A manual of Jewish belief (a guide to real Judaism) for the thinking individual.

Copyright © 1977 by R' Avi Shafran

[Web Page Last Revised: Tuesday, June 29, 2004 02:33 PM ]


Chapter 10. Good and Bad

As far as the human mind's understanding goes, there are no such things.

The terms "good" and "bad", as absolutes, are fictionalizations of some conceited man's imagination. No human knows real right from real wrong in his natural state.

Real Jews believe that what the Torah tells us to do is "good" and "right"; what it tells us not to do is "bad" and "wrong". Real Judaism does not preach the existence of inherent, absolute "morally good things" or "morally bad things" because the great majority of things so labelled are actually relative to time and society and are therefore subject to rather immediate change without notice.

There once existed an American Indian society in which it was morally right-indeed it seems to have been the main pillar of the entire society – and was most appreciated by the population, to poison one's closest friends and neighbors. Not that this was a very angry community, bent on revenge upon itself for some unspeakable past crime. It was just the simple norm to attempt to knock off one's buddies, as a token of friendship and appreciation. It was "good". Documented evidence of such a society (as well as of equally aberrant social phenomenons) is readily available to the sociology student. When one member of this particular society would receive a gift from his fellow, his thanks would go something like, "I do hope you will not poison me today so that I will have the opportunity to enjoy this beautiful present before I die!"

During the Golden Age (ahem) of Greece, and then when Rome flourished, what we would term as hideous sexually deviant practices were acceptable. In Rome, the practice of exposing" sickly or unwanted babies, or abandoning them in deserts was prevalent. The children were allowed to starve or die of exposure to the elements.

In Great Britain, as late as the latter half of the 19th century, infanticide accounted for 6% of the total deaths of the population of that country (car accidents in the U.S. account for 3% of our total deaths).

Not that any of this should really shock us. After all, what country only recently sanctioned, for all practical purposes, the unrestricted performing of abortions in consenting states? Murder has been declared "constitutional" and "the right of every woman".

Once more we are confronted with the thought that any point can be argued, any person convinced of anything.

Hitler convinced the German nation.

Communism convinced the greater part of mankind.

We are forced to conclude that all morals are relative and that there are no universal absolutes. One should not argue that the modern-day "new generation" is forming moral absolutes by abolishing all barriers and breaking all bounds with total liberality and freedom, retaining the noble concepts of peace and love. Anyone even fairly familiar with the often comical "now" people knows that they have as many hangups, hypocrisies and inconsistencies in their lifestyles as their parents, albeit different ones.

Finding all humans in disagreement over the difference between right and wrong and the very definitions of these plastic words, we turn to G~d, who obliges with a very complete guide book, the Torah. The Torah was given in two parts, the concise and often misinterpreted written law (the Bible) and the oral law – the Divine interpretation of the written law. The oral law, which Real Jews meticulously adhere to, was put into writing by the talmudic rabbis and makes up the body of the Talmud.

The Torah is G~d's master plan for the world. It can never become obsolete or anachronistic because the world was created in its every detail to fit the specifications of the already existing design, the Torah, or Divine Knowledge. As the talmudic rabbis put it: "G~d looked in His Torah (as a guide) and created the cosmos". Since we were all created from the "blueprint" of Torah, it follows that the Torah must be the answer for everyone in every period of history

Later rabbis go even further, stating that, if, for one split second there was no one in the world studying or fulfilling the Torah, the universe would cease to exist. Its foundation and source would have deserted it for that instant.

Even though the whole world is hardly Torah-observant and Torah-studying, there is still (as there always has been) a handful of Torah Jews, real Jews, Jews who fulfill their purpose on earth and do G~d's will. The entire universe exists only because of them. And the handful is presently growing.

Incidentally, a non-Jew can also be Torah-observant, by adhering to the seven commandments set down for him by the Torah.

Just as the world itself is the result of the blueprint of Torah, so do the events of the world's history fit into the Master Plan. One cannot label the happenings of history as "good" or "bad". Everything happens as a part of the Master Plan, with a definite purpose and reason. G~d can never be called unfair. In addition, man himself, through the misuse of his free will, brings many of history's tragedies about.

The former thought is brought out by the Chasam Sofer, a 19th century leader of Torah Jewry in Europe, in his comments on the biblical passage where Moses asks to see G~d's glory, His essence. G~d replies with the cryptic statement: "You shall see Me from behind, but My face shall not be seen." Now, as we have often emphasized, G~d cannot resemble, in anything more than an allegorical sense, any Physical object or being. So what do the words "from behind" and "My face" mean? And what was Moses' request in the first place?

Explains the Chasam Sofer: This passage is of course very deep and contains many hidden meanings, but there is a hint to something fathomable here. Moses asked to have the Divine Plan revealed to him, to be given understanding of Why G~d did, does or will do certain things. G~d answered that "you will see Me from behind," meaning that "you will see Me and My ways in retrospect, and in retrospect only will You understand them." Seeing everything at the "end of days", after the entire Master Plan has been executed, we will understand the "why's" of some of G~d's actions. But to understand a "why" while the plan is still in progress, is impossible. "My face (literally, My front, or My before) shall not be seen."

After all is said and done, those of us who will shine forth in the next world will be able to look back at the chain of human history and possibly understand why G~d allowed certain things to happen and prevented others.

The inevitability of historical events, however, does not free us from making an effort to counter political or social forces which may develop into anti-Torah movements. Much in life, including its termination, is inevitable, yet we must struggle to postpone or prevent that which the Torah tells us is bad. We are not allowed to throw our hands up in resignation, saying "what the hell, it's bound to happen anyway."

As we have said, the Torah is the guide book for all human beings trying to execute their Master's Divine Plan. Therefore if for some reason we think that doing what the Torah says will have ill effects on us (our relation to society, or our images, for example), even if the Torah has proven to be detrimental in such matters, we must still follow the Torah's rules, for apparently it is G~d's will that this "harm" take place. This holds true for the sacrifice of anything in favor of the Torah's rules with one exception – human life. Saving a life comes before any of the commandments but three (idol worship, sexual immorality and murder). The reason for human life taking precedence is not that in a case of life or death the Torah does not apply; rather the Torah itself says to put human life first (in all cases but the aforementioned three). Therefore, in a case where either a sin will be committed or a life will be lost, it becomes the Torah's commandment to commit that which is ordinarily a sin. But never let it be said that there is a situation where the Torah does not apply. Every second of every man's every day should be governed by G~d's Master Plan.

"He looked into it and created the cosmos."

At the start of this chapter, we made the point that man does not naturally know what is "good" and what is "bad". One related issue should be clarified here. The talmudic and midrashic literature concedes the existence of "sensible commandments'", or laws that the Torah prescribes but which mankind finds easy to accept. An argument could even be made demonstrating that man could even have originated these particular laws on his own. So it would seem that, as regards at least these laws (the social laws of theft and damages, for instance), there is an inherent moral sense in man.

One could answer that man never would have come up with these laws on his own. All that the Talmud means is that once the Torah teaches us these laws, we understand their wisdom, unlike most of the Torah's laws, whose true meanings are hidden from the average man.

However, we needn't come onto this, for there is a very pronounced difference between the "sensible commandments" and the social laws which man is capable of forming. Man-made laws are subject to changes and their application can be restricted to certain cases by their originator. However, even the "sensible commandments" are not totally "sensible" (acceptable to the human brain), for if the Torah prescribes that one of these commandments should apply to a case where human logic would dictate otherwise, we are of course obligated to follow the Torah's guidelines. In view of this, we can remain with our previous conclusion, namely, that, in his natural state, man cannot know true good from true bad, but must resort to G~d.

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