Rav Amital and Natural Morality

As has been noted by many of his students, this evening concludes the fifth yahrtzeit of Rav Yehuda Amital ZT"L, founding Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion, Israeli Minister, Holocaust survivor, and teacher of tens of thousands.

One of Rav Amital's favorite topics was that of natural morality, namely the notion that we don't need any seforim to know that it is our responsibility to act with decency and integrity. I still vividly recall Rav Amital's animated voice when he told us at a sicha that this fundamental precept is not his own. It is rather that of his role model Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (Rav Amital carried a copy of Rav Kook's writings with him in the Camps), who stressed that the Torah embraces natural morality and does not come to contradict our ethical intuitions but to deepen and refine them. Indeed, continued Rav Amital, Rav Kook's stress on ethics was an oft-underappreciated aspect of his overall religious philosophy, and was neglected even by some of his outstanding students.

In support of his embrace of natural morality, Rav Amital was fond of citing the classic position of R. Moshe Shmuel Glasner, a grandson of the Hatam Sofer. In his classic commentary to Tractate Hullin entitled Dor Revi'i, R. Glasner discusses a scenario in which an individual has the option to eat either human flesh or a neveila, an animal that has not been properly slaughtered. The prohibition against cannibalism, according to the majority view among medieval commentators, is merely rabbinic, whereas the one concerning the neveila is biblical. At first glance, then, we would likely conclude that one must eat the human flesh before the animal meat. R. Glasner, however, contends that just the opposite is the case. That the Torah never explicitly prohibits cannibalism does not imply that the Torah takes no stand on the matter. Indeed, just the opposite is the case! The Torah omits the prohibition because it is a basic, rational axiom that it is abhorrent to eat human flesh. In this sense, the prohibition against cannibalism is even more severe than that of neveila. On the basis of this assertion, R. Glasner concludes that one must eat not the human flesh but the animal carcass first.

For those interested in learning more about Rav Amital's development of the theme of natural morality, see an edited summary of his recorded lectures here.

Additionally, in light of Rav Amital's passion for this subject, and to encourage further learning, I have uploaded my own incomplete but fairly extensive survey of Jewish approaches to the subject, both classical and contemporary.

It is my hope that by learning more about this foundational subject, we will come closer in our personal lives to integrating Rav Amital's vision of a life of Torah study and practice built upon a firm foundation of natural morality.