed. It may be any number of things. But without stepping out of the comfort zone and re-examining the validity of those ingrained behaviors, one can never know if his positions are correct. The German youth we mentioned is responsible for his actions, despite his social conditioning. Instead of recognizing the necessity to question his society, he chose to remain passive. This same concept applied to the Israelites in the wilderness, the Babylonian captives, the Jews who chose Hellenization, the Jews who assimilated into the German secular lifestyle, and in many other instances narrated in the Bible. It also applies to us. Today’s culture tilts once again toward the importance of appearance and totally neglects the priority of the soul’s disposition. The Jewish focus on G-d and the continued validity of the entire Bible is conceived as an affront by those who promote the concept that Grace has abolished all accountability and responsibility of keeping G-d’s commands. These people see Shabbat as denying the unstopping nature of the physical world; circumcision implies mutilation for an invisible and unnecessary cause. Finally, modesty or any sort of limits on indulgence in physical pleasure is viewed as simply unnatural.

I read a very scary experiment conducted some years ago at Yale University by Dr. Stanley Milgrom whose design was to demonstrate that people need not be considered sadistic or deranged in order to commit horrific crimes against their fellow man.

Volunteers are told they are participating in an experiment on the effects of punishment on learning ability. They are introduced to a man who will attempt to memorize a list of words. In a room next door where he cannot be seen, but can be heard, this man is strapped to a chair, with his arm hooked up to electrical wires. Every time he makes a mistake, the volunteer is asked to push a button that will give increasingly strong electric shocks. Just before they begin, the man warns the volunteer of his heart condition.
Now no actual shocks were given, but the volunteers did not know this.

The experiment begins. A few mistakes in memorization are made and the volunteer administers some shocks. The volunteer nervously laughs as he hears grunts of pain. The experiment’s administrator encourages him to continue the intensity of the shocks. As the dosage increases, screams come from the room, accompanied by desperate pleas to stop the experiment. He cries this is hazardous to his heart. Yet this volunteer, and the majority of others- continue to give the shocks to the point where they believe they have severely harmed the man. In many cases the volunteers continue to give deadly shocks even after the screams fell silent. What was learned was that when the laboratory administrator instructs the volunteers to continue giving shocks, they submit to the authority figure rather than defy him. Again this experiment demonstrated that one does not have to me a sadist or deranged person to perform tortuous acts against humanity. One just have to subscribe to a system where the question of morality is insignificant.

G-d’s first command to Avraham, and to every human being, is to become independent by depending on G-d. We must develop the intellectual and moral courage to live by what it true, even if the whole world stands opposed. In John 15:18 we read, “ If the world hates you, understand that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, the world would have loved its own. But because you do not belong to the world-on the contrary, I have picked you out of the world therefore the world hates you. A slave is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you too; if they kept my word, they will keep yours too. But they will do all this to you on my account, because they don’t know the One who sent me.” Even more startling in John 16:1 we read, “ I have told you these things so that you won’t be caught by surprise. They will ban you from the synagogue; in fact, the time will come when anyone who kills you will think he is serving

We must hear, internalize and live G-d’s Torah, which clearly defines right and wrong, good and evil. Matt. 7:7, “Keep asking, (hearing) and it will be given to you; keep seeking, and you will find; keep knocking (action), and the door will be opened. For everyone who keeps asking receives; he who keeps seeking finds; and to him who keeps knocking, the door will be opened.”
I see it this way; if I am wrong by following G-d’s Torah, I have nothing to lose. If those who hold to the belief that good and evil are defined by each individual’s “inner-self” are wrong, then they will have hell to pay. I am taking my chances with G-d. I hope you do too.
Baruch HaShem, Eloheynu Melech HaOlam,
Rebettzin Davis