Fellow Jewneric blogger, Joshua Einstein, writes about a common argument made by Jewish outreach organizations: â€œthe secular world is morally relative and adriftâ€ and only religion provides “moral constancy”. Josh argues that â€œthe claim of moral constancyâ€ is false. â€œMorality in Judaism has been an ever evolving notion, something relative to the times.â€ Moreover, Judaismâ€™s moral relatively, according to Josh, is so obvious that the only logical reason for outreach leaders to â€œcontinue to propagate this mythâ€ is a lust for power that comes from claiming to speak “in the name of a constant and consistent Judaism.â€
I take issue with Josh’s general analysis of supposedly relative Jewish ethics. His mistakes, I think, stem from misuse of biblical stories without their literary or theological context and a misunderstanding of moral relativism.
In Genesis, the very beginning of history as understood by a religious worldview, God creates a moral system in which there is only one wrong or immoral action â€“ eating the forbidden fruit. While it was wrong of Adam and Eve to eat from the apple, the fact that they ran around Gan Eden (the Garden of Eden) devoid of clothing, something Judaism considers immodest, was not an issue.
There are countless different ways of reading the first few chapters of Genesis. But I find it difficult to believe that anyone could read the story seriously and conclude that modesty “was not an issue.” Without going into too much detail, it’s clear that the theme of nakedness permeates the story, even if there’s widespread disagreement about what it represents. Josh relies on the absolutely most simplistic reading: Adam and Eve were naked, yet the only sin mentioned explicitly is eating the fruit; therefore, public nakedness must be a-okay.
Next, Josh considers “the mass murder of the first-born Egyptian sons by God”. Since “indiscriminate killing of non-combatants and children . . . would be later considered . . . murder by normative Judaism”, somehow this is an example of moral relativism. The morality of the ten plagues generally is more nuanced than Josh seems to have patience for. For example, the rabbis offer many reasons why the Egyptians deserved to suffer. Regardless of what you think of those reasons, it proves, at least, that the rabbis thought “indiscriminate killing of non-combatants and children” is, in fact, problematic. The third example, the commandment to destroy Amalek, while indeed morally troubling, has nothing to do with moral relativism. Despite Josh’s contentions to the contrary, there is no indication that the commandment is intended to uproot the general prohibition against murder. I’ll leave the broader discussion for another time.
The fundamental problem here is that Josh limits his analysis of Jewish ethics to Tanakh, ignoring millennia of rabbinic commentary, and yet claims to be asking whether Judaism – not merely the Bible – is “morally constant”. Judaism begins with the Bible, but doesn’t end there. You can’t legitimately make any claim about Jewish ethics by merely pointing out a few biblical difficulties, without any historical or theological context, especially ones so famously addressed by more commentaries than I could list here.
Aside from mistaking a superficial reading of Tanakh for Judaism, Josh also confuses moral relativism with moral complexity.
[I]f morality changes or can change than it is relative. If at one moment killing non-combatants is wrong and the next it is not, then morality is as a point of fact not constant.
The first sentence is a reasonable, if imprecise, definition of moral relativism. But it doesn’t follow that “[i]f at one moment killing non-combatants is wrong and the next it is not, then morality is as a point of fact not constant.” It’s quite a jump, to say the least, from ‘sometimes the right thing to do in circumstance A is different from the right thing to do in circumstance B‘ to ‘morality per se is relative’.
Morality may change such that what was appropriate in the context of the Egyptian first-borns, Amalek, and the Garden of Eden, isn’t appropriate today. That’s not relativism; it’s a complex, sophisticated morality that addresses an imperfect, fast-changing real world, where what is right often depends on time, place, and context. If you have moral objections to biblical stories, go right ahead and say so. But you have to make your case with a little more than simplistic readings of the text and a few moral ambiguities that we learned about in elementary school.