Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis is spiritual leader of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, California; founder of the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous; and author most recently of Conscience: The Duty to Obey and the Duty to Disobey (Jewish Lights, 2008). He was interviewed by the RJ editors.
At this stage in your long rabbinic career, why did you choose to write a book on conscience?
I believe Judaism has made a distinctive contribution to civilization in this realm. In no other religion is the individual encouraged to question obedience—to ask the what, when, who, and why of the commandment. In Judaism no commandment and no commander are exempt from moral scrutiny.
Why is it so important to question obedience?
Throughout history, more atrocities—religious and secular—have been committed in the name of obedience than in the name of disobedience. In the last century alone, some 50 million human beings were systematically slaughtered by “good,” ordinary people, educated in a culture of obedience, who justified their self-acknowledged cruelty with the mantra: “We followed the orders of our superiors.”
Judaism offers the world a different understanding of the limits of religious law and Divine-human relationships, for it exempts no text (whatever claim it may make of its sanctity) and no person (prophet or prince) from the challenge of moral conscience. This critical questioning of commands includes even those claimed to be “the word of God.” Jewish rabbinic literature is filled with illustrations of vaunted religious personalities who, against God, in the name of God, and for the sake of God challenge egregious biblical laws. Significantly, in some of these confrontations, scriptural edicts are reversed, nullified, or overturned. For example, when Moses is bringing the Ten Commandments from Sinai, he reads God’s pronouncement in the Second Commandment that children will be punished to the third and fourth generations for the sins of their fathers. Shocked by such an unjust law, Moses questions God’s judgment: “Sovereign of the Universe, consider the righteousness of Abraham, and the idol worship of his father, Terach. Does it make sense to punish the child for the transgressions of the fathers?” (Numbers Rabbah Hukkat XIX, 33).
According to the midrash, God responds to Moses: “By your life, Moses, you have instructed Me. Therefore, I will nullify my words and confirm yours. Thus it is said, ‘The fathers shall not be put to death for the children; neither shall the children be put to death for the fathers’” (Deuteronomy 24:16). In the rabbinic tradition, God is open to human critique and respectful of moral dissent. Conscience enables a dialogue between the Divine and human, partners of the covenant.
In this way, Judaism makes room for the conscientious, compassionate, and courageous duty to disobey. In wrestling the demons of tyranny, the duty to disobey is as sacred as the duty to obey.
Do we humans need Judaism, or any religion for that matter, to define or refine individual conscience?
I believe no faith or culture holds a monopoly on conscience. Men and women, ranging from Leo Baeck and Mother Teresa to Henry David Thoreau and Abraham Joshua Heschel exhibit the intuitive conviction that there is good to be upheld and evil to be vanquished. But only in Judaism do we find the singular pronouncement: Divine orders that run against the grain of conscience ought to be either reinterpreted or removed with the same compassion and courage exhibited by the rabbis of the tradition.
So if a religious law and your own conscience are in conflict, conscience may be the better gauge?
Just because someone says “ess iz geschriben” (it is written) doesn’t make it so. Throughout history, religious autocrats have cloaked themselves in the mantle of Divine revelation. It is not uncommon to hear a preacher claim that he speaks not his own words, but those of God. How many atrocities have been enacted in the name of revealed truth?
The talmudic rabbis revered Torah but understood that God is not Torah. God transcends Torah, and therefore may be appealed to in the name of moral conscience. It is with this understanding, for example, that the rabbis radically reinterpreted the literal biblical dictate of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” to mean that the injured person is entitled to monetary compensation for pain, medical attention, and unemployment. In this manner the rabbis frequently reinterpreted dictates to free the community from “laws that were not good” (Ezekiel 20:25).
Couldn’t the rabbis have simply abolished biblical laws they found ethically objectionable?
The rabbis did not feel authorized to declare biblical laws null and void, so they used their legal acumen to soften the hardness of the law. For example, they erected so many legal roadblocks to capital punishment, it was de facto impossible to impose. In murder cases, the rabbis admitted no circumstantial evidence. Furthermore, to be convicted the accused would have had to have been forewarned by two sworn witnesses before the court (Sanhedrin) that what he was about to do was a capital offense, and he would have had to acknowledge that he understood their forewarning. Moreover, the forewarning had to be made immediately before the act, and, if the act were delayed, a new forewarning was required. In this vein, the rabbis wrote in the Mishnah (Makkoth 1:10) that “a Sanhedrin which executes one person in seven years is called a destructive court” and Rabbis Tarphon and Akiba declared, “Were we members of the court, no man would ever be executed.”
If we rely on our own moral reason, wouldn’t that lead to the slippery slope of moral relativism?
There is a risk in being guided by conscience, but no less a risk than following the voice of “commandedness.” Martin Buber once wrote, “Moloch [an idol to which children were sacrificed] imitates the voice of God.” How can we discern the voice of God knowing that Mephistopheles is a ventriloquist, skillfully projecting his voice onto others? A “slippery slope” is to be preferred to being cemented in the ground. On a slope I may be able to grasp a tree or rock. But in cement, I am immobilized and subject to the threats of the wilderness.
In the Sodom and Gomorrah story, Abraham questions God’s judgment. In the Akeda story (the binding of Isaac), Abraham blindly obeys God, sacrificing his moral sense and reason. What lessons are we to draw from these contradictory biblical episodes?
I see no conflict within or between these two narratives. In the instance of Sodom and Gomorrah, it is Abraham’s moral sensibility that challenges God: “Far be it from You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty, so that innocent and guilty fare alike” (Genesis 18:23). As for the binding of Isaac, if you read Chapter 22 closely, you’ll find that the term “Elohim” is used exclusively as the name of God in commanding Abraham to sacrifice his son. In the eleventh verse, another Divine voice is heard, that is of the Angel of the Lord, or Malach Adonai. I identify the name of God, Adonai, as moral conscience, for it is the voice that restrains the hand of Abraham in opposition to the command of Elohim. “How dare you do such a thing!” Malach Adonai admonishes, “Do not stretch out your hand to this lad and do not harm him.” The angel, the conscience of Abraham, overrides the edict of God. To me, this episode illustrates that within the Bible itself, an initial Divine imperative does not hold the final word. Change is neither un-biblical nor heretical. The duty to obey does not stifle the duty to dissent.
How can parents instill in children the moral courage to disobey when conscience so dictates?
Conscience is developed in our formative years. Children frequently ask about the justice and fairness of a decision or an act, questions that serve as the birth pangs of conscience. Whether or not these children continue to ask such questions depends upon whether and how they are answered. If children ask, “Why can’t I stay up late?” or “Why can’t I go out with my friends?” and the answer is the blunt and naked “because”—“because we said so,” “because the Bible said so,” “because God said so”—this crushes the seed of conscience. Children’s dignified questions deserve dignified adult answers.
We teach conscience by answering questions fully. Questioning is a sign of human liberation, as slaves do not ask questions and masters do not offer answers. Subordinates know only the unquestioning duty to obey.
Is that why Pesach seder honors the questioning of children?
Yes, the seder is a great model of the central role of the question in building moral character. Perhaps that is why the four questions open our celebration of freedom. The sages who wrote the haggadah understood that there are different questions asked by different kinds of people, and each is to be answered respectfully, according to the questioner’s ability. What better way to transmit moral conscience from generation to generation?