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January 24, 2015 / conservadox

Dvar Torah – Beschallah

After producing some water, Moses says to the Hebrews: “If thou will diligently hearken to the voice of God, and wilt do that which is right in His eyes… I will put none of the diseases upon thee, which I have put upon the Egyptians” (Ex. 15:26).

Nachmanides points out that this language means (as paraphrased by the Soncino Chumash) that “if a man is honest in his business and gains the esteem of his fellows, Scripture ascribes it to him as though he had fulfilled the whole Torah.”  In other words, commonsense morality and getting along with others is implicitly part of the Torah, even beyond the letter of the law.

This rule relates to one difference between Orthodox and Conservative Judaism.  Some Orthodox commentators believe that Conservative Jews are too willing to change halacha based on secular morality (e.g. Conservative support of egalitarianism, gay rights etc).  But I’m not sure people who make this argument quite understand the Conservative case.  It seems to me that what Orthodox Jews see as “secular morality”, Conservatives see as the sort of commonsense morality implicit in Ex. 15:22.  In other words, because Conservatives see equality as part of “what is right” generally, they see it as something like being “honest in business and gaining the esteem of one’s fellows”- that is, as part of the broad general principles underlying the Torah’s rules.

Having said that, there is also a legitimate counterargument.  Let me begin with an analogy to the Constitution.  Some constitutional scholars rely on the “general intent” underlying the Constitution- that is, on broad values such as liberty and equality.  But if the general intent of the Constitution overrides its specific words, what’s the point of having a Constitution?  Similarly, one could argue that an overemphasis on the “general intent” of halacha risks watering down Judaism into “being a good person”, thus eliminating what makes Judaism distinctive.

On the other other hand, if we ignore those general values and focus exclusively on who said what 15 centuries ago… that way madness lies (See, e.g. Islam, Radical).


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