Judaism and conscience

In About.com Judaism, Rabbi Shraga Simmons of Aish.com argues that Jews should not blindly trust their conscience but rather follow the Torah. This is so, says Simmons, for two basic reasons:

  1. “There are times when you know objectively that something is good for you, but your physical desires get in the way and distort your outlook.” For example, you know you should get out of bed in the morning and be productive, but your lazy side tells you to go back to sleep.
  2. What a person thinks of as “good” and “bad” is influenced by social ideologies. For example, the Nazis redefined the term “human being” so that it did not include Jews. Therefore, killing Jews was not murder. Rather, it was considered “good” to eliminate them.

The Torah, says Simmons, provides “a greater system. Something above and beyond the determination of mortal man.”

Simmons’ reasoning makes sense. The problem with his argument is that the Torah is not a monolithic body of answers to today’s questions. Rather, it is a combination of Written Law (the word of G-d) and the Oral Law (the traditions passed down from man to man). So what is a person to do when they either

1) do not know what to do because of ignorance of Jewish law or

2) do not know what to do because Jewish opinions differ or

3) know what the halachic standpoint is but disagree with it on the basis of their conscience?

There appears to be an answer in Progressive Judaism. As Wikipedia explains, Progressive Judaism endorses halacha, but with the following qualifications:

1) Commandments (mitzvot) from G-d to man are less important than commandments between people and each other. Social justice is primary.

2) Personal morality is primary— “ideas and commandments that contradict the contemporary Jew's conscience or consciousness” are rejected.

In fact, Progressive Judaism “opposes any form of coercion on obeying mitzvot. The individual is expected – and obligated – to determine in a sovereign and intelligent manner his or her spiritual life.” Therefore, some Progressive Jews may emphasize dietary laws, while others may be more strict about Sabbath.

The problems with Progressive Judaism, though, are that:

1) All the mitzvot come from G-d, and we do not necessarily know whether mitzvot between G-d and man are less important than those between people and each other.

2) If we make a conscience judgment on our own, we may be mistaken. If we follow halacha, we are guaranteed not to get in trouble with G-d.

The remedy for #1 is to avoid making value judgments on mitzvot and instead strive to fulfill all of them equally well.

The remedy for #2 is trickier. People were given free will for a reason—so that they could exercise the capacity to make moral judgments. It is impossible to know what the halacha is in every situation. Moreover, it is very possible to disagree with the conclusions reached by mainstream Orthodox rabbis about some of the issues involving contemporary life. So in a case where someone does not know (and can’t find out) or just does not agree on the basis of their conscience, it may be possible that G-d allows us to make our own decisions. I say “may be” very guardedly. Because once you open the door to just doing whatever you personally believe in limited situations, it is a short step toward disregarding all of halacha.

The answer is, if you don’t know the law, try to find out what it is before just doing whatever you want.

If you do know the law (you know all the relevant opinions), but disagree with it, then make your best judgment about whether to follow the law anyway (trusting the authority of the rabbis) or not to follow it (trusting in your innate capacity to distinguish between right and wrong). I believe that G-d will understand, either way. Just be careful.