SPARK OF THE WEEK

5755 - #24

The role of revelation in the determination of ethics has always been a topic that has fascinated philosophers. Specifically, thinkers in all ages wondered about the role of revelation in establishing moral principles, given that human beings were able to arrive at ethical conclusions through their faculties of reason. If the human being can determine what is moral through reason, what is the need or purpose of revelation? If revelation, on the other hand, indicates that, in fact, the human being cannot determine ethics through reason, what, then, is the significance or purpose of our personal conscience (i.e. the internal ethics of reason)? The spectrum of opinions on this topic range from those that reject reason as a source of morals to those that simply reject revelation, with a myriad of opinions in between.

During the eighteenth century when reason reigned supreme, the world of philosophy, indeed, rejected revelation's ability to present new truths. Revelation was deemed unable to challenge a truth derived from reason for one cannot accept that which he/she cannot understand - and a revelation contrary to reason is a matter that one cannot understand. The reason placed within us by G-d was presented as the path to truth and ethics, not external revelation. Perhaps revelation could serve in a secondary role, as a possible alternative source for morality, but it could not be primary and it could clearly not express ethics contrary to reason. Ultimately, though the very need for revelation was in question. For Judaism, though, with its absolute acceptance of Sinai, the need was to explain revelation in the light of reason. Moses Mendelssohn, Jerusalem responded by arguing that Sinai was not revealed religion but rather Divine legislation. By postulating that the purpose of the revelation of Torah was different than the purpose of reason, that the two worlds were inherently different, Moses Mendelssohn was attempting to give the former validity and purpose even in the face of the latter. Yet, from a more normative Torah perspective - which perceives the revealed ethics in Torah as able to challenge conclusions from reason, that sees the two worlds as connected - the question remained: if reason is valid, what is the purpose of revelation?

In our age, though, the question is exactly the opposite: if revelation is valid, what is the purpose of reason? Reason is no longer considered the great path to truth for it is now considered to be relative and subjective. It is simply deemed to be inadequate - too committed to personal a priori, bound to numerous assumptions that can be neither proven nor dis-proven - to serve as a path to truth. One's reasoned morality is thus deemed to be personal, reflecting more upon the individual than upon the truth. It is revelation - on one level or another - that is now presented, by believers in faith, as the only possible path to truth. In some extreme instances it even seems that the very selling point of belief or revelation, is because it offers the opportunity to declare one's morality absolute. In these extreme cases, the argument seems to be, "if you wish to declare an ethic true and binding, you have to believe in the Divine", rather than "if you believe in the Divine and the revelation of this moral concept, than you must accept it as true." Nonetheless, it is now revelation, not reason, that is deemed to offer the opportunity for knowledge of truth (if there is an opportunity). Yet, for Judaism, a difficulty still remains for the Torah also sees value in reason. The Talmud, when appropriate, challenges: Lamah li kra? Svorah hu! "Why do I need a [Scriptural] verse [to inform me of this idea]? It is logical!" Reason is deemed to have validity, yet there are all the problems, identified above, with reason. Furthermore, if we have the benefits of revelation, what is the need or purpose of reason?

Reason and revelation - the battle raged, and rages on, in regard to their adequacy in the determination of truth. Ultimately, though, the question that truly bothered the philosophers was why both. If we have reason, why do we need revelation and, if we have revelation, why do we need reason? The essential battle of reason versus revelation was based on the fact that, for the determination of ethics, we only needed just one way - is it reason or revelation, there was no need forboth. Yet, the approach of Torah was to support both. In fact, the classic Torah responses to the question of reason versus revelation focused more on answering the question of how reason and revelation co-existed. Reason was deemed adequate and necessary to a point but, at that point, revelation became necessary. Reason was perceived as able to take us only so far - and it should be used to that extent - but then revelation had to take over. See, for example, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Reflections of the Rav, Surrendering Our Minds to G-d. Yet why the need for both? Specifically in regard to Sinai, if we can be informed of ethics through Torah, what is the need for a concern for reason?

What is the purpose, not of ethics, but the determination of ethics? The answer would seem to be obvious - we apply ethics in order to live correctly, more harmoniously. The goal is a better society; ethics is the means and ethical determination is the means to that means. But that is not Torah. We do not simply apply Torah to this world in order to improve our existence - rather G-d presented us with the challenge of this world in order to force us to actively contemplate Torah. The challenge of life is to force us to determine how to live - and in that determination we grow. If we simply have to know ethics, in order to know how to live then we really only need one way to find the answers - having two ways only confuses us. But if the ethical dilemmas of life confront us in order for us to learn, study, develop in order to respond - if the purpose is our growth, then the difficulty of the process only indicates the challenge before us. There is no simple answer for the very purpose of this existence is not the answer but the process. Reason and revelation are thus both essential, both difficult, for they are both parts of the complexity of life - and need to both be integrated into who we are.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht


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2002 NISHMA