Monday, October 27, 2008

Is "Don't Kill" common sense?

In this past week's torah portion (Genesis) Cain decides to kill his brother Abel and is duly punished by God. There have been some bloggers that have suggested that without the torah we would turn to a life of murder, robbery, debauchery etc. These people claim that we need the torah to help us act as a just society.

So if that is the case, why was Cain punished by God? The torah was yet to be given, so he didn't break any rules. According to this line of thought, he was just acting on a natural uinstinct that God just imbued in him.

I think it is sad that the obvious answer, that common sense is what tells you killing is wrong, is unfortunately not so obvious to some. I am not saying that the torah has not helped improve morals, but to say that we would have none without it just seems ludicrous.

22 comments:

jewish philosopher said...

Adam had the seven mitzvos.

Without Torah people would eat each other. Why not?

BrooklynWolf said...

JP,

So, how do you account for people who do not follow the Torah who act ethically?

And (lest you answer that Christians and Muslims are indirectly influenced by the Torah) would you then assume that people in the Far East who do not have the cultural influence of the Torah do, in fact "eat each other?" Are you stating that ethical people in China, Japan, India, et al are non-existent (or nearly so)?

The Wolf

Joodah said...

The torah is not for the entire world. It is for the Jews. According to the Torah, Non-Jews are only oblicated to obey the 7 noahide laws, which are easy ones, "don't kill, don't steal, blah blah".

The Torah is not there to stop people for killing each other. The way I was taught, the Torah is there for the Jewish people come closer than any other people to their creator. For the Jewish people to have a special relationship with God. The Torah is God's way of saying "this is me, be like me". At least, this is how I was taught.

IMHO, the whole Cain and abel story shouldn't be taken too literally. After all, God knew Cain had a bloodlust. And knew that goading him about picking Abels sacrifice over his probably sent him over the edge (I do NOT buy the commentary on how Cain's fruits were not the top pick while abels sheep and cattle were. that is bullcrap and you all know it). One might even argue that God drove Cain to kill Abel. My point is this story is not what it seems. Something else is going on behind the scenes.

An issue with the Torah, is that nowadays it is not enforced. We do not have a Sanhedrin, and God does not strike down the sinners. As an enforced lawbook, the Torah is pretty obsoloete. One might say the geneva convention or the bill of rights has more authority than the Torah in this world at this time.

Garnel Ironheart said...

Joodah, there's a famous story about Rebbe Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev. It's Pesach in Czarist Russia and for some reason, the government has confiscated anything made of silk. So the rebbe asks some of his students to find him some. At first they protest because if he's caught with this contraband, he's off to jail for life but he insists so they go out and a few hours later return with some. Then he asks them for some bread. Again they proest, it's Pesach! But he insists and they go out again but this time they come bakc emptyhanded. Nowhere in the shtetl can they find any bread.
The Geneva convention is ignored by any of its signatories when it's too inconvenient to remember its existence. How many treaties have the Iranians signed against nuclear proliferation? How many deals did the North Koreans sign agreeing to dismantle theirs? A religious Jew still accords the Torah infinite authority in his life and treats it with far more reverences than most signatories treat the Geneva convention.

Now, in answer to Rich's question: If one looks in Sanhedrin, one finds a tradition that God in fact gave 6 of the 7 Noahide laws to Adam so according to that, Kayin knew offing Hevel was wrong. but if one doesn't accept that, well there are actually commentators who ask that very question: if Kayin didn't know it's wrong, why was he punished?
And the answer offered is to look at the text. Kayin is never actually punished for murder! He's punished for lying about it and the ground is cursed because it helped him hide the dead but he's never told "You're a bloody murderer!"
As I've written elsewhere, a law against murder makes perfect sense, when there is equal fear amongst each person in the society that he may be murdered. The minute a person makes himself immune to that threat, murder loses its sacrosanct status. Kayin is a perfect example of this. Who was going to kill him to avenge Hevel's death? His parents? Hardly, and with Hevel dead all the people in the world now descend from him so no fears there either. So he went ahead and killed him to inherit the world himself.

frumskeptic said...

A while back a few teenagers in Harlem set a homeless man on fire. This man was like the token homeless guy, and he slept on the church steps everyevening. I don't remember if he died or not, but that isn't my point...

My ethics professor brought up that story in class, and everyone's reaction was of horror.

She then told us that Hume (the philosopher) said that ethics are based on sentiment, and our reaction, shows that setting a guy on fire is wrong. The conversation continued on the "Treat others like you'd want others to treat you" type thing. Prof explained that just like we wouldn't want to be randomly scared of getting burned or our family, we shouldn't do it.

So then it came to the point of does it really matter if the guy would've died (if he didnt, don't remember). Afterall, if say I wouldn't have wanted to be in the state of homelessness, maybe I WOULD inactually want to be killed (kind of like euthenasia), so why would it be bad if I went and killed people. after all, its all relative.

So basically, we came to the conclusion of "We don't really know where ethics come from, and common sense is relative."

lol. Sorry the comment was long. I wanted to be clear with the point. I hope I was!

Rich Perkins said...

JP - So basically you are saying that people are inherently evil. Sounds to me like you are holding on to some of your Christian ideals.

Frumskeptic - I know that morals and common sense to some degree are relative. However, when it comes to things like murder, I don't think there is much disagreement. Of course, as with anything, you have to know the full story to make an accurate assessment.

Garnel Ironheart said...

> She then told us that Hume (the philosopher) said that ethics are based on sentiment. Prof explained that just like we wouldn't want to be randomly scared of getting burned or our family, we shouldn't do it.

That's actually a really scary philosophy if you think about it.

Consider the southern US before the Civil War where white kids were raised and educated to think of blacks as less than human. How many people back then would have been shocked if a black man was burned to death? Probably far, far less. It sounds unethical to us today but before the Civil War it was something acceptable in that society. So was it ethical at the time?

As for the random fear, this is the flaw in atheistic arguments about natural ethical laws that just exist without needing any explanation. Once you remove the fear, the law falls away. If you create a society in which one ethnic group has all the guns and knives, and therefore has no fear of harm from the rest of the society, would the dominant group continue to view murdering the rest of the groups as wrong?

David said...

Garnel:

The Levi Yitzkhak story is cute, but I wouldn't take it too seriously. As to whether a "religious Jew still accords the Torah infinite authority ...and treats it with far more reverences than most signatories treat the Geneva convention," I'd have to say that: a) the bar is not that high; and b) I fear that, among many religious Jews, the tendency to exalt chukim while paying slight regard to mitzvot bayn adam l'chaveiro has grown a great deal. Religious Jews perpetrated the whole Agriprocessors scandal while other religious Jews ran interference for them. Frankly, I'd rather hear that they had eaten a baguette on Pesach.

As to your example about ante-bellum black people, do you really want to go there in defense of the Torah? There were various rabbis who favored American slavery (and others who opposed it). Moreover, have a look at Numbers 31:13-18, Deuteronomy 3:6, and 1 Samuel 15:3- need I go on?

People who reject (or never heard of) the Torah are perfectly capable of being decent humans. To suggest otherwise is to be ridiculous.

Garnel Ironheart said...

David, you and I seem to completely agree on most things. For example, I am very bothered by the current emphasis on ben adam l'makom to the point of almost total neglect of ben adam l'chaveiro. A Jew who emphasizes the former and ignores the latter is no more observant than a motivated Conservative who is meeticulous about treating his fellow human beings with respect even if his ritual observance is minimal. Judaism is a two sided practice and the challenge is to succeed in both areas.
As for the slavery thing, yes you're right. There are teshuvos from that area that justify it based on blacks being the descendents of Ham and therefore condemned to slavery. To my knowledge, though, these were minority opinions even at the time and I'd hate to think anyone gives them weight today.
Finally, yes any person can be completely decent without Torah. No question that some of the finest people I've ever met were non-Jews with a finely tuned ethical sense. The job for a Jew is to develop such an ethical sense with the assistance of Torah and l'shem Shomayim, something we're just not good at anymore.

David said...

Garnel--

Regarding the notions of the "descendants of Ham," you say that you'd "hate to think anyone gives them weight today." I, too, would like to think it's not a widely held opinion, except that I've heard the idea quoted by two different rabbis (both Orthodox). I find it unspeakable and unworthy of Jewish ethics, but, there it is. Like you, I hope those two are in a tiny minority-- and, perhaps, they are.

As to the balance of what you said, I tend to agree. However, when you say that "we're just not good at" developing that ethical sense, then isn't it at least possible that the material that we're using is not quite as perfect as its adherents keep insisting?

By your own admission, there are ethical gentiles and unethical Jews. Neither of us can really speak to proportions here, so maybe a dogmatic insistence on the notion that the best ethics come from a text which allows slavery and (occasionally) mandates genocide is just not the best way to go.

Garnel Ironheart said...

> except that I've heard the idea quoted by two different rabbis (both Orthodox). I find it unspeakable and unworthy of Jewish ethics

It's ironic because the odds are non-Orthodox rabbonim never learned the whole "perpetual slavery of Ham" thing in the first place!

> isn't it at least possible that the material that we're using is not quite as perfect as its adherents keep insisting?

Of course it's possible. But I would like to differentiate between the message and the messenger. The messenger (us) is imperfect but that doesn't change the quality of the source material. As an analogy, there are a (very) small number of doctors out there practising poor medicine but that doesn't mean they went to a bad med school.

> so maybe a dogmatic insistence on the notion that the best ethics come from a text which allows slavery and (occasionally) mandates genocide is just not the best way to go.

The problem is that your two examples only work with a superficial reading of the text. Slavery, for example, has not been practised since before the 1st Temple was destroyed. It couldn't be practised today. No Beis Din has the power to sentence a Jew into 6 years of indentured status (remember, it's technically slavery but with so many perks it isn't worth having one) and non-Jewish slavery was obsolete as a law 2500 years ago.

As for genocide, it relates to one people whose identity are no longer known so again, a dead letter.

This is why education is such an important issue. If people knew that the superficial understanding of the text is NOT the authoritative one, if they knew that laws like "an eye for an eye" are dealt with by Chazal, they wouldn't be so quick to judge.

David said...

Garnel:

"I would like to differentiate between the message and the messenger. The messenger (us) is imperfect but that doesn't change the quality of the source material. As an analogy, there are a (very) small number of doctors out there practising poor medicine but that doesn't mean they went to a bad med school."

No, but it certainly doesn't mean they went to a good one, and it's clear enough that they didn't go to a "perfect" one. How do you propose to evaluate the message?

"The problem is that your two examples only work with a superficial reading of the text. Slavery, for example, has not been practised since before the 1st Temple was destroyed. It couldn't be practised today... non-Jewish slavery was obsolete as a law 2500 years ago."

True, but we continue to read and draw lessons from the relevant parashas. For example, that standards of conduct towards gentiles can be materially different from standards of conduct towards Jews, or that gentiles, in priniciple, can be seen as having far fewer human rights.

"As for genocide, it relates to one people whose identity are no longer known so again, a dead letter."

Not at all. We keep reading it, don't we? We are drilled ("zachor et Amalek") over and over with the idea that it is possible that an entire group of people can, by virtue of nothing more than their membership in a group they didn't select, be deserving of death. Even if we don't kill people on this basis, have you never heard anyone (or any group) compared to Amalek? Have you never heard entire nations described as the descendants of Esau or Ishmael (and thus stuck with the moral characteristics of both of those charmers)?

"This is why education is such an important issue."

Bingo. And a real education for Torah Jews would be a great step forward from the current cocktail of ignorance, bigotry and superstition that is served up in a package called "learning."

Garnel Ironheart said...

Hi David,

> How do you propose to evaluate the message?

Quite simple. Same way I did. I went and read the primary texts and figured things out for myself.

Just like any good med student listens to the prof BUT also reads the chapter in the text to get a more complete picture. Like doctors read the primary literature instead of relying on drug reps to tell them what's going on.

> For example, that standards of conduct towards gentiles can be materially different from standards of conduct towards Jews,

Again, depends what your experience with the primary sources is. Is there a different status in law between Jews and non-Jews? Yes, absolutely. One way around thinking this is racist is remembering that anyone who wants to can become Jewish. Think in secular terms - immigrants without citizenship can't vote. So why would Jewish law treat non-citizens differently?

In addition, there are a variety of opinions in the halachic literature about the status of non-Jews today, especially as most of the anti-gentile laws assume the gentiles in question are idol worshippers living immoral lifestyles which is not the case nowadays (except maybe the Bronx). Certainly we could also learn from Avraham Avinu in the Torah itself about how to treat everyone with kindness and respect.

> Not at all. We keep reading it, don't we?

Yes, but there's nothing we're doing about it. There's no hunting squads or attempts at determining what their DNA was. As Rav Hirsch notes in his commentary, what the nation of Amalek stood for - subjugation of the weak, cowardice in battle, denial of God - those are the values we are to oppose today and are to be reminded of when we read Zachor.

> And a real education for Torah Jews would be a great step forward from the current cocktail of ignorance

Once again, we agree 100%

Now visit my blog and comment there too, dammit!

David said...

"Now visit my blog and comment there too, dammit!"

I think that would certainly be worthwhile. I gave it a try, but there were these two pictures of clocks, and then the whole blog started to vibrate in a disconcerting way. Was I in the wrong place? Link, please?

Garnel Ironheart said...

Clocks? They're supposed to be at the bottom of the blog below everything.

As for the vibrating, maybe the page was happy to see you?

So try www.garnelironheart.blogspot.com.

Gut Shabbos

AngryJew said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
AngryJew said...

Your story of Rav Levi Yitzhak taught me this, and please correct me if you like: Jews fear the wrath of heaven more than they fear the physical worldly laws.

Maybe the point of the story is, Both laws have no reasoning behind them other than the maker decided it to be there, and yet we value the unknown maker who has no immediate power over us first.

The reason why the geneva convention is broken is because it is a law made by man and enforced by man, but it least people make the attempt to enforce it. There is no attempt by god to enforce his laws. In the case of Cain and Abel, God did enforce the law of "do not kill" (to an extent. I believe according to the law later in the Torah, Cain should have been killed). That law is now enforced by man alone.

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