Questions & Answers / A Few Words From Harold M. Schulweis

A senior member of the U.S. Conservative rabbinate, Rabbi Schulweis has long been troubled by the question of when one should disobey the Divine commandments. It's a question he examines in depth in his newest book.

Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis is one of the most well-known rabbis in the United States, respected for his long leadership of Valley Beth Shalom, in Encino, California (to which he arrived in 1970), for his many books and for his willingness to speak out publicly on matters of conscience. Perhaps the latter explains Schulweis' decision to now publish a short treatise on the subject of obedience and dissent within.

Judaism: "Conscience: The Duty to Obey and the Duty to Disobey" (Jewish Lights, 176 pages, $20). Schulweis believes God never intended for humankind to obey his commands mindlessly, but rather sees human and Creator as being interdependent. He points to Abraham and Moses, as well as other prophets, as feeling obligated to challenge God when his judgments seemed harsh, and to defend humanity when God was poised to mete out what they viewed as an overly severe punishment. It is conscience, suggests Schulweis, that prompts an individual to take responsibility for his or her actions, and not assume that God wants us to "just follow orders." It is conscience, he writes, that "lies between God and the human being and is the nexus that binds God and Israel in reciprocal covenant." The implications of this line of thought for contemporary life are obvious and many.

Harold Schulweis was born in New York in 1925. He studied at the Orthodox Yeshiva University there, but after becoming interested in the teachings of the maverick religious philosopher Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, he enrolled in rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary, from which he received Conservative ordination in 1950. He was one of the first Conservative rabbis to introduce the counting of women in the minyan (prayer quorum), and he has long used his pulpit to advance the cause of human rights. Schulweis also explains in his new book how he, like so many others, was profoundly affected by the trial in Israel of Adolf Eichmann, in 1961, and began to search for examples of Gentiles who had risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. Initially, he said, neither psychologists nor other Jews were particularly interested in the subject, but Schulweis persisted, and established what is today called the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous to provide stipends to the aging rescuers.

"Conscience" provides a number of case studies of Righteous Gentiles, including that of the late Sempo Sugihara, who served as Japan's consul general in Kaunas, Lithuania, and issued, in violation of his government's orders, 3,500 transfer visas to Japan that allowed Jews to find refuge there. Interviewed toward the end of his life, Sugihara explained in the most understated manner how he was able to disregard orders: "I knew that somebody would surely complain to me in the future. But I myself thought this would be the right thing to do. There is nothing wrong in saving many people's lives." Haaretz was in touch with Rabbi Schulweis via e-mail from California. Below, he responds to our questions about his new book in a short essay.

David B. Green

Two related motivations led to the writing of this book the one personal, the other universal, and both centered on the distinctive character of Jewish moral conscience.

For a long period of time in my Jewish studies, I found myself alternately exhilarated and distraught when reading certain passages of the Torah buoyed by the moral grandeur of the Holiness Code (Leviticus 19:1-18), and distraught by other biblical edicts and narratives. The harsh treatment of the stubborn and rebellious son (Deuteronomy 22:18-21) and the threatening judgment of the Ordeal of Jealousy, hanging over the head of the wife suppressed by her jealous husband (Numbers 5:12-31), or the fierce judgment against the city tainted by idolatry (Deut. 13:13-19) or the rabbinic ruling on the "chained woman" (agunah) or the excommunication of the mamzer severely questioned my confidence in the mercy and justice of the author of those laws.

What is a serious Jew confronted by such biblical rulings to do? Is he to simply accept "divinely revealed laws," or cast them aside as morally otiose? Is his choice a matter of "take it or leave it," or wiser yet to ignore the moral and legal conflicts altogether? Contemporaries are embarrassed or muted by such unjust laws.

The dilemma is more serious than the conflict between science and religion. Judaism has long learned to accommodate the discoveries of Newton and Darwin with its own cosmological- anthropological views. Two truths with separate and distinctive goals are easier to live with than two contradictory moral positions.

One treatment of the Bible's morally troublesome edicts is to dismiss them as primitive. "In those days," the Bible and the Talmudic sages were ignorant of the ideology of such phenomena as leprosy and homosexuality, or the status of women or the cruelty that left the agunah chained to unmarriageable widowhood, or to the excommunication of the mamzer. It is then argued that the rabbis of that period said nothing and did nothing with these morally unhappy laws and edicts. It is therefore left to the culture and sophistication of modernity to alter the laws. Left out of the traditional heritage is the manner in which the sages of tradition exercised moral audacity and which led to the alteration and nullification of morally unseemly laws.

In all of this, the wise, courageous and valiant efforts of traditional rabbis to correct the literal or fundamentalist reading of the Bible is dismissed as foreign, extrahalakhic, subjective rhetoric. The rabbis' spiritual audacity was able to reverse morally dubious laws or nullify them, or to make them irrelevant, both for yesterday and tomorrow. As the rabbis put it, "Such laws never were and never will be."

The implications of such dissent from morally troubling laws or narratives are ignored, their relevance for spiritual and moral renewal are cast aside. A dangerous split thinking has segregated conscience from halakha, and ethics from ritual. We are left with uniformity, compliance, acquiescence and obedience. Lost to the tradition is the revolutionary covenant of Abraham and God, enabling the moral hero to challenge the intention of the Divine Commander.

"Shall the judge of all the earth not do justly?" The question is not one of nerve and disrespect, it is an appeal against God in the name of God for the sake of God. Unique in the annals of world religions is the sanctified challenge of human conscience addressed to priest, prophet, patriarch, prince, pope. "Commandedness" is not sufficient. One is obligated to ask whether the commandment is moral.

Whether an authentic voice, or the projected voice of a ventriloquist, tens of thousands of men and women have goosestepped to the barks of a commander. In a world replete with Holocausts, politicides and genocides, who can deny the assessment of the historian and social philosopher C.P. Snow: "When you think of all the long and gloomy history of man, you will find that more hideous crimes have been committed in the name of obedience than ever have been committed in the name of rebellion." Erich Fromm elsewhere wryly observed, "Human history began with an act of disobedience, and it is not unlikely that it will be terminated by an act of obedience."

The depth and uniqueness of Jewish conscience must be reclaimed for the sake of humanity, civilization and Judaism.

Fundamentalists read the Binding of Isaac as a vindication of Abraham's obedience to God's command. Abraham is not only willing to sacrifice his son, but to sacrifice his intellect and his moral sense. The Jewish philosopher J. B. Soloveitchik extols the obedience of Abraham as derived from one who is "madly in love with God." Not unlike the Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard, Soloveitchik suspends the ethical for loyalty to God's will. In my reading of the episode, it is conscience,

"the angel of the Lord," that prevails over God's command. For this and in so many other rabbinic instances, the conscience of the religious hero rejoices God and blesses his followers with the repeated phrase, "By your life, you have taught Me. I will cancel My decrees and put in their stead your laws."

This God of the rabbis is not authoritarian, and his disciples are not slavish followers. God listens and is moved to change His verdicts in the meeting of conscience.

They speak to each other conscience-to-conscience. There is no Hebrew word for "conscience" to be found in the Bible or rabbinic literature. Despite this, conscience is the subterranean stream that underlies halakhic ethical and theological stances in the world. In modern Hebrew, the word for "conscience" is "matzpun," or "hiddenness." And in modern Hebrew, a word derived from "matzpun" is "matzpen," or "compass."

In this homiletical fashion, conscience may be understood as the inner hidden compass that helps us navigate the shoals of cynicism and despair. In a world dominated by ecclesiastical and secular authoritarians who behead, rape, torture and destroy human beings, it is of utmost importance that healthy and responsive religion leave room for the therapy of conscience and cultivating the compassion of moral sensibility.

The duty to obey and the duty to disobey are complementary. Alone, the duty to obey promotes a culture devoid of responsibility. The duty to disobey alone points to the madness of anarchy. Both are needed to check and balance the extremism of each. In our day, the pendulum swings toward the pole of obedience. It reduces the human being into an instrument for another's wishes, whether in the name of God or the state or industry. The swing of the pendulum should not be arrested in one place. The culture of moral conscience stiffens the spine and strengthens the heart and mind, framing the character of a healthy civilization.

Harold M. Schulweis