By Daniel Oppenheimer
In our society there is a widely held belief that morality is essentially concerned with two things – helping (or at least not harming) people, and being fair. We have significant disagreements about what those two ideas mean, but the underlying assumption that morality is about harm and fairness is quite widely shared. We typically become quite uncomfortable when, for example, someone suggests that patriotism is a morally good thing. At best, it feels morally neutral, a sort of personal choice like any other political belief or value.
The Torah has a much broader conception of morality. This week’s parashah sets out a ceremony for publicly and ritually denouncing a series of twelve sins. The list includes sins of harm and unfairness, such as taking bribes or cheating. But it also includes sins of a different kind – specifically idolatry, disrespect of parents and incest. The inclusion is likely to strike us moderns as odd. We also think that incest is wrong, but we would not include three different specific prohibitions against it (incest with one’s father's wife, one’s sister, or one’s mother-in-law; Deut. 27: 20-23) in a series of only twelve curses.
This is not because the Torah is either primitive or alien. In his thought-provoking book “The Righteous Mind”, psychologist Jonathan Haidt brings research to show that the narrow conception of morality as being about harm/help and fairness is actually restricted to quite a narrow group of people – better-off people in Western societies, of a generally left/liberal inclination. Everyone else (who are significantly the majority of humanity) have a broader view of what is and is not moral. He identifies four other issues that the rest of the world regards as “moral” – being loyal to the group, respecting authority and tradition, purity/sanctity (differently defined in different societies, but the concept is shared) and freedom.
The additional curses fit pretty clearly into Haidt’s categories. Incest is a violation of purity. Disrespect of parents is a violation of respecting authority; and idolatry is disloyalty both to the group and to tradition.
This is not particularly surprising. The narrow conception that morality is only about harm and being fair stems ultimately from a philosophy of individual rights – that people should be free to make choices, provided that those choices do not harm others. But this is not the worldview of the Torah or of the Rabbis. The Torah begins with the foundational idea of individual rights – the great principle that all human beings are created in the image of God – but its ultimate concern is how to build a good society and not just good individuals. Therefore many of its teachings make no sense in an individualistic framework. The curses in this parashah are another example of that. They are to be read out in public. They are not simply a series of moral teachings for private study, but a means of building social cohesion through shared values and behaviours. Disrespect of parents and idolatry threaten social cohesion as surely as cheating and bribery do. Once we understand that broader perspective, the curses make much more sense.
Daniel Oppenheimer is a member of
New North London Synagogue and
a founder of its Assif minyan