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Friday, May 13, 2011

The Need for Revelation

In a previous post, we discussed two reasons why modern man may have difficulty in relating to revelation in general and Torah in particular. In this post I will address an even more fundamental question: Why is there a need for revelation in the first place?[i]This question is obviously assuming a belief in God and soul,[ii]and it is in within this context that we address the issue. Notwithstanding our Theistic belief, in an anthropocentric Western mindset, which so values individualism and self-determination, the concept of revelation remains a foreign one. The claim of revelation frightens modern man for it implies that he is morally weak, and it spiritually suffocates man for it implies that he is an object.[iii]Thus, revelation irritates man both on the moral and spiritual plane. In this post arguments in favor of the need for revelation will be presented in the main body of the text while discussions of how these arguments relate to Torah will be found in the footnotes.

1. The Moral Need for Revelation

Most generally there are three basic approaches to morality within the context of Theistic belief:

1) Natural Law – the belief that G-d imprinted morality within Man’s conscience and, as innate knowledge, it is knowable by all human beings. This view is championed by Thomas Aquinas. In Summa Theologica IaIIae 94, 2 he writes: that “the fundamental principle of the natural law is that good is to be done and evil avoided” and that this good, includinglife, procreation, knowledge, society, and reasonable conduct,” is intuitively known (ST IaIIae 94, 2; 94, 3).” We will associate this view with Intuitionism.[iv]

2) Moral Reasoning – the belief that through use of rationality moral principles can be discovered and ethical decisions accurately computed. Within this approach Utilitarian (the good outcome) and Deontological (the rationally right) ethics are most frequently discussed.

3) Divine Command Ethics – the belief that only through G-d’s commands may morality be known and, furthermore, be considered morality. The latter proposition is subject to great debate, usually centering around the Euthyphro dilemma and Kant’s Principle of Autonomy. However, the focus of this post is the former assertion, namely that without revelation correct moral actions are indiscernible.

It is important to point out that both of these schools fall under the category of moral realism – the belief that moral statements are objectively true and reflect something about the nature of reality and/or the self. Thus, the only point of disagreement between them is whether these moral truths are revealed by G-d or discovered by Man.

The question addressed herein is whether moral intuition and reasoning are sufficient or are they in need of supplementation by Divine revelation? Below I argue that while moral intuition and reasoning is necessary, it is nevertheless insufficient for the following reasons.

a. Details

R. Saadya Gaon (Emunot v'Deot, 3:3) holds that moral reasoning is not sufficient to determine the details of social laws; therefore, at best, moral reasoning would provide a very thin or vague ethic. For example, Kantian and Neo-Kantian ethical theories establish formulas to decide whether an action is right or wrong (“Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law” or “Every right implies a duty”). Yet these formulas are 1) not morally demanding, allowing for one to do whatever they please as long as the formulas are not violated, and 2) practical and intuitive conclusions are very difficult to derive from these formulas. The most famous counter-intuitive Kantian conclusion is that it is never permissible to tell a lie.

On the other hand, Utilitarianism is a very demanding ethic (“the greatest good for the greatest amount of people”) but has difficulty in defining its core term – goodness – and how this is best expressed.

Regarding Intuitionism, Shubert Spero (Tradition, Spring 1963, The Rationality of Jewish Ethics, pgs. 168-169) comments: "the principle weakness of such a theory is the difficulty of basing a complete system of ethics upon such intuitive apprehensions of prima facie obligations. What is one to do when one finds oneself in situations that involved conflicting obligations or finer nuances of these sentiments which require particular guidance? It would be difficult to maintain that these intuitions are experienced with such clarity that one could gauge the relative weight of each…It is precisely this limitation of intuitionism which can explain the need for revelation. Our rational faculty alone could not give us a complete ethic to live by. Not only can revelation guide us where intuition is mute, but once the "ought" of prophecy commands, it takes precedence over the promptings of our common moral sense. God's command to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac and His command to send away Hagar and Ishmael are instances of the prophetic suspension of the intuitively ethical." For further discussion, see Shubert Spero, Morality, Halakha and the Jewish Tradition.

However, there are those who may downplay the importance of a detailed and thick ethic. Perhaps living a general moral life is of value. One must make the best moral decisions possible but ultimately getting the details right is not of eternal significance. In the end, murder is unequivocally wrong but the details - infanticide[v], euthanasia, capital punishment, rules of engagement in war etc. – are acceptably fuzzy. In response to this claim I would argue, based on a passage from Maharal, that a true moral system must be detailed.

The Maharal in Tiferet Yisrael (chapter 16) makes three arguments for why revelation is necessary. The first argument has four steps:

1) Order and wisdom is apparent in the natural world.

2) This order and wisdom is not accidental to existence but was designed by the Creator.

3) If morality is a creation of Man then it is only accidental to existence.

4) It is inconceivable that the Creator would create the natural world with tremendous and inherent order and wisdom but not create a corresponding moral order.

This argument draws our attention to one of the underlying assumptions of those who argue that revelation is unnecessary. Often morality is viewed as a simple act of "love and do what you will," or in modern terms "being a nice guy." But the Maharal undercuts this viewpoint is drawing a parallel between the cosmos and moral law[vi]– they both are complex, intelligent, finely-tuned systems.[vii]

As C.S. Lewis, in The Great Divorce (pg. VIII) beautifully puts: “Even on the biological level life is not like a river but like a tree. It does not move towards unity but away from it and the creatures grow further apart as they increase in perfection. Good, as it ripens, becomes continually more different not only from evil but from other good.”

b. Reward and Punishment

However, even if a person and a society could correctly derive or intuit a detailed morality, the correct measurement of the severity of an act and its punishment is still undecided (Emunot v’eot 3:3).

The relative weight of a given unethical act can be demonstrated with the prohibition against adultery. In Ancient near-Eastern law (Hammurabi #129) a husband has the ability to spare his adulterous wife from capital punishment (while a thief who cannot make restitution is liable to capital punishment, as per Hammurabi #8). The Torah, on the other hand, does not allow for such an exemption, and capital punishment is uniformly applied. In ancient China adulterous men were castrated and women were placed in confinement. And, lastly, in some states in the U.S. adultery is merely a felony. In all systems the prohibition is the same but the severity of the prohibition is radically different.

c. Chukim

Lastly, morality and ethics are usually considered to deal with Man's social behavior. However, R. Hirsch maintains that justice is also due to the bio-psycho-ecological levels as well:

"The same justice that you owe to man should be shown to every lower being, from the earth, which bears everything, to vegetation and the animal world, to your own body, your mental powers, your own self…If you had the same knowledge of your body and your mind and the conditions for their harmonious interaction, and if you were able to put yourself also in the place of any other creature, then Chukkim [so-called supra-rational laws] would be as intelligible to you as Mishpatim [so-called rational-social laws]" (The Nineteen Letters, Letter 11, pgs. 167-168).

Thus, revelation is not only required for the knowledge of social justice but also for the proper treatment of all of existence.[viii]


The above considerations are not meant to imply that revelation is sufficient in and of itself; reasoning, intuition and integrity are required for one to apply and live according to the revelation.[ix] The goal, then, of revelation is to provide a fixed framework, an outer structure, a moral compass, within which Man uses ethical intuitions to live a flourishing life.[x]

R. Soloveitchik, in U'vikashtem m'Sham, writes of the importance of having this framework: “Subjective faith, lacking commands and laws, faith of the sort that Saul of Tarsus spoke about—even if it dresses itself up as the love of God and man—cannot stand fast if it contains no explicit commands to do good deeds, to fulfill specific commandments not always approved by rationality and culture.”

This is echoed by the Traditionalist philosopher Rama P. Coomaraswamy:

"[T]here is currently considerable confusion between "religions" and "belief systems". Indeed, there is an attempt on the part of certain academics to reduce all religions to belief systems, arguing that religions are merely belief systems that have somehow "caught on" and become accepted by large numbers of people and thereby become established as religions. But it is necessary to distinguish between these, for genuine religions are based on revelation which provide them with a fixed creed, code and cult that is independent of any individual thought or feeling, while belief systems not based on revelation are inevitably subject to human opinion. One recognizes of course that many founders of modern sects base themselves partially on what they might term "revelation"—accepting what they like and rejecting what they find offensive—and that almost all of them claim to be inspired by the "Holy Spirit". But the fact remains that all of them are based in part, if not completely, on the thinking and understanding of a human person. The problem is that such thinking and feeling resides in the psyche and is subject to illusion, a problem that can only be avoided by adhering to a fixed external source. Unfortunately, many representatives of traditional religions currently attack the revealed basis of their faith in an attempt to accommodate them to the values of the modern world, which in effect reduces them to the same level as other belief systems."

And leading New-Age thinkers, who focus on mystical experience, have come to acknowledge that a moral framework is severely lacking:

“We have all emerged in this world in the postmodern cultural context—a time when there is no traditional moral, ethical, philosophical, or spiritual framework for our own existence. Indeed, we entered the picture when the old structures were being rejected. And to a large degree, we have set ourselves free from them, but as of yet, we haven't really found anything to replace them. Our generation and those that have followed have experienced more freedom—personal, philosophical, political, religious—than any group of people ever, anywhere. There have never been so many who have had this incredible liberty to experiment—to think in whatever way they want, to do anything they want, to say anything they want. But the significant issue here, I think, is that a human being has to have reached an unusually high degree of maturity to actually be able to handle the kind of freedom that so many of us were given simply because of the time in which we were born. And most of us haven't handled it very well because we haven't had enough maturity. So we're in an incredible time when the largest group of individuals at the highest level of development is in a transitional phase. The old has been rejected, but as yet, we haven't really found a new narrative, a new moral, ethical, philosophical, and spiritual context in which to live our lives—one that will enable us to handle the freedom that we've been given and help us to make sense of our own experience.”

Paradoxically, though, according to some thinkers, the goal of revelation itself is to lead to a level of maturity where Man will be able to make moral decisions on his own. R. Kook, based on the verse "They will no longer teach – each man his fellow, each man his brother – saying 'Know God! For all of the will know Me, from their smallest to their greatest…" (Yirmiyahu 31:33-34), explains that "when the world will be in its fully evolved state each and every person will be a perfected prophet."[xi] Thus, the ethical goal of Natural Law has sparks of the Messiah hidden within it, but, as all Pre-Messianic Messianic movements, it has become totally and completely corrupt[xii]

In the next post we will consider the spiritual need for revelation.


[i]The Ramban, in Torat Hashem Temima (pg. 142, Chavel edition), points out that we have already benefited so much from the revelation of the Torah. Thus, it is difficult to adequately address this issue since we live in a post-revelation world. This post, however, is addressing the question with only one assumption – the existence of G-d.

[ii] I maintain that belief in G-d and belief in the soul are mutually dependent beliefs, i.e. belief in G-d entails belief in the soul and belief in the soul entails belief in G-d. While this may not be logically necessary it is nevertheless intuitively true. See There are No Living Atheists.

[ii] Paul Tillich, in Courage to Be, writes: “God as a subject makes me into an object which is nothing more than an object. He deprives me of my subjectivity because he is all-powerful and all-knowing. I revolt and try to make him into an object, but the revolt fails and becomes desperate. God appears as the invincible tyrant, the being in contrast with whom all other beings are without freedom and subjectivity. . . . This is the deepest root of atheism.” See R. Shalom Carmy, First Things

[iv] The Sages (Bereishit Rabbah, 95:3) have already made mention of this in the famous saying that “Avraham learned torah from his kidneys." On a more mystical level, R. Chaim Vital writes (Sha'arei Kedusha, Hakdama): “As for us, may it be that we merit a little Divine inspiration, like a revelation from Eliyahu… or a revelation from the departed souls of the righteous. Furthermore, there is a level where one's soul itself, when it is extremely pure, will be revealed to a person and guide him in all of his ways…and all of the above are close to our reach and may be attained even in our day by those who are fitting. Nevertheless, great care and experience is required to understand the truth, for it is possible that a different, impure, spiritual influence will guide a person.” For a more recent source, see R. Kalonymous Kalmish Shapira of Piaczena, Hachsharat Avreichim, pg. 3. For a different formulation, see R. Elya Meir Bloch (Shiurei Da'at I, Darkah Shel Torah, pgs. 13- 14).

[v] Plato, the greatest philosopher of all time, advocated infanticide in cases of defective children.

[vi]As Kant said: “Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing wonder and awe: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.”

[vii] There are multiple problems with the Maharal’s understanding of halakha. Most importantly, it seems to contradict the notion of the Oral Torah which involves human input and is therefore “accidental” to the cosmic order. Yet, the basic thrust of his argument still holds up; while human participation in the moral order is necessary it is difficult to imagine there being no a priori order.

[viii] See the Ramban on Vayikra 19:19. See R. Aryeh Carmell, Master Plan, for a treatment of how Halakha seeks to fulfill this ideal.

[ix] See Ramban on Vayikra 19:2 and Devarim 6:18. The Torah clearly does not provide details for many social laws while much is left to human interpretation and reasoning. However, this interpretation and reasoning occurs within a revelatory framework. See Torah as a Building.

[x] R. Dr. Walter Wurzburger, in Ethics of Responsibility, writes (pgs. 15, 33-34, 37): “In my view, Jewish ethics encompasses not only outright Halakhic rules governing the area of morality, but also intuitive moral responses arising from the Covenantal relationship with G-d, which provides the matrix for forming ethical ideals not necessarily patterned after legal models. To use Erich Fromm’s terminology, Judaism provides for an “ethics of responsibility” as well as for an “ethics of duty.”…It should be realized that reliance upon intuitive factors is necessary not only for (1) the formation of Covenantal Imperatives [non-halakhic ethical intuitions] to provide normative guidance for situations that do not fall within the scope of explicit rules [footnote: see Ramban on Devarim 6:18; Maggid Mishnah on Hilkhot Shekhenim 14:5; Meiri on Shabbat 115a; Netziv on Shemot 19:6]. We cannot dispense with intuition even in cases (2) when we wish to subsume a particular instance under a general rule. For it is only on the basis on intuition that we can establish that a given situation is, in point of fact, an instance of a general rule. Moreover, (3) conflicting moral principles often give rise to ethical dilemmas and ambiguities. Since in many instances we do not have at out disposal formal rules specifying which of the two principles possesses great weight, we have no choice but to rely on intuitive judgments for the resolution of many ethical dilemmas…But even though Jewish Covenantal Ethics operates with intuitions, it does not follow that the entire system must abandon all claims to objectivity. To begin with, its ultimate foundation rests upon specific moral laws that are formulated in legal terms and acknowledged as divine commandments, which override even the authority of the individual conscience…Moreover…ethical intuitions frequently are eventually codified in the Halakha and acquire the status of objectively binding norms…Insofar as Jewish Covenantal Ethics is concerned, a variety of sources can qualify as legitimate and proper matrices of Jewish ethical intuitions. To begin with…the study of the specific laws of the Covenant enables us to grasp the meaning of the broad ethical principles contained in the Torah. In addition, moral conduct in conformity with the specific norms of the Torah exerts a profound influence upon the formation of our attitudes…There are also numerous non-legal aspects of Judaism that influence the formation of ethical responses characterizing a Covenantal ethos [he lists Tanakh, especially B’reisheit (see Netziv, preface), Agadda, and role models].

[xi] L’Nevukhei ha’Dor, Chapter 8; also see Rosh Millin, Otiot, Aleph.

[xii] See R. Hillel of Shklov and R. Hutner (Pachad Yitzchak, Igrot, # 42). One striking example of how corrupt these movements have become: a leading New-Age philosopher has a (digital) picture of a naked woman on his website. I think it is clear to any quasi-religious person that this does not contribute to spiritual goals, but, somehow, this is lost upon the philosopher.


micha said...

I suggested another way of related Theology to morality (Aspaqlaria: Hashem and Morality):

I would argue that HQBH created the world with a tachlis, a purpose, He placed each of us in it with a tachlis, and what is righteous is righteous because it is in accordance with furthering that tachlis. This fits Rav Hirsch’s etymology for “ra“, being related to /רעע/, to shatter. It also explains why the word “tov” means both good in the moral sense (not evil) as well as in the functional sense (not ineffective, as in “a good toothpaste prevents cavities”). To prepare the menorah’s lamps is called “hatavas haneiros — causing the functional usability of the lamps.” Moral tov derives from the functional tov. Hashem chose “Do not steal” over “Take whatever makes you happy” because that’s what makes us better receptacles. We might have remained with two definitions of tov (and of “good”) — functional and moral. According to this line of reasoning, “good at its job” is the underlying meaning of tov in the moral sense of the word as well.

So yes, HQBH did choose good vs evil without being subject to external constraint, and yet still the choice was not arbitrary. Socrates gave Euthyphro a false dichotomy — there was a third choice. Hashem has a reason, but that reason wasn’t conforming to a preexisting morality.

One last issue: Why should I follow the purpose for which I was created? What changes G-d’s motivation into my moral imperative?

We can prove the two are identical logically. In order for my moral choice to have any meaning, I must assume my actions have value. Otherwise, what difference does it make which actions I choose to perform? If I believe my actions have value, I am assuming my existence has value, since it makes those actions possible. And thus, presumed in the very quest for morality is the notion that the purpose for which I was created imparts value.


Yona said...

R. Micha,
So you would argue that revelation is necessary to reveal that purpose and how to achieve it?

Also, I didn't use the argument that God/revelation is necessary for moral imperative, although some do argue this.

micha said...

I didn't address what role revelation plays in this. I was more objecting to your "three basic approaches to morality within the context of Theistic belief", since I personally believe a fourth.

However, I think Hillel is pretty clear about this... We could intuit the broad strokes of morality, "ma desanei lakh, lechaverkha lo saavod" (that which you hate, don't do to your peers), but could not deduce the details of what that means in every real life case -- "zil gemor" (now go and study) the revealed Torah.

I would argue that there are three distinct issues involved that people tend to conflate:

1- Is there such a thing as morality?
2- What is it morality values?
3- In how many real-world cases can we apply our answer to #2?

In my first comment, I argued that answering the first question affirmatively think this requires believing we were created purposively. Otherwise, people aren't inherently more valuable than snowflakes. That said, there are people who have no logical basis for their morality, and proceed morally anyway. I'm not going to point out their illogic to them.

Now I'm adding my personal opinion on the latter two points. Hillel's answer to the prospective convert was that answering #2 can be done by our innate sense of justice. (Which itself might be a form of revelation, as Who planted it there?) But answering #3 does require revelation.