In Defense of Natural Morality: A Note on the Case of Sedom

Not a day goes by when I don't recall the impact of my youthful exposure to Mori ve-Rabbi Rav Aharon Lichtenstein zt"l. Rav Aharon and Rav Amital both expended significant energies exploring the concept of natural morality. I am therefore reposting this brief piece ahead of Rav Lichtenstein's second yahrtzeit.

Avraham's prayer on behalf of the evildoers of Sedom and his demand "Ha-shofet kol ha'aretz lo ya'aseh mishpat, Shall the judge of the entire earth not perform justice?" (Bereishit 18:25) is often cited in support of the notion that there is an independent morality against which God is held accountable. Indeed, in his classic essay "Does Jewish Tradition Recognize an Ethic Independent of Halakha," R. Aharon Lichtenstein zt"l draws precisely this conclusion:

The fact remains that the existence of natural morality is clearly assumed in much that is quite central to our tradition. All discussion of theodicy is predicated upon it. As Benjamin Whichcote, the seventeenth-century Cambridge Platonist, pointed out, one cannot ask, "Shall, then, the judge of the whole earth not do justice?" unless one assumes the existence of an unlegislated justice to which, as it were, God Himself is bound; and which, one might add, man can at least apprehend sufficiently to ask the question.

Others, however, cite Rashi (Bereishit 18:32) in proposing an alternative reading. Rashi explains that Avraham extrapolated from the story of the flood that eight righteous individuals - Noach, his three sons and their wives, in addition to God Himself - are insufficient to salvage a city. On this basis, Avraham concluded that a minimum of nine righteous individuals is necessary to save a locale. Arguably, then, it was not Avraham's intuition but rather his observation of God's previous behavior that led him to question God's judgment in the case of Sedom. On this view, Rashi's comment belies the natural morality reading of Avraham's prayer.

Contrary to this interpretation, I'd like to offer four arguments in defense of the natural morality approach to Avraham and Sedom:

  1. Contrary to Rashi, the face reading of the pesukim does not seem to reference any prior incidents. If Avraham intended to appeal to a previous experience in his interactions with God, he could have easily done so. The simple thrust of the text is that justice, at least in this circumstance, is self-evident and requires no definition.

  2. Rashi's comments do not necessarily prove that the Flood provided the logical basis for Avraham's prayer. Rather, Rashi's interpretation merely indicates that Avraham deduced from the flood the precise number of righteous individuals on whose behalf God will save an entire city. The underlying principle that God will save the righteous, and perhaps even the wicked, may well be rooted in Avraham's instinctive sense of justice. Indeed, the fact that Rashi only cites this argument at the chapter's conclusion, not on the verse of "Ha-shofet kol ha'aretz" indicates that the precedent of the Flood did not motivate Avraham's basic argument.

  3. Despite Rashi's comment, a number of acharonim, clearly endorse natural morality readings of the passage. For example, Rav Hirsch writes:

This dialogue – so to call it – between Avraham and the Judge of the world, in which a creature of dust dares to step before the Presence of God with his feelings of justice and finds agreement and approval, is a guarantee of the Godliness of the voice within us which pleads for justice and righteousness. (End Chap. 18)

And in his justly famous introduction to Sefer Bereishit, Netziv forwards a position that can be understood as a form of natural morality. Wondering why the Talmud (Avoda Zara 25a) terms the patriarchs "yesharim, upright," Netziv explains:

Now we understand the reason for the unique praise attributed to our patriarchs: not only were they righteous and pious and not only did they love God to their fullest abilities, but, in addition, they were upright... This is exemplified by the great extent to which Abraham, our father, applied himself, through intensive prayers and appeals, to gain the preservation of wicked Sedom. Abraham beseeched God to spare Sedom even though he hated the people and their leaders to the fullest degree, because of the wickedness that saturated their very being. Nevertheless, he wanted them to continue to exist.

For Netziv, the patriarchs' most outstanding quality was not their commitment to the observance of mitzvot or even their religious passion, but their simple human decency.

[Indeed, Netziv's hakdama was so influential as to inspire later commentators to build on his thesis in interpreting other passages in Bereishit. For instance, in his Emet le-Yaakov, R. Yaakov Kaminetsky explains Avraham's decision to place his life at risk to save his nephew Lot on the basis of Avraham's unending commitment to yashrut.]

Numerous commentaries, then, despite Rashi's comments, interpret Bereishit 18 in line with natural morality. This indicates that they either were comfortable disagreeing with Rashi or, more likely, red Rashi along the lines we proposed above.

  1. Avraham's demand to save Sedom is far from the only instance in Bereishit that appears to support natural morality. That God holds Kain responsible for murdering his brother, punishes the generation of the flood for their sins and disperses the members of the builders of the Tower of Bavel, is most easily understood on the basis of natural morality. (See, for example, Hizkuni to Bereishit 7:21). As such, the natural morality reading of Avraham's prayer is even more compelling than one might otherwise assume.