Thoughts to Ponder Number 42
29 Adar Sheini, 5760; April 5, 2000
Religious and Secular Morality

When discussing matters related to the ethical or religious foundation of sexual behavior, human beings tend to have severe differences of opinion. While up till the second half of the 20th century a more conservative approach was still prevailing, a radical change took place in the second half of the last century. Well established norms were suddenly challenged and often replaced by radical approaches which demanded more "liberty" and "broadmindedness." This provoked a major confrontation between the conservatives and those who claimed that they were "modern-minded."

Since those days, we have been witness to a great amount of debates about such topics as homosexuality, a marriage between people of the same sex and abortion. Both sides try to prove their point of view with learned dissertations and heavy arguments.

But those who survey this literature have long since been convinced that such debates will lead nowhere. There is no reconciliation nor any modus vivendi which will bring these camps any closer. The reason is obvious: there is no common ground which could be used to allow for any kind of useful debate.

In the Mishna in Chagiga (2.1) we are confronted with several educational problems related to the esoteric world. The Mishna asks: how many people are permitted to be present when a teacher lectures on matters "beyond?" It concludes that some issues such as the secrets of Creation (Ma'aseh Bereshith) should only be discussed with one person at a time, while other metaphysical topics such as the ones mentioned in the book of Yechezkel (the Merkava, the celestial world) should only be discussed by a sage of great wisdom and only in front of one person. The main reason given for these rulings is to prevent misunderstanding. When only one student at a time is present there will be little chance that the student will misunderstand his mentor. He will be forced to listen carefully to every word the teacher speaks. He does not have the luxury to doze off and only hear half of the lecture and draw the wrong conclusions.

At the opening of the same Mishna we are informed that matters of "arayoth" (sexuality and its prohibitions) should not be discussed with more than two students at a time. The reason for this "lenient" rule is that both will make sure that they hear all that is said about sexuality, since most human beings are pre-occupied with sexuality. (Freud's sexual libido?) So, even when the teacher is only speaking to one of them, the other one will listen. Three, however, is seen to be a problem, since the other two may start a discussion between themselves and draw the wrong conclusions and permit what is forbidden or vice versa.

The Maharsha (Rabbi Shmuel Eliezer Eidels, 1555-1631), however, gives a completely different interpretation. According to his opinion, the many rules related to sexuality are, in fact, totally unknown and completely mysterious. No explanation is available. They belong to the same category as Ma'aseh Bereshith, the Creation chapter and the esoteric observations concerning the metaphysical world by the prophet Yechezkel. Matters like these are beyond human understanding. What, for example, asks Maharsha, is the reason why it is prohibited to marry one's sister? Why is the sister of one's living wife prohibited but permitted after the wife has died? (According to the Torah one is allowed to marry a second wife, it was the sages who forbade this in later days).

To claim that any of the prohibited relationships are fundamentally "unethical" is untenable for the obvious reason that the children of Adam and Chava (Eve) married their brothers and sisters. Nowhere is it written that this was forbidden. In fact, it was the only way that God saw fit to increase the human species. Similarly we see that Yaacov married two sisters, something which later became prohibited. And, as is well known, these marriages became the foundation stone of the Jewish people and were indispensable!

It is for this reason, says Maharsha, that one should only discuss these matters with two people at a time. Otherwise, two students would start arguing between themselves while the mentor would only concentrate on the third. They would advance all sorts of explanations, claim that they found the raison d'etre and go on to permit or forbid all sorts of marriages.

Maharsha's observation is therefore of primary importance. All discussions of why certain marriages or sexual relationships are forbidden are doomed to fail! No human reasoning is able to explain them in any consistent way. It is for this reason that religious thinkers should distance themselves from giving primary reasons for these prohibitions. It would be counter-productive and dangerous. This is true when discussing homosexuality or even abortion. Although these relationships are forbidden since the days of the creation of man, they are beyond human comprehension and should be accepted as such.

It is here we believe that a difficulty arises for secular philosophy and ethics. On the basis of which rational principle should a homosexual relationship be permitted but incest forbidden?

However ghastly our argument may sound, we are forced to ask what could there be wrong with incest, pederasty, fetishism, or bestiality from a secular perspective? As long as such a relationship takes place by mutual consent and nobody gets physically hurt, there should be no reason why these relationships should be forbidden. While several philosophers have attempted to give secular reasons why such acts should even be forbidden by secular law, we have to conclude that no consistent and rational argument has yet been forwarded which is fundamentally sound.

Arguments such as the "need for human dignity" or "social conduct" are of little meaning, because it is completely unclear why human dignity or social conduct should in fact be unchallenged norms in our society. Philosophers are not even in agreement what the definitions of these phrases should be.

We are therefore forced to conclude that when secular law forbids certain sexual acts it borrows from a system alien to its own philosophy. The secular understanding of sexual morality does not make any sense unless one admits that it is founded on religious premises. Religious thinkers, however, should not forget as Maharsha indicates, that neither can religious philosophy explain the subject for them.

These prohibitions cannot be the result of rational deduction or ethical contemplation but must be rooted in a "will" which is external to man. Either one accepts this external will or one rejects it. Once one rejects such an external will, there can be no distinction made between matters such as homosexuality and incest, and as such both relationships should be permitted.

One is reminded of the words of Professor E. S. Waterhouse: "A parasite is an independent organism, but its existence is none the less dependent upon its host. If the host perishes, the parasite perishes with it. Using the term in the scientific and not in an offensive way, may not morality which is not dependent of religion be parasitic upon the religious system within which it has grown up? Surely the question of morality independent of religion cannot be settled by reference to individuals whose moral life began in a community saturated with ideas of religion. ("The Religious Basis of Morality" in Essays presented to J.H. Hertz, pp 413-4, London 1942) Richard Livingstone in "Education for a World Adrift" adds: "We have inherited good habits and habits persist almost indefinitely, if there is nothing to destroy them. A plant may continue in apparent health for some time after its roots have been cut, but its days are numbered." (page 24, London, 1941)

It is, therefore, abundantly clear that secular society ultimately depends on religious values. To force religious values to be subordinate to secular law is, henceforth, a contradiction in terms.

Nathan T. Lopes Cardozo

Reproduction of this essay is permitted when printed in full.

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