Defining Morality

February 10, 2012 by Rabbi Michoel Gourarie
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Most normal human beings have a desire to pursue moral behaviour..writes Rabbi Michoel Gourarie.

Rabbi Michol Gourarie photo: Henry Benjamin

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?’

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. The Torah warns us 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.


3 Responses to “Defining Morality”
  1. David says:

    Looking at the actual use of morality in the Torah, we see that morality is those actions and behaviors that lead to the good health and well-being of individuals and communities. Right and wrong are judgments, but morality is the effects of our actions.

    Every law, rule, and regulation in any tradition and government is a moral law. The law is for the good of all. If we would all just focus on what is healthy and proffers happiness, we would be living a life consistent with the Torah and good governments. By avoiding behaviors that lead to illness and misery of individuals and communities, we refrain from doing those things that are wrong.

    • Otto Waldmann says:

      Easy ,David, with “every law is a moral law”. I wont bore you with the raft of IMMORAL laws passed and imposed by “certain” humans/societies.

  2. Lynne Newington says:

    Thank God Rabbi, you don’t go for the “devil made me do it” whereby avoiding culpability.
    The official Vatican exorcist surely must be looking in the wrong places claiming he had infitrated the Vatican corridors.

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