I have heard and read from kiruv books, outreach speakers, pamphlets etc. that Orthodox Judaism doesn't like "Moral Relativism" (the position that moral or ethical propositions do not reflect objective and/or universal moral truths, but instead make claims relative to social, cultural, historical or personal circumstances)

In my understanding, however, Judiasm DOES believe in Moral Relativism: Miriam got instant tzaarat and Moses was banned for life from Eretz Yisroel because their sins were magnified because they were at such high levels. (Also, Reuben didn't really sleep with his father's wife, rather his action should be considered to be so heinous because he was such a big tzaddik)

Why does Judaism seemingly object to Moral Relativism yet seemingly hold by it?

  • I agree with you that Judaism allows for Moral Relativism. For example, the use of interest is prohibited with your fellow Jew, but not with a gentile. There are numerous instances where moral rules do not apply to the Jew and gentile alike. Judaism definitely does not believe that "all men are created equal"!
    – Bach
    May 24, 2017 at 14:50
  • @Bach Actually, the gemara generally forbids charging interest to a gentile as well.
    – Loewian
    May 24, 2017 at 14:54
  • 3
    I would like to see that gemara. Fyi according to the rambam it is not only allowed but a mitzvah!
    – Bach
    May 24, 2017 at 15:18

2 Answers 2


Without quoting exactly what you've heard from these speakers it's hard to defend or disprove them. However I will still guess at what is bothering you and offer this.

The laws of Judaism given by Hashem do not change based on moral relativism.

The punishment meted out by Beis Din do not change based on moral relativism. Their judgment is supposed to be based on their human perception.

Hashem's dealing with a person, however, can and does change based on what you are calling moral relativism.

An example to illustrate this that I once heard from Rabbi Dovid Feinstein: Two people desecrated Shabbos, one for something worth very little, and the other the save a million dollars. Both desecrated the same commandment. Both would get killed in Beis Din under the right circumstances. However, Hashem when dealing with them will certainly take into account the driving motives that differentiate between the two. Both failed their test, but one had a much harder test and won't be held as culpable.

Along these lines a great person can and will be held to a higher standard by Hashem when He personally judges them.

As for the quoted idea regarding Reuven, we for no judicial purposes can assume a given holy person did not sin in the way mentioned.


Moral relativism is generally understood to be an ideology that claims to deny absolute moral truth. (That claim itself can be a bit self-contradictory inasmuch as so-called "moral relativists", such as the ancient Greeks, the Communists, or the modern left, often, in the name of pluralism, end up persecuting moral absolutists, such as religious Jews, for their perceived immoral beliefs.)

Judaism is based on absolute moral truths (such as Maimonides 13 principles of faith, the 613 commandments, etc.) and abhors moral relativism. For example, moral relativism would argue that the Nazis were moral inasmuch as they were true to their convictions.

Your examples are not examples of moral relativism. The moral truths that were violated are still absolute. However, absolute moral truth does factor in different individual's strengths and weaknesses with regard to calculating the consequences for their violations. That does not mean that if you chose to believe A then A is your truth, whatever A is. It means that if A is true, not-A is false. But you will be judged not just based on your keeping of A alone. Your personal knowledge, weaknesses and strength, will also factor into the calculus. That is not what is generally meant by the term "moral relativism".

  • You can use approval of abortion, certain sexual practices, etc as examples of moral relativism nowadays that are absolutely forbidden by Judaism. Also you can bring in Rabbi Dressler and nekudat habechira in Michtav Me'Eliyahu May 24, 2017 at 15:57
  • @sabbahillel abortion is not absolutely forbidden by Judaism. at best it's a machloket.
    – Double AA
    May 24, 2017 at 19:06
  • @DoubleAA How do you figure? The gemara is pretty clear that it's included in the sheva mitzvos bnei noach as murder with capital punishment attached. And the overwhelming majority of mainstream poskim view it as biblically prohibited/murder. (Because there is one very controversial recent view that is lenient in cases of extreme duress? That hardly merits such a description as "at best it's a machloket.")
    – Loewian
    May 25, 2017 at 1:10
  • I just don't think that's an accurate characterization of the data. Most Rishonim don't think it's a capital crime for a Jew, and there's even an opinion that it's not a capital crime for a non-Jew (despite what you say "the gemara is pretty clear", it's not 100% clear we Paskin like that opinion). Instead of "one very controversial recent view that is lenient in cases of extreme duress" you should say "one ... that is stringent in cases of extreme duress" since the leniency under duress is quite old and has been held by many. One might even be temped to refer to RMF's view as revolutionary.
    – Double AA
    May 25, 2017 at 1:12
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    @DoubleAA I used abortion in my original comment as an example of the way moral relativism works in modern society as opposed to halacha. The nuances of halacha are still absolute in that what is asur is still asur, while moral relativism means that someone can do whatever they happen to feel like whether it is good or evil. May 25, 2017 at 10:53

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