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Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie

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Morality Is Absolute -- and Evolving

Posted: 09/05/11 08:59 AM ET

I believe that morality is absolute. There are values in our world that express how things ought to be. These values tell us that certain things are always right and certain things are always wrong.

As a religious person, I look to the sacred texts of my religious tradition to tell me what those absolute values are. My religious faith binds me to the Torah and the Torah guides me as I search for the God-given standards that I believe must direct my life.

In this case, my religious beliefs and elemental human instincts coincide. As a Jew, I know that God has certain expectations of me. As a human being, I feel in my gut that certain things can never be right in any place or at any time and that there are rules of morality that apply to all humankind; and not only that, I feel confident that the preponderance of the human race feels as I do.

True, the world is not lacking in relativists. For them, such matters are culturally determined, and we can do no more than suggest that something is acceptable or not according to the code of a particular nation, group or culture. But this is a minority view. Civilized people everywhere assert that taking a life or abusing a child is always wrong. And if that is the case, should it not be so that other things are always right? Hence, I continue to search for ultimate values, using religious texts as my guide.

But now the problem: Those religious people who share my belief about absolute morality often display an intolerance that I abhor and a coercive mentality that I reject. And the Jews who revere the same texts that I do often come to radically different conclusions about what they mean. Furthermore, I sometimes change my mind; after studying a text, I find myself reconsidering a moral decision that I had previously made. Given all this, is it not contradictory for me to talk about absolute values at all?

Because of the vagueness of religious language, it is not. The Hebrew Bible is written with majestic simplicity, but it -- like the Constitution of the United States -- is vague in many important parts. While it contains a record of God's message to the Jewish people and to all humankind, the exact meaning of the words is often not clear. I continue to believe in transcendent truth, but the Bible alone -- and its wonderfully imprecise language -- does not provide it.

As a Jew, I deal with this dilemma by studying both the Hebrew Bible (the Written Torah) and the Talmud and rabbinic commentaries (the Oral Torah). While the former is a record of God talking to us, the latter is a record of the Jews talking to God and each other. The Oral Torah is a massive work, a comprehensive effort to fill in the blanks of the Written Torah and construct a schema of what constitutes transcendent values in our imperfect world. For me, as a liberal Jew, this process is ongoing and unfinished. God's word is in the biblical text, and it is final -- after all, God instructs us "to do that which is right in the eyes of the Eternal" (Deut. 13:19) -- but getting to the ultimate, transcendent meaning of those words is something yet to be worked out.

What is true for Jews is true for others, too. When Presidential candidate Michele Bachmann was asked about the obligation of a Christian wife to be submissive to her husband, it was interesting for me to follow the debate among scholars and church leaders about the New Testament verse in Ephesians chapter 5 that deals with this subject. Those participating, it seems to me, were believers in the authority of the Bible on moral questions, but they engaged in spirited discussion on what the words mean and how they are to be translated. Despite differences in culture and context, Muslims argue about their texts as well.

My conclusion, then, is that as a believer in revelation, I look to the religious writings of my tradition for the answers that I seek about values. I search, study and question texts that are holy but imprecise and that I do not fully understand; engaging in this process, I see that revelation has a progressive nature. Still, I have no patience for those who want a non-judgmental morality that is so "inclusive" as to be without meaning. Values are not fads or fashions; they do not change everyday. Absolute values are there, even if, in all the particulars, I have yet to completely figure them out.