Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Morality and Halacha

By Susan Esther Barnes

I was reading the comments on a post called I Made My First Gay Shidduch at Frum Satire, (a shidduch refers to matchmaking) and got into a discussion about halacha (Jewish law).

At one point I mentioned the fact that nobody follows all the laws in the Torah, and as an example used the fact that nobody kills unruly children.

The law about unruly children comes from Deuteronomy 21:18-21, which says, “If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey the voice of his father or the voice of his mother, and, though they discipline him, will not listen to them, then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gate of the place where he lives, and they shall say to the elders of his city, ‘This our son is rebellious; he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard.’ Then all the men of the city shall stone him to death with stones. So you shall purge the evil from your midst, and all Israel shall hear, and fear.”

One of the commenters said the reason why nobody ever stones to death an unruly son is that, “In order qualify as a rebellious son, the son had to be between 13 and 13.5 years of age, had to steal money from his parents, use that money to buy meat and wine from the vat. He then had to eat the meat medium rare in a few gulps, wash it down with a large quantity of the wine, while sitting in the company of bad people. His parents had to warn him against this beforehand. The valid witnesses had to warn him of the consequences 4 seconds before he ate and drank, and then testify against him in court.”

Of course, all of the rules in the paragraph above were made up by rabbis who wanted to make sure no kids got stoned to death.

Other commenters mentioned a rabbinic ruling that if a pregnant woman craved pork (which Jews are not supposed to eat), she was allowed to eat it, because they thought if her craving was not fulfilled, it could be life threatening.

Both of these cases are the kinds of legal arguments rabbis used to make in order to ensure that the people did what they believed to be morally right.

One of the points I was trying to make in my comments was that if the rabbis could make the rules like those above, the rabbis could also, if they wanted to, make a rule that would make gay relationships accepted.

For instance, the idea that gay relationships are not okay comes from Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, both of which say a man should not lie with a man “as with a woman.” As a result, the rabbis could easily rule that a man who “lies” with a woman is having intercourse, which of course involves vaginal sex. Therefore, in order for a man to lie with a man “as with a woman,” he would have to have vaginal sex with that other man, and as long as he does not do so, he is not breaking the law. Since that would be physically impossible, gay sex is okay.

The person with which I was exchanging comments replied, “Suffice to say that even if you may be morally correct in your views, but you’re 100% wrong when it comes to halacha.”

He says this without apology. He seems to have completely missed the point that halacha is supposed to be a system of laws that help us to do what God wants us to do. And if God does not want us to be morally upright, then I seriously don’t know what God wants, or on what basis we should think it’s a good idea to follow God’s laws.

We have seen in the examples above how far out of their way the ancient rabbis were willing to go in order to make sure the laws were moral and just. I see this as one of the main strengths of Judaism, and one of the main areas where Orthodox Judaism has gone wrong. The moment they think they can separate God’s laws from moral behavior, the moment they think it’s okay to say, “This is morally repugnant but I’m going to do it anyway because I believe God said I should,” is the moment they break from one of the most important foundations of Judaism.

How can we be a light unto the nations if we lose our moral compass so thoroughly, and don’t even seem to notice it’s gone?


  1. Halacha is not like the House of Representatives, where you can change the rabbis' identity and/or views in the first Tuesday in November.

    Rather, it is like common law judging: it takes a lot of judges (or here, rabbis) making decisions over a long period of time to change precedent. And as Judaism has spread over the world and developed a larger and larger amount of precedent, this is far more true now than it was ten or twelve centuries ago.

    So halacha is designed to move slowly, more slowly than it did in Talmudic times. That doesn't mean that it won't ever reflect your point of view; but it may take another generation or two.

  2. I also think that a bit more time is necessary to work out the right attitude towards the affair and halacha itself. It's not a momentary process. And, by the way, it's always easier to judge people without thinking over the whole problem with all pros and contras.