Welcome back after the holidays. Before Rosh Hashanah, I posted an exceptionally good interview with Rabbi Shai Held on his moral musar as shown in his Biblical commentary- Torah of the Heart. A Torah of chesed- compassion, gratitude, responsibility, respect for others, loving the stranger,and hearing the pain of others. Rabbi Shai Held presented a journey to develop our moral character until we are ethical beings like Abraham. Here are two responses to the interview. I wanted to post the responses before Sukkot for continuity but it was not to be.
The two responses both appreciate the turn to ethics and musar but have opposite premises about the nature of ethics.
The first response of Prof Sam Fleischacker, who has posted on this blog before, agrees with Held’s message but wants a more rigorous grappling with the philosophic issues. (1) What is the role of justice in the system? He is especially emphasizing the cold role of law, din, and justice. (2) Why Jewish love of fellow? Every great teacher has a similar message, so what resources does Judaism offer to make us good that other traditions do not. (3) How can we overcome self-deception? How can we move from knowing what to do to actually doing it?
The second response of Rabbi Zach Truboff lauds Held as grounding morality in a covenantal theology of God’s love thereby rejecting a purely autonomous ethic. Truboff also likes the emphasis on gratitude, lovingkindness, and a renewal of moral language. However, Truboff finds that there are times where Held’s approach downplays Divine command and the land of Israel, both themes of his own teachers.
#1 Response of Prof Sam Fleischacker
I am very sympathetic to Rabbi Held’s project. I have argued in my own work that, as Held puts it, “Torah without ethics is not Torah at all, but … Torah that’s only ethics is … incomplete” (that’s the core idea in my Divine Teaching and the Way of the World and The Good and the Good Book, discussed here and here on this blog). I also agree whole-heartedly that this aspect of Torah tends to be missing from (Orthodox) day-schools and yeshivot today, which “accentuate the particular to such an extent that the universal human [is] often lost.” Held brings out the universal beautifully and he has a gift for close readings that unearth rich and subtle implications: his use of Ibn Ezra on Exodus 22:21-3, and interpretation of Ezekiel 29:3, in the interview, are especially nice examples of this.
My own local rabbi has also been using Held’s commentaries in his drashot: a terrific one on the word tzur, for God, in Haazinu formed the basis of his talk recently. From what I heard, and from the readings in the interview, I look very much forward to acquiring and using The Heart of Torah.
But there were places in the interview where I felt a deeper grappling with the tradition of non-Jewish moral philosophy could be helpful. Below are some examples.
1) Held talks in the interview about our duties to the poor and the stranger entirely in terms of chesed: love, kindness, compassion — the warm, emotional virtues. What happened to justice — the cold, rational virtue that can sometimes lead to far more comprehensive and effective ways of helping people on the margins of society than any warm feelings towards them? In his lectures on ethics, Immanuel Kant writes that giving alms to the poor “flatters the giver’s pride” while “demeaning” those to whom the alms are given, adding that beneficence to others should “be commended as a debt we owe, [rather] than as a piece of kindness and generosity.” I’ve always found this admonition very powerful. It makes clear, among other things, that we owe aid to poor and oppressed people whom we don’t particularly like as well as to the ones who touch our heartstrings. (For a fascinating non-Kantian version of this thought, see Sarah Pessin’s critique of a politics of love at https://politicaltheology.com/americas-love-problem/). Perhaps we could say that helping people out of justice is a form of love (chesed), but it’s probably better to distinguish din from chesed and appreciate the great moral value of the former as well as the latter.
2) Held is understandably annoyed by people who respond to his teachings by saying, “So, basically, you’re saying I should be a good person.” But I’d like to hear more about how he means to fend off this dismissive reaction. In the interview, we are given some wonderful readings of texts, but at the end of the day, they all seem to say, “Be loving” (or at most: “Devote yourself to a loving God, which will enable you to be loving.”) And if that is the end of the story, a dismissive shrug seems not inappropriate.
To be sure, it’s highly intriguing to present Judaism as centered around love: that’s how we Jews usually think of other religions, not our own. But by the same token, Judaism is hardly the only religion or philosophy that teaches the importance of love. Christianity teaches it, and Buddhism teaches it, and Frances Hutcheson and Gandhi taught it. What is distinctive about Judaism that should lead Jews, or anyone else, to turn to it for a message of love? Why bother with Torah as a source for such a teaching, rather than just cultivating a kind heart — or turning to the Gospels or Gandhian satyagraha?
In a way, this is one instance of a larger problem faced by all moral teachers, whether in a religious or a philosophical context: how do we make what we have to say interesting? The most important ethical prescriptions are fairly obvious, after all. Don’t deceive; don’t be violent; be kind; help those in distress. None of this is exactly news. What is interesting, what is deeply disturbing, is that we all, regularly, fail to live up to these prescriptions — often rationalizing our failings to ourselves rather than correcting them. Why do we do this? How can we stop doing it? What can a text or tradition teach us that will help us carry out the duties that we all know we should carry out? If Held can answer these questions, he will do us a great service. Telling us just what we ought to do, by contrast, is not very exciting.
3) One issue that can make a moral teaching interesting is the way it deals with the issue of self-deception — a pervasive source of our failure to live up to the demands of morality. (“I don’t need to be honest to him,” I tell myself, “He did _______ to me”, where the blank is filled in with a self-serving description of a harm that I have blown up into an excuse for bad behavior.) Self-deception is also a particular danger for moral philosophers themselves. All too easily, we who teach morality convince ourselves that the fact that we talk a good game is enough to excuse us from actually behaving in decent fashion to the people around us.
That said, there are fascinating discussions of self-deception in moral philosophy. Søren Kierkegaard makes the danger that one’s teaching will come apart from one’s life a central theme of his Concluding Unscientific Postscript. Before him, Bishop Butler gave two wonderful sermons on self-deception (one of these focused on Balaam) and Adam Smith devoted a brilliant chapter to it in his Theory of Moral Sentiments. Kant also makes illuminating remarks on it and I think it is an subterranean, but crucial, theme of Plato’s Republic. I’m curious about whether Held takes up this theme, and if so, how. There are characters in the Torah who seem to exemplify self-deception: Pharaoh, of course (see, especially, Exodus 10:7-11, for a paradigm of bad behavior rationalized as good), and perhaps also Korach and Dathan and Abiram. It would be interesting to see if the Torah’s way of dealing with self-deception contributes to a distinctive moral philosophy — and a moral philosophy that helps us actually carry out our duties rather than telling us simply what they are.
#2 Response of Rabbi Zach Truboff
The German Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant vehemently argued that the moral law was not be found in Divine revelation or religious traditions, rather was accessible to any rational agent. An act was good if it could be applied universally. Kant had little use for the
God of the Bible who commands subservience. Once it could be shown that morality was not dependent on religion, doors were opened even wider for those who wanted to abandon traditional Judaism.
Shai Held often cites a statement coined by Michael Wyschograd that the story of Judaism in the last two centuries is predominantly a “Judaism of self-liquidation” (Body of Faith, 181). If the most important aspect of Judaism is its ethical message and that message can be found outside of religion, then why would one remain committed to outdated religious beliefs and practices? If anything, Wyschograd argues, modern thinkers assert that the “liberation from God constitutes the purification of the ethical. The ethics of religion it is maintained, is an ethics of punishment. But without God, the ethical is obeyed for its own sake, and this is surely a higher stage of the ethical” (181).
Even for those who ostensibly choose to remain committed to Judaism, Kant’s shadow lingers.
However, a Jewish theology authentically rooted in the Bible’s world view must by necessity push back against the revolution initiated by Kant.
The Biblical narrative repeatedly shows us that God can never be divorced from the good. Held’s shows that the story of the Torah begins with a God of life who creates human beings in His own image and affirms their unconditional dignity. Most importantly, the God of life is also a God of love who chooses to share His love with the descendants of Abraham. God’s love means “we are asked to love God in return. More than that, we are asked to love those who God loves: the neighbor and the stranger” (xxx). The Bible singles out God’s love for the vulnerable and oppressed, asking us to do the same.
The moral imperative created by God’s love is not limited only to the life of the individual but rather penetrates all aspects of society. For the God of love, there can be no separation between the moral and religious realms. Rather, “To embrace the covenant between God and Israel is to be summoned to embody the good and the holy” (xxix). God’s love is also essential to understanding that the good must always be at the heart of Torah.
Held cites the midrash, which emphatically states that, “The beginning of the Torah is lovingkindness, the middle of the Torah is lovingkindness, and the end of the Torah is lovingkindness” (296). The Torah begins with God clothing Abraham and Sara after exiling them from the Garden of Eden and it ends with God burying Moses after his death. In the middle, God visits Avraham while he is in need of healing after undergoing circumcision. In effect, this expresses the idea that “The very essence of Torah, the sages thus insist, is a God of love and kindness who calls Israel to love and kindness” (296).
Deeply aware that such statements often end up as little more than empty platitudes, Held instead argues that it must be read as a radical challenge to all those who hold the study of Torah to be among the highest of Judaism’s ideals. With powerful prose, he explains:
“Torah can elicit staggering degrees of goodness and generosity of spirit; it can motivate us to love when hate seems much easier, to care for the pain of others when indifference seems the surer path. But Torah can also be made to serve the opposite ends: It can serve to deepen selfishness and self-involvement; it can be cited to bolster chauvinism and cultivate hate… The Torah we learn and teach should help us become kinder, more generous, more empathic and willing to give; if it merely buttresses our biases and hardens our hearts, then it is simply not Torah” (298).
Mussar and Middot
Throughout nearly every essay in The Heart of Torah, Held contemplates various ways in which the Bible helps point us towards moral transformation. Held’s focus on ethics has coincided with a renewed interest in Mussar by many segments of the American Jewish community. At a time when most Jews lack a common moral language, an emphasis on character enables a broader discourse that transcends denominational boundaries.
Held draws inspiration from the Biblical interpretations of the Mussar masters famous for their harsh critique of traditional Jewish practice. For example, when God demands of Moshe that Israel must be annihilated for the sin of the Golden Calf, God highlights the stiff-necked character of the Jewish people even more than the transgression of idol worship (Exodus 32:9-10). Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel, the Alter of Slobodka, explains that, “From here we see that defect in character is even worse than a defect in action- more serious even than a grave sin like idolatry” (203-204). According to Held, “What Finkel is suggesting- in the most dramatic possible terms- is that Judaism is concerned not just with what we do, but also with who we are. Jewish ethics is focused not just on conduct but also on character. From a Jewish perspective, character matters, and the cultivation of good character lies at the heart of religious life” (204).
Held returns often to the idea of gratitude. For the Bible, gratitude is fundamental to the religious personality. Unlike other attributes, it is inherently relational and therefore is always directed towards another, whether it be our fellow human beings or God.
I found myself particularly drawn to a close reading that he offers of the narrative of Leah, a reading that illustrates the complexity and significance of gratitude. Held is aware that it is all too easy to see Leah as a pathetic character in the context of the narratives of Bereshit. Despite the knowledge that she was not chosen by her husband, she still yearns for his love. It is her hope that by providing him children, she will finally win Jacob’s affection.
Held cites a strange Talmudic claim that until this moment no human being had truly expressed authentic gratitude. He explains that this makes sense if we recognize that Leah’s gratitude is unique because it is accompanied by terrible disappointment. With the birth of Judah, she has come to the conclusion that Jacob will never love her as she desires. Nevertheless, in the midst of her pain she has also come to recognize with gratitude the good she has experienced.
From her example, Held draws an important lesson, one that resonates with me more and more as the years pass.
“Disappointment need not preclude gratitude, and nor need gratitude crowd out the very real possibility of disappointment. Judaism does not ask us to choose one feeling or the other, but rather makes space- indeed, seeks to teach us to make space- for the sheer complexity and contradictoriness of human experience. Who better than Leah to teach us that a broken heart can also have moments of profound fullness” (63).
Can the God of Love also be a God of Law?
A focus on “loving the stranger” and character can be morally uplifting, but does the Bible have anything to say about the role of Jewish law in moral life?
For a religious thinker such as Held who focuses on the idea of covenant, it is surprising that command is minimally addressed in his essays. Held’s call for a return to a God centered morality is to be lauded, but one must question whether such an approach is even possible without repeatedly emphasizing that the God who loves is also the God who commands.
For Held, God’s love is so foundational to the covenant that it precedes and at times takes priority over and above God’s commandments.
However, Held’s own teacher, Jon D. Levenson, makes clear that the love of God can never be separated from obedience to God’s commands. After carefully analyzing a series of Biblical verses that describe the Jewish people’s love for God, Levenson explains that “’Those who love [the Lord],” it would seem, are synonymous with those who “keep His commandments’… Love, so understood, is not an emotion, not a feeling, but a cover term for acts of obedient service” (The Love of God, 4).
Levenson also turns to the writings of Franz Rosenzweig to show that on an existential level, God’s love can never be separated from a sense of command that accompanies it. Rosenzweig asks: “Can love then be commanded? Is love not a matter of fate and of being deeply touched, and if it is indeed free, is it not sheerly a free gift? (Galli, 190.) Rosenzweig answers with the following: “Yes, of course, love cannot be commanded; not third party can do so, but the One can. The commandment of love is not an alien commandment; it is nothing other than the voice of love itself” (Galli, 191.)
Levenson writes that “love makes man com[e] out of the boundaries of his ego.” (Levenson, 190.) We live at a time when a rampant culture of social media combines with a pervasive philosophy of radical individualism to trap so many within the walls of their own ego. We would do well to remember the ways in which Divine love at the heart of the covenant serves not only to inspire us but also engenders a sense of command that can help us transcend our selfishness.
Covenantal Morality and the Land of Israel
One particular line of thought also deserves further development within Held’s writing. As stated by Prof. Alan Brill in his original interview, there are times when Held’s philosophy seems to “desiccate the elements of historical narrative and collective nationalism from the Biblical text.”
It is hard to claim that love is at the heart of covenant without also making clear that the Land of Israel is an essential part of it as well.
This is clearly the case from even just a straightforward reading of the Torah in which the land of Israel serves as both a symbol and guarantee of God’s covenantal relationship with the Jewish people. However, this is also true on a philosophical level as well.
In the words of Yitz Greenberg, another mentor of Held’s, “God calls his covenantal people into existence to serve as a paradigm and witness to the true nature of and destiny of human life… This people needs land, security, health; it is affected by war, drought, death; it must meet the challenges and temptations of existence as best as it can” (Land, People, and Faith: A Dialectical Theology, 62.) In the end, Held’s Biblical theology of morality tends to focus on the individual, and in doing so, ignores the ways in which the Jewish people’s collective moral development is rooted in the attempt to build a just and moral society together in the Promised Land.
What exactly is to be found at the heart of Torah?
Held’s essays are full of penetrating insights into the Biblical text, and his covenantal vision of God’s love is a perspective that many will find stirring. However, there is an additional reason that makes “The Heart of Torah” a compelling work, Rabbi Soloveitchik explains that his own philosophical and theological explorations of the Biblical text are at the end of the day an attempt at “finding my own acute problems and questions, my own torturing anxieties and fears, my own inspiriting hopes and aspirations in the story of Biblical heroes. The detection of one’s own self in Biblical man is an exciting experience… It is a redemptive and enhancing awareness” (4). Rabbi Soloveitchik’s words remind us that while God and morality may be found at the heart of Torah, we must also find ourselves there as well.
Shai Held’s essays retain a quality rarely found in most contemporary Jewish scholarship, because they are infused with his own fears, his dilemmas, his hopes, and his dreams. Reading his writings is an exciting experience, and if it helps nudge even just a few to open their hearts a little wider to both God and the good, it is perhaps a redemptive one as well.