Parashat Naso

Situational Ethics And God

The importance of preserving the relationship between a husband and wife provides an example of the Torah's use of relative morality.

Print this page Print this page

Provided by the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, which ordains Conservative rabbis at the American Jewish University.

Often, we define the moral position as the one that adheres to objective standards of right and wrong.  Consequently, someone who evaluates an action in the light of eternal, immutable values demonstrates a higher level of moral development than a person who uses other, more situational standards.  The roots of this perspective lie in ancient Greek thought, which associated the true with the eternal--what was perfect never changed.  Similarly, the highest level of morality would be immutable.

The Greek mind sought out "laws of nature" which functioned in the realm of human morality no less than in the realm of astronomy.  Modern psychologists of moral development--primarily students of the late Lawrence Kohlberg--looked to those Greek suppositions and found confirmation in the moral development of boys and men.  Apparently, the highest level of moral development among males involves recourse to external rules of ethical standards that are always true and always definitive.

A Feminist View

A challenge to this notion of moral objectivity emerges in the work of Carol Gilligan, who argues that girls and women base moral decisions on how the decision will affect human relationships.  Rather than rules, Gilligan argues that women govern their moral lives by weighing the cost among different human beings.  Consequently, their view of morality is situational and relative.

The Torah anticipates this feminist view of morality, also holding that ethics ought to be dynamic and inter-subjective: whether between one person and another, or between a person and God.

The Torah considers a jealous husband who accuses his wife of committing adultery.  She appears before the koheyn (priest) in the Temple and drinks a mixture of bitter water (Sotah water), dust from the Temple floor, and a charcoal curse containing God's name which is melted into the water potion.  After drinking the water, if her body begins to deteriorate, she is considered guilty by the court and the entire people.  But, as is much more likely, if nothing happens (after all, the only thing she did was to drink some dirty water), her innocence is established beyond doubt.

The ritual of the Sotah (suspected adulteress) provides a method for vindicating an innocent wife in the face of a paranoid husband.  But what caught the rabbi's attention was God's role in the process: God allows erasing the divine name--mixing it in the waters--to confirm the wife's innocence.

Saying God's Name

This act of divine self-effacement becomes all the more striking if you recall Judaism's insistence that God's name is too sacred to be pronounced out loud.  Books containing God's name can never be thrown out--instead they are buried with full funeral rites or stored forever.  Such is the reverence traditional Jews have always accorded to God's name.  Yet here, in the Torah itself, a ritual requires God's name to be erased publicly! Why?

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Rabbi Bradley Artson

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson is Vice-President of the American Jewish University in Los Angeles and Dean of its Ziegler School of Rabbinical Studies. He served as a congregational rabbi in Southern California for ten years. Rabbi Artson?is the author of The Bedside Torah and co-author of a children's book, I Have Some Questions about God.