By Rabba Sara Hurwitz
My parents moved our family out of apartheid South Africa in December 1989 with the dream of a new life where justice and equality prevailed. We settled in South Florida, and on Feb. 11, 1990, just two months after we had arrived, Nelson Mandela was released from prison. On that day, I discovered a role model for the pursuit of a good and just path. Mandela could have walked out of prison with anger and hate in his heart. Instead, he publicly called upon humanity to “conduct themselves with morality, integrity and consistency.”
For Mandela, the ethic of morality was an inherent part of his being. He emerged from prison with a deep-seated belief that the rest of humanity, each of us, would have the same moral consciousness. This raises the question: Are our lives guided by our own moral intuition or must we rely on God and the Torah for instruction on how to conduct ourselves?
The Torah seems to outline a code of conduct for living ethical lives. We are told to love our neighbor as ourselves; to value the stranger, the orphan and the widow; and we are warned against inappropriate behavior. I find it surprising then, that the Torah has to once again remind us to “do what is good (“tov”) and right (“yashar”) in the sight of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 12:28).
Ramban (Nahmanides on Deuteronomy 6:18) explains that it would be impossible for the Torah to express in detail the proper behavior in every circumstance, and therefore, God teaches through the laws in the Torah that one must go above and beyond the letter of the law, and act with morality—to do what is yashar and tov.
According to this formulation, God dictates our morality. The Torah is the blueprint offered by God for how people must live out ethical lives; there is no space for moral intuition independent of God’s guidance.
And yet, Rashi, basing his comments on the Sifrei (Deuteronomy 12:28), credits the individual for determining what is right. The Sifrei breaks up the phrase “good and right” so that these two values are placed in two different spheres: “For you will be doing what is good and right—good in the eyes of Heaven and right in the eyes of people—thus said Rabbi Akiva.”
Rabbi Akiva offers the belief that people do indeed have an inherent moral conscience that is independent of God’s will. According to this interpretation, the Torah presents moral guidelines and teaches how to be tov, but humans determine what is yashar, what is right.
This understanding, however, ignores the end of the verse: “…do what is good and right in the sight of the Lord.” God must, therefore, instill within us the drive and ability to be righteous. People strive towards morality not because God demands it, nor because moral intuition is naturally inherent within each of us. We do what is tov and yashar because we are seeking to know God. In Chapter 54 of his treatise “The Guide for the Perplexed,” Rambam (Maimonides) explains that when a person acquires the highest and most complete knowledge of God, a person “will then be determined always to seek loving kindness, judgment and righteousness, and thus imitate the ways of God.”
For Rambam, God is the source of morality, and in knowing God we begin to emulate God’s ways of tov and yashar. The journey to knowing God shapes the way we choose to live our lives, and we must do so with chesed (“kindness”), mishpat (“judgment”) and tzedakah (“righteousness”) as our guideposts.
The Zohar (II 198a) takes Rambam’s idea of morality one step further. With every act of kindness and every moment we are guided by moral intuition, we are acting Godly, to the extent that we even have powers of creation. “Whoever feels compassion for the poor and restores his soul is considered by the blessed Holy One as if he created his soul.”
I believe that Nelson Mandela, who just recently celebrated his 95th birthday, has helped create many souls. He pursued the ethics tov and yashar, of good and right, through actions that influenced thousands like myself to pursue justice, bringing light into the world. I like to think that Mandela’s moral consciousness is driven by an attempt to manifest God’s glory on this Earth. Like Mandela, we each have the capacity to choose to pursue that which is good and right, tov and yashar, thereby continuing God’s creative process and transforming the darkness of injustice into light.
Rabba Sara Hurwitz is a member of the Rabbinic staff at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale and serves as Dean of Yeshivat Maharat, the first Orthodox school to ordain women as clergy. Rabba Sara graduated from Barnard College and subsequently completed Drisha’s three-year Scholars Circle Program. After five more years of study, she was ordained in 2009 by Rabbis Avi Weiss, and Daniel Sperber. Rabba Sara was awarded the Hadassah Foundation Bernice S. Tannenbaum prize. She was named as one of the Jewish Week’s 36 under 36, the Forward50 most influential Jewish leaders, Newsweek’s 50 most influential rabbis, and is a Bikkurim fellow.
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