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?

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    It's ... complicated. (A friend refers to "halachic autism", failing to see the whole picture.) Dor Revii points out that in technical halachic terms, there's less of an issur against eating a human corpse than eating a non-slaughtered cow. Does a stronger prohibition mean it's worse, or that there was more temptation? A man's wife of 20 years has cancer and chemo will take 2 years and cost all his savings -- open up a Shulchan Aruch. He is within his technical halachic rights to pay off her kesubah and dump her, while it's the wrong thing to do.
    – Shalom
    Jan 1, 2021 at 18:36
  • In a recent, public, vitriolic Gett case, the husband attempted to demonstrate he was within his technical halachic rights to withhold a Gett. Rabbi Yosef Gavriel Bechhofer commented: great, he's not a rasha. He's an achzar. ("He's not wicked, just cruel.") I suspect that a shift from personal connection to a local rabbi (even if that local rabbi needs to write to someone else) towards top-down mass dissemination of what a big rabbi said has played a role; the local rabbi may have had a better read of the local situation and the person actually asking the question.
    – Shalom
    Jan 1, 2021 at 18:40
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    The simple answer is we dont have rabbis today of the status you suggest.
    – interested
    Jan 2, 2021 at 18:17
  • 2
    I'm unclear as to what the question is: 1) why do people rely on rabbonim for moral questions and not work them out themselves; or 2) why doesn't mussar study help people deal with moral issues intelligently; or 3) are moral duties seen as only being the letter of the law and never beyond the letter of the law (lifneem mishuras hadin); or 4) did one of 1-3 change in the historic record? VTC for unclear.
    – Mordechai
    Jan 2, 2021 at 22:49
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    Can we see, by an examination of rabbinic literature, that in earlier times it would have seemed natural to Torah-observant people to make important decisions at significant person cost or risk, simply because they felt it was morally right to do so, in a way that has grown unusual among Torah-observant people today?
    – Chaim
    Jan 3, 2021 at 4:37

1 Answer 1


In order to address your question, an underlying question must be addressed. Who or what defines what is and isn't moral? I believe that G-d, as the Creator of all existence, ultimately defines that. I also believe that He revealed his will in the Torah. So if I have a question as to morality, I will consult an expert in the Torah.

Some parts of the Torah may seem to bear on morality more than others, but they are all part of G-d's moral system. For example, it is immoral to steal, but the definition of stealing depends on the rules of ownership, which are subjects of discussion. For example, children generally start learning Talmud with the second chapter of Bava Metzia, which discusses which lost objects must be returned. While the technical aspects of it might not seem to affect morality, ultimately they determine when it is moral to keep a lost object and when not.

Now, not all questions are about morality. Questions about how to deal with coronavirus also have a practical aspect. But to answer the moral aspects of the question, we must consult the Torah and those who know it best.

As for claiming that mussar courses don't seem to work, it really depends on whether the participants are receptive to the message. Children in school often are not, but the adults I see taking classes usually are. Different people respond better to different books and teaching styles, and as adults they can find the ones that inspire them. The book that inspires me may not be the one for you, and vica versa. But people who want to improve will find the guidance in the Torah.

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    How do you know this?
    – Alex
    Jan 3, 2021 at 16:33
  • Which part specifically?
    – N.T.
    Jan 3, 2021 at 23:16

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