Rabbi Weinreb's Parsha Column, Acharei Mot-Kedoshim: "Good and Religious"

It is a debate that goes back to the time of Plato. I have personally been discussing this issue for much of my life, particularly in my conversations with colleagues in field of psychotherapy. It can even be argued that this debate has its origin in one of the two Torah portions we read this week, Acharei Mot/Kedoshim (Leviticus 16:1-20:27).

Plato made the question the theme of one of his lesser known dialogues, Euthyphro. The question has to do with the relationship between religious definitions of right and wrong and the ethical concepts of good and evil. It has become known as Euthyphro’s dilemma and this is how it goes: Is a thing good because God says it is good, or does God say it is good because it is good.

Underlying this dilemma is the issue of whether the realm of ethics exists independently from religion. My discussions with fellow psychotherapists are occasioned by encounters they have had with patients who are religiously devout, but who are “just not good people”, as well as with those who are ethically exemplary but not religiously observant.  These therapists ask:  Can a person be a good person even if he is not religiously observant? Or, alternatively, can a person be religiously observant, and yet not be a good person?

Since my colleagues generally are aware that I am an Orthodox rabbi, they frequently pose these questions to me, sometimes calmly and sometimes in the heat of emotion. I have developed an approach to responding to these questions. It is based upon a passage in the Torah portion of Kedoshim, one of the two parshiyot that we read this Shabbat.

Study the text for this week’s Torah reading as carefully as you can and you will find nary a hint of this issue. However, if you consult the commentary of the early medieval Rabbi Moses ben Nachman, known as Ramban or Nachmanides, you will discover that he confronts this issue head on. I should mention that most Torah scholars will concede that, after Rashi, Ramban is the most authoritative traditional commentator on the Pentateuch.

The biblical verses read: “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the entire Israelite community and say to them: You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy.” Ramban is troubled by this concept of holiness. What does it mean to be holy?  What would constitute holy behavior? How is a person to know what the standards are for holiness or its contrary, unholiness? He rejects Rashi’s definition of holiness as strict separation from specific sins, particularly those of a sexual nature.

This is how he resolves his quandary: “The answer lies in the fact that the Torah has very clearly admonished us not to be promiscuous and to refrain from forbidden foods. But at the same it permits marital relations and the consumption of meat and wine. It is therefore quite conceivable that a person will act improperly with his own wife, gluttonously consume quantities of meat or become intoxicated with wine. He may utter vulgar obscenities, piously claiming that such language is not explicitly outlawed by the Torah. Such a person can be a naval b’reshut haTorah, a knave with the Torah’s permission.”

People can conform to the strictest rules regarding forbidden foods and still be gluttons and drunkards. They can be absolutely faithful husbands and yet be foul-mouthed and coarse in their interaction with their wives. They can remain within the Torah’s parameters and yet be bad people.

Clearly, for Ramban, there are ethical standards which are distinct from sins. We are expected to be “good” people, yet conforming to the letter of the law will not guarantee that we are “good”. Therefore, the Torah asks that we be “holy”. For him holiness is a category which includes a very wide range of behaviors which are neither explicitly prescribed nor prohibited by the Torah. Ramban insists that the Torah deliberately refrains from tediously anticipating every conceivable human ethical or moral challenge. The Torah just says, “be holy”.

For Ramban, “holiness” is not synonymous with “saintliness”. Rather, it is the expectation that we be neat and clean, courteous and polite, considerate and fair, modest and moderate.  We are holy to the extent that we excel in the realms of ethics and morality.

Barely a week ago the Jewish people lost a leader who exemplified this definition of holiness by his personal example, and for whom holiness was a major theme of his prolific writings. His name was Rabbi Aaron Lichtenstein, may his memory be a blessing. He was the dean of the Yeshivat Har Etzion in Israel, but his influence was felt far beyond the walls of that prestigious institution. He tackled the question posed by Euthyphro and by the colleagues who regularly engage me in discussions on this subject.  His teachings, partly based upon the words of Ramban in this week’s Torah portion, support my assertion that it is indeed quite possible to be scrupulously observant of Jewish ritual and yet not be a “good” person. In Ramban’s terms such a person is observant but not “holy”. And I agree with Rabbi Lichtenstein when he states that the converse also obtains. Many are neglectful of ritual observance yet do live up to the noblest ethical standards.

The titles of two of Rabbi Lichtenstein’s essays reflect his concern with the relationship between religion and ethical behavior. An early essay is entitled “Does Jewish Tradition Recognize an Ethic Independent of Halacha?” It is included in a volume edited by Marvin Fox, Modern Jewish Ethics. A more recent essay is to be found in Rabbi Lichtenstein’s book By His Light and is entitled “Being Frum and Being Good: On the Relationship Between Religion and Morality”.

Readers of these weekly columns surely know by now that I have a strong affinity with the thought of Ramban. I frequently base my own themes upon his teachings, sometimes quoting him directly and sometimes expanding upon his ideas. I did not know Rabbi Lichtenstein personally, but I was delighted to learn from some of his closest disciples that he too held Ramban in special esteem.

Ramban’s lesson should be a goal for all of us. Yes, we must live up to the letter of the law and observe every aspect of Torah to the best of our ability. But we must be especially cautious that in our dedication to obedience to the letter of the law we not lose sight of its spirit of “holiness”. We must never be the kind of person who lays claim to being Torah observant but is a knave in his ethical and moral life.  We must avoid being a naval b’reshut haTorah.