I have often noticed, in my interactions with other Orthodox Jews, that they seem to feel that the correct resolution of every moral question is to ask a prominent rabbi. For example, when I point out to the people at certain schools or synagogues that their lax policies with respect to the Coronavirus have led others to avoid participation, they respond by telling me what some prominent rabbi has recommend with respect to Coronavirus. This is always a strange moment in the conversation, because it seems to convert a fairly simple problem of moral reasoning into a different problem of deference to rabbis and the seeming arrogance of continuing to argue the original substantive point.
Right now, I’m not asking anything about the Coronavirus. That’s example is just intended as an illustration of a more general question.
When I consider what my children learn in school, when they tell me about kashas in gemara and how the rishonim address these kashas, it’s pretty plain to me that this sort of education will do very little to resolve moral questions. That expectation seems simply misplaced, like expecting their other courses in algebra or chemistry to resolve moral questions. And I have not personally observed that mussar courses have made participants kinder or more virtuous in any way, or wiser or more sophisticated when discussing morality.
And this leads me to wonder. Is there a growing expectation, in Jewish thought over the centuries, that moral problems are really just misunderstandings of halachic problems, and that there’s little point in discussing moral problems? Can we discern somehow that in earlier times Orthodox Jews thought that all people have moral duties that cannot be reduced to tefillin and mezuzah, but that this view has somehow been eclipsed by a sort of halachic maximalism, a view that it is more proper for a Jew to see halachic duties as his only duties, or that moral thinking is somehow not our department?
As the "votes to close" come in, clarification has been advised. This seems likely to make the question fuzzier but may, I hope, save it from closure.
It is not my point that halachic questions are the only questions properly directed to rabbis. I'm not taking any sort of position at all about what should be directed to rabbis. I'm just reflecting on a feeling, a feeling that each of us may or may not recognize, that this way of responding to a moral question has a chilling effect on the discussion. Maybe a chilling effect is desirable. But I'm wondering if this possibility, that a chilling effect is desirable, is gaining traction in our world. Did we formerly suppose that for Orthodox Jews, as for everyone else in the world, moral questions were very important, and that we should be capable of serious discussion and moral passion, while today it is supposed that we should be more passive? Did it formerly seem more admissible than now, that we might have a moral duty to accept personal costs and difficult burdens, even where this moral duty is not halachic?