Sunday, March 13, 2011

Good and evil

Last week, my Havruso and I came across a difficult piece of Gemurah. It seemed to say to that certain prohibition from the Torah was stated explicitly, even people anyway have a natural  aversion to it. That’s how it appeared at first glance, even with usual machloykes (disputes) between Rashi and Toisfos. Later, we learned that even in the Shulchan Aruch (codex of Jewish law from almost 1000 years later), the issue is still not clarified.
A later Gemura stated that sometimes people profit from the that very act which is supposed to be repugnant. It is not so clear that the prohibition was unnecessary; not all the people are reluctant to do it.
What surprised me was that the Gemura doesn’t clarify this issue, but I guess that is part of its beauty—to leave open a field for further research and learning. Besides, the Gemura rarely discusses philosophy, a subject which I enjoy so much.
Can it be that a Torah prohibition could depend or be dependant on peoples’ likes or dislikes?
Can it be that something most people enjoy is designated by HBH as a mitzvah because they like it, and something most people naturally dislike is prohibited because majority loathe it?
It may happen that someone has a natural aversion to acts designated by Torah as an Aveira (sin), and it may be that something called by the Torah a Mitzva (good deed) may be enjoyed by certain individuals. Does our dislike of those acts make them evil; or does our enjoyment of the good deeds makes them good? It cannot be.
Since humanity resigned from the original path of justice taught to the father of all nations, Noach, people can no longer define good and evil for themselves. Many tried: Hamurabbi, Greek philosophers, Zooraster, Konfucius and Budda to name a few.
They taught their path of life and taught more or less peaceful coexistence between the neighbors and nations—but with mixed success. In part, that’s because people like to admire their teachers rather than listen to them, that’s a known phenomenon. What is then the primary reason for the lack of success in creating a human definition of good and evil? It is weakness of the human heart, rather than the human brain.
Sifrey Mussar (Jewish works of ethics) and Sefer Hatanya (one of the major works of Hasidism), teach that the human psyche is located in the brain and must conquer and dominate heart, the center of human desire. The heart, the central organ of our body, pumps through our veins streams of blood which carries hormones, enzymes, and other chemical substances largely responsible not only for the functioning of our organism but also for our behavior. It is center of our struggle, according to the Tanya, to prevail over desires located in the heart, and dominate them with our Sachel (intellect).
Rabbi Hirsch writes that using this gift of heaven, intellect, people may achieve an understanding of basic good and evil. Even without the tradition received from Noach, people can understand the good and evil of the Seven Mitzvos of Humanity. (I will come back to the topic of seven Mitzvos bnai Noach and how the natural phenomenon can make person aware of it, in the future I-H.)
In many places Chazal gives us examples of animals and other aspects of creation which from it we may learn certain proper traits. But it is obvious that first we must know what is proper, or else what good does the knowledge do us?
Within one block of New York City might reside thousands of rats.
Imagine these disgusting animals dancing on the table early in morning, where you kids fifteen minutes later will eat their breakfast. Or imagine that you put you foot to your slippers and there it is: a fat, hairy rat. Even worse, imagine in the morning light you discover dirty little footstep marks on your pillow.
Immediately you call you super or landlord and demand he takes care about the problem. He lays traps and poison; rats eat the poison and die somewhere in the sewer. Is it moral act, to kill those animals?
On the same block there is a restaurant that serves exotic food—so exotic that they serve fried and cooked rats, all with elegant salads and fancy beverages, as high class restaurant are supposed to. But again, innocent animals are killed in order to fulfill the human desire to taste novelties or fill the stomach. Is it ethical thing to do? Is it right? Is it good? There are, after all, alternatives: vegetables and the like.
That’s what the PETA people claim. They protest outside the restaurant with signs and posters calling on them to stop the senseless suffering of the poor rats. They are specializing in protection of animals, even if it requires undressing themselves in the public (which they do not consider immoral); causing damage to private property; or inflicting physical harm to individuals who do not share their understanding of morality and ethics. Can it be what they understand without the doubt in their minds to be righteous and good can be called so?
Is killing rats good or evil? Is eating them good or evil? Is protecting rats good or evil?
I do not believe that those three stances can ever be reconsiled. Each member of those groups justifies their understanding of morality and definition of good and evil in a different way.
This is only a small sample of how hopeless humanity is without a set of rules telling us how to distinguish between good and evil.
We all came to this world with a Carte Blanche for recognizing morality. It is only our environment, our parents and teachers who teach us about good and evil.
We are privileged to have acquired a set of regulations from the Creator of the World which leaves us without such doubt.
Torah is the only and ultimate measure of what is moral, ethical, good or evil.

Matys Weiser

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