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.

Commentary on Parashat Nasso, Numbers 4:21 - 7:89

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 rabbis’ 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?

Because, according to Midrash Ba-Midbar Rabbah, “in the case of the Holy Name, inscribed in sanctity, Scripture orders that it is to be blotted out in water to bring about peace between a man and his wife.”   What God’s example teaches is that preserving a relationship is often more important than dignity or honor.  God is willing to forego the normally mandated honor in the service of harmony between people.

God demonstrates the same situational ethics that Dr. Gilligan attributes to women. Rather than referring to some unchanging rule (ie. “never desecrate God’s name”), God’s moral imperative is to preserve the relationship between husband and wife.  Toward that end, God mandates what is normally prohibited. In the service of that higher moral goal, the Torah requires treating God’s name with contempt.

The God of Israel mandates ethics that are not immutable and unchanging.  Instead, God, as portrayed in the Torah and in later Jewish traditions, is passionately involved in relationships — with the Jewish people and with all humanity.  Morality, at its best, is in the service of compassionate and caring human living.  Morality, at its core, is about relating.

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


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