Wednesday, August 11, 2010

How Jewish Law defines the application of Jewish Ethics

Jewish law and Jewish ethics are intertwined, with one defining how the other is implemented. An ethical mandate must still be fulfilled only within the letter of the law; a law must be followed with ethical behavior.

Here is an example, from a book I’ve been reviewing recently, the Chazon Ish’s Emunah uBitachon (Perek 3 – translation and any errors are my own):

At times, ethical obligations and halachic rulings are a single unit, with the law determining what the ethical system will prohibit or permit.

For example: Bava Batra 21b says regarding competition between schools that there is no legal standing for an argument [against a new competitor] of, ‘You are interrupting my livelihood.’

Therefore, we have the following situation: A city has schoolteachers who are supported by their work, and then new teachers suddenly arrive from elsewhere. Naturally, people are not satisfied with the old teachers and jump to the newcomers, harming the established teachers of that city. The injured parties develop hatred in their own hearts against their new assailants, and out of this heartfelt hatred they seek complaints, blemishes and claims against them. They teach their tongues to speak evil about them, and they go from evil to evil to produce empty charges and awaken the community’s mercy against the cruelty of the newcomers. They increase quarrels and fights, and sometimes even take revenge, as they are capable.

All of these deeds would be innocent of sin if the law agreed that they could block the newcomers. Then the newcomers would be the ones sinning with their lives, rebelling against the law which was stated to Moshe Rabbeinu at Sinai. There would be no prohibition against strife, harmful speech or baseless hatred. Indeed, there would be a mitzvah of battling in order to establish proper religious conduct.

But the law has determined that jealousy between scribes increases knowledge, and that this basic principle is of greater importance than the life of individuals. Therefore, the newcomers are acting within the law and those who stand against them are spilling innocent blood. When they hate the newcomers they are transgressing, ‘You shall not hate your brother.’ When they speak evil against them they violate the prohibition against harmful speech. When they gather groups to quarrel they violate, ‘There shall not be one like Korach.’ When they take revenge by preventing the newcomers from succeeding, they violate, ‘Do not take revenge.’

So when Bava Batra 21b says, “Rav Huna agrees regarding schoolteachers, that they cannot prevent [competition],” that law includes many resulting ethical obligations….

When the city’s established schoolteacher cries out before Gd, ‘Save me from my pursuers, for they are stronger,’ a voice replies from the heavens, ‘Woe to those who act like Zimri and ask for reward like Pinchas! You are the pursuer! You are the one who does not honor the Torah! I wrote in My Torah that a schoolteacher cannot block [competition].’

The upshot: Ethical obligations and expectations are about more than my own moral compass. Within Judaism, my moral compass must be linked with and informed by, my awareness of the law, and must function within that law.

And then, of course, we must add the flipside: Ethics provide boundaries for our actions just as the law does. The fact that one is legally justified in an action does not mean that he must take it; there is a concept of לפנים משורת הדין lifnim mishurat hadin, transcending the law, such that we consider a person praiseworthy if he forgives his rights.

Therefore: The new teachers are praiseworthy if they avoid competing. And those who live in the town are praiseworthy if they do not block the newcomers, even where they have the right to do so.


  1. Does such an idea apply to secular law as well? Is someone who breaks the law of the land (assuming that the law itself is amoral) acting immorally?

    If the answer is no, then I wonder how far it extends in Judaism. It's one thing if the violator (or in your case, the opponents of those who follow the law) is violating God's law. But what if he only violates a Rabbinical ordinance, which viewed in a vacuum is amoral as well?

  2. OK- and which result gives HKB"H more pleasure? and should a person who insists on din (e.g. the new school teachers) wear tfillin at mincha and only eat glatt(i.e. pick where they are a baal nefesh type and where not?)

    Joel Rich

  3. "All of these deeds would be innocent of sin if the law agreed that they could block the newcomers. Then the newcomers would be the ones sinning with their lives...There would be no prohibition against strife, harmful speech or baseless hatred. Indeed, there would be a mitzvah of battling in order to establish proper religious conduct."
    Why does R. Dessler assume the ends justifies the means? Is he exaggerating here, or is this an actual ruling allowing for all types of fighting (including deception and hatred) against any type of sinner? Is there no responsibility on even the wronged party to fight responsibly? Isn't this a recipe for permanent communal infighting?

    But why would R. Dessler allow for strife within the community

  4. Please disregard the last unedited half-sentence in my previous post; I can't figure out how to remove it.

  5. Jenny-
    Yes, it does - because the Torah's support for secular law is rooted in a moral argument. [For more on this, see my post about Nedarim 28a, here.]

    1. Which result among which choices?
    2. Good question.

    Yes, can't edit comments, only keep or delete. (And it's the Chazon Ish rather than Rav Dessler.)
    In any case: I don't think he was exaggerating, although he may have been using hyperbole to make his point. But think about it - the newcomers are threatening their lives, by robbing them of their livelihood. The tactics may be extreme and dangerous without being inappropriate.

  6. It's not so much the fact that Hazon Ish (thanks for the correction, my bad!)would advocate extreme measures in specific situations, but that there doesn't seem to be any limit on what can be done. Why stop at baseless hatred and lying, if the new people involved would be that bad? Why would we not be allowed to resort to physical violence? While I don't want to arrogantly demand a source for such a claim from Hazon Ish, I would like to know what sources he is using to justify his position. Rabbanim have more trouble finding hetterim for issur ve-hetter issues, while the Hazon Ish seems to be justifying violations of various issurei de'oraysa with ease. There needs to be some legal reasoning involved here - otherwise, - to use Jose Faur's description of the violent activities of medieval anti-Rambamists, "zeal would be displacing halachah." This has practical applications. For instance, Palestinian nationalists lie about Jewish history in the Land of Israel; would we be allowed to play similar games because that society advocates violence against Jews? What are the parameters?

  7. Hi Joseph,
    I think the Chazon Ish's argument would be that those issurim don't hold in the situation where someone is illegally aggressive.
    Physical and financial attacks, on the other hand, are governed by the laws of עושה דין לעצמו, which prevent vigilante action so long as a beis din is available.