Defining Morality

May 13, 2016 by Rabbi Michoel Gourarie
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Most normal human beings have a desire to pursue moral behaviour. The only question is what the definition of morality is. The Oxford definition – principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behaviour – only shifts the question from ‘what is moral?’ to ‘what is right?’

Rabbi Michoel Gourarie

Rabbi Michoel Gourarie

There is a common perception that ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are defined by the effect on others. Harming other people, negatively controlling those that are helpless or ignoring the plight of those who suffer is immoral. However, as long as I do not adversely affect anyone else I am free to do whatever I please and will still be defined as a moral human being.

The Jewish definition is very different. The Torah views morality not as a gauge of social conduct but rather as an intrinsic distinction between good and evil. We are encouraged to engage in that which is good and distance ourselves from evil, even when it has no effect on others.

Here is a simple example. In this Torah Portion we are instructed not to use false weights and measurements. However, this command not only bans the actual use of false measurements – the law against theft already covers this. This prohibition includes even the passive act of holding them in one’s possession even if they are never used. We are simply not permitted to keep something deceptive in our homes.

Using false weights is stealing and is harmful to our fellow being. Keeping them in our home is connecting to something false and therefore evil. Moral behaviour is not a strategy for effective social conduct. Morality is virtuous behaviour for sake of the pursuit of that which is intrinsically good and pure. We are not defined only by how we act towards others but rather by the goodness that is within.



One Response to “Defining Morality”
  1. Gillian Miller says:

    Morality varies from society to society as well as changing over the years. To me Rabbi Gourarie is patting Jews on the back on our form of morality which we all believe is the best.

    However, in Japan, under the Emperor, people committed suicide for him or because of their loss oh honour. To us, this is appalling. Islam demands the cutting off of a hand and a foot for theft. I could continue but I think the point is made.

    There many good laws within Judaism but there are many I disagree with or note that the tiny nit picking Jews are so good at changes the intention. As an example the Fast of the First Born is overridden by a study fest finishing on that day requiring a feast. The loss of understanding how God mourned killing Egyptians for our freedom is passed on and on because Jews think that they are clever. We are but there is also intention as shown in Rabbi Gourarie’s example. So, if we are using Jewish laws as a basis for morality, it is not just the letter that needs to be looked at, it is the intention. There are many statements about animal welfare which are ignored, are we as moral as we should be? Should we be patting ourselves on the back when cliques of Jews put themselves about the law? Or the intention? There are orthodox Jews in New York who marry religiously but claim that they are single parents under secular law to claim benefits. Is that not theft and immoral?

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