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April 27, 2023 10:21 am

The Goal of Morality in the Torah Is to Treat Others Better

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avatar by Jeremy Rosen


A Torah scroll. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

For many of us, reading the third Book of the Torah — Leviticus — is not a particularly inspiring or easy exercise. It deals with the priesthood, sacrifices, purity (not to be confused with cleanliness, although that too is important), diseases, laws of sexual behavior, and what one can and cannot eat. For good reason, the book is called in Latin, Leviticus, from the term Levites, and in other sources, it’s called the Book of Purity.

But when we get to Chapter 19 in the section known as Kedoshim, Holiness, we have a range of laws that I think anyone would accept as being the most amazing statement of ethical standards required of everybody then and today. It starts with the emphasis on how one has respect for one’s parents and then it goes on to talk about the importance of giving charity and helping the poor and the indigent. It then goes on to such basic ethical rules, “don’t steal, don’t deceive, don’t lie to each, don’t oppress your neighbor, don’t rob, don’t refuse to pay workers on time, don’t curse a deaf person or put something in the way of someone who is blind, don’t abuse justice, or be corrupt, judge all people honestly and fairly, don’t go around telling tales, don’t stand by when your neighbor is suffering, don’t hate your neighbor in your heart, don’t take revenge against your neighbor, but love your neighbor as yourself”( Leviticus 19:2-18).

But how does this beautiful expression of ethical obligations (rather than of rights) fit in with the rest of the book? The great anthropologist Margaret Mead, who wrote a great deal about the book, discovered parallels throughout that explain this. The ancient world was concerned with order. Each culture was regulated in its own way. The Torah is also concerned with order, a holistic approach to life that includes the spiritual and the physical. It is a template of the complete life, in which one finds room for a way of life that connects with God through ritual and behavior.

In our case, the universal sacrificial system soon fell away. Instead, we have focused on the laws that make up halacha — how we behave day-to-day and how all our actions should be predicated on forethought, consideration, and a value system. It then talks about purity, which involves taking care of one’s physical life, the way we catch diseases or neglect our bodies, the interaction between our physical health and our mental health, sexual self-control, what we should and should not eat, atonement, and the celebration of festivals. All of this underlines a life that involves forethought, consideration, and self-control.

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This is all connected to an ethical system. If religious behavior does not improve one’s morality or behavior towards others, it is failing. We are exhorted to be holy because God is. Holiness in the Torah means being other but also better. Not automatically through birth or who we are, but rather what we do, and how we behave. When we say be holy because God is holy, we’re not describing God. We may disagree as to what is good and what is bad, what is fair and what is not, and whether there is a God and to what extent God controls our lives. But, in the end, we should live a life of consideration and respect for ourselves as well as for the rest of humanity.

The author is a writer and rabbi, currently based in New York.

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