Does the Torah Supplant or Supplement Universal Values?

At the beginning of this lecture, I proposed that we deal with three levels of duty incumbent upon us: as human beings, as Jews, and as benei-Torah. I then discussed the first of these, namely, our general responsibilities as humans. However, this entire discussion entails the assumption that, subsequent to the Jewish Nation’s keritat berit (formulation of a covenant) with God, we are still bound by the more general norms that preceded it. It is this assumption I would like now to address.

A berit (covenant) is something special and unique; by definition, it delineates a particular relationship between God and a specific community. What then happens to more universal elements? Do these fall away because of the exclusivity of the new relationship? Or do we regard the new relationship as being superimposed upon the old, but not at odds with it?

Even according to the latter approach, at times there may be a conflict between a universal value and a specific one. Fundamentally, however, this approach regards the specific covenant as complementing and building on top of the universal covenant, rather than replacing it and rendering it obsolete. According to this approach, we do not believe that what existed until now was merely scaffolding which was needed until the building was complete, but now that the building is finished, everything else is insignificant. Instead, we assume that whatever commitments, demands and obligations devolve upon a person simply as a member of the universal community, will also apply to him within his unique context as well; but in addition, there are also new demands.

This question has been raised extensively within the Christian context, where it is referred to as the issue of “nature and grace.” Does the order of grace—which is the more specific relationship of a given community towards God—do away with the order of nature: natural values, natural morality and natural religion? Or is the order of nature fundamentally sound, significant and normative, but in addition to it comes the order of grace? Broadly speaking, within the Christian context, the more rationalistic and humanistic thinkers have stressed that the universal component remains in force. Those who espoused a more anti-humanistic and anti-rationalistic line generally felt that anything which human reason develops, anything which is universal, anything which is not part of the specific order of revelation, is absolutely meaningless and not binding. In fact, they felt it may even be injurious, because it leads a person to think that these kinds of universal values are significant, whereas in reality the order of nature was good for one phase of human history but has been totally replaced by the order of grace.

Translating this into our categories, I recall years back hearing a talk by mori ve-rabbi Rav Yitzchak Hutner zt”l regarding the relationship between berit Avraham and berit Noach (God’s covenants with Avraham and Noach). As he put it, did berit Avraham come “on top” of the foundation of berit Noach, or was it meant to replace it? Rav Hutner wished to learn from Rabbeinu Yona (Berakhot 49a) that the latter was the case, and he took Shabbat as the test case. Jews, of course, are commanded not to work on Shabbat. However, Chazal interpreted the verse, “Summer and winter, day and night shall not cease” (Bereishit 8:22) as teaching us that Benei Noach (descendants of Noach, i.e. general humanity) are always obligated to work; in fact, a gentile who refrains from melakha (labor) on Shabbat is punished! (See Sanhedrin 58b.) Evidently, concluded Rav Hutner, the universal value of “[They] shall not cease” has been countervailed within our more specific Jewish context. Thus, the new berit is meant to replace the old.

I do not adopt this general approach; in fact, I think quite the contrary is true. Whatever is demanded of us as part of Kenesset Yisrael does not negate what is demanded of us simply as human beings on a universal level, but rather comes in addition. (Regarding Shabbat, let me just briefly note that the sanctity of Shabbat does not abrogate the universal value of work, but rather adds an additional element to the picture.)

Similarly, I believe mattan Torah (the giving of the Torah) also needs to be understood in a dual fashion. At one level, mattan Torah was a wholly new departure; there was nothing like it before. One can indeed speak of “Nittena Torah ve-nitchadsha halakha”—the Torah was given and the law was renewed. In this vein, the Rambam states that although some mitzvot (such as the seven Noachide laws) were given before mattan Torah, we are obligated by them only because they were reiterated at Sinai.As examples, he cites the prohibitions of eating ever min ha-chai (a limb from a live animal) and gid ha-nasheh (the sciatic nerve), and the commandment of circumcision. Although these appear previously (with regard to Noach, Ya’akov and Avraham respectively), our obligation is based solely on the fact that they were reinforced through mattan Torah.

In another sense, however, one can regard Torah not as a totally new chapter in human history, but rather as the pinnacle of the earlier development. Although in one perspective Torah can be seen as unique and relating only to Kenesset Yisrael, there is another perspective in which one can view Torah as being the highest stage in human development. The Rambam elsewhere seems to speak in these terms, using a very telling phrase. When discussing the evolution of Torah, he says:

Six precepts were given to Adam . . . An additional commandment was given to Noach . . . So it was until the appearance of Avraham, who, in addition to the aforementioned commandments, was charged to practice circumcision. Moreover, Avraham instituted the Morning Prayer. Yitzchak tithed and instituted the Afternoon Prayer. Ya’akov added [the prohibition of eating] the sciatic nerve and he inaugurated the Evening Prayer. In Egypt, Amram (Moshe’s father) was commanded additional mitzvot, until our master Moshe arrived and the Torah was completed through him. (Hilkhot Melakhim 9:1)

The phrase, “nishlema al yado, it was completed through him,” suggests that there were various stages and that Moshe is the pinnacle, not that Moshe’s Torah simply disposes of everything which had preceded it.



Header type:
Theme Colors:
Color suggestions *
* May not have full accuracy!