7. The First Exception
Without God in the picture, morality is relative.
Understanding Judaism, p. 64-78
(1) Give two examples of instances where mitzvot between Man and Man take precedence over those between Man and God?
(2) Why do mitzvot between Man and Man take precedence over those between Man and God?
(3) Having established that the mitzvot between Man and Man are the more important, why do those between Man and God appear first?
(4) What is the difference in motivation between a "good person" with God, and a "good person" without God?
(5) Why is the one who fulfills a mitzvah when commanded, greater than the one who is not commanded? What is the significance of Prager's son's response to his question about looting?
(6) How does Rav Soloveichik's experience highlight the need for God on the first tablet?
(7) What is the significance of the first and last words of the Ten Commandments?
(1) Q: Give two examples of instances where mitzvot between Man and Man take precedence over those between Man and God?
A: Rabbi Blech gives a number of examples from the Torah and the Talmud of instances where mitzvot between Man and Man take precedence over those between Man and God. His first example is that of Abraham who, three days after his circumcision, interrupted a conversation with God to go and perform the mitzvah of Hachnasat Orchim -- welcoming guests into his home.
God was there performing the mitzvah of visiting the sick Abraham. However the men that Abraham saw in the distance had surely been traveling for some time and were in need of water, sustenance and rest. In essence, Abraham was leaving God to take care of Man. The Talmud learns from this that it is a greater mitzvah to take in strangers than to receive the Divine Presence.
Rabbi Blech's second example contrasts God's response to the generation of the Flood with the generation that built the Tower of Babel. The generation of the Tower had rebelled against God, but their interpersonal ethics were good, as they worked together to build perhaps this enormous structure. God responded by not taking their rebellion against Him as seriously, and scattering them across the earth.
The generation of the Flood acknowledged God's existence, but rejected the interpersonal ethics and laws that form the basis of the second tablet. God could not tolerate this, and He destroyed them all. A rebellion between Man and God was simply squashed, whereas a generation that robbed and plundered its fellow man was destroyed.
[For further examples and a more detailed understanding of the reasons behind them, see Understanding Judaism p. 51-63.]
(2) Q: Why do mitzvot between Man and Man take precedence over those between Man and God?
A: Mitzvot between Man and Man take precedence over those between Man and God for two reasons. The first is because God does not need anything from us, whereas man is dependent on others for many of his needs. Since human need is so much greater, God ordained that, when necessary, we should leave Him for the moment to take care of our fellow man.
A second reason is posited by Maimonides. He explains that every ethical act of goodness and kindness to another person is intrinsically a mitzvah. A mitzvah between Man and God fulfills God's command, whereas a mitzvah between man and man fulfills God's command and also brings benefit to another. Thus he concludes that a mitzvah between Man and Man is doubly beneficial.
(3) Q: Having established that the mitzvot between Man and Man are the more important, why do those between Man and God appear first?
A: In order for the laws between Man and Man to be upheld, it is necessary for them to be rooted in a belief that there is a God and His Torah is true.
Secular humanism is not possible. Without God, moral relativism exists, where one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter, and one man's mercy killing is another man's murder. The principles between Man and God must come first, in order for the set of mitzvot between Man and Man to be fulfilled.
(4) Q: What is the difference in motivation between a "good person" with God, and a "good person" without God?
A: It is in testing moments, when faced with the choice of "it's either me or you," that a person's ultimate priority is defined. In testing moments, the probability is that a person without God will choose to do what is logical, rather than what is morally correct. For a person who is not commanded, it is logical to do what is in their best interest, because self-preservation is the number one priority.
Only the person who has been commanded by a Higher Number One will act according to a priority that is not subjective. Only with an authority that is greater than man can a true morality endure. Only with God and His Torah can we promote human morality in all instances.
(5) Q: Why is the one who fulfills a mitzvah when commanded, greater than the one who is not commanded? What is the significance of Prager's son's response to his question about looting?
A: Prager's son responded that given the opportunity to loot without being caught, he would choose not to, "because it is against the Ten Commandments." This is in contrast to the classic secular response that looting is wrong "because it feels wrong."
Judaism states that a person who acts because he is commanded by God is higher than a person who acts because he feels what he is doing is right. If we rely only on people doing what they feel is right, it is possible to rationalize almost anything – as we see from the Nazi's rationalization of the Holocaust as the morally correct act, ostensibly in order to improve German society.
It is possible to create a whole range of morality based on feelings alone. Morality based on secular humanism – without God's input – is subjective and will vary according to the individual and his influences. In order to ensure a correct response, it is necessary to act out of obligation to a higher authority. That authority is God, His Torah and His commandments. Our belief in One God who gave us His Law assures us that there is a correct response – a higher response accessible to all.
(6) Q: How does Rav Soloveichik's experience highlight the need for God on the first tablet?
A: Rabbi Soloveichik studied alongside one of the leading secular German moral ethicist prior to World War II. With the rise of the Nazis, he saw his colleague modify his arguments 180 degrees to justify the persecution of the "racially inferior" – in order to protect his position at the university. The Nazi era proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that "reason alone cannot be counted on to be reasonable, because reason can rationalize." The first tablet of commandments between Man and God is necessary to provide an anchor for the second set between Man and Man.
(7) Q: What is the significance of the first and last words of the Ten Commandments?
A: The first word of the Ten Commandments is "I" (Anochi) – "I am the Lord your God." The last word is "L'ray'echa" (to your neighbor). These words express both the theme of the Ten Commandments and the means to get there. Perfection in human relations is our goal – "L'ray'echa." With the first word, Anochi, the Torah is telling us that the way to reach that goal is through love of God and acknowledging Him as the Absolute Authority. In essence, we need Tablet Number One as the preparation for Tablet Number Two.
Starting with the premise that all mitzvot are equal, Rabbi Blech introduces the concept that laws between Man and Man hold a special significance. A commandment between Man and God fulfills God's will, whereas a commandment between Man and Man both fulfills Gods will and provides benefit to Man. Rabbi Blech poses the question: 'If commandments between Man and Man are the more significant, shouldn't they appear on the first tablet, rather than the second?
Rabbi Blech explains that it is not possible to have a full moral relationship between Man and Man, without a firm belief in God and His law. Without God in the picture, morality is relative and liable to vary according to circumstance and personal preference. Logically, unless you believe that God commanded you to do something, the probability is that where one's individual interest is challenged, he will choose what is logical over the morally correct response.
The highest level of morality in secular thinking is "I feel it is wrong, therefore I will not do it." Judaism holds the opposite. The Talmud states that a person who does a mitzvah because he is commanded by God, is actually higher than the one who does it without being commanded. When acting from a place of 'feeling,' a person could rationalize their convictions to take them almost anywhere they want to go. For the good of society, it is far preferable to do what is right out of obligation to a Higher Authority, and to have a set of laws that are both timeless and objective. The Torah provides a correct response which is absolute.
Rabbi Soloveichik studied alongside one of the leading secular German moral ethicist prior to World War II. With the rise of the Nazis, he saw his colleague change his stance to justify the persecution of the 'racially inferior' – in order to protect his position at the university. Rav Soloveichik's experience provides proof that reason alone can rationalize. In order to arrive at the goal of perfection in human relations, as set out in the second tablet, we need the principles between Man and God as set out in the first tablet. The first and last words of the Ten Commandments – "Anochi" and "L'ray'echa" -- illustrates this theme.