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Introduction Part 3

Posted by Henric C. Jensen on August 18, 2007


Religion and morality

“…not claiming that a religious person cannot be a moral agent. At no point does he maintain that religious demands upon the person or the community are total in the sense of all-inclusive. On many matters the Halakhah is silent. At such points, moral considerations may very well come into play and ought to govern one’s actions. The immorality of a religious person under such circumstances may even reflect upon his religiosity and constitute what is called Hillul Hashem~ desecration of God’s name.

It is interesting that Leibowitz so clearly distinguishes between morals and religion. Not because he is not right doing so – he is – but because it’s an unusual position to take. It makes it possible, even self-evident that the non-religious person can have morals and ethics, something that is frequently questioned by religious people.

Another point where it’s refreshing to read this book, is on the matter of what Halakhah is and is not there to govern, and if in fact it can govern ALL aspects. I am more specifically thinking of all those instances where Halakhah assumes adherence to principles of human decency, and we fail to live up to them, and Halakhah doesn’t take this into consideration.

The agunot, land expropriation, the rights of non-Jews etc. where Halakhah rather than Written Torah assumes that there either is no need for such consideration or has, over the years, been adjusted away from the idea of Written Torah.

One such very specific area is the matter of the Ger. Written Torah is very specific – he/she is just a non-Jewish person living with the People – but the Sages, undoubtedly as a result of the Exile, adjusted the meaning to designate a convert and the original meaning of Ger was “lost”.

Another is the matter of the Agunot. Halakhah clearly assumes that marriage is all peachy, unless there’s a matter of infidelity. It clearly also assumes that a wife-beater will adjust his ways if softly spoken to by the Elders of the community – it does not accept the possibility that Halakhah is not at the forefront of a wife-beater’s mind, or that one aspect of domestic violence is DENIAL, which no soft-speaking will penetrate. Nor does Halakhah contemplate the idea that the whereabouts of an eloped husband cannot be determined at all times. Halakhah is clearly not made out to deal with a global community.

Leibowitz does insist that a person acting as a moral agent cannot be acting as a religious agent and that a religious action cannot be simultaneously a moral action. This is a corollary of his view that human actions, as contrasted with natural events, can only be identified in terms of the agents intention. The morality of an action is determined not by its consequences (though these enter into moral deliberation) but by the agents intention to perform his duty. The religious character of an action is determined by the motive of worshipful service of God. The same external act may on one occasion be moral and on another religious, depending upon the agents motivation. The idea of a religious duty to act morally when this seems to be required would not be a contradiction of Leibowitz’s basic position, even if it may not be consonant with some of his formulations. A moral act done out of respect for religious duty would be a religious act. The person’s proximate motive would be moral, but his ultimate motive religious. The intrinsic ultimacy of the religious motive is the point Leibowitz is trying to bring out.

I am having problems with Leibowitz view on action and intention. It doesn’t ring true that the morality of one’s actions should be determined by one’s intentions. “The road to hell is paved with good intentions”. So let’s say I kill someone, if I didn’t intend to, is that person less dead? Or is the killing less “killing”. It seems to me that Leibowitz has put the horse before the cart here. While intentions surely has a bearing on the moral consequences of our actions – the act in itself must be the determent.

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