Tuesday, October 31, 2006

R' Ahron Lichtenstein - is religion necessary for ethical conduct?

This article based on a talk by R’ Ahron Lichtenstein is worth reading in its entirety, especially part III:

"Before answering this question, I would like to address the above-mentioned claim that religion is necessary in order to arrive at morality. This argument has been advanced frequently in the modern period. It is a reflection of the secularization of modern culture that religion needs to be sold to masses on the basis of its contribution to morality. In eighteenth-century England, the novelist Henry Fielding advanced this claim; in the nineteenth century, Cardinal Newman rejected it precisely because he said it was a debasement of religion: you are basing religion’s legitimacy purely upon its moral significance…

...Thus, returning to our original question, we surely should not dismiss nor denigrate moral idealism simply because it springs (in certain cases) from secular sources. Certainly, we believe deeply that a moral idealist would be at a much higher level were his morality rooted in yirat Shamayim, were it grounded in a perception of his relation to God and of the nature of a man as a respondent and obedient being. But that surely is not to say that we therefore ought to dismiss totally the possibility or the reality of secular morality. First, we should not do this because it is simply untrue—there are genuinely moral people within the secular community. Second, we ought not do this because, after all, the results are not what we should be seeking. Whether we score points here or there is not crucial. In the process of “scoring points,” we increase sinat achim (fraternal hatred), we sharpen divisions, we heighten tensions; and that is, in and of itself, a moral and ethical problem."


  1. see here:

  2. DavidS8:57 AM

    R'Hirsch, who, according to I. Grunfuld's introduction to Horeb, was well-versed in Kant and philosophy in general, disgreed with R'Lichtenstein's view. See his chapter on Idolatry (about the middle)in Horeb (well worth posting).

  3. davids:
    That's interesting because it seems Rav Hirsch was l'shitaso in his peirush al hatrah. In V'eschanan 6:18 on the possuk v'asisa hayashar v'hatov, Rav Hirsch writes that the Torah is telling us to act with yashrus. However, these acts of yashrus although not writeen in the torah are to be based on the dinim in the Torah.
    The way I understand that is that even though not everything is written down, we are to infer from what is written down how to act and behave.

    Compare that with the Ramban who seems to say these acts of yashrus are known without the Torah.

  4. >>>See his chapter on Idolatry (about the middle)in Horeb (well worth posting

    I'm afraid you will have to summarize - I don't own or read Hirsch much.

  5. Bill Selliger5:28 PM

    See the first Bartenura in Avos.

  6. DavidS9:40 AM

    Horeb: The World Around (starts on par. 16)

    “Both minuth and zenuth lead to idolatry – riotous enjoyment leads to it directly; denial and misrepresentation of God usually over the bridge of pleasure. For as soon as enjoyment becomes the object of your life, you no longer regard yourself as belonging to the world but the world as belonging to you; and you know no other law but your own capricious impulses. From that moment, too, you will no longer understand what is meant by unselfishness, you will see in every creature around you a being which obeys only itself and works only for itself; and the world will be split up for you into a crowd of god-like beings obeying only themselves. And if them, in the embrace of sensuality, you have stripped yourself of everything spiritual, no longer retaining any feeling for the Divine, you will yourself become aware in your impulses of your feebleness, your instability, your inconsistency in pleasure, and you will fall prostrate before every creature that provides you with enjoyment and itself seems to you so noble and so everlasting in its enjoyment. And yet, in truth, you weakness in constraining your impulses and love of pleasure ought to have reminded you of you higher destiny and behind the substance of the beings around you you should have discerned the Lawgiver, Whose law in unchangeable because His omnipotence keeps it so. You can also reach idolatry, or rather, polytheism, directly through the eye and the understanding of the senses, if the Torah does not reveal to you the One and Only God; for with you physical eye and understanding you behold only particular beings and activities, but not the Invisible One with His one dominating law. You see only gods, not God. This is avodah zarah.”

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