Acharei Mot-Kedoshim: Building a Moral Society

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, April 27, 2018 / 12 Iyyar 5778

Mishnah Berurah class will resume on May 6th. Drop-ins are welcome.

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Summary: Rabbi Kosak examines how we make moral judgements about people and groups. He describes how traditional moral systems work, then looks at how the emotion of disgust is a stand-in for thinking about ethics, how it divides us and what we can do to move past it.

Acharei Mot-Kedoshim: Building a Moral Society

Synagogues around the world will be reading from chapters 16-20 in the book of Leviticus. This section of scripture is divided into two parshiot, named Acharei Mot and K’doshim. Acharei Mot contains the source material for the Yom Kippur ritual of atonement. It concludes with laws of modesty and outlines those intimate relations from which a person must refrain. Most people would accept these restrictions as being moral and proper. Indeed, many of us even feel a sense of disgust considering these cases. Others, such as restrictions on homosexuality, have had new understandings applied to them as society has changed.

In Kedoshim, the fine-tuned sense of morality is heightened, and we find some of the most profound and enduring statements of ethics to which we should aspire. Many we are still trying to achieve, such as the commandment to judge impartially rather than being swayed by someone’s wealth or poverty, or the injunction not to harbor a grudge.

On the other hand, there are laws which run counter to the Portland zeitgeist, such as the prohibition against tattoos and making other permanent marks. Finally, we encounter mitzvot that are beyond normal categories of moral behavior, like shatnez, the law against mixing wool and linen in a garment.

All of this raises questions about the basis for morality, where authority for ethics comes from, and how we each go about making moral decisions about complex situations. While these philosophical sorts of questions may seem removed from everyday concerns, most people constantly make such judgements. Fewer of us subject these judgements to the discipline of sustained moral reasoning. In our divided age, it’s worthwhile to revisit a few short moral notions.

Religious morality has traditionally grounded its authority on the ultimate source of all, namely God, or Holy Scriptures held to be records of God’s will. For a believer, this initially simplifies matters. God, scripture and morality are “coterminous.” They are all one and the same. Whatever the Torah, the Christian scriptures or the Koran tell the faithful what to do is moral and authoritative by definition.

There are a few problems with this approach.

First, if you are not a believer, the authority of the system disappears.

Second, even the most traditional Jews have sought out explanations for the Torah’s commands. Apart from Yeshayahu Leibowitz (1903-1994), people are no more satisfied with “because God said so,” than children are with “because I’m the parent.” Humans need reasons and meanings. We want to know why.

Third, contemporary life presents us with complex, technological issues that holy writings at best only answered indirectly or never mentioned at all. May one splice genes, harvest organs or clone human beings?

Since ancient time, non-religious moral systems gained authority by meeting two criteria. The first is that a system should be coherent or meet a standard of justification. This means that a good system should not be contradictory. The second is that it should be relevant–its should be able to address complex problems and offer us guidance on how to live and behave.

This latter demand, like Biblically-based moral systems, requires that we update our understanding to provide direction in our own technologically advanced age. For example, those who program self-driving cars need to make moral judgements about how a car should respond in an emergency situation. Should it protect the occupants at all cost, even if it means killing a larger number of people? Or should it protect the greatest number of lives, even if that means its evasive action will endanger the passengers? A utilitarian ethic, for example, might chose the crowd over the car’s occupant.

As someone trained in both philosophy and religious thinking, I have a bias for moral systems that do this hard and careful work. It is the best way I know how to create a fair system, and therefore a more just society.

In recent decades, moral thinking has been subjected to insights from fields like anthropology, sociology and even neuroscience. We have learned that many moral systems consist of nothing more than what people say is right or wrong. At best, this is a sort of consensus model–if the group says it’s good, it’s good. At worst, though, this becomes little more than the will of the mob. As a minority people whose values are sometimes at odds with the host culture, this is not helpful.

From the sciences I mentioned, we have also come to understand that disgust is an instantaneous and compelling method that many people use for making moral decisions. Author William Miller penned a book called the “Anatomy of Disgust” and argues that disgust marks the boundaries of culture and boundaries of the self. Meanwhile, Dr Paul Rozin, a psychology professor, believes that we experience disgust as a reaction to actual or perceived threats to our souls.

Disgust is in the news quite a lot these days because it is a moral category invoked by President Trump frequently. While there is even some research that indicates Republicans are more prone to feelings of disgust, we also know (from looking at children in early childhood settings) that most behaviors or things we find disgusting are taught to us by the adult world. Indeed, it is fair to say that part of the outcome of our polarized era is that in-groups increasingly feel disgust at the behavior, beliefs or persons of the out-group. Unfortunately, as society becomes more fractured, we allow our feelings of disgust to override other considerations

Just as many forms of disgust are learned reactions, we can also train ourselves to see past that initial emotion. Exposure to people from different cultures or groups is one way of diminishing those reactions. Developing a more rational moral approach can also help us temper those unexamined moral reactions. If we want to heal our divided nation, enhancing our critical moral abilities should now be considered a civic duty. Thinking is hard. But as this week’s Torah reading demonstrates, the Jewish people has engaged in the struggle to do what is right and good for thousands of years. Let’s use that remarkable heritage as encouragement to do better in our own age.

Happy Shabbos!

Rav D

Shabbat Table Talk

  1. What are some foods you find disgusting? Do other members of your family also find them disgusting? On the other hand, can you recall foods you found disgusting as a child that you now enjoy?
  2. What sort of behavior or thinking do you find most disgusting? What does it feel like when you see it?
  3. Can you recall types of behavior or thinking that other people engaged in that you used to find disgusting, but over time came to understand even if you still disapprove? If so, what helped you move past the learned emotional response?

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