“Moral Intuition Trumps Scholarly Findings – The Pursuit of Inquiry Breathes Life into Torah”
By Rabbi Rochelle Robins, Dean of the Chaplaincy School and Director of Clinical Pastoral Education at AJRCA
“Anyone who values truth should stop worshipping reason…. If you think that moral reasoning is something we do to figure out the truth, you’ll be constantly frustrated by how foolish, biased, and illogical people become when they disagree with you.”
― Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion
When I was in my twenties and in rabbinical school, I worked diligently to reconcile Vayikra 18:22 on the topic of mishkav zachor, a man lying with another man and the commonly interpreted ban on homosexual relationships. I defended, through the arguments of various scholars, that the Torah only addresses the topic within the confines of Temple practices, doesn’t address loving and committed relationships, and certainly doesn’t address women’s sexuality at all. I was convinced that if the Rabbis of the Talmud were alive today, interpretations of gay life would be more embracing and expansive.
The term homosexual within the LGBTQI worlds is often received as linguistic homophobia due to its clinical, removed, and not in-the know parlance. However, in terms of Torah, the word homosexual seems appropriate because the Vayikra text only addresses the act of sex between men (not women) and nothing relational beyond this. This fact alone has convinced many scholars and activists that the text in its limited historical context, specific relevance to Temple practices, and male-centered public milieu leaves little relevance to our examination of the topic in our own era. A prophetic and evolving voice is an essential aspect of our Jewish heritage.
Yet these textual arguments, even though they are based on solid scholarly foundations that still speak to me, have become less significant to my personal and professional reconciliation process than they once were. I have since realized that it was my moral intuition that led me to analyze the text in this way rather than the text itself that altered my moral convictions.
Rabbi Benay Lappe, the Founder and Rosh Yeshiva of SVARA: A Traditionally Radical Yeshiva based in Chicago, explains the talmudic concept of svara: “SVARA’s name comes from the 2,000-year-old Jewish concept that one’s moral intuition informed by serious Jewish learning—together called svara—is not only a legitimate source of Jewish law, but can even “trump” Torah. Svara has been central to the philosophy and evolution of the Jewish tradition for two millennia and underlies the unique nature of Jewish thinking itself, but has been carefully guarded and virtually hidden by talmudic scholars and rabbis in recent times–until now.”
Such rabbinical discourse encourages both the heart and mind to trump rational lines of thinking; indeed, rationale on its own is dangerous and not inherently moral. Along similar lines, when I created and directed Bat Kol, a feminist yeshiva in Jerusalem, the name of the school was founded on the Talmudic story of Tanur Achnai, in which the Bat Kol, a Divine Heavenly Voice could intervene and trump Torah itself, rabbinic dictum, and rationale.
This is not “whatever you happen to think” at the moment; as Jews we engage deeply and lovingly with the text. How then do we recognize moral intuition emerging in our learning? In some moments, I felt the gentle truth of compassion coming over me like “lazy white foam” (Amichai), while at other times, the work of reconciliation became so arduous that defense, apologetics, debate, and even fear left a chasm between the issue and my heart. Ultimately our tradition values debate from the heart and in relationship with others who possess similar and dissimilar perspectives.
Within the range of good-hearted non-extremist difference, dialogue has the potential to transcend ideological stances. Do we engage in this form of dialogue? When was the last time we sat down with someone, even another Jew, to absorb their opposing view about Israel, kashrut, interfaith marriage amongst our clergy, and other hot topics?
Vayikra 18:22, has lost some of its scalding power for some of us, through more social acceptance from our loved ones. Yet many within and outside of our tradition still suffer from its non-allegorical interpretation and application. The saying attributed to Ben Bag Bag, in Pirkei Avot (5:22) still holds: “Turn it, and turn it, for everything is in it. Reflect on it and grow old and gray with it. Don’t turn from it, for nothing is better than it.” It is imperative for us to learn and engage beyond a morality of reasoning and rationale to a morality of authenticity and truth.