The Torah forbids all sorts of activities. Some of them seem pretty bad: theft and murder, for example. But why does the Torah forbid wearing linsey-woolsey (Deut. 22:11), or planting wheat in the vineyard (Deut. 22:9)?
Are those activities forbidden just for arbitrary reasons, or are they forbidden because they are evil? Does God punish people for disobeying arbitrary rules?
Euthyphro’s dilemma; in Plato’s dialogue, Socrates asks Euthyphro whether deeds are evil because God hates them, or God hates them because they are evil.
Rambam rejects the idea that sins can possibly be arbitrary tests of obedience. Two arguments for Rambam:
1. An arbitrary commandment would have to come from God’s will, rather than God’s wisdom. But Rambam asserts that God cannot have divisible characteristics, “will” that differs from “wisdom.” To assert that God has internal division amounts to a flaw in monotheism (Guide of the Perplexed 3:26).
2. Arbitrary commandments have no rational purpose. People who act with rational purpose in ways that achieve their ends are called intelligent. People who act in ways that do not achieve their ends are said to perform vain, futile or frivolous acts. “A man endowed with intellect is incapable of saying that any action of God is vain, futile or frivolous” (Guide 2:25; see also 3:31).
Rambam does believe that the details of a commandment can qualify as arbitrary. If it make sense that we have some ritualized method of killing an animal for food, perhaps the details of that method do not matter (Guide 3:26; as, to pick a modern example, we need traffic lights, but which color will signify “go” and which “stop” may qualify as arbitrary).
So Rambam believes that adequate reasons exist for every commandment, though we might not figure out a good reason for each one, and we should not claim that we have figured out “the” reason.
Rambam asserts that “the sole object of the law is to benefit us.” Further, that “every one of the six hundred thirteen precepts serves to inculcate some truth, to remove some erroneous opinion, to establish proper relations in society, to diminish evil, to train in good manners, or to warn against bad habits. All this depends upon three things: opinions, morals and social conduct” (3:31).
Or do sins have bad consequences? For whom?
Rambam clearly asserts, as we have seen, that bad consequences (for the sinner or for other humans) define the sin. God would not have forbidden anything unless it has bad consequences. This apparently makes Rambam a consequentialist (who evaluates acts by their consequences), rather than a deontologist (who evaluates acts by their relationship to duties). Some readers think Rambam really expresses a virtue ethic (who evaluates acts by what sort of person the actor becomes).
Or perhaps sins have bad consequences in that God punishes sinners.
A straightforward reading of many passages in the TaNaKH clearly leads to this conclusions. See, for example, the warnings in Behukotai (Lev. 26:14ff) and Ki Tavo (Deut. 28:15ff).
A problem with this model: It does not seem to work in practice. The objection appears in the biblical books of Kohelet and Job; but you do not need a book to find examples of the objection.
In the commentary on the Mishnah, in his introduction to the tenth chapter of Sanhedrin, as summarized by Israel Drazin, “Maimonides contends that people are encouraged to believe in reward and punishment until they are sufficiently intellectually mature to understand the truth and stop insisting on bribes like the immature child.” (Drazin’s blog, Thoughts on Aug. 10, 2014).
Does God mind if we sin? Does it hurt God's feelings?
Should we describe God as having emotions at all?
Many biblical texts describe God’s emotions, especially anger and love.
One text even describes God as rejoicing to bring about the downfall of sinning Jews just as God rejoices to reward “And it shall come to pass, that as the LORD rejoiced over you to do you good, and to multiply you; so the LORD will rejoice over you to cause you to perish, and to destroy you; and ye shall be plucked from off the land whither thou goest in to possess it” (Deut. 28:63).
Rambam objects to attributing emotions to God.
R. Abraham Joshua Heschel objects to “the anesthetization of God.” R. Heschel rather asserts:
The prophets never thought that God’s anger is something that cannot be accounted for, unpredictable, irrational. It is never a spontaneous outburst, but a reaction occasioned by the conduct of man. Indeed, it is the major task of the prophet to set forth the facts that account for it, to insist that the anger of God is not a blind, explosive force, operating without reference to the behavior of man, but rather voluntary and purposeful, motivated by concern for right and wrong. . . . It is a secondary emotion, never the ruling passion, disclosing only a part of God’s way with man (The Prophets, 2:62-63).
Emotions come from recognizing that what exits does not conforms, or does conform, with what we want. Does it make sense for God to suffer from a gap between what exists in creation and what God wants? R. Heschel seems to say yes, because humans have free will.
And someone who decides to sin . . . does that person deserve to suffer?
Perhaps, because “the soul that sins, it shall die” (Ezekiel 18:20).
But generally, in Torah, the society that sins earns negative consequences: Individuals may get caught up in the sins of the whole society. See the second paragraph of the Shema (Deut. 11;13-21) and the beginning of Amos (1:3-2:5).
Or only if the whole society sins? But what can we do about that?
What are the responsibilities of decent persons in a sinning society?
Should they keep a low profile, and keep their hands clean?
Or do they have responsibility to try to change the society? How?
Are the negative consequences to society punishment?
“If you will consider my decrees loathsome, and if my judgments your being rejects, not to do my commandments and to annul my covenant, then I will do the same to you; I will assign on you panic, swelling lesions, and burning fever . . .” (Lev. 26:15-160.
“If you will observe the entire commandment that I command you . . . So that you may long live in the land that the Lord has sworn to your fathers to give to you as the heaven above the earth.” (Deut. 11:8-9).
Should we look down on people who transgress? Why?
Beruria tells her husband, Rabbi Meir, not to pray for the end of sinners, but only for the end of sin “Let sins [or sinners] be finished off” (Psalm 104:35). Let them repent (Berakhot 10a).
“To fear the Lord is to hate evil” (Proverbs 8:13). R. Nahman bar Yitzhak asserts that one is commanded to hate an evildoer (Pesahim 113b).
Perhaps sin hinders a person from becoming holy (virtue ethics).
“who has sanctified us with his commandments and commanded us to . . .”
“You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy” (Lev. 19:2), and “You shall make yourselves holy, and you shall become holy; I am the Lord your God” (Lev. 20:7).
Sometimes sin profanes the name of God
“and you shall not profane my holy name” (Lev. 22:32).
Perhaps sin distances a person from God
(See Cain’s comment in Gen. 4:14: “And from your face I shall be hidden.” God had not told Cain anything about how his relationship with God would change. Cain apparently just realized that act would make God inaccessible to him.)
Perhaps sin injures a person’s place in the world to come
(See Mishnah Sanhedrin 1):1, 3 and elsewhere; see especially Gluckel of Hameln).
Above all, my children, be honest in money matters, both with Jews and Gentiles, lest the name of Heaven be profaned. If you have in hand money or goods belonging to other people, give more care to them than if they were your own, so that, please God, you will do no one a wrong. The first question put to a man in the next world is, whether he was faithful in business dealings. Let a man work ever so hard amassing wealth dishonestly, let him during his lifetime provide for his children fat dowries and upon his death a rich heritage – yet woe, I say, and woe again to the wicked who for the sake of enriching his children has lost his share in the world to come! For the fleeting moment he has sold Eternity.
Maybe the negative consequences of sin devolve on the self (virtue ethics)
“He comes before men, and says: I have sinned and twisted that which was right, and it has not profited me.” (Job 33:27). These are the words of one of Job’s friends, Elihu, describing the acts of a penitent and thus rebuking Job, who insists on his own relative innocence. In the continuation of his speech, Elihu asserts that God accepts repentance two or three times, allowing people to return from the grave to the light of life, which seems more like “sin distances a person from God” ethics.
Maybe our sins have cosmic consequences in supernal realms.
In general: “Great is tzedakah for it hastens the redemption” (Bava Batra 10a).
In specific: In Lurianic Kabbalah, the universe as created contained vessels to hold the light. Some of the vessels shattered. Proper behavior can repair vessels so they can hold light again (tikkun olam); improper behavior can keep the shards (kelipot) broken.
Joseph Gorfinkle’s translation of Rambam in his commentary on the Mishnah, introduction to the ethics of the fathers, the famous “8 chapters,” (Shemonah Perakim), in Chapter 6 distinguishes two models of those who avoid sin: “Concerning the Difference between the Saintly or Temperamentally Ethical Man and him who subdues his Passions and has Self-restraint”
PHILOSOPHERS maintain that though the man of self-restraint performs moral and praiseworthy deeds, yet he does them desiring and craving all the while for immoral deeds, but, subduing his passions and actively fighting against a longing to do those things to which his faculties, his desires, and his psychic disposition excite him, succeeds, though with constant vexation and irritation, in acting morally. The saintly man, however, is guided in his actions by that to which his inclination and disposition prompt him, in consequence of which he acts morally from innate longing and desire. Philosophers unanimously agree that the latter is superior to, and more perfect than, the one who has to curb his passions, although they add that it is possible for such a one to equal the saintly man in many regards. In general, however, he must necessarily be ranked lower in the scale of virtue, because there lurks within him the desire to do evil, and, though he does not do it, yet be- cause his inclinations are all in that direction, it denotes the presence of an immoral psychic disposition. Solomon, also, entertained the same idea when he said, "The soul of the wicked desireth evil", and, in regard to the saintly man's rejoicing in doing good, and the discontent experienced by him, who is not innately righteous, when required to act justly, he says, "It is bliss to the righteous to do justice, but torment to the evil-doer". 1 This is manifestly an agreement between Scripture and philosophy.
When, however, we consult the Rabbis on this subject, it would seem that they consider him who desires iniquity, and craves for it (but does not do it), more praiseworthy and perfect than the one who feels no torment at refraining from evil; and they even go so far as to maintain that the more praiseworthy and perfect a man is, the greater is his desire to commit iniquity, and the more irritation does he feel at having to desist from it. This they express by saying, "Whosoever is greater than his neighbor has likewise greater evil inclinations". Again, as if this were not sufficient, they even go so far as to say that the reward of him who overcomes his evil inclination is commensurate with the torture occasioned by his resistance, which thought they express by the words, "According to the labor is the reward".
Furthermore, they command that man should conquer his desires, but they forbid one to say, "I, by my nature, do not desire to commit such and such a trangression, even though the Law does not forbid it". Rabbi Simeon ben Gamaliel summed up this thought in the words, "Man should not say, 'I do not want to eat meat together with milk; I do not want to wear clothes made of a mixture of wool and linen; I do not want to enter into an incestuous marriage', but he should say, 'I do indeed want to, yet I must not, for my father in Heaven has forbidden it'".
At first blush, by a superficial comparison of the sayings of the philosophers and the Rabbis, one might be inclined to say that they contradict one another. Such, however, is not the case. Both are correct and, moreover, are not in disagreement in the least, as the evils which the philosophers term such and of which they say that he who has no longing for them is more to be praised than he who desires them but conquers his passion are things which all people commonly agree are evils, such as the shedding of blood, theft, robbery, fraud, injury to one who has done no harm, ingratitude, contempt for parents, and the like. The prescriptions against these are called commandments (HlSfi), about which the Rabbis said, "If they had not already been written in the Law, it would be proper to add them". Some of our later sages, who were infected with the unsound principles of the Mutakallimun, called these rational laws. 3 There is no doubt that a soul which has the desire for, and lusts after, the above-mentioned misdeeds, is imperfect, that a noble soul has absolutely no desire for any such crimes, and experiences no struggle in refraining from them. When, how- ever, the Rabbis maintain that he who overcomes his desire has more merit and a greater reward (than he who has no temptation), they say so only in reference to laws that are ceremonial prohibitions. This is quite true, since, were it not for the Law, they would not at all be considered transgressions. Therefore, the Rabbis say that man should permit his soul to entertain the natural inclination for these things, but that the Law alone should restrain him from them.
Ponder over the wisdom of these men of blessed memory manifest in the examples they adduce. They do not declare, "Man should not say, 'I have no desire to kill, to steal and to lie, but I have a desire for these things, yet what can I do, since my Father in heaven forbids it!'" The instances they cite are all from the ceremonial law, such as partaking of meat and milk together, wearing clothes made of wool and linen, and entering into consanguinuous marriages. These, and similar enactments are what are called "my statutes" (Tllpn), which, as the Rabbis say are "statutes which I (God) have enacted for thee, which thou hast no right to subject to criticism, which the nations of the world attack and which Satan denounces, as for instance, the statutes concerning the red heifer, the scapegoat, and so forth".
Those transgressions, however, which the later sages called rational laws are termed commandments (filSfi), as the Rabbis explained.
It is now evident from all that we have said, what the transgressions are for which, if a man have no desire at all, he is on a higher plane than he who has a longing, but controls his passion for them; and it is also evident what the transgressions are of which the opposite is true. It is an astonishing fact that these two classes of expressions should be shown to be compatible with one another, but their content points to the truth of our explanation.
This ends the discussion of the subject-matter of this chapter.
Of course, the answers should differ for different classes of misdeeds.
Rambam identifies classes of sins that hurt society, and bad habits that hurt the self, and failure to memorialize important truths, and failure to remember important events in our history.
Yeshayahu Leibowitz (born Riga, 1903 – died Israel 1994) at times rejected the distinction between different classes of misdeeds with different classes of imperatives.
He characteristically said, “The Torah does not recognize moral imperatives stemming from knowledge of natural reality or from awareness of man’s duty to his fellow man. All it recognizes are Mitzvoth, divine imperatives.”
For Leibowitz, the attempt to understand how we benefit from doing mitzvot, or how we harm ourselves in transgressing, establishes the goal of commandments to benefit ourselves, rather than obedience to the commander. As such, this philosophy of commandment becomes a kind of idolatry: it imagines that the goal of Torah is to benefit ourselves.
Note the implications for prayer: “Only the prayer which one prays as the observance of a Mitzvah is religiously significant. The spontaneous prayer ("when he is overwhelmed and pours out his complaint before God") a man prays of his own accord is, of course, halakhically permissible, but, like the performance of any act which has not been prescribed, its religious value is limited. As a religious act it is even faulty, since he who prays to satisfy his needs sets himself up as an end, as though God were a means for promotion of his welfare.”
So he could say “Ethics, when regarded as unconditionally asserting its own validity, is an atheistic category par excellence.”
Daniel Rynhold, wrote the entry “Yeshayahu Leibowitz” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Rynhold summarizes Leibowitz’s approach to our problem:
At this point, Leibowitz's description of the religious and halakhic realms, even if disputable, appears to be consistent. Judaism is for him a deontological system of divine duties, rather than a teleological system designed to promote any form of human “good.” From a human perspective, the mitzvoth might indeed be meaningless; if they do end up promoting some form of human good, this would be accidental and not part of the essential nature of mitzvoth. But while this conception of mitzvoth works well for most ritual commandments, it comes under pressure in relation to what would ordinarily be termed ethical mitzvoth—were it not for the fact that this is now an oxymoron for Leibowitz—such that even “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” is to be regarded as a mitzvah, not as an ethical precept. The key phrase in the verse containing this commandment for Leibowitz is that which follows immediately to end the verse: “I am God.” It is a duty towards one's neighbor that is based on man's position before God, not his position before his fellow man.