Ethical Norms as the Foundation of Torah

Rabbi Ethan Tucker

Parashat Va'Etchanan

The Torah and ethical norms are not supposed to be in conflict. One of the most difficult and wrenching experiences one can have is to feel that they are. We have all felt it at one point or another, if only for a fleeting moment: Our understanding of what God wants of us and our understanding of what is demanded of the average, decent person sometimes feel irreconcilable. Even more deeply, the Torah often speaks in very different terms and with very different assumptions than does any given contemporary discourse of ethics and morality. Should these two different discourses and frames remain separate or ought they to be integrated in some meaningful way? Is the parochial covenantal discourse of the Jewish covenant meant to be walled off from a more general human discourse about what is right? Or does the Torah intend for these conversations to be unified, even if a great deal of learning and searching is required in order to bridge the apparent gaps between them?

In a way, the Torah addresses this question explicitly in this week’s reading. In Devarim 4:6 the Torah says the following:

ושמרתם ועשיתם כי הוא חכמתכם ובינתכם לעיני העמים אשר ישמעון את כל החקים האלה ואמרו רק עם חכם ונבון הגוי הגדול הזה


You shall guard and perform [the mitzvot], for doing so is your wisdom and understanding in the eyes of the nations. When they hear all of these rules, they will say, “What a wise and understanding people is this great nation!”


We can read this verse through its surface meaning: The mitzvot are obviously good, attractive, and compelling, such that doing them will quite evidently evoke appreciation—and even envy—from outsiders who encounter a life based on them. Moshe here is exhorting the people to recognize what a good thing they have. But one need not dig too much deeper to hear that the text here is not necessarily making just a descriptive claim here, but a prescriptive one as well. The Torah and its mitzvot are supposed to evoke this sort of admiration from outsiders. If it does not, something is wrong. It is not a far leap from here to suggest that interpretations and applications of the Torah that evoke revulsion from external observers are potentially suspect and in need of deeper thought and reevaluation. This line of thinking can be applied not only to our intellectual interpretations of Torah and its Sages, but to its vision of covenantal life through mitzvot as well. In other words, one of the very basic things the Torah tells us about itself is that it is intended to be a blueprint for life that telegraphs the soundness of its structure and beauty of its architecture.

In this week’s longer essay, I explore this line of argument by looking in depth at a lengthy passage from one modern rabbi, R. Moshe Shmuel Glasner, who tackled this issue. I will give an overview of one of his central points here, but it is an outstanding and fascinating text and I urge you to encounter it directly.

R. Glasner begins with a provocative argument about the relationship between specifically Jewish and generally human norms:

דור רביעי, הקדמה, כו.-כו:, ר' משה שמואל גלזנר, הונגריה, המאה הי"ט-כ'

ועוד תדע דבכל דברים המאוסים שנפשו של אדם קצה בהם, אפילו לא היה התורה אסרתן, היה האדם העובר ואכלן יותר מתועב ממי שעובר על לאו מפורש בתורה כי כל מה שנתקבל בעיני בני אדם הנאורים לתועבה אפילו אינו מפורש בתורה לאיסור, העובר על זה גרע מן העובר על חוקי התורה.


Dor Revi’i, R. Moshe Shmuel Glasner, Hungary, 19th-20th c.

Moreover, understand that if one eats things that are disgusting and reviling, even if the Torah has not forbidden them, he is more abominable that one who violates an explicit biblical prohibition. If one violates anything agreed upon as abominable by enlightened people—even if it is not explicitly forbidden by the Torah—he is worse than one who violates the laws of the Torah.


The Torah, says R. Glasner, forbids and requires many things. But it is also silent about many things as well. It never says, “Don’t eat a sandwich that has fallen into the gutter and is covered with polluted slime.” Nonetheless, eating such a sandwich would be deemed revolting and disgusting by any reasonable person. Not only should we not mistake the Torah’s silence for neutrality on this front; rather, we should understand that committing such revolting acts is even worse than violating the Torah’s explicit prohibitions! In other words, eating such a filthy, disgusting piece of food is worse than eating pig! R. Glasner argues that this is self-evidently so, because the Torah chooses to begin with a general human story about pre-Jewish people created in the image of God. Properly read, the Torah must be understood as building the specific Jewish revelation on top of this more elemental human condition.

What is the barometer for classifying something as reviling in this sort of foundational way? If an action is something that is “agreed upon as abominable by enlightened people,” then it is a more basic prohibition than anything the Torah singles out for us. For R. Glasner, the “enlightened people” he speaks of here represent his fellow non-Jewish Europeans whom he admires and feels to be decent people. If such people understand something to be disgusting, the Torah cannot possibly be neutral on that point. Rather, that instinct must be incorporated into the Torah’s expectations of all people, including Jews.

In building his case for this point of view, R. Glasner turns to this week’s Torah reading:

וכל שאסור לכלל מין האנושי הנאורה בחוק הנימוס אי אפשר להיות מותר לנו עם קדוש, שמי איכא מידי דלדידהו אסור ולדידן שרי? והתורה אמרה שהגוים יאמרו: "כי מי גוי גדול אשר לו חקים ומשפטים צדיקים, ואם המה יעמדו על המדרגה יותר גבוה בחוקים ונימוסים, הרי יאמרו עלינו, "עם סכל ונבל" ולא חכם.


Anything that violates the norms of enlightened human beings cannot be permitted to us, a holy nation; can there be anything forbidden for them but permitted to us? The Torah says that the nations are supposed to say: “What a great nation, with such just laws and statutes!” But if they are on a higher level than we in their laws and norms, they will say about us: “What a foolish and disgusting nation!”


For R. Glasner, when human opinion has squarely and resolutely lined up against the morality of a given activity, that is a religiously significant fact. A universally-shared revulsion at something is a barometer of that thing being beyond the bounds of basic human decency. And that, in turn, should make us realize that the thing in question is regulated by the internal Torah command of קדשים תהיו, the demand to be holy. His proof for this interpretation comes from the Torah’s self-description with which we began this essay. The story the Torah tells us about itself is that the way of life it prescribes for the Jewish people is meant to be the envy of the world. People are meant to encounter an observant Jew and to say, “This seems like the most fantastic and wise way of living one’s life that I can imagine.” The moment that a person’s interpretation of Torah would evoke the deep disgust of the average civilized person is the moment when the Torah’s intended story about itself has been lost. For R. Glasner, it is a bedrock principle of the Torah, a core internal principle of Jewish law, that Jews can never be perceived to be on a lower level than their Gentile neighbors.

The image that perhaps best captures this is one of a boat floating above the water. The waterline represents the basic human standards of decency and morality that we expect of all people. The Torah is a boat that floats above that level, meant to give its passengers an even greater sense of responsibility. The parochial covenant rests on top of the universal mandate from which it sprung. But if the waterline rises, clearly so too must the boat. If the boat is anchored to a fixed point, it will be submerged by the rising sea levels and soon be entirely underwater. This, says R. Glasner, is impossible and unimaginable. Even if certain universal human norms are not historically prior to the Torah, they are surely philosophically prior to it. It doesn’t matter if humanity considered a certain action to be neutral for most of its history. If all enlightened, decent, intelligent people come to abhor that action, then the Torah implicitly tells us that Jews must abhor it as well. In fact, it is even more basic that that: Jews are also human beings, and the Torah never wants us to forget that. Instead of seeing an emerging human consensus around a given practice’s morality as a challenge external to Torah that must be grappled with, we should instead see the human part of ourselves and of the Torah calling to us to reckon with this aspect of God’s word as well.

This vision of Torah and mitzvot asserts that the Jewish and human stories are not separate and competing frames. Rather, the Torah tells a story of a Jewishness that emerges from humanity and a particular revelation that emerges from, is built on, and remains interdependent with a more universal human ethics. Asserting this does not downgrade the Torah. In fact, it is the only way to truly honor it.

In the longer essay I engage the challenges with this model and how we might critique and refine it. Wouldn’t this model destabilize all recognizable structures of Torah and mitzvot in the face of significant shifts in human opinion? What happens when human norms on sexuality shift drastically and conflict with the Torah’s laws? What happens if circumcision is regarded as a barbarity? Doesn’t R. Glasner’s model just lead to the self-liquidation of Judaism in the face of external norms? I address these questions and would argue forcefully that R. Glasner’s model is an indispensable way to think about Torah, even if it must be carefully and thoughtfully applied. Most important is the notion that both the Torah and Jews are a part of the larger human conversation about morality, such that they do not simply capitulate to the moral trends of the day but engage with them as equal partners. Just as many mitzvot are countercultural, pushing against social conventions in order to create better and holier realities, so too the Torah has a voice in shaping humanity’s moral sense when it affirms the basic holiness of certain actions like circumcision. And Jews are not just passive respondents to global surveys on morality. Yes, R. Glasner insists, rightly, that one cannot be a Jew without being a human being first, and one cannot be a human being created in the image of God while ignoring fundamental categories of human decency, ethics, and morality. But Jews are a part of that human fabric as well and they have the right—and the obligation—to be participants in the human conversation about morality and human dignity. R. Glasner’s speaks about כל מה שנתקבל בעיני בני אדם הנאורים לתועבה/“anything agreed upon as abominable by enlightened people.” Jews are part of this set of enlightened people as well and they have the right to weigh in on a debate regarding what is and is not abominable. It is appropriate and necessary for Jews to bring their voice, influenced by the Torah, to that conversation.

R. Glasner would, above all, insist that we must integrate our human/moral and Jewish/Torah conversations. It might be possible that, in some circumstances, our human/moral instincts would push us to discover internally articulated applications of Torah we had not previously considered and come to translate universal insights and critiques of mitzvot into the language of halakhah. More likely, our Jewish/Torah perspective on an affirmative commandment would lead us to argue vociferously for the morality of a mitzvah under attack. But here is the key: R. Glasner would insist that we defend the mitzvah in question on human/moral terms, pushing back against the apparent human consensus against it. What is required is an articulation of the defensibility of the mitzvah in a general forum, an effort to persuade the average, decent person that they ought not to be appalled by this practice. What is unacceptable is to hide behind a bifurcated discourse that says, “Circumcision does indeed seem barbaric, but what can I do, the Torah commands it?” It is that sort of split between the human and Jewish realms that leads to a distortion of the Torah’s message about itself and prevents it from being great in the eyes of the nations. If an emerging moral consensus among humanity does not force one to reconsider the proper application of a mitzvah, then it virtually commands us to write opinion pieces to persuade our fellow human beings that that consensus is wrong. That obligation flows from being recipients of a Torah that is simultaneously human and Jewish.

At the end of the day, the Torah itself tells us that other peoples will admire it and find its teachings wise. That means we must live religious lives that respond to one unified question: What does God want from me? We must never forget that we are meant to answer that as Jews and as human beings, all at the same time.