It is a debate that goes back to the time of Plato, who made it the theme of one of his dialogues, Euthyphro. The question: Is a thing good because God says it is good, or does God say it is good because it is good?
Underlying this dilemma is the issue of whether the realm of ethics exists independently from religion. Can a person be a good person if he is not religiously observant? Or, alternatively, can a person be religiously observant, and yet not be a good person?
I have developed a response based upon a passage in the Torah portion Kedoshim, one of the two parshiot we read this Shabbat.
The commentary of the medieval Rabbi Moses ben Nahman — Ramban or Nahmanides — confronts this issue head on.
The biblical verses read: “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the entire Israelite community and say to them: You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy.” Ramban is troubled by this concept. How is a person to know the standards for holiness or unholiness?
He resolves: “The answer lies in the fact that the Torah has clearly admonished us not to be promiscuous and to refrain from forbidden foods. But at the same time it permits marital relations and the consumption of meat and wine. It is therefore quite conceivable that a person will act improperly with his own wife, gluttonously consume quantities of meat, or become intoxicated with wine. He may utter vulgar obscenities, piously claiming that such language is not explicitly outlawed by the Torah. Such a person can be a naval b’reshut haTorah, a knave with the Torah’s permission.”
For Ramban, there are ethical standards that are distinct from sins. Conforming to the letter of the law will not guarantee that we are “good,” so the Torah asks that we be “holy.” For Ramban, holiness includes a wide range of behaviors neither prescribed nor prohibited by the Torah. He insists that the Torah deliberately refrains from anticipating every conceivable human ethical or moral challenge. The Torah just says, “Be holy.”
For Ramban, “holiness” is not synonymous with “saintliness;” rather, it is the expectation that we be neat and clean, courteous and polite, considerate and fair, modest and moderate. We are holy to the extent that we excel in the realms of ethics and morality.
Just last week the Jewish people lost a leader who exemplified this definition of holiness — Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, zihrono l’vracha, dean of the Yeshivat Har Etzion in Israel. His teachings, partly based upon the words of Ramban, support my assertion that it is indeed quite possible to be scrupulously observant of Jewish ritual and yet not be “good.” I agree with Rabbi Lichtenstein, who stated also that many are neglectful of ritual observance yet live up to the noblest ethical standards.
Ramban’s lesson should be a goal for all. Yes, we must observe every aspect of Torah to the best of our ability. But we must be especially cautious that in our dedication to obedience to the letter of the law, we not lose sight of its spirit of “holiness.”