God Beyond Ethics: A Response to Ira Stone

From the pen of Rabbi Ira Stone, we have come to expect deep and rigorous thinking addressing topics of great significance. “From Middot to Mitzvot”  lives up to Stone’s fine reputation, as he turns his prodigious talent to making explicit the link from cultivating a life of ethical rigor to the practice of Judaism’s commandments. His argument is clear, cumulative, and worthy of conversation. In a spirit of admiration and respect, both for Rabbi Stone and for his argument, I would like to respond to his essay by problematizing his portrayal of mitzvot, of God and humanity, of yirah, before addressing his faith in Musar.

Stone presents the value of mitzvot as “inculcating middot” which he defines as character. If one can achieve character without mitzvot, “then of what intrinsic value are the mitzvot?” For Stone, either the mitzvot do lead to middot, or they are of questionable worth. He then asserts that we can make no claims about God’s inner workings, but only describe our experiences of ourselves and, hence, of our experience of God. Theology becomes a branch of “religious anthropology.” The essential characteristic of the human is the choice/obligation to choose between good and evil. Yirah is the “terror we experience in the face of our obligation to choose between good and evil.” And our task is to move from Yirah to Ahavat Ha-Shem, which is  “the cessation of fear.” All of this culminates in seeking the good of our neighbor, which, like Jesus (and very much in the mold of Levinas) Stone casts as the third great commandment. Our experience of God, it turns out, is in our neighbor (“Our neighbor is that person who, being created in the image and likeness of God embodies that which we can experience of God in the finite dimension.” Like Levinas, Stone goes beyond Kant in claiming not only that ethics is of primary importance, but that it exhausts the realm of serving the divine (“My neighbor… is only as close as I can come to serving God in this world.”) The function of the mitzvot is to wake us to this task, and to mobilize community in the service of goodness. In that effort, Stone concludes by recommending Mussar, that strain of Jewish writing that emphasizes the inner discipline and virtue that grounds and precedes the external forms of piety in the mitzvot.

My dissent with Stone’s argument falls into two areas, one of which is historical, the other theological. Stone portrays his understanding as though it is how the terms and concepts have historically been understood. Mitzvot are about middot, yirah is about the weighty choice of good, we can’t discuss God and can’t serve God except through care for each other, and the function of mitzvot is to advance that goodness individually and communally. Those may be fine theological constructs, but they don’t appear in Jewish sources prior to Kant and they find their most articulate expressions in Levinas. They may be the truth, but they don’t reflect how premodern Jews used those terms (as a matter of historical record), nor are they necessary theological choices for contemporary Jews today.

Mitzvot are not Ethics

I’m a big fan of ethics,[1]and I think that choosing the good is indeed one of our obligations, both as Jews and as people. But I do not agree that mitzvot either must lead to ethical behavior or they are of no worth whatsoever. Mitzvot are not identical with morality. In that regard, the Talmud famously recognizes the distinction between piety and goodness:

Said Raba, R. Idi explained it to me: Say of the righteous, when he is good, that they shall eat the fruit of their doings: is there then a righteous man who is good and a righteous man who is not good? But he who is good to Heaven and good to man, he is a righteous man who is good; good to Heaven but not good to man, that is a righteous man who is not good. Similarly you read: Woe unto the wicked [man] [that is] evil; for the reward of his hands shall be given unto him: is there then a wicked man that is evil and one that is not evil? But he that is evil to Heaven and evil to man, he is a wicked man that is evil; he who is evil to Heaven but not evil to man, he is a wicked man that is not evil.[2]

Rabbinic Judaism recognizes that one can be pious and ethical, pious and wicked, impious and good and impious and wicked. Knowing that being religious and being decent are independent variables reflects common sense and a bit of exposure to religious and secular people, none of whom possess a monopoly on goodness or immunity from egocentrism. The reduction of religion to morality is a move Kant made, based on an Enlightenment metaphysics and epistemology that has subsequently been seriously challenged, philosophically and existentially.

Far from restricting the significance of mitzvot to their ability to inculcate the good, much of Jewish thought recognizes mitzvot as a way of concretizing God’s will in the world. Whether one understands the Torah and its traditions to have been literally given on a single day in a single place, or one sees it as the distillation of God’s will across generations of inspired sages and prophets, for many of us, the worth of the mitzvot remains their ability to link us to God. That many of the mitzvot have an ethical component is a reflection of God’s goodness. But many of them don’t and are no less worthy because of that. One can be a good and decent person without mitzvah observance, and we walk on thin ice if our defense of observance is a bulwark to morality. The mitzvot are about bringing holiness into the world. Putting on tefillin, refraining from interweaving linen and wool, waiting between eating meat and milk, these practices open portals to the holy in our lives, and that is a goal in and of itself.

The primary challenge to meaningful (and moral) life today is the cultivated narcissism of our own society. Everything is reduced to a transaction, and we are consumers in every department of life – marriage, education, career, family – nothing is immune from the corrosive degradation of pandering to our desires. The only voice left standing against this flattening consumerism is that of religion, which seeks to call us to a life of service, to placing God at the center of our concern. Mitzvot gain their worth (and their necessity) from such recognition. A life of service is expressed in deeds; the centrality of God is manifest in our doing God’s bidding. That will invariably include an ethical component, but it goes well beyond ethics to elevate obedience to God and to creating links between our own identity and the pervasive oneness of all being. Mitzvot are the commandments (Hebrew) that create connection (Aramaic). Therein lies their preciousness.

God Transcends Our Humanity

Stone proceeds from this ethically-centered agenda to restrict theology to “religious anthropology.” Echoing Rav Saadya and Rambam, he tells us that “we can make no statements that purport to describe the inner workings of God. Rather, we can only describe the qualities of intellect and emotion that fundamentally describe our experiences of ourselves as quintessentially human.” With all deference, I believe that there remains a middle possibility. I accept that human language is radically inadequate to describe God ontologically. But I don’t think that forces us to restrict our concern (and our words) to describing ourselves. One can acknowledge God’s radical uniqueness yet still use language as a pointer to that which is beyond words (unless Stone wants to claim that God is beyond all human perception whatsoever, but then he goes well beyond the Rambam). Additionally, one can still use language to describe human encounters with the divine. Our experiences of God need not be mere anthropology, any more than our experiences of the outer world in general. Astronomy, biology, physics, indeed tourism testify to our willingness to construe generously our encounters of a reality beyond our senses. For some idealists (Berkeley and others), we may be limited to our own perceptions, but for the rest of us, we’re willing to trust our perceptions as guides to a world beyond our own identity. If that is valid for every thing, why not also for God?

If we can actually speak of God’s interactions with the world and with us, if – like the great theologians of Jewish tradition – we are willing to read the creation for signs of its Creator, and we are willing to harvest Torah for encounters with God – then the service of God remains more than just the externalized projection of our own inner humanity. And there, too, Stone places himself on a Kantian/Levinasian base, but one need not stand there.

Is it really true that “we identify …our choice between good and evil as the very structure of our consciousness of ourselves?”  Is it true that “we are aware that we are human because at every moment of our existence we are riveted by the need to chose between good and evil?” Stone elevates our moral choice as the essence of our human identity (hence as our most pressing agenda). But I don’t believe there is one single essence that defines our humanity. One might speak of our ability to speak as the essence, or of our ability to write essays on matters theological as what uniquely defines our species. Perhaps we are unique in our ability to be aware of a level of the divine and to respond to that divinity. Often, philosophers present preferences in the mode of imperatives, and it looks like Rabbi Stone is here expressing his own commendable commitment to morality as his core. But I don’t think that even he could be reduced to a morality-producing machine. He is far too rich in humor, caring, joy, wisdom, and many non-moral traits to find a single essence that would still be him in all his fullness.

If it is true that our humanity is far more encompassing than simply our choice of good and evil, then it may well be that our agenda, both in terms of mitzvot and in terms of middot, is also far more encompassing and broad.

Yirah – Reverence & Awe

Yirat Shamayim is a cornerstone of traditional Jewish faith, and is virtually invisible in modern and contemporary Jewish theology. I share the conviction of Rabbi Louis Jacobs that “Religion without yirath shamayim is no more than a sentimental attachment to ancient forms from which the spirit has departed.”[3]Traditional sources speak of two forms of yirah, one of which is considered unworthy of serious consideration – that is fear of the consequences of God’s power. To worry about what God can do to us is a pragmatic concern, not a religious value. The higher yirah is, again citing Jacobs, “an attitude of mind and soul in which man is filled with a sense of awe at the contemplation of God’s tremendous majesty.”[4]The Zohar notes:

There are three types of fear: two have no proper root, while the third is the real fear. There is the man who fears the Holy One, blessed be He, in order that his children may live and not die, or lest he be punished in his body or his possessions; and so he is in constant fear. Evidently this is not the genuine fear of God. Another man fears the Holy One, blessed be He, because he is afraid of punishment in the other world and the tortures of Gehinnom. This is a second type which is not genuine fear. The genuine type is that which makes a man fear his Master because He is the mighty ruler, the rock and foundation of all worlds, before whom all existing things are as naught.[5]

The more modern sage, Rabbi Moshe Hayim Luzzatto states:

To fear God is to be moved by a sense of awe, like that which one experiences in the presence of a great and awe-inspiring king. In every move that one makes, one ought to feel self-abased before the greatness of God. This is especially true when one addresses God in prayer, or engages in the study of God’s Torah[6]

The Hasidic text, Mei Ha-Shiloach supports that understanding of yirah as awe and reverence:

When one fears a person, one cannot remain calm, because fear is the opposite of calm. However, fear of Heaven brings calm to the soul… as they [the midwives] were calm because of their fear of heaven, they did not have any fear of Pharaoh’s decrees[7]

Stone accepts yirah as “fear that…”, in other words, as fear of some consequence. He shifts the source of the fear from God’s power to punish and reward to the ontological weight of having to choose good. While celebrating his call to return yirah to the core of Jewish virtue, I must insist that we resuscitate the higher fear – awe at God’s majesty and greatness, not simply fear of God’s power (or power to force us to make a choice we’d otherwise evade). The higher yirah is one that calls upon the best within each of us, mustering our humility and reverence in response to the wonder of being in God’s presence. Such yirah is indeed needed in our own time, if for nothing less than to displace the lower yirah, our petty fears of going against the grain, of resisting illegitimate power, of the fads and biases of our own age. Such a yirah is an existential necessity. Contrary to Stone’s call to “help us respond to yirah and transform it to ahava,” (putting him, alas, in the company of the other modern theologians who have erased yirah from our consciousness and agenda), such yirah remains a desideratum of the highest order. It is the complement of love, not its predecessor.


Musar- A Complicated Solution

Stone explains that “the program which can redress the unfortunate bifurcation between middot and mitzvot is called Musar.”  Surely, such a promise is worth our attention, but Musar presents a far more complex face upon careful examination.

Created as a self-conscious program within Judaism by Rabbi Israel Salanter (19th Century Lithuania), Musar roots itself in medieval works that fostered inwardness and self-critique, such as Hovot Ha-L’vavot, Tomer Devorah, Orhot Tzaddikim, and others. It’s two principal schools: Slabodka and Navarodok each shared a commitment to reading these ethical works (often to a melancholy tune) and then to fostering a self-critical introspection among the yeshivah students who were musarniks. The musarniks often viewed themselves (and were viewed) as opponents, both by the talmudically-oriented yeshivot and by the Hassidim. Indeed, the primary writings of Salanter (now gathered in a single volume, Ohr Yisrael) reveal a harshness, a propensity to judgementalism and rigidity that can be difficult to modern readers. Inheriting a rejection of this world from Hovot ha-L’vavot, the more recent musar authorities can appear austere and harsh.


Does that mean that we should distance ourselves from Musar? No. One of the errors of earlier generations of Conservative Jews was to find flaws with the way that its advocates presented Kabbalah and hasidut, and to respond by ignoring those important resources entirely. A new generation has discovered that there is a Conservative way into Kabbalah, one that respects its history, its diversity, and its pluralism. That is true for Musar as well. One can use any human construct as a bulwark of rigidity, smugness, and judgment – psychoanalysis, halakhah, progressive or conservative politics, spirituality, and musar – all can be employed to confirm and harden one’s shortcomings. And these same human constructs can be used to renew and to open up. The key, then, is not in the system itself, but in the spirit through which the system is approached. The great Yiddish novelist, Chaim Grade, has given us characters worthy of emulation from the world of musar, and also exemplars of how not to live Torah from that same world

As always, the choice is ours – u’varharta be-hayyim – to choose life. It seems to be a more complex task than at first glance, and the solutions are not nearly so self-evident. We are in Rabbi Stone’s debt that he raises the key issues with such clarity and force, and thank him for the conversation that his wisdom invites.


Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, http://www.bradartson.com, is the Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University. He is the author of The Bedside Torah: Wisdom, Dreams, & Visions and of Today’s Torah, an email discussion of the weekly Parashah.


[1]Artson, “Halakhah & Ethics: The Holy and the Good,” Conservative Judaism (spring 1994)

[2]Kiddushin 40a.

[3]Louis Jacobs, Jewish Values (Connecticut: Hartmore House, 1960), 35.

[4]Jacobs, 39.

[5]Zohar I, 11b

[6]Mesillat Yesharim, 6 – 7

[7]Mei Shiloach, Sh’mot.