Tuesday, September 05, 2006

halachic ethics - the akeidah, hutra vs. dechuya, mitzvos the avos did not keep

Returning to the Shiurei Da’as’ idea that there are two independent sources for a halachic ethic – the model of the doctor who simply prescribes what naturally is good or bad, and the model of the king who creates law – there are two other examples he gives that are worth touching on:
1) The Rishonim raise the famous issue of how the Avos and Shevatim were free to violate certain issurim (e.g. how could Ya’akov have married two sisters) when Chazal tell us that the Avos accepted and kept the entire Torah even before it was given. The Shiurei Da’as answers that the observance of the Avos conformed to the model of the doctor. Just as in medicine, a prescription that works for one person can cause problems for another person or unwanted side effects that are more damaging than the original illness, so too with mitzvos. The Avos were able to intuit where the exceptions based on greater gain were warranted. However, post-mattan Torah, the Jewish people accepted the model of observance that defines ethics as simply obeying the King’s wishes, to which there can be no exception.
2) The Shiurei Da’as offers a beautiful hesber of the distinction between hutra and dechuya (see Rashi Brachos 20a d”h shev v’al ta’aseh). In both cases there is no issur from the perspective of the model of obeying a king’s decree – the mitzvah pushes off the lo ta’aseh. So why with respect to an issur dechuya do we assume that there is some "pushback" from the lav? The S.D. explains that although the King’s decree is lifted, there is still something wrong from the perspective of the doctor model – the issur has not lost its natural inherent danger.
This last case interests me most because it points to a circumstance where the decree of the king commands a certain practice, but the law of nature (the model of the doctor) still cautions restraint. The most extreme example of such a phenomenon (not discussed by the Shiurei Da’as) seems to me to be the parsha of the akeidah. Although killing a child is morally repugnant, Avraham did not hesitate in that circumstance to obey the command of Hashem. Kierkegaard referred to this as the “teleological suspension of the ethical” – i.e. the command of the akeidah does not render murder as ethically acceptable, but the human ethic is temporarily suspended to accomplish the will of G-d. I wonder what the Shiurei Da’as would make of such a theory.


  1. Bill Selliger11:55 AM

    I believe that R. Chaim Brisker has a unique shitta relating to ethics and mitzvos. Basically, he holds that mitzvos create the ethic. If, for example, Hashem never outlawed murder, then murder would be an ethical action. 'Histakel b'oraysa' - the world operates based on the laws of the Torah. Wild stuff. I think it's brought down in the Brisker Hagadda.

  2. Telzers are happy to derive something from sevara; Brisk sees everything purely as a function of halachic categories. Another example might be tefila: the Rav in lomdus assumed that tefilah needs a 'matir'; however, one could reasonably argue that the natural desire of the neshoma to daven validates itself without a precise halachic matir.
    See GRI'Z al haTorah quoting R' Chaim in the akeida - there is not even a kashe of shnei kesuvim until there is a kasuv hashlishi.

  3. jeffrey smith10:24 PM

    Point one: the Doctor is the King! That is, He "Who wounds and heals" is also He "who commanded us to perform". The natural order and the mitzvot both have the same Source.
    Point two: as for the Akedah, doesn't Rashi point out that Abraham was actually ordered only to offer Yitzchak as a sacrifice, but not actually commanded to carry out it all the way to actually killing? Although contrary to that, Avraham and Sarah both seem to act in the run up as if they assumed Yitzchak's death was involved.
    Point three: the ultimate end of Kierkegaard's proposition is suicide bombings and gulags. Perhaps the S.D. would put it differently, but need I say more?
    Point four, regarding Bill S.'s comment. Maybe my memory is at fault, but I don't seem to remember the commandment against murder being issued to Adam or Cain. But Cain is still warned beforehand about sinning, and punished afterwards. Which would suggest that murder was wrong before it became a mitzvah not to murder.
    Point five: with a human ruler, one seeks an audience to present one's requests, but must have the permission of the ruler (or his staff, at least) to be admitted. Otherwise, one can not be sure that the request will be listened to, or that even possibly one might be punished for the presumption of asking without permission. The mitzvot of tefilah is thus the permission given us to be received in audience and to have our requests heard--which would conform to the Rav's point. Moreover, while everyone has the basic urge to pray, it is the halacha of tefilah that informs us of the acceptable manner and content.

    I will still stick to the position I outlined in my comment to the earlier post: Torah being Torah, what is ethical can be found in the Torah, and what is found in the Torah is ethical; but human reason can figure out ethics on its own, but we benefit from the guidance of the Torah in avoiding errors that human reasoning might lead to--errors such as the Kierkegaard proposition.