Religious leaders often posit that the secular world is morally relative and adrift. The changing and metastasizing values of the larger world are no doubt foreboding and challenging but it begs the question: Is Judaism really morally constant? Specifically if we are to look at the Tanach, not as one would logically do so â€“ as a mixed factual and imagined historical account of the creation and early years of the world and Jewish people, but rather as a religious tradition and the verbatim word of God – does the claim of moral constancy hold?
The answer most commonly given from Rabbiâ€™s, religious movements, and by outreach organizations is a resounding yes. The truthful answer, however, is a loud, proud, and solid no. Morality in Judaism has been an ever evolving notion, something relative to the times.Â 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.
Some might posit this is a partially unfair example and there is some truth to the notion that as Adam and Eve lived prior to the time of the Jewish people we can not lay the burden at Judaismâ€™s doorstep at least at this point in the Tanach. Pretending for a moment that such an argument holds water, there are still plenty of examples of the slippery slope of moral relativism of and by God and Judaism in the Tanach.
In Exodus there is an example of the moral relativism Judaismâ€™s boosters say doesnâ€™t exist – the mass murder of the first born Egyptian sons by God. God extols this, histories first mass murder, by declaring that it was he and â€œno seraphâ€ or any other genus of angel which committed this type of act â€“ the indiscriminant killing of non-combatants and children â€“ that would be later considered immoral and thus murder by normative Judaism. The standard bearers of Judaism traditionally respond that morality is something for us and that God is not bound by the ethical standards he has given us as humans and Jews.
Yet after the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, God commands the Jewish people to destroy Amalek, not just its fighting men or leaders but the men, women and children.Â The book of Samuels tells us that this is a serious notion and that it is obligated upon all of us to â€œgo and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox, and sheep, camel and ass,”(Samuel I, 15:3). Here we see a complete and fluid contradiction, God essentially says: murder is bad, now go murder everyone in Amalek.
When asked, the usual response from Orthodox and Conservative Rabbis, Rabbinical students, and laymen has been that morality is what God tells you to do. But if 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.
A contemporary example is todayâ€™s debate about marriage. The standard bearers of Judaism, especially in Orthodox and right leaning Conservative circles, argue that the traditional definition of marriage is that of between a woman and man. Yet Halacha (Jewish Law) posits that a man can have more than one wife and may even have a concubine (pelegesh). Abraham, Jacob, and Solomon all had more than one wife yet today polygyny would be looked upon as immoral.Â In the 11th century a ban was placed on the practice (for Ashkenazim) and since then normative Judaism has looked at the practice as backward, defining marriage as between one man and one woman. Clearly the moral outlook on marriage and on the place of women has evolved.
That Judaism is morally relative is undeniable. Yet, in direct contradiction of the Tanach and the historical record the vast majority of theological authorities assert that the current Jewish moral norms are Torah MiSinai (the truth from Mount Sinai). There is only one logical reason they continue to propagate this myth â€“ power. Whether in America or Israel, religious coercion is something only tolerated on the margins. Admittedly, it is much more of a problem in Israel but this is mitigated to a degree by the self-segregating nature of Israeli communities. Yet when religious and theological leaders address the public they are given credence because they claim to be speaking in the name of a constant and consistent Judaism. Whether their values differ on the role of women, minorities, goyim, gays, education, or science from that of a generally secular public is irrelevant. They receive monetary support and are listened to because they knowingly appeal to peoples glossed over version of the past. They promise a return to a false utopian version of a Jewish yesteryear in which everyone was personally fulfilled. If the Judaism(s) of the past was a changing and dynamic force both in form and in moral evolution than no one need heed them to find the correct way.
Normative Orthodox and right leaning Conservatives Rabbis would have us believe that acknowledging the moral fluidity in the Tanach and Judaism means abandoning our tradition. But we need not throw out the baby with the bath water. Emancipating our community from the morally untenable and ahistorical position of the theological authorities will lead to a liberated and empowered Jewish history and Judaism. The choice is clear. We can burry our collective heads in the sand and leave our Tanach and tradition as a disenfranchising predetermined instruction manual for life or we can recognize that Judaismâ€™s morals have evolved, are thus relative, and celebrate a multifaceted complex compendium of our history, beliefs, and evolving intellectual and spiritual life.