...Subsequently, I heard that a leading Religious Zionist rabbi in a prominent yeshiva had taken thirty minutes out of his Gemara shiur in order to attack what I had said. I called and asked him, “What did I say that merits this great wrath?” He replied, “I think it is a terrible thing to speak in this way, describing the divine command to destroy Amalek as asking a person to do something which ordinarily is not moral. This poses an ethical problem.”
I said to him, “Wiping out Amalek does not conform to what we would normally expect a person to do. Normally, you should not be killing ‘from child to suckling babe.’ But I’m not saying, God forbid, that it is immoral in our case, where God has specifically commanded the destruction of Amalek—‘A faithful God, without iniquity, righteous and upright is He’ (Devarim 32:4). Although generally such an act would be considered immoral, it assumes a different character when God, from His perception and perspective, commands it. The same holds true of the akeida—it demanded that Avraham do something which normally is immoral. But in the context of the divine command, surely it partakes of the goodness and morality of God. We must admit, though, that there is a conflict in this case between the usual moral norm and the immediate tzav given here.”
I recall in my late adolescence there were certain problems which perturbed me, the way they perturb many others. At the time, I resolved them all in one fell swoop. I had just read Rav Zevin’s book, Ishim Ve-shitot. In his essay on Rav Chayim Soloveitchik, he deals not only with his methodological development, but also with his personality and gemilut chasadim (acts of kindness). He recounted that Reb Chayim used to check every morning if some unfortunate woman had placed an infant waif on his doorstep during the course of the night. (In Brisk, it used to happen at times that a woman would give birth illegitimately and leave her infant in the hands of Reb Chayim.) As I read the stories about Reb Chayim’s extraordinary kindness, I said to myself: Do I approach this level of gemilut chasadim? I don’t even dream of it! In terms of moral sensibility, concern for human beings and sensitivity to human suffering, I am nothing compared to Reb Chayim. Yet despite his moral sensitivity, he managed to live, and live deeply, with the totality of Halakha—including the commands to destroy the Seven Nations, Amalek and all the other things which bother me. How? The answer, I thought, was obvious. It is not that his moral sensitivity was less, but his yirat Shamayim, his emuna, was so much more. The thing to do, then, is not to try to neutralize or de-emphasize the moral element, but rather to deepen and increase the element of yirat Shamayim, of emuna, deveikut and bittachon.
I have subsequently thought of that experience on many occasions. I recall once hearing someone, regarded as a philosopher of sorts, raise moral criticisms of various halakhic practices. When asked about these criticisms, I said, “I know that particular person. He doesn’t look for a foundling on his doorstep every morning.”
So what we need to do, I think, is not to weaken our moral sense or that of our children and students. Rather, we need to deepen and to intensify our commitment, our faith, our sense of obedience, our yirat Shamayim. We need to deepen our sense that God has nothing in this world besides yirat Shamayim, and that our moral conscience needs to develop within its context.
Friday, March 02, 2007
R' Ahron Lichtenstein on morality and destroying Amalek
R’ Ahron Lichtenstein on the problem of morality and the command to destroy Amalek: