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Being Frum and Being Good: On the Relationship Between Religion and Morality


Based on addresses by Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

Adapted by Rav Reuven Ziegler



God's Will and the Good


How are we to understand the relationship between being frum and being good? The answer depends, of course, on how we understand these two terms.


            Popularly or sociologically defined, frumkeit (loosely, “religiosity”) and goodness are neither quite the same nor opposed. We all know people who are absolute apikorsim (disbelievers) and whom we would nevertheless define as being “good” by virtue of their high moral standards. Conversely, we also unfortunately know others whom we would surely designate as frum (observant)—they keep Shabbat and are scrupulous in their kashrut—but who are nevertheless ruthless or dishonest in personal and commercial relations. That, of course, hardly fits our conception of goodness. So, although popularly defined, these two terms are simply independent of one another, we are concerned with philosophical rather than sociological definitions, and on that level the relation between these two terms is less certain.



Let us begin therefore with definition. Both our referents, frumkeit and goodness, have historically been exhaustively analyzed. In the twentieth century in particular, a whole literature—largely fathered by G.E. Moore's Principia Ethica at the turn of the century and subsequently stimulated by the school of linguistic analysis—has sought to explore and define what is “the good.” For our purposes, we need not enter into the minutiae of this discussion, other than to stress a cardinal, albeit possibly obvious point: the term “good” has both a functional, pragmatic sense and a moral, axiological sense. On the one hand, it relates to the effectiveness of an object or a person; on the other hand, to its value. We may, for instance, speak of a “good” pistol which can shoot to kill efficiently, and therefore can be employed very effectively for implementing evil purposes. And straddling both spheres, the functional and the moral, there is also an aesthetic sense.


            Thus, to look back at Parashat Bereishit (2:9), we hear first of a fruit which is tov le-ma'akhal, good for eating in a pragmatic sense; surely there is no moral attribute attached to that. Subsequently, we hear of etz ha-da’at tov va-ra, the tree of knowledge of good and evil, where the moral sense is intended. In certain verses, the meaning may be ambiguous or multiple—for instance, “Lo tov heyot ha-adam levado, It is not good for man to be alone” (ibid. 2:18). My understanding of the intent of this verse is that it is neither good psychologically nor good morally.


            In our context, while being mindful of the various senses of the word, we shall be focusing primarily and directly upon the moral sense. That is, we shall try to define what we understand by a “good” person and how we relate to him or her (not in the functional sense of a “good” parent or a “good” citizen). We understand goodness to be that which is intrinsically morally good; not something which factually is desired, but something inherently valuable and desirable.



Likewise, the term “frumkeit” or “religion” has to be thoroughly analyzed. Here, too, for our purposes I will content myself with a general concept. But even in dealing with very general terms, we surely need to differentiate between several strands. The term signifies first an existential and experiential connection to God—emuna (faith), and beyond that, yira, ahava, deveikut (fear, love, cleaving). Second, and this is particularly true within a Jewish and halakhic context, that relation to God needs to translate into an obedient and obeisant response to His normative demands. The interrelation between these two elements as being part of a single concept is made very clear in the verse in Ekev:


And now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God demand of you? Only this: to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all His paths, to love Him, and to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and soul; to keep the Lord’s commandments and laws, which I enjoin upon you today, for your good. (Devarim 10:12)


            The gemara understands from this verse that God has one fundamental demand of us: yirat Shamayim (fear of Heaven).


Rav Yochanan said in the name of Rabbi Elazar: God has in this world fear of Heaven alone, as it says, “And now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God demand of you? Only this: to fear the Lord your God, etc.” It is further written (Iyyov 28:28), “Indeed (hen), fear of God is wisdom,” and in Greek “hen” means “one.” (Shabbat 31b)


            Although the gemara says we are dealing with a single entity, the verse seems to specify a whole list of demands: fear of God, walking in His paths, love, service, keeping His commandments. The reason for this is that fundamentally we can speak of one category, but one which then has several components. These components break down into the two elements that I mentioned earlier: the existential, experiential relationship to God (love and fear), and the response to God's commands (keeping His mitzvot). The latter takes place both in broader terms (“walking in all His paths and serving Him”) and in the specific details of Halakha (“to keep the Lord’s commandments and laws, which I enjoin upon you today”).


            For us, it is the combination of these two elements which constitutes frumkeit. In the famous penultimate verse in Kohelet, we again find a single focus on the conjunction of these two elements:


The sum of the matter, when all is said and done: Fear God and observe all His commandments, for this is the whole of man. (Kohelet 12:13)


            Both the inner and outer responses to God's normative demands, their acceptance and implementation, are central. “Nullify your will before His will” (Avot 2:4), both inwardly and in terms of practice. The move from an anthropocentric to a theocentric existence is the essence of halakhic living. As the Torah, particularly in Sefer Devarim, repeatedly emphasizes, the central category of Judaism is mitzva. As we discussed in an earlier lecture, religious human existence, not to mention Jewish existence, begins with the verse (Bereishit 2:16): “Va-yetzav Hashem E-lokim al haadam, And the Lord God commanded the man.” Frumkeit for us surely does not exhaust itself in an emotional experience, but also responds to a divine call and transcendental demands.



Moreover, for us, God's normative commandment frames the totality of our existence, even with respect to presumably “neutral” areas. I think that it is in this vein that the first commandment to Adam is to be understood. There is something strange about the formulation,


Of every tree of the garden you are free to eat; but as for the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you must not eat of it. . . (Bereishit 2:16-17)


We might have expected the verse to impose certain limitations upon man, to command him merely not to eat of the tree of knowledge. He had been told a long time ago that he could eat from the rest of the trees. So why repeat this permission here—is there a mitzva to eat from the other trees?


            I think that the point here is very clear. The Torah is telling us that the moment that the category of commandment appears as an essential component of human existence and experience, this fact has implications not only for devar ha-mitzva (obligatory actions or prohibitions), but also for devar ha-reshut (non-obligatory actions). So long as man does not live under the impact of “va-yetzav,” all his actions are the product of absolute freedom (understood as taking what one likes). But the moment the category of “va-yetzav” presents itself, it then defines man’s existence not only within the parameters of a particular commandment, but within the totality of his existence. Once there is a “va-yetzav,” then when one imbibes of the devar reshut, that too becomes an act of moral choice. One now needs to ask himself: Is this particular action a devar reshut or does it fall under the tzav; is it subject to individual choice or to a divine command?


            In other words, the “va-yetzav” addresses itself not only to the tree of knowledge, but rather to all the trees of the garden. The fact that we live, in Milton’s phrase, “as ever in my great Taskmaster’s eye,” constantly under tzav, is to us the central, cardinal fact of our existence as a whole. This is what we are to understand by frumkeit specifically: “Be-khol derakhekha da’ehu”—Know God in all your actions.



However, to understand frumkeit in these terms, as a single concept with two components, as the abnegation of our will in response to our acceptance of God's normative will—this only begs the question. At the heart of the problem of the relationship between frumkeit and goodness, or, if you will, between religion and morality, lies the question which Socrates poses to Euthyphro. In trying to define piety, Euthyphro explains that piety is that which the gods want us to do. Socrates then asks him whether the gods love piety because it is pious, or is it pious because they love it? We can reframe the question with God, le-havdil, in the singular.


            Are we to understand the content, value and significance of mitzva, of “the good,” as simply deriving from the fact that God wants it? He may wish it for purely arbitrary reasons guided by no criteria, bound by no standards, impelled by no reasons. Or do we believe that there is some antecedent reason inherent in a particular phenomenon which “leads” or “impels” God to decide upon it? Are we to understand that, at the Divine level, there is a kind of moral relativism where everything is equally good or bad and God has chosen between them arbitrarily? Or do we believe that His will is not purely arbitrary, but rather guided by certain standards, and God has commanded us based on these criteria?


            This question has been the subject of protracted and at times intensive controversy throughout the history of Western thought. In medieval times, William of Ockham championed the voluntarist position, namely, that God's will is indeed boundless and limitless, and that nothing is either good or bad but God's wishing makes it so. In contrast, Aquinas contended that there are inherent truths and values which are to be found in certain phenomena and that these are the subject of God's choice, not by accident but by dint of their very being.


            Similar controversies are to be found subsequently in the seventeenth century, not only at the moral level but at the level of fact. Descartes, for instance, contended that had God so desired, two times two would not have equaled four. What we have here essentially is a conflict between two fundamental tendencies which, to a great extent, are rooted in different conceptions of God.



The verse says (Tehillim 29:4), “Kol Hashem ba-ko’ach; kol Hashem be-hadar—The voice of God is power; the voice of God is splendor.” We perceive God in one sense as boundless, unbridled power. In another sense, we perceive Him in terms of values, of truth and goodness. To the extent that our perception of God and our relation to Him is primarily in terms of power, then surely we will regard as anathema the notion that somehow His will is guided or impelled. The sense of power is most keenly felt precisely when it is arbitrarily exercised, when one need not answer to any kind of standard, when nothing but sheer will is being expressed.


            On the other hand, one thinks in terms of “Kol Hashem behadar.” Hadar is presumably some kind of objective beauty, a moral beauty, a beauty of truth. If so, then one is appalled at the thought God could have commanded to kill as easily as He commanded not to kill.


            Those who indeed relate to God primarily out of a sense of His awesome power and their own weakness and impotence, are perhaps likely to move in the direction of the voluntarist position. On the other hand, those who take a more rational and moral position contend that rationality and goodness are part of God's very essence. It is true, therefore, that certain things are simply inconceivable for Him; but this is not an external constraint, and therefore we need not be shaken by the thought that somehow His power is not boundless.



If the issues, as I have said, have been subject to protracted controversy—one writer once described the answer as being the line which divides Eastern from Western religious thought—I think that the Jewish position is absolutely unequivocal. We indeed hold that God's will, His Being, is moral and rational; that He does act, and will, in accordance with certain standards. By virtue of His very essence, certain things not only shall not but cannot be willed by Him. God and moral evil are simply and purely incompatible.


            Chabakuk (1:13) describes God as, “You whose eyes are too pure to look upon evil, who cannot countenance wrongdoing.” But why wait until Chabakuk? The Torah itself states (Devarim 32:4): “A faithful God, never false, true and upright is He.” Indeed, this position had already been assumed by Avraham. One of the seventeenth-century Cambridge Platonists, Benjamin Whichcote, pointed out that when Avraham questioned God (in his pleading against the destruction of Sodom), “Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” (Bereishit 18:25), this implied that there is a standard of justice to which God, ki-veyakhol, can be held accountable. One can ask: Is God's plan regarding Sodom compatible with justice? This position is likewise implicit in the recurrent formulations of the problem of tzaddik ve-ra lo, rasha ve-tov lo, the suffering of the righteous and prosperity of the wicked.


            If we move from morality to the related sphere of rationality, these limits (so to speak) upon God's will are the basis of the persistent quest for ta’amei ha-mitzvot (reasons for the commandments) chronicled in Yitzchak Heinemann’s book, Ta’amei Hamitzvot Be-sifrut Yisrael. The controversy over ta’amei ha-mitzvot has centered upon the legitimacy and advisability of our seeking and suggesting reasons, and not upon their very existence. The Gemara (Sanhedrin 21b) asks: Why were the reasons for the Torah not revealed? Because once they are revealed, there is a risk that someone will think he can transgress the commandment without violating the reason behind it. The Ramban was very emphatic with regard to this point:


The intention of the Rabbis [in defining chukkim as divine decrees for which there is no reason] was not that these are decrees of the King of Kings for which there are no reasons whatever, “for every word of God is pure” (Mishlei 30:5). [Rather, they meant] only that chukkim are like the enactments which a king promulgates for his kingdom without revealing their benefits to the people, and the people, not sensing these reasons, entertain questions about them in their hearts but they accept them nonetheless out of fear of the government. Similarly, the chukkim of the Holy One, blessed be He, are His secrets in the Torah, which the people by means of their thinking do not grasp as they do in the case of mishpatim (laws whose rationale is more apparent). Yet they all have a proper reason and perfect benefit. (Commentary on the Torah, Vayikra 19:19)



To be sure, if we are dealing with ta’amei ha-mitzvot, it is conceivable that another factor comes into play. Perhaps the rationality of the commandment need not relate to the inherent value and significance of a particular tzav. The midrash relates:


What does it matter to the Holy One, blessed be He, whether we slaughter an animal from the front of the neck or its back? Rather, the mitzvot were given in order to purify mankind. (Bereishit Rabba 44:1)


            The Rambam (Guide of the Perplexed III:26) takes this to mean that we cannot understand the reasons for the details of the commandments, and perhaps there are no reasons for these. Why is shechita (slaughtering) from the front of the neck, and melika (a method of killing birds for sacrifices) from the back? As opposed to the kabbalists, the Rambam takes the position that the details of mitzvot perhaps have no inherent significance. It could have been just the reverse. (See Ramban, Devarim 22:6, for an opposing view.) But even for the Rambam, this does not mean that the concept of shechita per se or melika per se has no reason.


            One might go beyond this and assume that inherently a particular mitzva does not have a reason, but it is still meaningful. Let me quote you a passage from a very fine little book by C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain:


It has sometimes been asked whether God commands certain things because they are right, or whether certain things are right because God commands them. With Hooker [a late sixteenth- century Anglican theologian], and against Dr. Johnson, I emphatically embrace the first alternative. The second might lead to the abominable conclusion (reached, I think, by Paley [late eighteenth-century]) that charity is good only because God arbitrarily commanded it—that He might equally well have commanded us to hate Him and one another and that hatred would then have been right. I believe, on the contrary, that [quoting Hooker], “they err who think that of the will of God to do this or that there is no reason besides His will.” God's will is determined by His wisdom which always perceives, and His goodness which always embraces, the intrinsically good. But when we have said that God commands things only because they are good, we must add that one of the things intrinsically good is that rational creatures should freely surrender themselves to their Creator in obedience. The content of our obedience—the thing we are com- manded to do—will always be something intrinsically good, something we ought to do even if (by an impossible supposition) God had not commanded it. But in addition to the content, the mere obeying is also intrinsically good, for, in obeying, a rational creature consciously enacts its creaturely role, reverses the act by which we fell, treads Adam’s dance backward, and returns. (p.100)


            I think one can go beyond Lewis and suggest that since, as he correctly points out, one of the things which is intrinsically good is that a person accustom himself to obeying God, perhaps certain things might have been commanded simply in order to drill the habit into us. In fact, perhaps things were commanded precisely because there is no apparent reason for them, and therefore the habit of obedience is ingrained all the more deeply, to the extent that no reason is perceived. To what can this be compared? A sergeant in the army sometimes puts his soldiers through certain drills precisely to ingrain in them the habit of obeying a commander. He orders them to do things for which there is no apparent reason, and for which indeed there is no reason other than the fact that they develop a habit. This is not equivalent to adopting the voluntarist position. It is simply an expansion of the notion of what we are to understand by that which is intrinsically valuable and desirable.


            Now, if we understand that God's will and His mitzvot are grounded in goodness, rationality and morality, then if we also submit that frumkeit means doing God's will, and that goodness is an integral component of that will—then of course ideal and comprehensive frumkeit includes goodness. It is not synonymous with goodness; it includes it, it comprehends it. To us, certainly, this is a davar pashut, a simple, obvious matter.



Frumkeit Devoid of Goodness


Although this may be true theoretically, frumkeit is, of course, never ideal or comprehensive. We still need to ask ourselves, both philosophically and educationally: How do we regard a frumkeit devoid of goodness? Does it exist? Does it have merit?



Presumably, the humanist or moralist in us is inclined to hasten to reply, “Frumkeit without goodness is worthless! Can someone see himself as relating only to one area of avodat Hashem (divine service)? He follows the dictates only of bein adam la- Makom (mitzvot between man and God) but not bein adam lechavero (interpersonal mitzvot)? What kind of frumkeit is that!?”


            But before we hasten to let the moralist and the humanist in us answer, as benei Torah we need to confront the following gemara:


Said Rava: Rav Idi explained this verse to me, “Say of the righteous, when he is good, that they shall eat the fruit of their doings” (Yeshayahu 3:10). Is there then a righteous man who is good and a righteous man who is not good? Rather [explain thus:] He who is good to Heaven and good to man, he is a righteous man who is good; good to Heaven but not good to man, he is a righteous man who is not good. Similarly we read, “Woe unto the wicked [man who is] evil; for the reward of his hands will be given unto him” (ibid. 3:11): Is there then a wicked man who is evil and a wicked man who is not evil? Rather [explain thus:] He who is evil to Heaven and evil to man, he is a wicked man who is evil; he who is evil to Heaven but not evil to man, he is a wicked man who is not evil. (Kiddushin 40a)


            The gemara here apparently understands that the terms tzaddik and rasha (righteous and wicked) are defined by a person’s conduct with respect to the area bein adam la-Makom. Whether he is tov or ra (good or evil) is a function of his conduct in the area of bein adam le-chavero. One can therefore be a tzaddik ra and a rasha tov.



Nevertheless, I do not think that our instincts are all that wrong. Moreover, they are not just our instincts. It is not just the humanist in us which somehow rises against the possibility of frumkeit which is antithetical to and devoid of goodness. From where did Western culture absorb the cardinal truth that frumkeit without goodness is meaningless and at times worse, if not from Judaism? We all know the famous words of the prophet Yeshayahu:


What need have I of all your sacrifices? says the Lord. I am sated with burnt offerings of rams, and suet of fatlings, and blood of bulls; and I have no delight in lambs and he-goats. When you come to appear before Me—who asked this of you, to trample My courts? Cease bringing futile oblations; your incense is offensive to Me. New moon and Sabbath, proclaiming of solemnities, assemblies with iniquity, I cannot abide. Your new moons and fixed seasons fill Me with loathing; they have become a burden to Me, I cannot endure them. And when you lift up your hands, I will turn My eyes away from you; though you pray at length, I will not listen, for your hands are stained with blood. Wash yourselves clean; put your evil things away from My sight! Cease to do evil; learn to do good. Devote yourselves to justice; aid the wronged. Uphold the rights of the orphan; defend the cause of the widow! (Yeshayahu 1:11-17)


            This is the prophet’s message. To be sure, these verses focus primarily upon avoda: sacrifices, prayer, the Temple service. When these are attempted by a person devoid of goodness, they are particularly problematic, inasmuch as they entail an audacious advance towards God, an attempt at a rendezvous with Him. Here the governing principle is, “One may not approach the king’s gate in sackcloth” (Esther 4:2), actual or figurative. To the extent that one penetrates (so to speak) God's domain, one must be not only physically but also morally pure: “Prepare for your God, Israel” (Amos 4:12)—not only in terms of clothing and physical purification, but in terms of one’s inner being. Hence, we encounter in a particularly sharp form the revulsion against avoda which is unaccompanied by inner purity: “The offering of evildoers is an abomination” (Mishlei 21:27). With regard also to prayer, there is a concept of to’eva (abomination), a term which is not equally applicable to other mitzvot.


            Nevertheless, the conjunction of frumkeit and goodness, the sense that goodness is both a component and a condition of frumkeit, does surely apply to other mitzvot as well. There is another chapter in Yeshayahu, which we read on Yom Kippur:


Is such the fast I desire, a day for men to starve their bodies? Is it bowing the head like a bulrush and lying in sackcloth and ashes? Do you call that a fast, a day when the Lord is favorable? No, this is the fast I desire: to unlock the shackles of wickedness and untie the cords of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free and to break off every yoke. It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to ignore your own kin. (Yeshayahu 58:5-7)



The Rambam develops the notion that when a person lacks moral consistency, then beyond a certain point one cannot see him simply as observing half of Torah but missing the other half (i.e. being frum but having no goodness), but in fact the absence of one component totally invalidates his performance of the other component:


How exalted is the level of repentance! Only yesterday, this [sinner] was divided from God, the Lord of Israel, as it is written (Yeshayahu 59:2), “Your sins were dividing between you and your God.” He would call out [to God] without being answered, as it says (ibid. 1:15), “Though you pray at length, I will not listen.” He would perform mitzvot, only to have them thrown back in his face, as it says (ibid. 1:12), “Who asked this of you, to trample My courts?” and it says (Malakhi 1:10), “O that there were one among you who would shut the doors [that you might not kindle fire on My altar for no reason! I have no pleasure in you, says the Lord of Hosts, nor will I accept an offering from your hand].” Today, [after having repented,] he clings to the Divine Presence, as it is written (Devarim 4:4), “And you who cling to the Lord, your God.” He calls out [to God] and is answered immediately, etc. (Hilkhot Teshuva 7:7)


            There is a certain situation wherein a person performs mitzvot and they are thrown back in his face. How are we to regard the person who relates solely to the area of bein adam la-Makom and is totally oblivious to the area of bein adam le-chavero? Is he not separated from God, the Lord of Israel?


            I do not want to get involved in the question, which we ought certainly to avoid, of the respective importance of bein adam la-Makom versus bein adam le-chavero. (Although if we got involved in that issue, we might look at the Rosh in the beginning of Pe’a who says that bein adam le-chavero is more important.) Regardless of that question, it seems inconceivable that a person who is lacking a whole area of mitzvot would not be regarded as being separated from God. But the question persists. How do we resolve the inherent contradiction between the gemara in Kiddushin, on the one hand, and the verses in Yeshayahu and the evident extension of them by the Rambam, on the other?



Ithink that we have to distinguish between two kinds of obliviousness or insensitivity to the area of bein adam le-chavero. I find it inconceivable from a Jewish perspective to refer to a person as a tzaddik, albeit a tzaddik ra, if he is mehader (excessive) in the area of bein adam la-Makom—he has Rabbeinu Tam tefillin, kaful shemoneh tzitzit (ritual objects conforming to stringent opinions) and eats only hand-baked matza and glatt meat—but within the area of bein adam le-chavero he tramples everything underfoot. Is it really possible that a person who is a thief, murderer, liar and cheat can be described as a tzaddik (but a tzaddik ra) all because he has fancy tefillin?


            I think the gemara in Kiddushin is referring to something else: not a person who tramples underfoot the whole area of bein adam le-chavero, but a person who is simply oblivious to it. He pours his energies into and concentrates upon the area of bein adam la-Makom to such an extent that he has neither the energy, resources, nor motivation to work within the area of bein adam le-chavero as well. It is in this sense that he is ra la-beriyot (evil to mankind). He does nothing for them. He has no social conscience and is insensitive to the needs of others. He is totally concerned with the area of being tov la-Shamayim (good to Heaven).


            This person represents a partial and limited frumkeit, but a legitimate frumkeit. This is not to say that it is in any sense ideal, nor is it recommended. After all, we need to strive not only to be tzaddikim but tzaddikim tovim. But, insofar as it goes, it is legitimate and real. Were a person, however, to be evil in an active sense—he wrongs others, injures them knowingly, willfully, viciously—then he surely could not be defined as a tzaddik in any sense, and of him it is said that his mitzvot “are thrown back in his face.” He buys Rabbeinu Tam tefillin and he has kaful shemoneh tzitzit, “and they are thrown back in his face.”


            I believe that one point should be added. I have distinguished here between a kind of aseh ra (actively doing evil) and an insensitivity to the area of good and evil. I believe that there is a level of insensitivity, of egocentric religiosity, of concern and involvement solely with oneself and with what one understands to be one’s relationship to God, at which the obliviousness to others becomes so complete that passive insensitivity translates into a kind of active evil. There are areas in Halakha where a specific demand is made to do something, and where passively not doing anything is conceived as being a positive evil: “Do not stand by your brother's blood” (Vayikra 19:16); “You may not ignore it” (with regard to returning lost objects—Devarim 22:3). The rabbis extended this concept to other areas. To take one radical example, Ben Azzai says (Yevamot 63b) that whoever can have children and does not—he is like one who sheds blood, a murderer. He could have built, and he didn’t. So there is, I believe, a level of inactivity and insensitivity at which one’s mere passive absence is in itself a positive evil. I do not want now to offer any suggestions regarding where that line is to be drawn. I do believe, however, that in principle this is the case.



Thus, we need to strive first for frumkeit in its totality, and that of course means frumkeit including goodness—a goodness which, I repeat, is not synonymous with frumkeit but included within it. We need to strive for both components of that frumkeit, “Fear God and keep His commandments,” but of course by way of understanding its scope. Our aim, both for ourselves and for our children and students, is to be formulated in terms of the gemara in Shabbat (31b): the central, overriding aim is yirat Shamayim, and all other values are constituent elements within it. There is educational merit in understanding that indeed there is an unum necessarium, one thing necessary, and this is yirat Shamayim. But we must simultaneously recognize that inasmuch as moral goodness is part of God's will, and inasmuch as yirat Shamayim means accepting and responding to His will, then moral goodness is part of what we understand by yirat Shamayim and part of what we strive for when we talk about frumkeit.


Nevertheless, while this aim can be easily stated, (a) its implementation is very difficult, and (b) there are a number of educational and philosophic problems which arise. Therefore, I now want to focus on those problems which I believe have specific and immediate educational ramifications.



Goodness Devoid of Frumkeit



We spoke previously of the problem of frumkeit devoid of goodness. Now I would like to address the reverse phenomenon: How do we relate—personally, philosophically, professionally—to goodness devoid of frumkeit, to a secular moral idealism?


            Of course, some people question whether such a phenomenon can even exist. They argue that morality without religion is simply inconceivable, a position succinctly summarized by Ivan Karamazov (in Dostoyevsky’s novel): “Without God, everything is lawful.” This claim is made on a philosophical plane. Others, however, argue from a practical standpoint: even if, conceptually, goodness can exist independently of a religious outlook, on a practical level a person or a society can arrive at morality only through religion.


            Regarding the philosophical argument, it is perhaps true that a strong case can be made for the notion that without God everything is lawful. First, one could argue that the substance of morality derives only from God's will; but we have already discussed this position and have established that Judaism rejects it. Alternatively, one could contend that objective goodness can exist only within a universe where one postulates the existence of God and the existence of man as a spiritual being. If one were to think only in secular terms, regarding man as nothing more than “a kind of combination of carbon and water” (in Bertrand Russell’s phrase), then in such a universe there cannot be any good or bad because there is no ultimate end or purpose for man.


            But even if one were to concur with this philosophical argument, can we factually deny that there exist people who are totally removed from religion yet nonetheless act in accordance with high moral standards? Perhaps they are logically inconsistent; perhaps if they were deeper philosophers, they would be worse people. Yet they regard themselves, and we would regard them too, as moral individuals. We cannot be oblivious to the existence of this phenomenon. How, then, do we relate to it?



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.


            Nonetheless, I encounter this argument all the time in Israel among religious educators. In order to impress upon everyone the importance of religious education, they enumerate its benefits to society. “Do you want people to be loyal citizens? Make them religious. Do you want them to be honest? Make them religious. Do you want them to have a sense of purpose in life? Make them religious.” Whenever new statistics are published about the degree of sexual licentiousness or drug addiction or some other kind of delinquency within the secular schools, even within the elite schools, there is jubilation among these educators. (This is akin to the rejoicing you encounter among certain staunch advocates of aliya every time they read about a murder in Brooklyn or Long Beach; they make sure to republish it in their newspaper in large type.) Brandishing these statistics, they argue: “Do you see what happens in your secular education? You get drug addicts; you get thieves; you get young people stabbing each other. If you want the stabbing and the drug addiction to stop—send the kids to us and we will make menschen out of them.”


            Let me make it clear that we must categorically reject this attitude. Is this what we want? Should we be happy every time a higher degree of corruption and greater depths of delinquency are discovered in some secular school!? Who are those delinquents? Our brothers! In order to score points and to increase registration at our religious schools, are we to gloat that the system of secular education is presumably crumbling? That it no longer turns out idealists? That it only produces pragmatists? We should weep!


            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.



Conflicts Between Religion and Morality



Having addressed the phenomena of frumkeit devoid of goodness and of goodness devoid of frumkeit, I would like to move on to the next issue. I emphasized before that frumkeit and goodness are not synonymous; rather, goodness is ideally to be included within frumkeit. But if they are not to be regarded as synonymous, is there a possibility that frumkeit and goodness can sometimes be antonymous?


            There is such a possibility, and we should confront it. At one level, there is a question as to whether the quest for morality somehow conflicts with one’s religious commitment. Some would claim that the focus on developing one’s character undercuts the central experience of one’s religious being, namely, relating directly and submitting to God. This point of view was expressed in early Christianity, and it reared its head again during the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries within the Protestant world. In the controversy regarding salvation through faith or through works (i.e. deeds), those works which were rejected most sharply were the moral works. In this perspective, morality is regarded as an audacious human undertaking, a challenge to God, where one stakes out an independent moral area instead of gearing one’s entire spiritual being to submitting to God. Puritan preachers used to describe works as “the dunghill of morality” and regarded them simply as a spiritual abomination. For them, being good was indeed antonymous to being frum, because via “morality” you set yourself up as an alternative to the eved Hashem (servant of God) in you.


            This notion has a history in Christianity, but it surely has no place within our beit midrash. Our conception of religious life highlights man’s free will and emphasizes our efforts to build ourselves spiritually. As I mentioned before, these certainly include an emphasis upon morality. Therefore, this kind of tension between morality and religion is not a significant factor for us.



However, there is a second kind of conflict, a different sort of tension. I mentioned before that the quest for goodness is an integral component of frumkeit. Generally speaking, this is true. But regarding certain particular tzivuyyim (divine commands), surely we find instances in which obedient response to God's normative demands stands in apparent opposition to what we conceive to be good and, if you will, to what we understand that God conceives to be good. Here, a problem arises: How do we relate to this?


            What makes this problem more acute is the fact that it arises particularly in individuals who are morally and spiritually sensitive. Those who are relatively coarse are not concerned with these issues. Who is troubled by the command to wipe out Amalek? Those people who have succeeded in developing the kind of moral sensitivity that is important to us.


            When there is a conflict between the tzav and the moral order, what do we do about it? For us, the answer is perhaps practically difficult, but surely it is conceptually clear and unequivocal. This, after all, is what the akeida (sacrifice of Yitzchak—Bereishit 22) is all about. Kierkegaard emphasized that the akeida represents a conflict between Avraham’s moral sense and the divine command; as far as understanding the problem, he was unquestionably correct. On the one hand, Avraham is commanded to offer his son to God (which, at this point, he understands to mean “Slaughter him,” not “Offer him”). On the other hand, he knows that murder is forbidden. The message of the akeida is clear: God's command takes precedence, in every respect, over our moral sensibility and our conscientious objections.


            This is not to say that in such a context there is no room for moral sensibility. Surely, in relating to Halakha, including those areas which one may find morally difficult, there is some role for conscience, some role for the goodness in us, particularly in an interpretive capacity. Conscience does and legitimately can have a role in helping us to understand the content and substance of the tzav. In the Midrash, Chazal depict Avraham’s thoughts during his three-day journey to the akeida. He tried to understand God's command: perhaps God meant something else. Surely, one can, and presumably should, walk the last mile in order to try in every way to avoid a conflict. But even when one has walked the last mile, at times the conflict may remain, and—as in the akeida—the decisive element is clear. It was only a tzav of God, or of the angel sent by God, which was able to countermand the command to sacrifice Yitzchak.


            The task before us is multifaceted. As those who educate towards yirat Shamayim, we must communicate the message of the akeida—boldly, loudly and clearly. On the other hand, as those who do seek to ingrain moral sensitivity in ourselves and in our children, we need not dismiss the ambivalences, the difficulties and contradictions (at the initial level, surely). We need not wish away Avraham’s three days of spiritual groping. We need not dismiss the wrestling and grappling as being a reflection of poor yirat Shamayim, of spiritual shallowness, or of a lack of frumkeit. Inasmuch as goodness itself is an inherent component of frumkeit, the goodness which is at the root of the problems, struggles and tensions is itself part of yirat Shamayim—and a legitimate part. If the sense of moral goodness is legitimate, then the questing and the grappling are also legitimate.


            But, of course, the resolution must be clear, and the grappling must all be done within the parameters of the understanding that, however much I wrestle, I do not for a moment question the authenticity or the authority of the tzav. I do not judge God. I assume, a priori, that “His deeds are perfect, for all His ways are just; a faithful God, without iniquity, righteous and upright is He” (Devarim 32:4). If He commands, “Take your son and offer him as a sacrifice,” then it must be good (in a sense which perhaps, at the moment, I do not understand). But within the context of my a priori obedient submission, I may try to understand. I may grope, I may ask, and I may ultimately seek resolution.



Risks and Priorities



Ispoke before of the importance of morality and the need to emphasize it. There are, to be sure, certain risks involved. First, there is indeed a risk that if you sensitize people morally and ethi- cally, they will then have difficulty with certain areas of Halakha. Presumably, if Elisha ben Avuya had been less sensitive to the problem of God's justice and consistency, then he would not have become an apostate. If Voltaire had believed from the outset in a Calvinist God, rather than in one who is just and decent, the Lisbon earthquake might not have unsettled him. We must be conscious of this risk.


            Second, when emphasizing the relationship of goodness to frumkeit, we may also face the opposite kind of risk: that one will then think that the only significance of the moral element is that it is part of the divine command. At the end of the war in Lebanon, some cast doubt on the halakhic severity of the prohibition of killing non-Jews. My colleague Rav Yehuda Amital spoke out very forcefully on this issue,and among other things, he quoted the opinion of the Ra’avan (Bava Kama 113a) that this is an issur de-oraita (biblical prohibition). I recall that someone was critical of this, and he said, “What kind of education is this? It teaches the student that whether or not he’s going to kill a gentile should be dependent upon a Ra’avan in Bava Kama!”


            There is a point to this. Emphasizing the integration of frumkeit and goodness harbors the risk that the inherent significance of goodness somehow will get lost. The Rambam in Shemoneh Perakim (Chapter Six) certainly does not favor that. He asks whether a person ideally should constrain himself from transgressing a Torah law only because of the tzav, the divine command, or whether he should feel that even had there been no tzav, he would not transgress it simply because it is bad. The Rambam answers that with regard to mishpatim, or areas bein adam lechavero (between man and his fellow), certainly a person should not feel constrained solely by the tzav, but rather should feel an inner constraint because of the moral element per se. The conjunction of frumkeit and goodness can undercut this sense.



There is a third risk as well. I spoke before of accepting the problem of the akeida, of recognizing a certain conflict here between morality and mitzva, and of granting legitimacy to one’s grappling with this issue. This too can present an educational problem. Let me illustrate with an incident which occurred to me during the Lebanon War.


            After the massacre at Sabra and Shatila, I published an open letter to the Prime Minister.Among other things, this letter dealt with the use of force and the motivation behind it. I asked: Why was it that King Shaul was punished for not killing Agag, King of Amalek? Was it simply for not having killed the last remaining Amalekite? I suggested that he was punished not just for sparing Agag, but because the fact that he refused to kill Agag placed in a totally different light his killing of all the other Amalekites beforehand.


            Shaul had been commanded to take a whole people and kill them—and this is, morally, a frightful thing. The only justification lies in it being a response to an unequivocal divine command. Therefore, if Shaul had been motivated in his actions purely by fear of God, by obedience to the tzav, then he should have followed the command to the letter. God didn’t say, “Kill Amalek but spare Agag.” Now, if he didn’t kill Agag but killed everybody else, what does that indicate? It indicates that what motivated him in killing the others was not the tzav of God, but rather some baser impulse, some instinctive violence. And the proof is that he killed everyone, but spared his peer, his royal comrade. If that is the case, then Shaul was not punished for sparing Agag: rather, he had to be punished because of the Amalekites he did kill! Why? Because he killed them not purely due to a divine command (which is the only thing that can overcome the moral consideration), but rather out of military, diplomatic or political considerations.


            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.”


            He said, “Yes, but you shouldn’t describe it as being something which is not moral in a sense.” So I asked him, “Do you agree that the tzav given here is something which we would not normally encourage people to do, something that we would normally consider to be immoral?” He said, “Yes, but it should not be described that way.” And he added, “Yesh kan hevdel chinukhi—there is an educational difference.”


            I admit, there is something to this. The moment one speaks of a kind of clash between the demands of yirat Shamayim and the demands of morality—even given the qualifications which I mentioned—there is some kind of problem. There are risks in this approach.



Nevertheless, I believe there is little choice. I think that the importance of moral sensibility as the grounds for moral action in our lives is of such scope, depth and magnitude that we need willingly to accept certain risks. To be sure, we should try to minimize them, but I don’t think we can avoid them. We avoid them only by, in effect, almost totally neutralizing the moral element in our educational endeavors. What we need to do is not to instill morality less, but yirat Shamayim more.


            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.



There is, finally, another problem—one which affects us within the Centrist Orthodox community more than others. Let me illustrate. I remember some years back, when I was still living in America, a man who had given a lot of money to the Skverer chassidic community invited my wife and myself to see their institutions. When we came to the elementary school, we saw the walls plastered with signs dealing with the mitzvot of hashavat aveida (returning lost objects), bikkur cholim (visiting the sick), gemilut chasadim, etc. I was struck by the fact that all the posters dealt with the area of bein adam le-chavero—not a single mention of Shabbat, tefillin or tzitzit! In any Centrist Orthodox school, you would have seen posters only on the latter subjects (to the extent that there would be posters dealing with mitzvot at all).


            I immediately realized the reason for this difference. In the Skverer community, you had children growing up in an environment where their teachers could take Shabbat, tefillin and tzitzit absolutely for granted. That was the given; the possibility that a person would reject these never occurred to them. Therefore, they were able to focus all their energies upon those areas within which even people who are practically and philosophically committed to Shabbat and kashrut may nevertheless fail. This is something which we, unfortunately, cannot do. Within both our educational and political systems, we find ourselves driven repeatedly to safeguard the ritual area, which we feel is uniquely ours. We channel so much of our energies and resources into these particular elements both because they are distinctive to us, and because we feel that unless we emphasize it massively, the kids will not get it at all.


            This judgment may well be correct. In part, we feel comfortable focusing on the ritual because we assume that the students can learn morality elsewhere. It is efshar la’asot al yedei acherim (capable of being done by others)—they can read Camus or something similar. But we pay a great price for this. First of all, it is not always efshar la’asot al yedei acherim—perhaps instead of reading Camus they will read Ayn Rand. Even if they don’t, the danger exists that there will be a bifurcation between frumkeit and goodness within their minds and personalities. They might regard these areas as being not only distinct but disjunct. This could lead them to identify the world of Torah with only Yoreh De’a, Even Ha-ezer and Orach Chayim (the largely ritual areas of Halakha), while ignoring all the rest. Unfortunately, this danger is sometimes reinforced by the fact that, at times, there are indeed communities within which this impression seems to be the correct one. Certainly, we need and want to avoid this.


            So, quite apart from the problems I mentioned before, for us specifically, within our community, the question of division of energy, time and resources becomes a problem in its own right. It is exacerbated by the fact that, in a certain sense, the whole concern with the moral realm is more directly related to our community’s philosophy than it is to the philosophy of those on the right. I say this for two reasons. First, we are, generally speaking, more involved with the total, universal community. We feel closer to universal human values than do those on the right. Second, we tend to be more sensitive—and rightly so—to that area in our life within which the ethical is more directly significant, namely, the area of devar ha-reshut (where specific commands do not apply). We have a greater awareness of the significance of this area. Defining something as devar reshut, of course, does not mean that this is an area which is neutral and therefore it is immaterial what you do. According to many Rishonim, whether a person injures himself is defined as devar reshut. That hardly means that a person can wantonly and willfully cut off a limb.


            These factors sharpen the problem of how we are to divide our resources. On the one hand, we appreciate more fully and encounter more immediately the area of devar reshut, where moral factors often come into play. On the other hand, our need to focus on the area of yirat Shamayim, narrowly defined, is also greater. The question of division of resources thus becomes for us that much more acute.



We have a problem that needs to be resolved differently in different contexts, as, in general, the problem of priorities and budgeting cannot be resolved from on high by some kind of universal fiat. What is important for us, though, is that we learn to avoid the implications of the question I mentioned at the outset. First, we must avoid the notion that—broadly and generally speaking (whatever may be true of a particular instance)—there can be any kind of antithesis between frumkeit and goodness. On the other hand, we must learn to avoid the notion that the two are simply synonymous. They are not; one is included within the other. Likewise, we must avoid the sense that we need to bifurcate these areas and therefore to grade them: this is more important and this is less. We need to have and to impart a very profound sense not only of the centrality but of the unity of Torah. “One thing God has spoken; two things I have heard” (Tehillim 62:12). There are many components, but one overriding message, and for us one overriding duty —to emphasize the interconnection between these two components, in the spirit of the gemara in Kiddushin:


Ulla Rabba expounded at the entrance to the Nasi’s house: What is meant by the verse (Tehillim 138:4), “All the kings of the earth will acknowledge you, O Lord, for they have heard the statements of Your mouth?” It does not say, “the statement of Your mouth,” but rather, “the statements of Your mouth.” [This indicates that] when the Holy One, blessed be He, proclaimed, “I am the Lord your God” and “You shall have no other gods before Me,” the nations of the world said, “He is saying this merely for His own honor.” But as soon as He declared, “Honor your father and your mother,” they recanted and acknowledged the first two statements.


Rava said: [This may also be derived] from the following verse (Tehillim 119:160): “The beginning of Your utterance is true”—the beginning of Your utterance but not the end of Your utterance? Rather, from the end of Your utterance (i.e. “Honor your father and your mother”) it is evident that the beginning of Your utterance (i.e. “I am the Lord” and “You shall have no other gods”) is true. (Kiddushin 31a)


            Our sense of the truth and vitality of Torah is sharpened and deepened through our recognition of its total unity. This means conceiving of the areas of bein adam la-Makom and bein adam lechavero not as different or conflicting elements, but rather as one central unity, albeit subdivided into various components. “The beginning of Your utterance is true,” and “From the end of Your utterance, it is evident that the beginning of Your utterance is true.”



1 See his articles in Yeshivat Har Etzion’s Torah journal, Alon Shevut #100 (Kislev 5743).

2 Ha-tzofeh, 10/15/82, p. 5.


(Based on an address to Yeshiva University Rabbinic Alumni, November 1986 [5747].

This adaptation has not been reviewed by Harav Lichtenstein.)


The lectures in this series have been collected into a book entitled, By His Light: Character and Values in the Service of God. 


For a video shiur by Rav Moshe Taragin on Harav Aharon Lichtenstein's teachings re Being Frum and Being Good, click here.  (Source sheet for Rav Taragin's shiur is appended to this page.)

, full_html, How are we to understand the relationship between being frum and being good? The answer depends, of course, on how we understand these two terms., full_html, How are we to understand the relationship between being frum and being good? The answer depends, of course, on how we understand these two terms.

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