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.

The major text dealing with the relationship between Jewish law and universal law is the famous Mekhilta at the beginning of Mishpatim which addresses the issue of one who kills a gentile. In parashat Noach, there appears a general directive to humanity: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed” (Bereishit 9:6). However, a verse in Mishpatim (Shemot 21:14) seems to indicate a Jew is put to death only if he murders a fellow Jew. How are we to understand this?

Issi ben Akiva says: Before the giving of the Torah, we were prohibited to murder. After the giving of the Torah, instead of being more stringent, are we now more lenient!? (Mekhilta De-Rabbi Yishma’el, Parasha 4, s.v. Ve-khi Yazid)

Issi ben Akiva finds it inconceivable that something which had previously been forbidden to general humanity would now be permitted to Jews by the Torah. The gemara applies this reasoning with regard to various laws, asking simply, “Is it possible that there is anything at all which is permitted to a Jew, yet nonetheless is prohibited to a non-Jew?”

The principle elucidated by Issi ben Akiva does not necessarily negate the possibility that the new berit abolishes the old one. One may argue that indeed the new berit supplants the old, and the Jew can approach God only through God’s covenantal relationship with Kenesset Yisrael—but in terms of its content, the new berit must be more demanding than the old one.

Even if this is so, it does not matter much for our purposes. When trying to understand what are the normative demands made upon us, there is not a great difference between saying that the old berit is gone and the new one comprehends all of the contents of the old, and saying that there exists a dual level of responsibility. Practically speaking, both positions agree that whatever is demanded of a person on a universal level is a priori demanded of a Jew as well; Torah morality is at least as exacting as general morality. The only difference is whether we formulate the demand as emanating from a general covenant or from the specific berit. Thus, part of what is demanded of a ben-Torah is simply, on an initial level, what is demanded of every person as a human being.

Broadly speaking, this is what is intended by the celebrated phrase, “Derekh eretz kadma la-Torah” (“Civility preceded the Torah”). Chazal (Vayikra Rabba 9:3) understood this in historical terms: the Torah came twenty-six generations after the precepts of derekh eretz had already been in effect. But there is another meaning to this phrase, which refers to logical or axiological priority. The Maharal (Netivot Ha-Torah, Netiv Derekh Eretz) understands it in this sense. The ben-Torah in you is built on the spiritual person in you; if it is the other way around, then you are walking on your head, so to speak.

Let me emphasize that this has nothing to do with the question of what is more valuable. If we say that something is prior to something else, it does not necessarily mean that it is more important. For example, there are two ways we can understand Chazal’s requirement that someone who wants to be a ben-Torah must be “yirato kodemet le-chokhmato—his fear [of Heaven] must precede his wisdom” (Avot 3:9). It is entirely conceivable that Chazal intend to say that ultimately the yira is really more important than the chokhma (as important as the chokhma may be). However, we can also understand this as referring to logical precedence; and what serves as the basis is not necessarily the most important element. Although foundations must precede a building both temporally and logically, no one would imagine that they are more important than the building.

Chazal themselves may have been divided on this question, as would appear in the following dialogue:

While Rabbi Simon and Rabbi Elazar were sitting, Rabbi Ya’akov bar Acha passed in front of them. The one said to the other, “Let us stand before him, because he is a man who fears sin.” The other said, “Let us stand before him because he is a scholar.” He replied, “I tell you he fears sin and you tell me he is a scholar!?” [In other words, I praise his fear of sin, and you think that being a scholar is greater?] (Shabbat 31b)

The one who believes that chokhma is more important than yira does not negate the fact that yira must precede chokhma. The kind of chokhma which may be more important than yira is only one which is rooted in yira. Chazal say (e.g. Ta’anit 7a) that chokhma which is not rooted in yira, God forbid, is not an elixir of life but rather a potion of death.

So, in speaking of “Derekh eretz kadma la-Torah,” we should not in any way prejudge what is more or less important, simply because one precedes the other. The question of importance is a totally independent issue. But as far as kedima—what provides the matrix, the context, the foundation—one can speak of the logical and not only the temporal priority of derekh eretz over Torah.

Thus, our specific Jewish commitment rests on our universal commitment, and one cannot address oneself only to the specific elements while totally ignoring the general and the universal ones. Therefore, in delineating what a ben-Torah should be striving for, the initial level of aspiration is a general one: to be a mensch, to hold basic universal values, to meet normative universal demands.

This point has no bearing upon the question of the temporal sequence via which a person attains his values. I mentioned before that Chazal say there was a period stretching over millennia during which the world had derekh eretz and didn’t have Torah. This does not mean that, moving from the macrocosm to the microcosm, one therefore should practice the same while educating his children, saying, “We’ll devote the first ten or so years to making a mensch out of him, and then when he is bar-mitzva we will see to it that he becomes an observant Jew as well.” Obviously, with- in the world in which we live, this is not an advisable option. If you want your child to be a ben-Torah and a shomer mitzvot, you have to imbue him with values of Torah and yirat Shamayim from a very early age. But this still means that as he grows and matures, he must be given to understand that he needs to address himself to various levels of obligation, one being universal and the other specific to him as a Jew.


1 The second level of responsibility will be addressed in lecture #3 and the third level in lecture #4. 2 This was later printed as, “Abortion: A Halakhic Perspective,” Tradition 25 (1991), pp. 3-12, and appears on Yeshivat Har Etzion’s Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash:


3 See Bava Kama 90b-91b and Rambam, Hilkhot Chovel U-mazik 5:1. 4 Rambam, Hilkhot Sanhedrin 26:3.

Shabbat 135a, Bava Batra 110b.

Commentary on the Mishna, Chullin 7:6.

See, for example, Chullin 33a and Sanhedrin 59a.

(Based on a transcript by Ramon Widmonte.  This sicha was originally delivered to first-year students at Yeshivat Har Etzion in Winter 5747 [1986-7]. It has not been reviewed by Harav Lichtenstein.)

The lectures in this series have been collected into a book entitled, By His Light: Character and Values in the Service of God.



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